The Limits of the Papacy

During the preparation of the Second Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Pope Paul VI proposed that the constitution’s discussion of papal primacy include the affirmation that the Pope is “accountable to the Lord alone.” This suggestion was rejected by the Council’s Theological Commission, which wrote that “the Roman Pontiff is also bound to revelation itself, to the fundamental structure of the Church, to the sacraments, to the definitions of earlier councils, and other obligations too numerous to mention.” Pope Paul quietly dropped his proposal.

Yet the image persists that the Catholic Church is a kind of global corporation, with the pope as CEO, the bishops as branch managers, and your parish priest as the local salesman. And according to that image, the pope not only knows what’s going on all the way down the line, he gives orders that are immediately obeyed all the way down the line. Or, to vary the misimpression, the Church is like the United States Marine Corps—there, at least according to legend, when the Commandant issues an order, everyone from the highest-ranking four-star to the lowliest Parris Island recruit staples a salute to his forehead and does what he’s told.

This distorted and distorting image of the pope as dictatorial CEO or Marine commandant is, admittedly, reinforced by the language of the Code of Canon Law. Thus Canon 331 states that the “Bishop of the Church of Rome … has supreme, full, immediate and universal ordinary power in the Church, and he can always freely exercise that power.” Yet, while, both theology and law tells us that the pope enjoys the fullness of executive, legislative, and judicial authority in the Church, his exercise of that power is circumscribed by any number of factors.

It is circumscribed by the authority and prerogatives of local bishops, According to the teaching of Vatican II, bishops are not simply branch-managers of Catholic Church, Inc.; rather, they are the heads of local Churches with both the authority and the responsibility to govern them. Moreover, the pope, according to the Council, is to govern the Church with the College of Bishops who, with him and under him, share in responsibility for the well-being of the entire People of God, not only for their own local Churches.

The pope’s capacity for governance is also shaped by the quality of his closest associates, and by the accuracy and timeliness of the information he receives from the Roman Curia via the nuncios and apostolic delegates who represent the Holy See and the pope around the world. An example of how this fact of ecclesiastical life can impede a pope’s ability to respond promptly to situations comes from the American crisis of clerical sexual abuse and episcopal misgovernance in 2002. Because of grossly inadequate reporting from the apostolic nunciature in Washington between January and April 2002—when the firestorm was at its hottest—John Paul II was about three months behind the news curve in mid-April 2002; what appeared (and was often presented by the press) as papal uninterest in the U.S. crisis was in fact a significant time-lag in the information-flow.

Papal governance can also be undermined by inept subordinates. Thus the image of an uninterested John Paul II was reinforced in 2002 by Cardinal Dario Castrillon’s disastrous presentation of the Pope’s annual Holy Thursday letter to priests that year, during which Castrillon blew off questions about the U.S. crisis by saying that John Paul had more important things to worry about, like peace in the Middle East.

These very real human limits on the exercise of papal power seem almost impossible for some editors and reporters—and indeed for some Catholics—to grasp. Yet the fact remains that the overwhelming responsibility for turning the scandal of clerical sexual abuse into a full-blown Church-wide crisis lays at the feet of irresponsible local bishops, and unfortunately of bishops who bought the conventional wisdom about therapeutic “cures” for sexual predators. That underscores the imperative of getting episcopal appointments right and of removing bishops whose failures destroy their capacity to govern: see “Ireland today, Catholic Church in.”

George Weigel


George Weigel is an American author and political and social activist. He currently serves as a Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center. Weigel was the Founding President of the James Madison Foundation.

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  • jeffeschbach

    Great article, especially explaining how each Bishop truly is head of their local Church. The more we understand this structure, the more we can understand and explain what really happened during these scandals… there have been horrible events, but the blame doesn’t necessarily sit at the feet of our Holy Father.

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  • juantay

    Looks like George Weigel just went against a Dogma. (Canon 331) The authority of Bishops doesn’t circumscribe the Pope’s Authority. That’s the reason the Dogma was written to begin with. That’s the point of the Dogma which expresses the absolute power of the Papacy. That’s, uh, the whole point! ..I’m totally with Paul VI, the Pope is “accountable to the Lord alone.” And I’m with every other Pope in that view as well.

  • juantay

    “If anyone thus speaks, that the Roman Pontiff has only the office of inspection or direction, but not the full and supreme power of jurisdiction over the universal Church, not only in things which pertain to faith and morals, but also in those which pertain to the discipline and government of the Church spread over the whole world; or, that he possesses only the more important parts, but not the whole plenitude of this supreme power; or that this power of his is not ordinary and immediate, or over the churches altogether and individually, and over the PASTORS and the faithful altogether and individually: let him be anathema.” – VATICAN I

  • jmtfh

    This analysis of the breakdown in communication leading to a “crisis” is excellent. Yet I do certainly wonder at the continued head turning that seems to go on yet today.

    For example, why would the archdiocese of Milwaukee, WI and its new leader, Archbishop Jerome Edward Listecki, allow the installation of a bronze sculpture of former archbishop Weakland, who was removed from office for his blatant sexual transgressions(and he still defends his actions in his recent writings–no repentance yet)???

    It seems like rubbing salt in the deep and lasting wounds caused by the sexual sins committed!

    See CNA article:

  • fishman

    “accountable to the Lord alone.”

    “bound” and “accountable” are not the same thing.

    The Roman catholic hierarchy is not a corporation. It is modeled after a Monarchy with sub-ordinate vassal states. If the pope significantly disagrees with the actions of any of the bishops in the world it is both his right and responsibility to remove that person and if he fails to do so God will hold him ‘accountable’.

    bound , means required to hold to.
    accountable means must offer and explanation for ones actions.

    for instance I am bound not to speed, but If I do speed and no one has the authority to stop me from speeding I am not held accountable for my actions.

    Just because the bishops choose not to affirm a statement does not make it true or false.

    The fact is the pope is accountable to God alone. He cannot be deposed,
    He has the authority to remove from power anyone who opposes him, even to excommunicate them, he can summary dictate changes to cannon law if he so chooses
    or finds it necessary and no one has the right to disobey him. There is no one who can ‘force’ the pope to do what the pope believes is wrong and if his is doing what is wrong there is no one who can force him to do what ‘ is in their judgement’ right.

    More to the point, and this is something that has become a little bit of a bother to me about many of those who earnestly defend the church.

    The pope should NOT BE accountable to anyone but God. Further, the local ordinary should NOT BE accountable to anyone other then the pope and each other. It is necessary for that to be the case so as to ensure they can operate with proper moral autonomy.

    Sometimes these men will sin. They are after all men. They may even sin with human impunity, but that is the best situation in which the church can operate.
    Anything less , risk compromising the rule of God within the church and damaging it.

    The problem is that the layity does not want to trust sinners, which in turn is because they lack a trust in God.

  • I’ve long thought of Church governance as essentially Feudal, with Bishops especially having the sort of breathtaking authority over their various sees that one usually associates with a Medieval count, who could execute people on nothing more than his say-so.

  • fishman

    well, from a biblical perspective the church is modeled after the Jewish Monarchy.
    With a single (king) Jesus of the house of David. Who has appointed the pope to be his physical presence here on earth. I suspect the vassal relationship is somewhat more middle ages in it’s tradition , but there is strong biblical presence in both the tribal structure of Israel as it related to the Jewish Kingdom and in the Judges of Israel appointed by moses. Moses appointed 12 Judges , Christ appointed 12 apostles. One for each tribe of Israel.

  • goral

    “First among equals” is where the pope’s authority lies and that is unlike a model that is used anywhere else in governance.

    “John Paul II was about three months behind the news curve in mid-April 2002”
    Who can say with absolute certainty that this is not the work of the Holy Spirit?
    The fact is that crisis news can best be handled by waiting about three months until things sort thmselves out and the real truth is sifted out.

    24/7 has always been God’s way, He just waits about three months to give us a chance to get it right.