Is the Catholic Church Leaderless?

It is understandable that mainstream media folks don’t quite “get it” when it comes to the papal resignation. You can’t expect them to be experts at everything, but it does annoy when they don’t bother to consult people who are experts.

One headline reads, “Catholic Church Leaderless”. Yes, in a way, but it the papacy is bigger than the individual who holds the office. The Pope is the Vicar of Christ. He is the steward of the kingdom–not the king. When a pope dies or resigns it is more like the resignation of an English Prime Minister. The Prime Minister goes. The monarch still reigns. The Catholic Church isn’t “leaderless”. The Prime Minister has resigned.

Furthermore, the papacy is not an office separated from the rest of the church. The Pope has resigned, but the Cardinals are still there. The Archbishops and Bishops are in place. There is plenty of leadership, and for all the talk of “absolute monarchy” and “The Power of the Vatican” the real power of the Catholic Church is diffused down through the dioceses and parishes to an extraordinary degree.

Another headline crowed, “Ratzinger is no Longer Infallible!”  The subext was, “God’s Rotweiller got the top job and suppressed all dissent in a ruthless way and at last he has fallen! Yay!” Not smart. Ratzinger was never infallible, and he made it clear that he often spoke as a private theologian and not as pope. As such, in Ratzinger did anything about infallibility of the pope he downplayed it and limited its role as never before.

Furthermore, Ratzinger was never infallible as Joseph Ratzinger. He only had the authority to speak infallibly within the office of the papacy. It is the papacy which is infallible–not a particular individual. When a particular individual as pope–speaks infallibly he does so as a mouthpiece of the whole church and as the Vicar of Christ–not as Joseph Ratzinger or Karol Wojtyla or anyone else.

As many atheists disbelieve in a God which Christians also don’t believe in, so an awful lot of people repudiate an idea of the papacy that Catholics don’t believe in either.

  • midwestlady

    “You can’t expect them to be experts at everything” – Understatement of the year. I remember Fukushima. They were as clueless about that as they are about this. They had (and have) absolutely no idea–not a single inkling–about what they are looking at.

    Yah, that’s a..a…spun fuel pool…yah. I don’t know whether it’s supposed to be like that or not. The waves on it are pretty in the sunlight against the blue sky, aren’t they? That yellow paint is in bad taste..simper, simper. Wonder what all those metal shelv-y things in the water are for? DUH. Slobber, slobber.

  • IB Bill

    This is my first Papal Interegnum since my conversion in 2006. I found myself saddened and disappointed at Pope Benedict’s resignation, though I understand it. I love this pope. I pray for him and am grateful for him. He was a writer and a teacher, the kind of educated man that’s becoming more and more rare, at least it seems to me. This change will be a bigger one than the last time — this will be a generational change.

    • jean

      Hi Bill,
      I’ve lived through a few different Papacys, & acceptance of these changes get easier after your first one! Looking at it another way, in my lifetime there has been four Popes, all exceptional in their wisdom, learning and compassion; all right for their “time”. It is said there is a room of tears at the Vatican, where the New Pope, overwhelmed at at his calling spends some “quiet time”. This time the new Pope will have a freind in Benedict who can be a consolation to him, having expereinced what it is to walk in these shoes.

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  • Paul Rodden

    Excellent piece, complemented nicely by this one by Fr Michael Orsi, I think:

  • Subsistent

    I agree completely with what Fr. Longenecker just wrote here about “papal infallibility”, in the sense in which he wrote it, speaking of divinely guaranteed infallibility in a public declaration. But regarding infallibility in general, may I point out what I think is a glorious truism? It’s this: While none of us humans here on earth is infallible absolutely, every adult human is infallible relatively: relatively to such judgments of ours (whether verbally expressed or not) as, “I exist”; “other beings than myself exist”; “at least some things really change”; — and, “people make mistakes.” Likewise infallibly true, n’est-ce pas?, are our momentary perceptions that “I’m feeling weary”; “I’m feeling thirsty”, etc.
    So let no one say, as I once saw stated seriously in some academic journal, “There is no such thing as infallibility.”

  • Mary

    They only recognize the Church Militant… They don’t understand any part of The communion of saints. They don’t even understand that the leader of the church is Christ. It is somewhat irritating that they have no understanding about a subject they are discussing, in part, because they are actually teaching others.

    That is more than irritating because what many non-catholics read in an article maybe the only thing they “learn” about the Roman Catholic Faith. They are exacerbatingthe misconceptions held by many protestants about the catholic faith.

  • Arkanabar

    Strictly speaking, it’s the doctrine that’s infallible, isn’t it? The Pope is just one of the officials who can say definitively what is or is not doctrine.

    • midwestlady

      Not quite. The pope is unique among members of the hierarchy. See the Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraphs 882-884.

  • jean

    Hi Fr. Longnecker,
    Would you consider doing a post on whether we should engage in the threads peopled by embittered Atheists who respond to these News stories on the net. ( lots of Wiccans on there too!)
    I have found the anti-Catholic commentaries close to Nazi propa ganda, but there seems to be few Catholics who want to engage at that level or back up the ones that do! Is it a valid venue in which to defend the faith, or is it a case of shaking off the dust?
    Thanks, Jeanette.

    • Fr. Dwight Longenecker

      I have a personal policy: Be yourself. Proclaim the gospel with joy. Don’t argue with atheists.

      • Oregon Catholic

        It’s a pointless effort to argue with the new atheists that lurk on the catholic blogs. They’ve had everything explained to them 100s of times and still reject it. They are there to argue, not to learn or even engage in honest debate. They will argue the most breath-taking hypocrisy just to try and make a point. They usually last about 2 or 3 posts before the profanity starts if they can’t bully someone into submission. Sometimes I engage them if I think there is a point to be made. Not for their benefit but for the benefit of someone who may actually be reading behind the scenes with a mind open enough to be teachable.

        I never go to the atheist and pagan portals on here. It’s pointless and depressing and banal. The intellectual hypocrisy sucks the energy out of anyone who loves truth. They obviously find Catholics endlessly fascinating tho!

        • Paul Rodden

          …and that’s why I think we have to be very attractive to them. Be Charitable – the zenith of Lonergan’s Transcendental Precepts: ‘Be in Love’. We have to hammer on the doors of heaven for the grace to be Christ-like in all things. That’s all, isn’t it? The Daily Offering. God will use us whether we’re theologians or not.

          J Budziszewski makes the point in one of his books that, however reasonable and cogent our arguments are, they’re simply not interested. You can take a horse to water…

          Dr James White, a Baptist anti-Catholic, is just like the atheist. Our best apologists simply go round and round in circles with him. Pat Madrid and others have done a good job defending the faith against his ‘issues’, but it hasn’t got us anywhere because he has a vested interest in ‘debating’ in and of itself.

          I’d argue that the value of the debate is in the impact on the onlookers if anything. They are not defending a corner, and therefore have more opportunity to be persuaded by the force of an argument.

          But then, Bertrand Russell said something like: “If you can argue a man into a position, you can just as easily argue him out of it.” (I read it in one of his books but never wrote down the reference, grrr).

          Reason writes with straight lines. Salvation history shows God doesn’t.

        • michael

          I have never descended into profanity. never resorted to name calling, and I trust have never been a bully but have started posted here when Fr. Longenecker disparaged atheists. If he does again I will repost and that Fr. Longenecker in allowing me to post here on his blog.

  • Lauren White

    Amen, Father Longenecker! I have tried the arguments. Your policy worked and works best.

  • u3

    The Church is still ran by Jesus Christ…always has been…always will be. And don’t try to argue with any atheist…anyone who is that full of pride has no room for humility and will certainly not listen. Be prepared always to give an explanation of the joy inside of you…atheists will always be ready to give an explanation of the hatred inside of them.

  • Paul Rodden

    Why is it that so many in the blogsphere sound alarmist as if the Church was simply an institution? She is the Mystical Body of Christ, isn’t she? She’s more powerful than any natural or super-natural force. She is the continuation of the Incarnation. Christ, still really and truly present here on earth, as evinced on every altar and in every tabernacle around the world. Why worry?

    The day Thou gavest, Lord, is ended,
    The darkness falls at Thy behest;
    To Thee our morning hymns ascended,
    Thy praise shall sanctify our rest.

    We thank Thee that Thy church, unsleeping,
    While earth rolls onward into light,
    Through all the world her watch is keeping,
    And rests not now by day or night.

    As o’er each continent and island
    The dawn leads on another day,
    The voice of prayer is never silent,
    Nor dies the strain of praise away.

    The sun that bids us rest is waking
    Our brethren ’neath the western sky,
    And hour by hour fresh lips are making
    Thy wondrous doings heard on high.

    So be it, Lord; Thy throne shall never,
    Like earth’s proud empires, pass away:
    Thy kingdom stands, and grows forever,
    Till all Thy creatures own Thy sway.

    • Fr. Dwight Longenecker

      One of my top five hymns!