Is It Preferable to Be Wrong with the Pope or to Be Right with Tradition against Him?

March 10, 2019

This is an objection that is often made to “Tradition”: a Catholic must be in complete union with the pope. He should prefer to be mistaken with him rather than to be right against him. He will even be judged based on this attachment to the pope before he is judged on his adherence to the truth!—How do we answer this?

This objection could appeal to the authority of St. Ambrose: “Ubi Petrus, ibi Ecclesia; where Peter is, there also is the Church.” Or of St. Cyprian: “There is only one God, one Christ, one Church, and one Chair founded upon Peter.” And it is indeed essential to the Church to be directed by the pope, the Vicar of Christ. We might even quote the words of Christ Himself: “And I say to thee that thou art Peter; and upon this rock I will build My Church, and the gates of Hell shall not prevail against it. And I will give to thee the keys of the kingdom of Heaven. And whatsoever thou shalt bind upon earth, it shall be bound also in Heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose upon earth, it shall be loosed also in Heaven” (Mt. 16:18-19).

But was it not also to the same St. Peter that Our Lord said, “Get behind me, Satan” (Mk. 8:33), words that He only ever addressed to the devil himself? Was it not St. Peter who denied his Master three times? The purposes of these remarks is not to diminish the dignity of Peter’s successor, but to recall that he holds an office that is indeed of an incomparable dignity, but that, like every office, comes with its rights and duties.

As the First Vatican Council explained, “the Holy Spirit was promised to the successors of Peter not so that they might, by His revelation, make known some new doctrine, but that, by His assistance, they might religiously guard and faithfully expound the revelation or deposit of faith transmitted by the apostles” (Constitution Pastor Aeternus, Ch. 4). The power of the sovereign pontiff is thus regulated by Revelation, and the words St. Paul applied to himself can also be applied to him: “But though we, or an angel from Heaven, preach a gospel to you besides that which we have preached to you, let him be anathema” (Gal. 1:8).

Submission to the pope, therefore, is conditioned by obedience to Revelation, of which he is the servant and protector. But the history of the Church shows that, outside of the case of an infallible exercise of the Magisterium, whose conditions were laid out by this same Council, a pope can stray from the truth or the right path, although this has always been rare. In this case, the faithful can—and must—obey God rather than men. Take the example of St. Paul: “But when Cephas (St. Peter) was come to Antioch, I withstood him to the face, because he was to be blamed” (Gal. 2:11). There is also St. Athanasius, who was excommunicated by Pope Liberius. And Pope John XII who preached a false doctrine on the beatific vision in a church in Avignon.

According to the objector, it would be better to have adhered to moderate Arianism with Liberius than to have remained firm with St. Athanasius. To have believed with John XXII that the souls of the faithful departed have to wait for the resurrection before receiving the beatific vision, rather than to have maintained, with the immense majority of doctors and theologians, that this reward is already granted to those who are worthy to appear before God—a doctrine that was defined by John XXII’s successor, Blessed Benedict XII. Or to have preferred to judaize with St. Peter rather than sharing St. Paul’s disapproval.

Indeed, an opposition to the pope must have very serious grounds and must follow very particular rules of prudence. But when two teachings are clearly opposed, as are that of today’s drift and that of the past popes, which must be considered the right one? St. Vincent of Lérins’ Commonitorium answers: “What will the Catholic Christian do if...some new contagion seeks to empoison...the entire Church at once? In this case, his greatest care will be to cling to antiquity that obviously can no longer be seduced by any deceitful novelty whatsoever” (III, 1, 2).