The Pope is not the Church and the Church is not the Pope


In 1967 the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith introduced a new formula to be used in place of the Tridentine profession of faith and the oath against modernism in all cases where these were required. This was updated in 1988 and then re-promulgated in 1998. The current version consists of the Nicene Creed followed by three concluding paragraphs, as follows:

With firm faith, I also believe all that is contained in the Word of God, written or transmitted in Tradition, which the Church, either by solemn judgment or by the ordinary and universal Magisterium, gives to believe as divinely revealed.

I also firmly accept and definitely uphold everything the Church offers regarding teaching on faith and morals.

Moreover, I adhere with a religious submission of will and intelligence to the teachings that the Roman Pontiff or the College of Bishops enunciate when they exercise their authentic magisterium, even if they do not intend to proclaim these teachings by an act final.

Although very devoid of doctrinal content in relation to the Tridentine profession and the anti-modernist oath, these three paragraphs provide a very useful and concise overview of the different degrees of authority and the modes of exercise of the magisterium. The first paragraph concerns the infallible dogmas of the Church; the second paragraph deals with the non-dogmatic but still infallible doctrines of the Church; while the third paragraph deals with the non-infallible teaching of the pope and the bishops.

One point that is easy to overlook, however, is the change in terminology between the first two paragraphs (infallible teaching) and the third paragraph (non-infallible teaching). In the first two cases, it is “the Church” that teaches. The pope and bishops are only mentioned in the third paragraph. Why the change? The teaching activity of the pope and the bishops is clearly implied in the first two paragraphs. The solemn judgments mentioned in the first paragraph refer to ex cathedra definitions of popes and solemn definitions of ecumenical councils of bishops; the teaching of the ordinary and universal magisterium refers to the common teaching of bishops scattered throughout the world. In these cases, when the pope and the bishops teach infallibly, their teaching is attributed to the Church; but when they do not teach infallibly, their teaching is attributed to themselves. The Church as such comes out of the picture.

Why is this important?

According to the Catechism of the Council of Trent,[The] The Church cannot err in faith or morals, since she is guided by the Holy Spirit” (Part I, a. 9). Likewise, the Baltimore Catechism says: “The Church cannot err when she teaches a doctrine of faith or morals” (no. 526). In the words of the blessed apostle Paul, the Church is “the pillar and the wall of truth” (1 Tim 3:15), as well as the spotless bride of Christ, without spot or wrinkle or the like. . . holy and without blemish (Eph 5:27).

The Church is infallible. The Church is holy. The Church is guided by the Holy Spirit. But have you ever heard someone (or surprised yourself) say: “The Church” did or said something, when in fact it was the pope who did or said that thing? One of the common symptoms of hyperpapalism is a tendency to identify the pope with the Church, or to identify papal teaching with Church teaching as if the two were entirely synonymous.

(By the way, I prefer terms like “hyperpapalism” to describe the excessive adulation of the papacy that developed in the post-Vatican I period, rather than “ultramontanism,” which was ably defended by José Antonio Ureta , here and here. )

False identity

Once you accept a total identification of pope and church, you begin to expect every pope to be a pure and holy pillar of truth in the same absolute sense. This type of identification occurs even at the lower levels of the hierarchy. When your neighbor says she was hurt by “the Church,” what she really means is that she was hurt by a member of the clergy. But this false identification is particularly tempting and problematic with the pope because he is the visible head of the Church on earth, and therefore he box in some cases speak and act for the Church—in person Ecclesiaeso to speak, but most of his acts do not fall into this category.

When it comes to teaching in matters of faith and morals, the pope speaks for the Church only when he speaks ex cathedra, and when he does this he possesses the full infallibility of the Church. But in all other cases – whether in encyclical letters, post-synodal apostolic exhortations, catechism paragraphs, letters to bishops accompanying liturgical legislation, etc. – he speaks only of his own authority as pope. In such cases, we should not say that “the Church” teaches something, but rather that the pope teaches it. And so if he was wrong in his teaching, we would say that the pope was wrong and not that the Church was wrong.

For example, when the medieval Pope John XXII taught in some papal sermons that the souls of saints see the vision of God only after the final judgment, Catholics did not conclude that this new doctrine was henceforth “the teaching from the church”. Quite the contrary, many Catholic theologians of the time, including Cardinal Jacques Fournier (who, as Pope Benedict XII, would later condemn this romantic teaching as heretical), knew that “the Church” actually believed the opposite. and therefore simply concluded that the pope was bad.


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