How Far Does Papal Authority Go?

DIFFICULT MORAL QUESTIONS: Is a faithful Catholic bound in conscience to accept all the public assertions of a pope?

The cathedra at St. John Lateran, the cathedral of Rome
The cathedra at St. John Lateran, the cathedral of Rome (photo: Sailko, CC BY 3.0, from Wikimedia Commons)

Q. The Holy Father says things that confuse me. On the one hand, he says we might see our pet dogs in heaven; and on the other, he says he doesn’t see how the U.S. president can be a Christian because he wants to secure the southern border with a wall. He seems to lack an understanding of climate science, but appears to assert a Catholic duty to support political solutions based upon his faulty understanding. How should Catholics respond when the Holy Father says confusing things? — Tom, Oklahoma

A. Canon law (Code of Canon Law, 331) uses four adjectives to describe papal authority:

  • “supreme” (i.e., it is the highest authority in the Church; there is no appeal against a proper papal judgment); 
  • “full” (i.e., popes exercise their authority freely, while the bishops of the world exercise theirs only in union with the pope); 
  • “immediate” (i.e., popes can intervene directly at all levels of Church jurisdiction); 
  • and “universal” (i.e., their authority extends over the whole church of Christ). 

So within its proper boundaries, papal authority is very significant. But … its scope is limited. 

All authority is limited by its purpose — call it its “why.” The “why” of papal authority is to defend and spread the Gospel of Jesus Christ; as the First Vatican Council teaches: “[Papal authority is given so popes] might religiously guard and faithfully expound the revelation or deposit of faith transmitted by the apostles” (Pastor Aeternus, 4). 

When the Catholic Church refers to the “deposit of faith,” it means all the truths entrusted by God to the apostles (and so to humanity) in divine revelation. We know from the Council of Trent, Vatican I and Vatican II that this includes both “faith and morals.” 

Scripture teaches that Jesus specifically committed to Peter and his successors his authority to expound and guard these truths when he commanded Peter to “feed” (teach) and “tend” (protect) his sheep (John 21:15-17; Matthew 16:17-19; Matthew 28:20). And Catholics believe the Holy Spirit is the ultimate guarantor of the integrity of this commission (John 16:13). 

Therefore, papal authority extends to the deposit of faith and to whatever is necessary to teach, guard and disseminate it. 

Since guarding it means correcting errors against it, papal authority extends to correction of those in error. 

Since a functional institutional Church is necessary for living and spreading the Gospel, papal authority also extends to the legal disciplinary and internal government of the Church. So popes rightfully render judgments on matters such as priestly celibacy and the number of cardinals eligible to vote in a papal conclave; they also rightfully appoint bishops to rule in accord with the teachings of Christ, negotiate concordats to secure the liberty of the Church to worship freely, and establish and abolish curial offices as necessary to make the Church’s mission as efficacious as possible. 

But beyond these broad areas of competency — faith, morals, discipline and Church government — papal authority does not extend. 


Beyond Faith or Morals

For example, it does not extend to matters outside of faith, morals, discipline and Church government. 

So whether the earth is round or flat; whether base metals such as lead can be turned to gold or disease can healed by leeching; whether human behavior is responsible for climate change or whether such and such global climate accord should be ratified by nation states; whether countries should build border walls to help regulate immigration or whether national immigration policies, not otherwise manifestly unjust, should be liberalized; whether more or less government regulation is most consistent with the common good; whether population trends are threatening the global food supply; or whether single malt scotch is better than blended whiskey — these and questions like them do not fall within the competence of popes to authoritatively make judgments upon. 

Although the men who occupy the Chair of Peter — Wojtylas, Ratzingers, Bergoglios — might have something to say on these matters, what they say is not said as pope, as Successor of St. Peter, as Vicar of Christ on earth.

What if their statements appear in a papal or otherwise formal Church document? 

If a judgment beyond papal competency appears in a Church document, that judgment and any conclusions derived from it should not be taken to be guarded by the Holy Spirit, and Catholics have no obligation to give assent to it. 

For example, in Evangelium Vitae56, St. John Paul II said of capital punishment:

“Today, however, as a result of steady improvements in the organization of the penal system, such cases [when it would not be possible otherwise to defend society other than by killing a malefactor] are very rare, if not practically nonexistent.” 

We see here that the moral conclusion about executing malefactors relies upon a socio-technical judgment on the condition of penal systems across the globe. 

Since popes have no competency and so no authority to assess whether or not every system of incarceration in every village in the Amazon rainforest, or Papua Indonesia, or on the North Sentinel Island, etc., are sufficiently secure and humane to keep communities safe from dangerous criminals, neither the specificsocio-technical judgment nor any moral conclusion exclusively derived from it have any magisterial authority.

One might argue that popes rightly weigh in on such issues as climate change, since they are manifestly related to human welfare and behavior, and so fall under the moral authority of popes. 

This is only partially true. 

A pope’s moral authority does extend to general matters such as care for God’s creation, since divine revelation teaches that mankind was made the stewards of the world that God created. 

The pope, therefore, may teach the general positive norm that people should collaborate in seeking reasonable solutions to minimizing harm from climate change, since caring for the physical conditions in which the Gospel is preached means caring for those to whom it is preached. 

He may also teach negative norms prohibiting certain types of behavior. But unless he is formulating a norm against an intrinsically evil action, he must usually restrict himself to formulating negative norms as conditionals, since it is usually — and arguably, always — beyond his competency to judge on matters that require a specialist’s knowledge of social conditions, politics, science or technology.

So, for example, he may teach: If certain forms of deforestation or mining or drilling cause grave injustice to the poor, then other solutions should be sought for meeting people’s needs for raw materials and energy.

But to judge on technical matters that generate disagreement among people of goodwill, including among authorities, for example, on what forms of energy generation are least likely to have long-term unwanted side effects for the poor, or whether humans are primarily responsible for fluctuations in the climate, or whether this or that international accord, or none at all, is most consistent with the concrete conditions of the global common good, these are not within the competency of Christ’s Church to judge upon and so do not pertain to the pope’s authority. Jesus did not commend to Peter the authority to make binding judgments on climate science. 


Changing Faith or Morals

Another area to which papal authority does not extend is change to the deposit of the faith or the natural moral law. 

So presuming the disputed claim that Pope Francis really said that animals go to heaven, the purported off-the-cuff remark to a grieving boy had no magisterial authority.

Popes cannot teach that animals go to heaven, since this does not pertain to divine revelation. There may very well be dogs in heaven. But if there are, we don’t know it, because Jesus has not revealed it to us. Therefore, the Church has no authority to assert it, or, for that matter, to deny it. 

Likewise, popes cannot teach that validly married persons who are living in sexually active relationships with persons other than their living valid spouses are in full communion with the Body of Christ, because this is contrary to divine revelation. The Church has no authority whatsoever to change the teachings of Christ or to contradict them.

If popes should assert something that does not pertain or is contrary to the deposit of faith, they do not act with the mandate of Jesus. What they say is not protected by the Holy Spirit. What they assert has no proper magisterial authority. And Catholics are not bound in conscience to give assent to it or change their behavior in light of it.

Readers are invited to send questions to [email protected], with “Difficult Moral Questions” in the subject line. Please identify your first name (or, if you prefer, a suitable pseudonym) and the state you live in (and country, if not the U.S.).