Where Peter Is on the charge of believing in “papal fiat”

Where Peter Is on the charge of believing in “papal fiat” November 21, 2019

Ever since a pope was elected who does not fit well with the American conservative agenda of selecting from the Magisterium to accessorize a now thoroughly demented right wing ideology that has metastasized into the Cult of Trump, the Right Wing Lie Machine in both secular and Catholic forms has worked overtime to discredit fidelity to the Pope’s authority with the lie that “belief in ‘papal fiat'” has replaced Real Catholic Faith[TM].

Accordingly, all the stuff we used to hear from Fr. Richard McBrien and Catholics for a Free Choice about how being a Catholic “does not mean checking your brains at the Church door” and how Thinking Catholics did not have to slavishly listen to the Pope when he is not “speaking dogmatically” (which basically means “never”) were suddenly repackaged by the Right Wing Lie Machine to give American MAGA Catholics the right to not only ignore, but endlessly slander the Holy Father and anybody who takes him seriously. We have now seriously reached the point where overt Protestantism is perfectly acceptable:


In a way that was never attempted by liberal dissenters like McBrien, the Right Wing Lie Machine has not only said, “Feel free to ignore the Holy Father” but has, in fact, gone the extra mile and tried repeatedly to insinuate, suggest, and even outright say that the Holy Father is an apostate, a pagan, a heretic, and a wicked man dedicated to the destruction of the Catholic Church and that he should not merely be ignored, but fought tooth and nail.  The war has become so lurid and weird that it long ago left behind shrieks like “RESIGN!!!!” from CYA functionaries like Vigano (who tried to shift blame from his own failure to get rid of McCarrick to the one man who did) and has frankly gone into Jack Chick territory with classic Panic ju Jour junk journalism designed to gin up the silly fear that Francis the Pagan Idolator is paving the way to child sacrifice.

And since it has taken this tack, it has been necessary to likewise lie that ordinary recognition of the pope’s authority on prudential matters is, in fact, a mindless belief that the Pope could overturn the Faith, decree Jesus to be a myth, institute Moloch worship on the High Altar at St. Peter’s, and join the Moonies and the drooling members of the “Bergoglio sect” would slavishly praise it all.

That lie is put in hard and soft forms: the soft version is that defenders of Francis are dumb dupes.  The hard forms is that they are willing, knowledgeable and malignant accomplices.  Pedro Gabriel of Where Peter Is answers the soft form of this condescending argument:

According to you, whatever the Pope says, goes, right?

This brings up the second misconception in Douthat’s piece. No, I do not believe that the Pope rules by fiat (except if we’re talking, perhaps, by fiat voluntas Tua.) What I actually do is give my assent of mind and will to the Magisterium. So, when a Pope officially promulgates some development of doctrine, I begin (contrary to many papal detractors nowadays) with the assumption that the development is sound and legitimate. But this is very different from uncritical acceptance.

In our comments and on social media, one of the most frequent accusations we receive is that we “twist ourselves into pretzels” to “justify everything the Pope does.” In this sense, most of our critics actually place us more on the “Catholicism that strains more mightily than Burke to interpret all of Francis’ moves in continuity with his predecessors” end of the spectrum. I’m surprised that Douthat didn’t pin that “conservatism” on us, rather than the “papal fiat” one.

A person has no need to twist himself into a pretzel if he can just fall back on arguments from authority, correct? As I tweeted as soon after I read Douthat’s piece, if we simply believed the Pope can change doctrine by fiat, then our blog would just be a big white background with a single sentence: “It’s true because the Pope said so.”

Granted, we publish a lot of articles on papal authority. But we don’t do it because we think that the Pope rules by fiat. Of course, such pieces on papal authority underlie our articles on various doctrinal developments of this pontificate, because arguments from papal authority are not devoid of value. However, the main reason why we write articles on papal authority is that Francis’ detractors have been disseminating erroneous views on papal authority since the beginning of his pontificate. They have been saying, against 2,000 years of Tradition, that Catholics need not give their assent of mind and will to the Pope if he is not teaching infallibly. This is wrong, this is not Catholic. They have been saying, against 2,000 years of Tradition, that we can simply disregard the Pope on matters of prudential judgment. This is wrong, this is not Catholic. And so on. Our articles in favor of papal primacy are actually a defense, not just of the Pope himself, but of Catholic Tradition as well.

Those articles on papal authority are not the totality of our output, however. Whenever Pope Francis issues a doctrinal development, we always try to explain how and why that development is legitimate. In this sense, Douthat’s characterization of our blog is profoundly unfair to our efforts.

Let us take Amoris Laetitia, for example, and its change in Eucharistic discipline for the divorced and civilly remarried. Here is an article from Paul Fahey explaining its the teaching. Here is an essay I wrote doing the same thing. Here is a piece explaining the continuity between Amoris Laetitia and Familiaris ConsortioHere is an article explaining its continuity with the Catechism. Here is an article from Brian Killian explaining its Thomistic roots. In this piece, Brian Killian explains the harmony between Amoris Laetitia and Veritatis Splendor.

Or let us take the Catechism revision on the death penalty. Here is an article trying to prove how such a revision is a legitimate doctrinal development.

Let us also consider a matter that, though not a Magisterial pronouncement per se, has also been exploited to attack Francis as somehow against Tradition: the controversial God wills “pluralism and the diversity of religions” bit from the Abu Dhabi Joint Declaration. Here is an essay from Adam Rasmussen outlining its continuity with Nostrae AetateHere is a piece I wrote explaining its continuity with Dignitatis Humanae.

We have even done this in reverse: not only have we discussed Francis’ continuity with his predecessors, we have also demonstrated the continuity of his predecessors with him. This is why I wrote an essay entitled, “Pope Francis, disciple of Humanae Vitae,” and then a sequel, “Humanae Vitae, precursor of Pope Francis.”

I think it stands to reason that Douthat’s characterization of Where Peter Is as in need of “an account of how doctrine can and cannot change beyond just papal fiat” is extremely inadequate. We have been tirelessly providing such an account since day one. We do not want people to believe just because the Pope said so, but we do want people to be open to the possibility of believing what the Pope says, even if it challenges their preconceived views. In other words, even if it challenges their conservatism. As Chesterton said (as quoted by a book from Card. Poupard), the Church does not require us to take off our heads when we enter it, but it does require us to take off our hats. Unfortunately, this is not what we see today, and that is the reason why we started this website and why we are devoted to its mission.

Well done.  Read the whole thing here.


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