On Pope Francis & Customs Being Elevated to the Level of Doctrine

There has been much said regarding Pope Francis washing the feet of women and a couple of Muslims. There have been complaints from traditionalists that Pope Francis did not wear the traditional red shoes, and during a Mass he bowed during the Consecration rather than genuflect. They look at these departures and think that if those change, then other elements of the Faith will change. On the other side, some people see these action and hold hope that radical change is coming to the Church.

Both of these opinions are off the mark. The Church in several respects is like fine art, in the sense that one needs to look at things with nuance and avoid just glancing at the surface. In this case, we need to look at the nature of the Papacy, who is bound by laws and customs, and look at setting one’s expectations properly.

Customs, practices, forms, canon law, and disciplines can all change or be modified. Historically speaking this has happened several times, such as with a revision of Canon Law in 1983. There are also practices which are different throughout the 20+ different rites of the Church, namely that in the East married men can be ordained to the Priesthood. In the Western Church (which is what most in North America are familiar with), this isn’t the case (although even then there are exceptions – we see sometimes that married ministers who convert are sometimes ordained after receiving formation).

A very good example of a custom and form that can be modified is how Holy Communion is received. The norm is to receive on the tongue, while kneeling. In North America however, a blanket approval for reception via the hands was given awhile ago. If that approval was not given, then as being in a “secular state” we would all be bound to receive in that fashion. Since approval was given to receive Communion in the hand while standing, this is now an option and is just as valid and licit. That said, tomorrow this option can be taken away, and we would be bound to follow.

From a Canon Law perspective, we can look no further than our own Diocese of Ottawa. For years we had a dispensation that we could eat meat on Fridays during Lent provided we performed an act of charity. This year our Archbishop rescinded this. As Catholics, we were once again bound by Canon law to refrain from meat on Fridays during Lent.

You may have noticed I used the word “secular” above, namely “secular state”. An important distinction needs to be made between those of us who are in a secular state, and those are consecrated religious. Those who are consecrated have their own rules and customs, and are exempt from much of Canon Law. Along with the East, this shows the diversity when it comes to customs and practices which are found within the whole of the Catholic Church.

So how does this impact the Papacy? As the Successor of Peter, the Pope has the full authority to bind and loose any discipline or practice. As the chief judge he can also bind or loose and aspect of Canon Law. In matters of form, practice, or discipline, he is not bound by previous Popes due to the reasons I said above. Basically, the Pope is bound by doctrine, as are all Catholics. He is not legally bound by practices, as he can change them. Using the American model of governance, he is effectively the president, senate, and supreme court all rolled into one. This has not nothing to do with infallibility by the way, but instead stems from the authority.

The issue here is both extremes of Catholicism are elevating devotional practices, forms, and Canon Law up to the level of doctrine. It sets one’s expectations incorrectly, and will make people upset when a practice changes. While visiting a “radical traditionalist” (aka ‘rad trad’) site, people equated the Pope washing the feet of women possibly leading the way towards female ordination. Interestingly, some “liberal” sites were saying the exact same thing (interesting because these two sides couldn’t be any further apart in most areas).

Meanwhile, lets contrast those thoughts with that of Blessed John Paul II (written in ORDINATIO SACERDOTALIS); “Wherefore, in order that all doubt may be removed regarding a matter of great importance, a matter which pertains to the Church’s divine constitution itself, in virtue of my ministry of confirming the brethren (cf. Lk 22:32) I declare that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church’s faithful”.

Like it or not, you can’t spell things out more clearly than that. JP2 speaks very clearly on this, and puts it out on the table; it isn’t just him who does not have the authority to ordain women, it’s the Church herself who cannot. Simply put; this can’t change. Just like the belief in the Eucharist being the Body of Christ (cf. John 6) cannot change. Once established, the Immaculate Conception could not be changed. Life beginning at conception cannot change. People expecting these to change are in for a long wait, because they cannot be changed. It’s like running into a brick wall repeatedly, hoping at some point you’ll burst through like the Kool-Aid man.

Yet we see people thinking any of these could change, because they confuse doctrine and practices. They confuse the changeable with the immutable. It’s fascinating to see on one side (the rad trads) who want nothing to ever change and the other side (rad-liberals) who want everything to change. Both sides grab onto anything they can find to validate what they feel should or shouldn’t be happening. Yet despite their differences, there is some common elements they share;

1) A misunderstanding of what is custom and what is doctrine, with the elevation of practices/customs to near doctrinal levels.
2) The Scope of the Pope’s powers.
3) We we are bound to as Catholics in a secular (ie; not-consecrated) state to obey Canon Law.
4) The Pope, as chief judge, is not bound in the same fashion. Per Matthew 16 he has the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven, the keys to the metaphorical city.
5) Obedience to the Holy Father.

If rad trads continue to complain about a 75+ year old man with a bad back not genuflecting during the consecration of the Eucharist, a part of me wants to mention to them that as Pope he can make the new practice that one must always bow, then look on as our Archbishop continues to genuflect as he is a Jesuit, and as such is an exempt religious as it pertains to such customs.

Make no mistake here though; I understand the attachment(s) to customs and devotional practices. Practices and Canon Law are surefire aids to help is enter the Kingdom of Heaven. However optional practices or not binding, and Canon Law can be modified by the Pontiff, and we can also be dispensed by those who the Pontiff has delegated authority to.

Finally, I have heard of a common argument from “rad-trads” that boils down to; “you’re saying a pope who can do whatever he wants, which is wrong. He must be submitted to Scripture and Tradition”.

Some for food for thought; Venerable Paul VI was a lawyer by trade before becoming Pope. In fact, revising the Code of Canon Law was is his true passion. When he speaks of the law, he was an expert in all matters pertaining to the law. This whole issue has nothing to do with “a pope who can do whatever he wants”. That statement is nothing more than a strawman devised by rad-trads to boost their favored practices and devotions to a level that nears doctrinal status. As soon as something they love change, they get upset and ask “how can this change?!”. I understand why they would be upset, but the Holy Father is just that a Father. he will use his fatherly authority on these matters.

The equivalent strawman for radical liberals would be “they changed dietary restrictions in the Code of Canon Law of 1983, therefore they will let women be ordained and unrestricted abortions for everyone!”

The Pope can change practices. This is clearly evident in Scripture when Paul rebuked Peter over certain disciplinary matters. Paul referred to Peter as his title “Kephas”, and as such respected the office that Peter held. Peter changed his stance on things, and we’ve seen the results. We also can clearly see evidence of practices changing in the early Church, while retaining doctrinal consistency. We can also see evidence with Clement’s letter to the Corinthians where he speaks of obedience to Papal authority as it pertains to matters of practice and canon law (although of course, it wasn’t called canon law back then, but you get the idea).

“A Pope who is submitted to Scripture and Tradition” is what I described above. It’s doubly ironic when people point towards Benedict XVI, considering that he was the one who dealt with the Canonical implications of the SSPX, and exercised his papal authority on them. They still lack universal faculties, celebrate illicit Masses, and other assorted items.

In the end, as Catholics we are bound to follow Canon Law, and trust in the Successor of Peter, as he has the keys. We need to be mindful not to elevate customs and practices to such a high level, and as always recognize that there are several different valid practices within the Church.

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