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 low-level authority in the Catholic Church—not upon Sacred Tradition, the Extraordinary Magisterium, let alone infallible decrees. (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; and while it may even be true that canon law explicitly states such, 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.
I should note from the outset that I consider myself a “conservative” Catholic. But being conservative doesn’t mean being a “fair weather” Catholic, i.e., only when it suits us. It means being loyal and faithful to the teachings of the Church always and everywhere—even if we may not agree with a decision, or when the optics of a situation may not look favorably 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 bluntly, there is a word for those who do not answer to the pope. They are called non-Catholics;
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.“
It has been the agenda of “liberal” Catholics (here, I am speaking of those whose very Catholicity is questionable) to be anti-clerical, to question the authority of the pope, to paint him as merely a symbolic figure-head with no real jurisdiction or supreme power over the whole Church. This assault is expected by the enemies of the Church (and indeed, every schism in history begins in this way, with the erosion of papal primacy). But it is not expected by those closest to the Church, by those who ought to excel in their fidelity to her teachings, in good weather and in bad.
If Matthew Festing had been docile to the pope’s inquiry and obediently complied with the investigation, he could have avoided the results that transpired. But instead he 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 is no different.
Between unjust persecution by the pope or the spirit of disobedience by its members, it is the latter that is the graver offense (disobedience is repugnant in the eyes of the Church, whereas an immoderate or irrational response 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 through this trial. But instead, he co-signed his own end through willful disobedience.
And 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 most 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.
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.”