Skip to Content
Search Icon


Ubi Petrus

On the papacy.


I remember walking through the dark, haunting catacombs underneath Saint Peter’s basilica in Rome, hands brushing against stonework older than the Church as we made our way towards the place where the bones of the first Prince of the Apostles himself lay. I was on a college trip, and we were not nearly mature enough to avoid joking about Indiana Jones movies as we walked through the ruined houses of the dead. The guide explained Roman burial practices, the history of the basilica, and the harrowing process of excavating beneath one of the world’s largest churches as we shuffled past mausoleums unearthed beneath that glorious basilica. And then, unceremoniously, we were there. There was nothing spectacular to mark the grave of the Church’s first pope. The guide explained that genetic testing of the remains and graffiti on the wall next to the bones confirmed that this was the place, and those were the bones. I remember simply staring at the bottom of the wall, where you could just slightly catch a glimpse of the pit underneath, where the bones lay. I don’t remember any particular feeling at the time. But since then, there is a groundedness to talking about the faith and the papacy. I can’t just talk about ideas. Word play, agendas, ecclesial politics—all of it comes after the knowledge that I have seen the bones of the first pope, and that it is all real.

At my ordination Mass, my archbishop announced that I would be the parochial vicar at a parish named after Saint Peter. This Saint Peter’s, in Huber Heights, Ohio, was much less dramatic than the basilica in the Vatican. It is hundreds of years newer, much plainer, and really has nothing in its architecture to strike the kind of awe that the Pope’s church does. But the fact that it is newer has been a blessing. Because the excavation under the basilica began shortly before my Saint Peter’s was built, the bones had been found in time for the regnant archbishop of Cincinnati, Karl Joseph Alter, to request a relic. And so, when I kiss the altar at my little parish in suburban Ohio, merely a few sheets of linen and a bit of glass casing separate me from the bones of the same man who, tradition tells us, himself put together the first seeds of the words that would grow to become the Roman Canon I pray. Even amidst the blandness of suburban, American Catholicism, in a church built only a decade or two before I was born, the piercing reality and the weight of centuries begins and ends my experience of the Mass.

I go through this recollection because there’s a very real and pressing question before the Church in the modern world: what is the papacy, and what is the relationship between the pope and the practice of ordinary Catholics? We have seen popes criticized for everything: being too rigid or too progressive, being complicit in the Holocaust or in sexual abuse, or even just writing encyclicals that are too wordy. We all know that our Lord Jesus Christ promised Saint Peter that he would have the keys of the kingdom to bind and loose, and that the gates of Hell should not prevail against the Church. We remember that, at the Last Supper, Jesus tasked Peter with confirming his brethren when they strayed, and after the resurrection enjoined him to feed God’s own sheep. We know that this ministry and authority were given to Peter, and are truly carried on by his successors in the see of Rome. But when we can’t all agree that what the pope is saying is the right thing to do, what does that mystical presence of Saint Peter’s spirit really mean? Are they just bones under the basilica, and in my church’s altar, or is the charism that was given to Saint Peter truly still keeping the Church united in the mission given to her by Christ?

To deal with this problem, two strategies are frequently employed. The first is to attempt to mimic a Medieval peasant. A normal Catholic in the ninth century would not have known the name of the pope, or been affected much at all by his decrees. Certainly, the pope was prayed for at every Mass, but otherwise ignored. This very evidently does not work in a modern, hyper-connected world. The Church is more globally integrated than ever. The pope’s decrees immediately change how the Mass is celebrated in my diocese, almost halfway across the world. But more importantly than this practical reality, attempting to ape a Medieval ignorance does not truly resolve the problem. If the papacy was willed by Christ for the good of the Church, then we cannot treat the pope’s decrees merely like faraway politics. The pope’s authority is not a distant extra to add on top of the ordinary practice of the faith, but rather must be part of authentic Catholicism at every level of the Church’s institution.

The second strategy is to treat the pope like the leader of any other organization. When the old one is gone, the new one brings his own vision and agenda and approach. If we want to advance our version of Catholicism, we need to play the politics to get our man in position for the job. And, somehow, the Holy Spirit will guarantee that the ecclesiastical agenda chosen by God will be carried out by whatever happenstance of politics resulted in this particular cardinal being elected. Or something. But, clearly, if the pope has an axe to grind, it must be God’s.

This second strategy is a much more serious one. It ascribes an active role to the Holy Spirit. It accounts for the accidents of human history. It’s certainly the view adopted by modern commentators. Those who dislike the pope in the press accuse him of trying to destroy the Church. This accusation only makes sense if the pope can, by his position, derail the entire faith from its God-given track. Those who support the pope, on the other hand, use his statements as the final word on Catholicism. If anyone disagrees with whatever the pope has said, that person must be resisting the will of the Holy Spirit. One media figure described his publication’s mission in exactly these terms, “The purpose of our site is to promote the Catholic faith in light of pope’s mission and vision, not to tear him down or distort his message. And according to those who actually know and understand Francis, we do it better (at least in the English language) than most anyone else.” The implicit claim is clear: promoting the Catholic faith means being in line with the mission and vision of the pope. Tearing down the pope or distorting his message, on the contrary, is directly opposed to the Catholic faith. Whatever the pope says is Catholicism.

But such a position would be absurd. It is not the case that whatever the pope happens to say is the most Catholic, and in fact such a position would be contrary to the Lord’s intention for founding the see of Peter. The doctrine of papal infallibility and the authority of the Petrine office just very simply do not work that way—and, moreover, a Catholic understanding of God’s work in the human soul does not work this way.

The first critical point is the distinction between the pope’s authority and infallibility made by Pastor Aeternus at Vatican I. The council fathers clearly stated that the pope’s jurisdiction is universal:

Both clergy and faithful, of whatever rite and dignity, both singly and collectively, are bound to submit to this [jurisdictional] power by the duty of hierarchical subordination and true obedience, and this not only in matters concerning faith and morals, but also in those which regard the discipline and government of the Church throughout the world.

The pope’s authority to govern the Church is absolute, and must be obeyed as a matter of faith even regarding those commands, like the appointment of nuncios, which are not regarding matters of faith. However, when defining the pope’s infallibility, there are very specified limits:

We teach and define as a divinely revealed dogma that when the Roman Pontiff speaks ex cathedra, that is, when, in the exercise of his office as shepherd and teacher of all Christians, in virtue of his supreme apostolic authority, he defines a doctrine concerning faith or morals to be held by the whole Church, he possesses, by the divine assistance promised to him in blessed Peter, that infallibility which the divine Redeemer willed his Church to enjoy in defining doctrine concerning faith or morals.

Limiting infallibility to only doctrine concerning faith and morals was so important to the council that they repeated the phrase twice within the same sentence, in addition to putting very careful criteria for the manner of such statements. The pope only has the protection of infallibility in very few, very obvious cases. Which means, by simple reasoning, the pope can make mistakes in other matters even while such fallible judgments must be obeyed. The certain protection of the Holy Spirit, guaranteeing the catholicity of the pope’s words does not apply to all of the commands that the pope makes. Yet nonetheless, even the mistakes of the pope must be carried out.

This is an uncomfortable truth, but it is clearly correct when we examine history. Pope Alexander VI had the authority to make conquering all of Italy by his son’s army and his daughter’s political marriage the official public policy of the Vatican. Pius XII’s precarious judgment about how to deal with the Nazis might have been right or wrong, but it was certainly the final word of the institutional Church. We even see that papal mistakes do not necessarily detract from the holiness of the pope. I think all of us would rather the Church have taken a harsh punitive strategy earlier on in the abuse crisis, but Saint John Paul II’s decision to distrust accusations against clerics—an error in judgment—is not necessarily a sin. His evident holiness did not guarantee that he made all of the right decisions, nor did his mistakes—or even sins—prevent his canonization. Our Lord willed to construct the Church in such a way that this successor of Saint Peter could grievously misjudge cases of abuse, have the authority to definitively establish a strategy of dealing with abuse cases that has proved disastrous, all while being one of the most apparent and clear examples of sainthood in our times. The pope has the authority to be tragically wrong, whether he is holy or not, and the Church on earth must obey.

This is where the Church’s radical teaching about human free will and cooperation with God’s grace becomes scarily real. What has just been said about Saint John Paul II’s handling of abuse cases is just the canons of the council of Trent on justification writ large. The presence of the Holy Spirit in the life of faith does not compel good works, nor guarantee that those once justified will never fall short. Perseverance in the life of grace is itself a gift of God, and our cooperation with that gift is not guaranteed. However, God desires to build up glory to his own Name by demonstrating his righteousness through the saints. He can and does justify men, and increase in them holiness inasmuch as they cooperate with his grace and follow his commandments. God’s goodness to us is so great that He delights for his own gifts in us to be counted for our merit. The Lord has chosen to establish the governance of the Church in such a way that the interplay between the human will and the grace of God is also played out in the Lord’s own Body of the faithful. The same weakness, tendency to sin, but possibility of glory which define the life of faith are the same principles which define the governance of the Church by the pope. God set it up so that the possibility the pope might misgovern the Church creates the showroom in which God can manifest his own power in justifying and saving.

To elaborate on this point a bit: the pope can certainly make mistakes in his task of governing on earth the Body of Christ. All of the pope’s policies are human actions, subject to the same moral weaknesses as any other human action. God does not override the pope’s free will, but rather calls him to participate freely and willingly in God’s plan for the Church. Despite that call, the successor of Peter can make administrative decisions which hinder the growth of faith among the people of God, damage the liturgical heritage of God’s people, and detract from the witness of the Church to the nations. All of this is truly within his authority to do, and not within the very narrow protection of papal infallibility. And we must say that God does not actively will such evils. To say that the political agenda of whatever pope, in its entirety, was chosen by the Holy Spirit for the Church would be to say that God willed such evils upon his Church. That is unthinkable. Rather, it is much better to say that the pope is uniquely capable of harming the Church entrusted by God to his care. It is better to believe that God permits such a possibility so as to make it absolutely clear that it is not by human organization, politics, or theorizing that the faith remains on earth, but by His divine power alone. The pope can make mistakes so that our trust in the institutional Church should be by divinely inspired faith.

The papacy, in union with the episcopacy as a whole, was intended by God as the way He desired to govern the Body of his faithful on earth. The whole Church is present in each of its smallest assemblies, with all of the merits of the Sacred Passion of Jesus Christ available in the tiniest country churches; and the very specific struggle of individual people to live the faith is present in the governance of the whole, with all the temptations to sin looming before even the holiest and most important of prelates. In this mess of human beings trying to cooperate in God’s work of salvation, God Himself has chosen the papacy as the visible sign of unity and guarantor of rigorous fidelity to the Word of God. The Holy Spirit accomplishes this, not by anointing the agenda of the pope that has been chosen as if confirmation of God’s will only came after the fact, but by miraculously preserving very specific official declarations from moral or theological error, and by promising to be with us through the rest. We must trust that the Holy Spirit will not allow the mission of salvation to be thwarted, even if our part of it can be gravely damaged by bad leadership. That mission of salvation is primary, and the pope is its servant, not its arbiter. As Cardinal Ratzinger wrote for the CDF seven years before he would be elected to the See of Peter himself, “[The pope] does not make arbitrary decisions, but is spokesman for the will of the Lord, who speaks to man in the Scriptures lived and interpreted by Tradition; in other words, the episkope of the primacy has limits set by divine law and by the Church’s divine, inviolable constitution found in Revelation.”

In so many ways, our faith that God is guiding us is such as the faith of Saint Peter himself. Peter trusted the Lord and followed him, although he misunderstood him and even betrayed him. Jesus worked the saving mystery of his passion in spite of Peter’s armed protest and denial, and forgave Peter’s sins by shedding his own blood. The lambs He tasked Peter with feeding were not Peter’s but His. When, after the ascension, Peter mistakenly chose to cave to those who would follow the Jewish law in the early Church, Jesus provided a correction through Paul’s admonition. Then the whole body of Apostles, with Peter at their head, reaffirmed the true faith of the Church in salvation by the grace of Christ, not works of the law. In his own letters, he exhorted his successors among the bishops and priests to “Tend the flock of God . . . not by constraint, but willingly, not for shameful gain, but eagerly, not as domineering over those in your charge, but by being examples to the flock.” By a martyr’s death, Peter bore witness to the love which his Lord desired to give all men. And even now, his bones bear witness to the enduring faith of the Church: that the rock on which that Church was built—Peter, in all his fallen humanity and in all his faith assisted by grace from God the Father—continually stands as a sign that God chooses to work salvation among mankind, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. Even should the gates of hell open from inside the Vatican, the Lord’s promise will prove true. Our faith is not in flesh and blood, but in the infinite mercy poured out to us from God the Father in our Lord, Jesus Christ.

Father Ambrose Dobrozsi is a priest in the Archdiocese of Cincinnati.

To continue reading, subscribe to The Lamp.

Get unlimited access to our complete archive when you subscribe.

Already a Subscriber?
Father Ambrose Dobrozsi is a priest in the Archdiocese of Cincinnati. This piece originally appeared in the Trinity 2022 issue of The Lamp magazine.