If you have been following the recent controversy in the Church between pope Francis and the head of the Knights of Malta (see “The World Over” airing on EWTN, 1/26/17), you may have heard some theologians and canon lawyers argue that the pope is overreaching his authority in this matter, particularly in asking its leader, Matthew Festing, to resign (on account that he “fired” the 3rd ranking Knight for his involvement in passing out condoms).
According to their argument, the Knights of Malta are a sovereign order, an independent entity. All their governance is “in-house,” totally independent from Rome. And indeed this is true. But where they err, is in their conclusion. They assert that because the Knights are sovereign, they do not have to answer to the pope. The pope, in other words, has no authority to ask its head (who is considered to be a conservative, mind you) to step down, nor appoint a delegate to the order.
The problem with this argument, is that it is based entirely upon the limited purview of canon law—a relatively mid-level authority in the Church, at least compared to the pope (This is yet another time that I’ve seen a canon lawyer put canon law above the Church.) While it may be true that the Knights are indeed a sovereign order and all their governance occurs within their walls, and while it may be true that they do not report to the pope in the day-to-day governance of the order, still, this does not mean that they are not answerable to the vicar of Christ, nor does it imply that the pope cannot intervene, if he so chooses. To purport otherwise is simply not Catholic;
First Vatican Council, Session IV, Chp. IV, p.IX: “If anyone says that the Roman Pontiff has merely an office of supervision and guidance, and not the full and supreme power of jurisdiction over the whole Church, and this not only in matters of faith and morals, but also in those which concern the discipline and government of the Church dispersed throughout the whole world; or that he has only the principal part, but not the absolute fullness, of this supreme power; or that this power of his is not ordinary and immediate both over all and each of the Churches and over all and each of the pastors and faithful: let him be anathema.”
Catechism of the Catholic Church, 883: “For the Roman Pontiff, by reason of his office as Vicar of Christ, and as pastor of the entire Church has full, supreme, and universal power over the whole Church, a power which he can always exercise unhindered. The college or body of bishops has no authority unless united with the Roman Pontiff, Peter’s successor, as its head. As such, this college has supreme and full authority over the universal Church; but this power cannot be exercised without the agreement of the Roman Pontiff.”
Now I should note from the outset, I consider myself more of a “conservative” Catholic (whatever that term really means). But being conservative doesn’t mean being a “fair weather” Catholic either, only when it suits me. Would I have liked to keep more conservative Catholics in top positions? Yes. Do I disagree with the firing of conservative leaders based largely (or so it seems) upon them being conservative? Yes. But I cannot simply expunge Church teaching when it doesn’t suit me. Nor can any faithful Catholic. We have to be loyal to the teachings of the Church always and everywhere, even if we may disagree with a decision, or when the optics of a situation may look unfavorably upon the Church. The Church has always taught—and infallibly declared—the pope to have full and supreme power over the whole Church (the whole Church, meaning; any baptized person in good standing), not just in matters of faith and morals, but in all forms of governance and discipline, over every aspect of the life of the Church. Clearly, this must include the governance of Catholic organizations, by the very fact that they call themselves Catholic. Whether you feel betrayed by the pope’s actions is irrelevant. Whether you think he is attempting to rid the Church of traditionally-minded leaders is irrelevant. It does not change the fact that the pope was well within his authority, objectively speaking, to act as he did.
To put it plainly, there is a word for those who do not answer to the pope. They are called non-Catholics.
And besides, should we always blindly trust what is said, or implied, by the media? Remember, there is always more to a situation than just what we hear from the news. If Matthew Festing had been docile to the pope’s inquiry and obediently complied with the investigation, perhaps he could have avoided the results that transpired. But instead he (evidently) dismissed the probe and refused to comply on the basis that the Knights are a sovereign order. Disobedience always has disastrous outcomes. And this situation seems to evidence this.
Between unjust persecution by the pope or the spirit of disobedience by its shepherds, it is the latter, I believe, that is the graver offense (disobedience is repugnant in the eyes of the Church, whereas immoderate or irrational behavior is a fault). Even if the pope’s actions were unreasonable, even if he imprudently intervened in this situation, there is nothing that warrants undermining his rightful authority to do so. Ultimately, Festing was the instrument of his own demise. If anyone is to blame, it is he, not the pope. He could have merited infinite graces by long-suffering through this trial. But instead, he co-signed his own end through willful disobedience.
And this is what ought to define us as Catholics. This is what “separates the men from the boys.” It is precisely these moments of persecution and unreasonable scrutiny that reveals whether we possess the true spirit of a Catholic. Even if Matthew Festing was justified in firing the 3rd ranking Knight for his involvement in the distribution of condoms (and, with the limited information I am privy to, I tend to believe he was), his refusal to comply with the papal investigation squandered all merit he could have gained (and, mind you, it would have been immense) through humble submission and trust. If someone does not possess the level of maturity to submit to unreasonable scrutiny by an ecclesial authority—especially if it is sanctioned by the pope—and patiently bear the burden of misunderstandings without rebellion, then, in all frankness, he is not fit to hold such a high ranking position in a Catholic organization, because he does not possess the true spirit of a Catholic.
This situation, in microcosm, reveals a greater problem in the Church of formation. If the best of Catholics—those who ought to love the faith and uphold her teachings—can so easily switch sides and join with the enemies of the Church in eroding papal supremacy (yes, even “when the going gets tough,” even when the pope appears to do something they don’t like, something irrational or imprudent), then, I’m afraid to say, we may be in the beginnings of a schism in the Church.
As Fr. Larry Richards is known to say, “Suck it up. Be a man. And stop whining.” Have faith in the Church, and trust that the Holy Spirit is protecting her from ruin.