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Does the Pope rely too much on his own advisers?

Does the Pope rely too much on his own advisers?

The increased intensity of the teaching office necessitated increased help; the popes turned for assistance to individual theologians perhaps more than ever before. Not surprisingly (especially if one takes into account the past difficulties in travel and communications) the popes sought help from the professors of the Roman schools of theology, and from their own curial officials who (mostly) were educated in those schools.

It was only natural that the advisers tended to identify their own theological opinions with Catholic doctrine, (5) with the result that the pronouncements of the popes began to reflect the views of Roman theologians to the exclusion of others. Examples of this can be found in the talks and writings of Pins XII, who relied very heavily on some professors from the Gregorian University. (Pius’s doctrine on the Mystical Body reflected that of Sebastian Tromp; many of his moral instructions can be found in the books of Franz Hürth, etc.). Such a reliance on local advisers, who inevitably represented a limited portion of Catholic thinking, raised again the questions of how far a given papal pronouncement was the proclamation of Catholic doctrine universally held, and how far it reflected the opinion of a theological school.

5. This excessive use of local theologians marked the preparatory phase of both Vatican Councils.

Vatican Council I: The Preparatory Commission was composed of five cardinals; four Italians from the curia and one Bavarian. They were helped by 96 other members and consultors, 61 of them domiciled in Rome. The first schema on Catholic faith was prepared by Johannes Franzelin, professor at the Gregorian; it was often described as a no doubt well meant attempt by a teacher to have his textbook canonized by the Council. It underwent radical revision by Joseph Kleutgen, the theologian of the Bishop of Paderborn.

Vatican Council II: Although the membership of the preparatory commissions was more international, the Roman schools of thought marked strongly the 73 documents prepared for approval, except the one on liturgy. Indeed the reform of liturgy was accepted without substantial changes; but the conflict surfaced during the debate on the second schema submitted to the Fathers on the “Sources of Revelation.” It was mostly the work of Sebastian Tromp, reflecting his lectures at the Gregorian. For all practical purposes it was rejected, as were another 70, or (a few of them) modified so radically that the original could not be recognized. (The only one apart from Liturgy that was approved without serious modifications was the schema on the media of communications; it happened at a critical juncture.

In more technical terms: as a virtually new source of theological data, locus theologicus has emerged in recent papal pronouncements; a sound set of rules for the use of this source had to be worked out.

Historical precedents were not of much help they carried an ambivalent message. In the course of ancient history, some solemn declarations by popes were obviously proclamations of Catholic belief, such as the condemnation of crude conciliarism (appeal from the pope to a general moment when the Council was not in the mood to give much time or attention to it.)

The point in saying all this is that the excessive influence of Roman theologians has been resisted by the councils; but when there was no council their influence was often unhindered.

council) by Pius II (Bull Execrabilis, 1460); but some others promulgated with similar solemnity either had to be radically reinterpreted, such as the statement by Boniface VIII “We declare, affirm, and define that for salvation it is necessary for all human creatures to be subject to the Roman Pontiff” (Bull Unam sanctam, 1302); or even abandoned as totally erroneous such as the order of Innocent VIII to persecute witches, female and male, in southern Germany (Bull Summis desiderantes, 1484). Whatever the rules for weighing the authority of papal documents were in the past, for the age of modern encyclicals new hermeneutics were needed.

To build up such new hermeneutics was a gigantic task in itself (it is still far from being completed), and yet it was not enough. Theologians had to grapple also with instructions, decrees, declarations and many kinds of communications by the increasingly numerous and active offices and commissions of the Holy See. There, even recent history could not provide much guidance while some documents issued by them proved to be of permanent doctrinal value, some others, such as the early decrees of the Biblical Commission, had to be quietly rescinded as mistaken in their content and method.

Besides, there was this principle to be held firmly the charism of infallibility granted to the successors of Peter could not be delegated. It follows that the organs of the Holy See, that is the “dicasteria” of the Roman curia, could not speak “in the Spirit” as ecumenical councils could, (6) nor could they appeal to the gift of infallibility because that gift was personal to the pope and not transferable. Hence, whatever came from such offices on their own authority, (7) needed again to be evaluated according to a new set of rules—the hermeneutics applicable to the documents of the agencies of the Roman See. (8)

6. A Roman Congregation could never say placuit Spiritui sancto et nobis, “it pleased the Holy Spirit and us”; an ancient formula used by great ecumenical councils.

7. The approval by the pope of a document issued by a Roman Congregation does not necessarily indicate that the pope made the content of the document his own. There are two kinds of papal approvals, in common form and in special form. An approval in common form means that the pope agrees to the publication of the document but does not make its content his own; an approval in special form means that the pope gives his own authority to the content of the document. The former is not papal teaching, the latter is. The special character of the approval must be explicitly stated in the document itself; it must never be presumed. Thus to know the form of approval is crucial for the interpretation ot the document; also for determining the type of response that is due to it.

8. I do not know of any thorough study from a theological point of view of the power of the Roman curia. In general it is said that it is the arm of the pope in governing the church, which of course is true. An ambivalence that would deserve serious study is in the situation that the pope cannot hand over to anyone his charism of infallibility (fidelity to the message) but he can let others participate in his power to govern (jurisdiction).

The Curia has no more power than what the pope gives to it. An episcopal synod is different because there is an inherent power in every single bishop (through his ordination) participating in it; also because it is a partial but real manifestation of collegiality.

From: The Church: Learning and Teaching, by Ladislas Örsy, Michael Glazier 1987, chapter 2. Read the whole chapter here.

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