Pope Francis’s Magisterial Teaching on Liturgical Reform

The Pope recently gave an address to the Italian National Liturgical Week where he made the following statement:

 The direction traced by the Council took shape, following the principle of respect for the sound tradition and legitimate progress (cf. SC, 23)[9] of the liturgical books promulgated by Blessed Paul VI, well received by the same bishops who were present at the Council, and by now universally used in the Roman rite for almost fifty years. The practical application, guided by the Episcopal Conferences for the respective countries, is still in progress, as it is not sufficient to reform liturgical books to renew the mentality. The books reformed in conformity with the decrees of Vatican II gave rise to a process that requires time, faithful reception, practical obedience, and wise implementation in celebration first by ordained ministers, but also by other ministers, cantors and all those who participate in the liturgy. In truth, we know, the liturgical education of Pastors and faithful is a challenge that must always be faced anew. The same Paul VI, a year before his death, said to the Cardinals gathered in the Consistory: “The moment has come, now, to set aside definitively the disruptive ferments, equally harmful in one sense or another, and to fully apply according to their just inspiring criteria, the reform we approved in the application of the votes of the Council”.

There is still work to be done today in this direction, in particular in rediscovering the reasons for the decisions made regarding liturgical reform, overcoming unfounded and superficial readings, partial acceptance and practices that distort it. It is not a question of rethinking the reform by reviewing decisions, but rather of knowing better the underlying reasons, also through historical documentation, and of internalizing the inspiring principles and observing the discipline that regulates it. After this teaching, after this long path we can affirm with certainty and magisterial authority that the liturgical reform is irreversible.

(bold and underline mine)

For the laymen and vast majority of Roman Catholics this is a rather innocuous speech. This will simply be interpreted as: The Mass in the vernacular or liturgical changes will stay and cannot be reversed. This is why there has not been much discussion or publicity on this point in the popular Roman Catholic blogsphere or online media. It seems to be doing nothing more than reaffirming a prevailing practice. Compared to the controversy which followed Amoris Laetitia, the subject matter seems almost trivial.


Yet the speech has caused considerable consternation amongst professional theologians and canon lawyers. It seems that the Pope has made a basic mistake in his use of his Magisterial authority: He can’t actually use his Magisterial Authority to declare that liturgical reforms are irreversible.

Pope Francis’s “Mistake”

Now you might be astonished at this and might wonder why on earth not. For the explanation we need to look to the definition of papal infallibility in Vatican I:

… 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…

(bold and underline mine)

The Pope only speaks infallibly when he defines doctrines. The same point applies to “Magisterial Authority” as well that it is primary about teaching doctrines. The argument that the Pope has erred here is as follows: There is a difference between defining and declaring a propositional truth or claim, and regulating a certain practice. The Pope as such can define: “Whoever does not submit to the papal office will not be saved.” What the Pope cannot do is to use his magisterial authority to issue instructions like: “Use English during the Mass.” The former is a proposition while the latter is merely an imperative.

Now the Pope in using his Magisterial Authority to affirm the irreversibility of “liturgical reforms” seem to have made a basic error about how Magisterial Authority works: he is trying to “teach” what is essentially a set of practices which isn’t the same as “doctrine”. Liturgical reforms as such cannot properly be an object of Magisterial teaching.

The problem however is that it is generally conceded even by those who argue that liturgical reform cannot properly be the object of Magisterial teaching that the form of words used by the Pope does conform to that of infallible definitions. As this canon lawyer puts it:

In phrases typically associated with formal, even infallible, teaching exercises, Francis purported to invoke his “magisterial authority” to “affirm with certainty” that the process of liturgical reform was “irreversible”.

Thus there are excellent reasons to believe that the pope has, at the very minimum, exercised his magisterial authority, and good reasons to believe that he is speaking infallibly here.

Yet if Pope Francis has truly invoked his papal authority then the preceding argument that he has erred in his exercise of it leads to the highly paradoxical idea that the Pope can err even when he exercises his infallible authority.

“Developing” the Meaning of “Doctrine”?

On the other hand, perhaps we have been too hasty in our inference that the Pope has erred here.

We have to remember that in Roman Catholic theology most terms are not to be taken literally or, what I shall call, its natural meaning. Roman Catholic theology normally uses terms in its highly refined and technical sense which frequently diverges from the “common sense” or natural meaning of the terms. Thus, there is no salvation outside the Church, but this is not to be taken literally but with various technical qualifications. They may call Mary Co-Redemptrix, pray, honour, and praise her, but they do not “worship” her but “venerate” her. Thus even if the most natural and common sense meaning here is that they are “worshipping” her, they technically are not doing so because “worship” has a special technical sense in this theological context. As such most theological terms in Roman theology are artificial constructions which do not bear its common sense meaning.

To come back to papal infallibility, what exactly constitutes “doctrine”? The most natural and common sensical meaning is that of “teaching”, but why can’t the Pope impose a technical new construction upon the meaning of “doctrine” and expand its referent to include a mix of teachings and practices? After all, doctrine isn’t just thought abstractly but lived concretely and can only be understood from within a concrete mode of life, so isn’t there an organic unity of faith and living in doctrine such that doctrine can include both propositional knowledge and lived practices?

There is no a priori reason to preclude my interpretation of “doctrine”, appeals to natural meanings are in vain because we are precisely speaking of a term used in a highly artificially constructed sense. Why can there not be a “development of doctrine” to develop the meaning of “doctrine” itself?

A friend of mine who specialises in medieval history pointed out the following:

It would be very interesting if your thesis is correct and the word “doctrine” can actually mean much more than simple propositional teaching. It is an established fact of history that for several centuries after the 11th, many popes “taught” the heresy of simony by means of how they lived in their financially scandalous lives. It was even codified into canon law that the pope could “teach” heresy by the way that he lived. Yet most modern Roman Catholics to whom I have made this point always responded by appealing to a special technical meaning of the word “teaching” that supposedly renders it immune to a historical arguments.

As such, there is nothing preventing the identification of “teachings” with lived practices and lumping both of them under the general term “doctrine”.

When Luther took his stand at the Diet of Worms he declared that he will not recant unless persuaded by Scripture and evident reason. These are the twin pillars upon which the Protestant Reformation stood. Although Scripture is supreme, but Scripture uses ordinary words and speaks of realities of common experience. Reason is still needed to inform us of Greek and Hebrew linguistics; reason is still necessary to determine how theological principles are applied to empirical concrete contexts.

The artificially constructed theological definitions of Rome inevitably floats free of reality itself, being literally the construct or invention of institutional will. When proported to be divine revealed transcending the common lived reality of this world, there is in principle no limits to the expansion of its meaning.

The Deeper Issues: Substantive versus Formal Checks on Papal Authority

This event does not as such “refute” papal infallibility. It will however lead to a radical reorientation of our understanding of it. We have already one option: The scope of “doctrine” which can be the object of magisterial and infallible teaching would include lived practices as well. Thus every papal bull and decree on practical issues: from the authorisation of torture in Ad extirpanda to the authorisation of slavery in Romanus Pontifex will properly become a part of the Roman Church’s body of magisterial teachings. They may not be infallible, but they certainly count as proper exercises of the Magisterium’s ordinary authority.


Suppose however we take the earlier option that the Pope has simply erred in his exercise of his papal authority. What are the consequences of such a position? It will be useful here to discuss the difference between what I shall call “substantive” versus “formal” checks against exercises of papal authority.

(1) Formal Checks

This is the view that whether or not the pope has exercised his magisterial authority can be identified merely by its external form, e.g. only when he uses certain formulas or words in his declarations. Only such declarations where such formulas are present can properly be considered an exercise of papal authority. Thus an off hand remark or aeroplane interview would not properly be considered an exercise of papal authority, but a declaration with formulas like “certainty” and “irreversibly” would count. This is why this is merely a “formal” check because it only looks to the external form.

(2) Substantive Checks

Then there are those who argue that for a declaration to be properly an exercise of papal authority one has to look at its contents, not merely to its external form. Thus for example what the pope declares has to be derivative of, or consistent with, the Scriptures or with prior traditions, etc.

It is clear that in rejecting Pope Francis’s latest exercise of magisterial authority as properly authoritative one is affirming (2) rather than (1). Even though the forms  for an infallible definition are present, it should not count as an exercise of infallible authority because of its contents or the substance of what is said, which is not properly under the purview of magisterial authority. The problem however is that (2) simply just is the Protestant position.

Now the logic of (2) is quite obvious. If the Pope were to say: “I define ex cathedra by virtue of my infallible authority entrusted to Blessed Peter by Christ that Christ was not risen from the dead.” Such a pronouncement would not be in any sense of the word infallible. Whether or not a declaration is properly an exercise of papal authority has to be determined by its contents, by what it actually says, not simply by virtue of it satisfying some external formal requirements.

The problem is that this is simply the Protestant position. Protestantism does not deny the proper role of other authorities besides the authority of Scriptures. But the authority of those other authorities has to be ultimately subject or tested of the Scriptures. Thus whether or not Unam Sanctam is properly “authoriative”, in the sense of (2), is not a self-evident truth, nor can it be determined merely by looking for the presence of certain formulas. There has to be a criteria or some reason why it is properly an exercise of papal authority. If the reason is that it simply communicates the teaching of Scripture, then the Protestant can simply deny that Unam Sanctam is an exercise of papal authority precisely because it doesn’t communicate the teaching of Scripture.

In short, if the authority papal document or declaration is derivative of its contents, then clearly anyone can test those contents against Scripture or even tradition and conclude that they are not so authoritative because it so contradicts those other superior authorities. So Protestants are free to reject a variety of papal teachings, even those proported to be “infallible” on the grounds that it so contradicts Scriptures and/or tradition and as such isn’t properly an exercise of papal authority.

If the authority of papal documents is not simply going to collapse into mere biblical authority, then the authority has to be intrinsic to itself, by virtue of its external form and not its contents. That would leave us only with (1). We cannot, as it were, test that authority’s inner content for its authoritativeness. So we need to appeal to some external tests. Once a declaration satisfies these external formulas then it would simply constitute an exercise of papal authority without ifs or buts. This is essentially the position of those who would argue that the Pope can just expand the meaning of “doctrine”.

Conclusion: A Papal Authority without Teeth or a Papal Authority without Limits

The Roman Catholic theologian as such is faced with the following dilemma: If one accepts that the Pope Francis has erred in his exerise of papal infallibility, then one will be forced to accept that there are substantive checks against papal infallibility in the very strong sense. Thus, even when the Pope explicitly invokes the proper magisterial formulas to teach and affirm something, the mere invocation of such formulas does not by itself constitute an exercise of papal authority. We need to look to the substantive contents to see whether or not it is true by means of some other criteria apart from whether the Pope has said it. e.g. whether it is consistent with the Scriptures or tradition. But if this is so, there is little difference in principle from that of the Protestant position. At most we only disagree on the minor premise of whether such and such papal declaration is in fact Scriptural or even traditional.

If on the other hand one accepts that Pope Francis has properly exercised his infallible authority here, then we accept that that this is a massive expansion of the scope of magisterial authority. It includes now not only propositions but practices. A vast range of phenomenon which past popes have spoken on, from slavery to the use of torture, would all become a part of the body of magisterial teachings. The scope of papal authority would be virtually limitless.

It is naturally not for me to tell Roman Catholics how to do their own theology, but if I were a Roman Catholic, I would choose limitless power over toothless papal authority. Even the most ecletic of spirits will have considerable trouble accepting the virtually self-contradictory idea that a pope can invoke his papal authority but has not.

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