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Church History Forum: Balance of Power in the Vatican.

by Catherine Frakas 12 Dec 2001

Balance of Power in the Vatican. QUESTION from Aaron Lim September 5, 2001 +Peace be with you, I am just curious about the technical position of the Pope. In scripture, we know that the Pope has the highest authority in the church (of course, in human sense. God still has the ultimate highest authority on earth & in heaven).
In the previous centuries, the Pope has decreed himself as infallible when proclaiming the church dogma. But, as I see it, he has the final word in most things through the will of God.
Let us suppose a situation whereby the Pope *makes a mistake or gives a misjudgement(In which he may not be sane enough to do so). After all, the Pope is human, bound to make mistakes no matter-how much we accept him and look up to him as the Servants of servants of God.
*I do not wish to imply the Pope or any pope throughout history as far as I know. I'm supposing this situation as an example. I hope you'll understand.
Here's my question. What happens next? What is the role of his advisors; the cardinals, the Roman Curia, or the Papal administration as a whole? Do they, in anyway provide a balance of power when the Pope is reasonably seen as wrong?
Are they the backup measure in such a situation? I understand they are unfit to fill the Chair of Peter until official election. Does the Vatican have a system whereby like in certain countries, if a government has no support; the military may take over; or something like that? Something like a democracy system?
Thanks for helping & I hope these questions are not too much. They simply direct to the same question. God bless.
ANSWER by Q & A Staff on September 6, 2001 Dear Aaron,
first, a little correction. It is incorrect to say the Pope has decreed himself as infallible when proclaiming the church dogma. This was in fact a dogma defined by the First Vatican Council (of course, in union with the Pope). It is not accurate to say the Pope himself simply decreed himself infallible.
As regards your main question, what if the pope makes a mistake or a misjudgment? Here I feel it is important to clear up a possible source of confusion. So to address your question, I will first explain the nature and scope of papal infallibility (or more precisely, the infallibility of his teaching magisterium), and then go on the more day-to-day situation in which the Pope does not use his prerogative of infallibility.
The Fathers of Vatican I wrote as follows:

And so, faithfully holding on to that tradition recognized from the very beginning of the Christian religion...with the approval of the sacred council, we teach and define as a dogma revealed by God: that the Roman Pontiff when speaking ex cathedra, that is, when exercising his office of supreme shepherd and teacher of all Christians, defines, in virtue of his supreme apostolic authority, that some doctrine on faith or morals must be held by the universal Church, he possesses, thanks to the divine assistance promised to him in the person of St. Peter, that infallibility with which the Divine Redeemer willed His Church to be endowed in defining doctrines on faith or morals, and consequently that definitions by the same pontiff are by their very nature, and not because of the consent of the Church, irreformable. Vatican Council I, First dogmatic constitution on the church of Christ, chapter 4 (Quoted in DB 1839) Note from the above definition that the dogma of infallibility is very restrictive: it only concerns teachings on faith and morals, and even then only when the Pope is fulfilling the conditions laid down in the definition (Note I am not speaking here abouth the Church’s ordinary infallible magisterium, just the Pope’s infallible magisterium.)
I will now address the question of what happens in the case where a pope makes a mistake or a misjudgment. As can be clearly seen from the above, matters of judgment or prudence certainly do not come under the scope of infallibility, hence, as you suggest rightly in your question, a pope is bound to make mistakes. If you look through history you will find many instances where the reigning pope made a bad error of judgment or acted imprudently or rashly. (Some instances which spring to mind are the declaration of way against Emperor Charles V made by Pope Pius IV, which destroyed any hope of Germany being once again united under the Catholic Faith; and the bull Ex illa of Pope Clement XI in 1715, condemning the Chinese practise of honouring deceased relatives, which led to an almost total failure of the missions in China. Examples could be multiplied).
This is bound to be the case, of course, as, as I have said above, infallibility is not involved.
The question you ask, regarding backup and balance of power is answered by another definition of the First Vatican Council:

Since the Roman pontiff, by the divine right of the apostolic primacy, governs the whole church, we likewise teach and declare that he is the supreme judge of the faithful and that in all cases which fall under ecclesiastical jurisdiction recourse may be had to his judgment The sentence of the apostolic see (than which there is no higher authority) is not subject to revision by anyone, nor may anyone lawfully pass judgment thereupon. And so they stray from the genuine path of truth who maintain that it is lawful to appeal from the judgments of the Roman pontiffs to an ecumenical council as if this were an authority superior to the Roman pontiff. If anyone says that the Roman Pontiff has only the office of inspection or direction, but not the full and supreme power of jurisdiction over the whole Church, not only in matters that pertain to faith and morals, but also in matters that pertain to the discipline and government of the Church throughout the whole world; or if anyone says that he has only a more important part and not the complete fulness of this supreme power; or if anyone says that that this power is not ordinary and immediate either over each and every church or over each and every shepherd and faithful member, let him be anathema. Vatican Council I, First dogmatic constitution on the church of Christ, chapter 3, points 8 and 9. (Quoted in DB 1831) So we see that there is not such thing as backup or balance of power with regard to the papacy. Nor is there a democracy system, rather the authority is monarchial. The papal advisors advise, but that is all; the administrators perform administrative tasks, but that is all. The reigning pope is answerable to nobody but God Himself. (I could perhaps go into more detail on the monarchial nature of the Church in a subsequent question, if you like.)
Thanks, Aaron. I am always glad to answer questions on the Church and her history.
God bless, Sean.
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