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Pontifex legibus solutus?

Conservatives and traditionalists need not be the only ones to raise questions about some of Pope Francis's liturgical innovations, whether it was his including women and Muslims among those whose feet he washed or in the reduction of the readings for the Easter Vigil. But shouldn't we all be concerned when they are justified by the idea that, after all, the pope is the supreme law-giver and so is not bound by Church law?

There is an old Latin legal term for this: princeps legibus solutus, which Blacks legal dictionary translates as: Released from the laws; not bound by the laws. An expression applied in the Roman civil law to the emperor. As the example given shows, it is a very dangerous principle to allow into ecclesiology. At Vatican II, when no. 22 of Lumen gentium was being discussed, Pope Paul VI proposed introducing into a sentence about the pope's relationship to the college of bishops that in deciding whether to call the bishops to a collegial act a pope was bound to the Lord alone [uni Domino devinctus]. The Doctrinal Commission refused this addition for two reasons: (1) its intent was already assured by statements about the pope's freedom and independence, meaning by this that there is no higher human authority which the Roman Pontiff has to observe; and (2) because the formula is over-simplified. For the Roman Pontiff is also bound to observe revelation itself, the basic structure of the Church, the sacraments, the definitions of previous Councils, etc.; all such things cant be counted. Formulas of this sort, using only, have to be treated with the greatest circumspection; otherwise countless difficulties arise.The Commission was pointing to elements that bind the pope in the exercise of his role. A pope is not legibus solutus. Would we not like to propose some conditions on what Pius XII's claim that the pope alone has the right to permit or establish any liturgical practice, to introduce or approve new rites, or to make any changes in them he considers necessary? Can we be content with the view that the Pope is not bound by Church law when he does something we like, but ought to be bound by Church law when he does something we don't like?

So if one wishes to applaud some of the new pope's departures from Church law, before one gets too enthusiastic, it might be well to recall that it was also a pope who not so long ago tempted people to flee to the mountains when he obtruded the Divine Mercy devotion into Eastertide (see Mk 13:14).

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But an initiative "from below" still requires the pope's approval. So we're still stuck, no?I didn't know that Bellarmine thought that...

I think that depends on finding a Pope who is willing to have those changes made. Perhaps Francis is that Pope. The mechanics can certainly be worked out if there's agreement on the goal. Perhaps one argument would be that it would facilitate reunion with the Orthodox. Paul VI seems to have had a real worry that the bishops might attmpt to exercise some comtrol over the Pope. I assume that's what led to this note "from higher authority" which was attached to LG as an appendix:"**The following was published as an appendix to the official Latin version of the Constitution on the Church.**A preliminary note of explanation is being given to the Council Fathers from higher-authority, regarding the Modi bearing on Chapter III of the Schema de Ecclesia; the doctrine set forth in Chapter III ought to be explained and understood in accordance with the meaning and intent of this explanatory note.Preliminary Note of ExplanationThe Commission has decided to preface the assessment of the Modi with the following general observations.1. "College" is not understood in a strictly juridical sense, that is as a group of equals who entrust their power to their president, but as a stable group whose structure and authority must be learned from Revelation. For this reason, in reply to Modus 12 it is expressly said of the Twelve that the Lord set them up "as a college or stable group." Cf. also Modus 53, c.For the same reason, the words "Ordo" or "Corpus" are used throughout with reference to the College of bishops. The parallel between Peter and the rest of the Apostles on the one hand, and between the Supreme Pontiff and the bishops on the other hand, does not imply the transmission of the Apostles' extraordinary power to their successors; nor does it imply, as is obvious, equality between the head of the College and its members, but only a proportionality between the first relationship (Peter-Apostles) and the second (Pope-bishops). Thus the Commission decided to write "pari ratione, " not "eadem ratione," in n. 22. Cf. Modus 57.see LG for the rest.

As noted, the Council of Jerusalem did, in fact, overrule Peter on circumcision. Of course, that was well before Lumen Gentium, but still; the first council's authority is blessed in scripture; the other too often dismissed as a merely "pastoral"event. What, in fact, are the limits on conciliar authority? Are some ecumenical councils more authoritative than others? It strikes me that authority in the church, conciliar and papal, is pretty circular. Jesus seemed to locate it in "two or more of you joined together [Mt 18:19]," but then he also said his church stood on Peter the Rock [Mt 16:18]. Isn't the ultimate reality one of those both-and situations? A council has no legitimate power without the Pope leading it, and a Pope without the agreement of his fellow bishops and faithful is just a leader with no one to lead.

A much better example of monarchical power at work is the new roman missal. http://www.praytellblog.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/02/Ruff-New-Roman-Mi... Vatican grabbed power, changed the rules, the pope arbitrarily decided that at Mass we would no longer hear that Christ died for all (and many other changes), and everybody caved in. He didn't even respect the rules of the English language! It seems that most people are content to let an absolute monarch make arbitrary decisions, change or ignore laws according to his personal preferences, and impose that on everyone. The new missal is the proof that the pope can do whatever he wants. I don't see any way out as long as the people's will is not there.

Father Komonchak: That argument begs the question by assuming exactly what you are trying to demonstrate, namely, that all members of the church are bound by Papal law in all cases.I could use the same logic to make the following assertion:If Congress makes a law for the US, and Joe is a member (citizen) of the US, then Joe is bound by the law.This statement is not always true (for a lot of reasons). For starters (and consistent with the assumption in your argument) it assumes that all US citizens are bound by Congressional enactment in all cases. In other words, both assume too much concerning the subject of the Legislator's authority.Consider: Congress cannot legislate using the police power on persons living in the states. So if the law concerned the police power and Joe was a citizen of New York, then Joe would not be bound by it. But if Joe's domicile is the District of Columbia, then the law binds.So it is with Papal law. There are limits to its authority. One of those limits is that the Pope is not bound by it. There are other limits, and these limits are among the many reasons why I hesitate to say that the Pope is an absolute monarch, even though his own laws do not bind him.

Mr. Madrid: Distinguo: If Congress passes a valid law, I am bound by it. If Congress passes an invalid law, I am not bound by it.Isn't the parallel this: If Congress passes a valid law, members of Congress are bound by it?I would like to hear about those "other limits" that lead you to say that the pope is not an absolute monarch, "absolute," of course, having the same meaning as in the phrase "legibus solutus," not bound by the laws.

Isnt the parallel this: If Congress passes a valid law, members of Congress are bound by it?I don't think that's parallel. It requires a majority of both Houses plus the concurrence of the President to enact a law. It is a group action. Exempting one person from n law would require a similar group action. One member of the group couldn't exempt him/herself from the law without actionl by the others.Church law is enacted by the Pope alone, even if it is recommended to him by a dicastery, ecumenical council, etc. As the sole lawgiver, he can withdraw the law entirely or excuse himself or a defined group of people from complying with it - entirely by himself.

There are legal theorists who believe that the notion of sovereignty that underlies the teaching of Vatican II about papal jurisdictional and magisterial authority owes more to Hobbes et al. than to the great canonical theorists of the Middle Ages.Hobbes would certainly be happy wih a sole lawgiver. If I recall correctly, Occam thought that a council could depose a Pope and Gratian (and others) thought it required reception by the faithful for a Papal law to be valid. If most people ignored it, it wasn't binding on anyone. But those views didn't get accepted.

'As the sole lawgiver,. . . 'Isn't this the crux of the issue? Is the Pope the sole lawgiver or not? Saying that "if he is, then the rest of us are in a very vulnerable position" does nothing to counter the possibility that the statement "He is the sole lawgiver" is true. ALL absolute monarchs have vulnerable subjects, almost by definition.

Isnt this the crux of the issue? Is the Pope the sole lawgiver or not? The balance of power between the Pope and ecumenical councils was debated for a long time, going back at least as far as Occam (of the razor). The people who wanted more power for councils lost out.

Mr. Hayes: The parallel holds. That there is more than one person involved in legislation in the U.S. does not alter the case: a law valid for U.S. citizens applies to the law-makers. I do not say that the Pope may not change a law, but that until it is changed by formal act, the pope is bound by it.Before the first codification of Church law early in the twentieth century, the authoritative source was the Corpus Iuris Canonici, a collection of all sorts of laws emanating from many different sources, local or provincial councils, ecumenical councils, papal edicts, etc. A major change was effected when it was decided to replace the somewhat hodge-podge corpus of laws with a properly modern, rationally organized, Code of Canon Law, which would be promulgated by the sole legislator for the whole Church, the Pope. The model for this new way of conceiving law, law-giving, and indeed the Church was the Napoleonic Code which "rationalized," that is, modernized, law in France. Behind it was the same kind of "reason" that led France to decimalize the calendar and to abolish the provinces. [Why, we might ask, are Alaska and Rhode Island both states? And how do Wyoming and California both get to have two Senators? It's irrational, no?] There is great irony in the fact that while Rome expressed grave reservations about the centralized and omni-competent state as it was developing in the 19th and 20th centuries, it adopted that very model in re-organizing itself. There are legal theorists who believe that the notion of sovereignty that underlies the teaching of Vatican II about papal jurisdictional and magisterial authority owes more to Hobbes et al. than to the great canonical theorists of the Middle Ages.

"There are legal theorists who believe that the notion of sovereignty that underlies the teaching of Vatican II about papal jurisdictional and magisterial authority owes more to Hobbes et al. than to the great canonical theorists of the Middle Ages."Correction: This should have read: "of Vatican I." Vatican II ratified the earlier council's teaching, even while trying to bring it into a more adequate ecclesiological vision.

Quoting Vatican I: (Chapter 3 of Session 4)8. Since the Roman pontiff, by the divine right of the apostolic primacy, governs the whole church, we likewise teach and declare thathe is the supreme judge of the faithful [52] , and thatin all cases which fall under ecclesiastical jurisdiction recourse may be had to his judgment [53] .The sentence of the apostolic see (than which there is no higher authority) is not subject to revision by anyone,nor may anyone lawfully pass judgment thereupon [54] . And sothey stray from the genuine path of truth who maintain that it is lawful to appeal from the judgments of the Roman pontiffs to an ecumenical council as if this were an authority superior to the Roman pontiff.So, then,if anyone says thatthe Roman pontiff has merely an office of supervision and guidance, andnot the full and supreme power of jurisdiction over the whole church, and thisnot only in matters offaith and morals, but also in those which concern thediscipline and government of the church dispersed throughout the whole world; or thathe has only the principal part, but not the absolute fullness, of this supreme power; or thatthis power of his is not ordinary and immediate both over all and each of the churches and over all and each of the pastors and faithful:let him be anathema.

John, can't you let this die the death of oblivion?

Some theologians of the last generation, e.g., Yves Congar and George Tavard, raised the question whether the teaching on the role of the pope in the Church can be dissociated from the modern notion of sovereignty in terms of which Vatican I seems to have stated that role. This would require something similar to the dissociation of the doctrine of the real presence of Christ in the eucharist from the particular metaphysical scheme in terms of which it is often articulated and defended. Vatican I and, in many places, Vatican II also worked with a universalist ecclesiology, that is, a view that focuses on the so-called "universal Church" and has a strong tendency to see particular or local Churches as simple administrative sub-divisions of the BIG thing, which alone really deserves the name "Church". You know the schema, in what is only a slight caricature: The Church is an international religious corporation with central headquarters in Rome, branch offices (called dioceses) in many cities, and retail shops (called parishes). This is the Church whose administrative efficiency was praised in the 1950's by an independent group which placed the RC Church in second place, behind (if I remember correctly) only General Motors. This because the pope gave orders which were obeyed by the bishops whose orders were obeyed by the priests whose orders were obeyed by the laity. Times have changed, and not just for General Motors.

The Church is an international religious corporation with central headquarters in Rome, branch offices (called dioceses) in many cities, and retail shops (called parishes).Back in 2004 when he archdiocese here (Boston) closed 65 churches by fiat, the image that came to my mind was McDonald's deciding which stores it could close while still selling as many Big Macs as before. The idea was that if your parsh was suppressed, you should just find another parish nearby and they would be happy to take you in. the archdiocese seemed to think of parishoners as individuals rather than as existing communities that might want to stay together.Learning from the uproar that caused, the current planning for future parish consolidation is taking a much different direction, arrived at after meetings with pastors and parish members. The idea this time is to combine groups of about three parishes into a single community with a single pastor (with several parochial vicars) and a single finance committee - continuing, at least initially, to provide Masses and other activities in all of the existing churches.I think the unemphasized expectation is that, in future years as the number of available priests declines and expenses rise, each multi-parish community will make its own decision as to whether it needs all of the existing church buildings and other property. But even if, in the long term, it consolidates to a single church building instead of three, the decision on selling off some church buildings and other property will be made within the community and the community will stay together. So it's no longer the McDonald's analogy. Change is possible.

"I think the unemphasized expectation is that, in future years as the number of available priests declines and expenses rise, each multi-parish community will make its own decision as to whether it needs all of the existing church buildings and other property. But even if, in the long term, it consolidates to a single church building instead of three, the decision on selling off some church buildings and other property will be made within the community and the community will stay together."John, forgive me, but I'm skeptical that the archdiocese, which actually owns the property, would let a local community decide whether to sell any of the archdiocese's property. (Or, what is probably a more likely scenario, that the archdiocese would let a local community prevent the sale of archdiocesan property). That is not to say that there are more pastoral or less pastoral ways to go about it. But too much local control leads to situations like that church up your way that has been 'occupied' for seven years or some such.

McDonald's is an interesting analogy. McDonald's stores are mostly owned by independent franchisees. They have to agree to the products, the branding, the quality standards and undoubtedly all sorts of other things as conditions of being granted the franchises, but there is also a fair bit of local control for such things as hiring and firing, promotions, some regionalization of products, and so on. McDonald's corporate, I'm told, makes a big point of listening to their franchise owners. Still, in terms of "customer experience", I daresay there is more variation from one Catholic parish to another than from one McDonald's franchise to another. McDonald's values brand consistency. Catholics, apparently, don't as much.

John, forgive me, but Im skeptical that the archdiocese, which actually owns the property, would let a local community decide whether to sell any of the archdioceses property.I was skipping over the question of who would get the sale proceeds. I think the initial reason that the community would feel the need to close some church buildings would be to stop spending money on monthly operating costs they can no longer afford - even if all of the sale proceeds went to the archdiocese. In reality, I suspect a deal could be worked out with the archdiocese by which it would use some of the sale proceeds to maintain the surplus buildings until sold, pay for some necessary improvements to the church building(s) to remain in use, and pay off some or all of any amounts owed by the parish to the archdiocese. Of course, you are right that the archdiocese would have to agree to the sale and (here) would want to manage the sale itself, but I think they would be happy to sell any church real estate a cluster said it didn't need. Since the idea is that the pastor and the parochial vicars would all live at one location, the first issue would be whether to sell the unused rectories even while the churches continue in use.

Here at the Pontifical Biblical Institute of Jerusalem, today in the intro the presider said: "Today we celebrate the second Sunday of Easter, that is, the first Sunday after Easter Sunday. We celebrate the resurrection. It is also, in some form, the celebration of Divine Mercy." I wonder what reservations were hidden under that clumsy wording, "in some form"!(Without this thread I would not have noticed, because I would not have heard the capitalization of divine mercy.)

Francis seemed to welcome it in his homily today"Today we are celebrating the Second Sunday of Easter, also known as Divine Mercy Sunday. What a beautiful truth of faith this is for our lives: the mercy of God! Gods love for us is so great, so deep; it is an unfailing love, one which always takes us by the hand and supports us, lifts us up and leads us on....In my own life, I have so often seen Gods merciful countenance, his patience; I have also seen so many people find the courage to enter the wounds of Jesus by saying to him: Lord, I am here, accept my poverty, hide my sin in your wounds, wash it away with your blood. And I have always seen that God did just this he accepted them, consoled them, cleansed them, loved them.Dear brothers and sisters, let us be enveloped by the mercy of God; let us trust in his patience, which always gives us more time. Let us find the courage to return to his house, to dwell in his loving wounds, allowing ourselves be loved by him and to encounter his mercy in the sacraments. We will feel his tenderness, so beautiful, we will feel his embrace, and we too will become more capable of mercy, patience, forgiveness and love."After the Mass, from the Loggia of the Archbasilica, the Holy Father greeted the faithful gathered outside the church, and offered them his blessing: Brother and sisters:Buona sera! I thank you so much for your company in today's Mass. Thank you so much! I ask you to pray for me. I need it. Don't forget this. Thanks to all of you! And let us all go forward together, the people and the Bishop, all together, going forward always in the joy of the Resurrection of Jesus. He is always at our side. May God bless you! (He blessed the people.)Many thanks! See you soon. http://en.radiovaticana.va/news/2013/04/07/pope:_have_the_courage_to_ret...

For some reason this thread reminded me of conversation between Frederick Copleston and Bertrand Russell - a lot of time spent discerning the point to be discussed. If the thread is still alive, Fr. Komonchak, I would appreciate your suggestions on readings in church history that would help clarify the discussion on Papal authority, its reaches and limits.

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About the Author

Rev. Joseph A. Komonchak, professor emeritus of the School of Theology and Religious Studies at the Catholic University of America, is a retired priest of the Archdiocese of New York.