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).

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.

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