So as I said in the introductory post, we’re going to be taking a look at some of the pre-conciliar papal encylicals. I won’t be able to really cover these in the way that I would like. One could write tomes on these and probably should. I’ll do my best to keep it to around 2k words or so.
First up (in no real order) is Pascendi Dominici Gregis, promulgated on September 8, 1907 by Pope St. Pius X. Why did the sainted Pope write this? He was specifically refuting the doctrines of the Modernists. He tells us, in the opening paragraph why. It is worth quoting.
“The office divinely committed to Us of feeding the Lord’s flock has especially this duty assigned to it by Christ, namely to guard with the greatest vigilance the deposit of the faith delivered to the saints, rejecting the profane novelties of words and oppositions of knowledge so falsely called. There has never been a time when this watchfulness of the supreme pastor was not necessary to the Catholic body; for, owing to the efforts of the enemy of the human race, there has never been lacking “men speaking perverse things” (Acts xx. 30), “vain talkers and seducers” (Titus i. 10), “erring and driving into error” (2 Tim. iii. 13). Still it must be confessed that the number of the enemies of the cross of Christ has in these last days increased exceedingly, who are striving, by arts, entirely new and full of subtlety, to destroy the vital energy of the Church, and, if they can, to overthrow utterly Christ’s kingdom itself. Wherefore We may no longer be silent, lest We should seem to fail in Our most sacred duty, and lest the kindness that, in the hope of wiser counsels, We have hitherto shown them, should be attributed to the forgetfulness of Our office.”
Right out of the gate, the Pope tells us the job of the Pope; feeding the flock of the Lord, guarding the deposit of the faith and rejecting profane novelties. The job of the Pope is this, not posing for photo opportunities or cozy up to the powers that be in the world. In fact, I would say that, if the Pope is popular in the eyes of the world, he’s probably not doing his job very well because the Church and the world should look very different from one another and probably will not get along well. So, if the Pope is getting along well with the world, that seems like a bit of a problem.
The Pope goes on in the next paragraph to call out those who “belong to the Catholic laity, nay, and this is far more lamentable, to the ranks of the priesthood itself, who, feigning a love for the Church, lacking a firm protection of philosophy and theology, nay more, thoroughly imbued with the poisonous doctrines taught by the enemies of the Church, and lost to all sense of modesty, vaunt themselves as reformers of the Church…” Does this sound like anyone we know or have known in the last, oh I don’t know, 50-60 years? The so-called reformers are, in the words of the Pope, enemies of the Church. On a practical note, priests should be saying pretty much the same thing today that priests have always been saying. I would dare say that, if a priest (or bishop or Pope) is saying things that do not align with what the Church has always said, you need to be careful about listening to that guy.
When I was preaching full time (as a Protestant pastor), I would often say that I have nothing new to say. I’m going to keep repeating what has been said by pastors for the better part of 2000 years. Now, we can apply it in different ways to our modern life, but the Faith has not changed. Neither should how the priests tell us to live or how they interpret Holy Scripture.
He goes on to tell us, in paragraph 3, that (basically) the goal of the enemy is to take down the Catholic Church. She is the bride of Christ. She is the visible body of Christ on earth, the Kingdom come. The world hates Her. The enemy will stop at nothing to destroy her…even infiltrating the clergy (this is my commentary).
In paragraph 6, the Pope tells us about the root of the Modernist problem: agnosticism. The agnostic says it cannot be “reasonable” if it cannot be perceived by the human senses. How arrogant of us to assume that we are the arbiters of what is true, that we are the measuring stick. This very notion is a slap in the face of objective Truth. This is really at the heart of Modernism; that your personal experience of religion is what matters most. If something cannot be proven empirically (by evidence) then it must not exist. The problem with that is that feelings cannot be proven one way or the other, which then leads to all things being true if you experienced them in a certain way. That then obliterates objective Truth and makes all “truth” entirely subjective according to your own perspective, feelings and experiences. This inevitably leads to what’s next.
He also addresses (paragraph 8) the folly of the Modernists, which is the notion that every religion, no matter what it is, must be “considered as both natural and supernatural.” In other words, all religions are equal. This is called ecumenism and it is evil and ultimately unloving. If indeed Christ formed a Church on earth (and He did) and intended that it be passed on (and He did), then it stands that there can be only One True Church. To say otherwise is to deny what Jesus came to do and is ultimately unloving of us. Ecumenism is the direct product of what was discussed in the last paragraph. If all you need is your experience and “your truth”, then ecumenism makes perfect sense. If, however, there is objective Truth, as the Catholic Church teaches, ecumenism cannot exist.
In section/paragraph 13, Pope St Pius X gets to a very real and current problem. He talks about what he calls “religious sentiment” and says that it can possess an infinite variety of aspects. He goes on to say,
“Consequently, the formulae too, which we call dogmas, must be subject to these vicissitudes, and are, therefore, liable to change. Thus the way is open to the intrinsic evolution of dogma…Dogma is not only able, but ought to evolve and to be changed. This is strongly affirmed by the Modernists, and as clearly flows from their principles.”
Does that sound like almost all our Church leaders over the last fifty or so years or what? We keep hearing about a more modern faith, that the Church needs to “get with the times” or some other such drivvle and nonsense. That’s called Modernism. And it is false and against the teachings of the Church. Dogma, by its very definition, cannot change. To say or even hint otherwise should be anathema.
See, the Modernist says that how you feel about something is what is true. To the Modernist, how you feel about something is what matters. It is entirely subjective and there is no fixed truth, no objective standard. Sound familiar? If this is true, then, as the Modernists proclaim, all religions are true.
But no, says the sainted Pope. He says (via Pius IX),
“In matters of religion it is the duty of philosophy not to command but to serve, but not to prescribe what is to be believed but to embrace what is to be believed with reasonable obedience, not to scrutinise the depths of the mysteries of God but to venerate them devoutly and humbly.”
This, then, is Catholic doctrine. The submission of our will to what Christ has given us through the Church. It is not our place to prescribe what is to be believed but to embrace what is to be believed with obedience, devotion and humility.
The Pope also speaks of the relationship between Church and State. The outplaying of the Modernist is that the Church comes completely under the dominion of the State. He says,
“If the Modernists have not yet reached this point, they do ask the Church in the meanwhile to be good enough to follow spontaneously where they lead her and adapt herself to the civil forms in vogue.”
I think we can all see this in the middle of this so-called Covid-19 pandemic. The Church has bowed to the State. She has not stood up but rather cowered in fear like the rest of the world. Hmmm, from whence did that come?
A final thing I want to engage with in this encyclical is universal worship and Tradition. One of the biggest problems, in my opinion, that came from Vatican II was the ripping up and throwing away of centuries-old worship in the Church. Since the 3rd century, the Church had worshipped in one way (with very few exceptions) and in one language. This gives a true universality to the worship of the Church. You would never have had to wonder or guess what the Mass was going to be like from one church to another, from one country to another or one age to another. The Church’s worship was, indeed, universal. There was a universal language, Latin. The reason for the use of Latin, even today, is quite simple. First and foremost, it is the language of the Church. Second, because it is a “dead” language, it is not subject to the whims of culture. In other words, the Latin words the priest says in the Mass don’t change their meaning based on the epoch of history.
Allow me an example. In 16th century England, you could say that you went to a party and had a “gay time.” That meant it was fun and merry. That word, “gay”, has a very different meaning today. However, the Latin language as used by the Church has not changed the meanings of the words. In point of fact, the meanings cannot change. It is necessary for the Church to use unchanging language in the face of an ever-changing world.
Pope St. Pius X also deals with this when he says, in the eyes of the Modernist,
“The chief stimulus of evolution in the domain of worship consists in the need of adapting itself to the uses and customs of peoples, as well as the need of availing itself of the value which certain acts have acquired by long usage.”
Thus, the death of universal worship in the Church. If the Church must conform to the customs of the people, and not the other way around, there can be no universal Church. That becomes abundantly clear when we see the effects of the liturgical tinkering and innovations that came post Vatican II. Worship is now vastly different from one parish to another. My brethren, this should not be so. That is a direct result of Modernism.
How do we combat this spirit and effect of Modernism? The Pope answers: Tradition.
“The conserving force in the Church is tradition, and tradition represented by religious authority, and this both by right and in fact, for by right it is the very nature of authority to protect tradition, and, in fact, for authority, raised as it is above the contingencies of life, feels hardly, or not at all, the spurs of progress.”
Tradition protects. Tradition feels no need for so-called “progress.” Tradition cannot progress in the Modernist sense, precisely because it is objective Truth. There is much more that could be gleaned from the timeless words of the sainted Pope.
I will close with one final word from the Pope.
The doctrine of the Faith is not ours to change. It is ours to guard and pass on,
“The doctrine of the faith which God has revealed has not been proposed to human intelligences to be perfected by them as if it were a philosophical system, but as a divine deposit entrusted to the Spouse of Christ to be faithfully guarded and infallibly interpreted.”
I don’t like being told what to do. I’ve always had a problem with authority.
I used to think that my problem with authority was just me being “independent.” Truth is, I’m not independent; I’m rebellious. I can look back on my life now and admit that. I honestly believe this is one of the things that kept me from accepting papal authority for a while. Here’s what I’d like to do with this one. I don’t want to argue about, for or against authority on this. I want us to take a look at what Holy Scripture has to say and define some things and leave it at that.
Ok, let’s start with this. Matthew 16 is the primary text for papal authority. That does not mean that it is the only text that supports papal authority. And, Matthew 16 (like almost all Holy Scripture) really needs to be read through the lens and understanding of a 1st century Jew. If we don’t know some things about Judaism and rabbinic tradition, then some things seem quite obscure and their deeper meaning and significance is lost to us.
We read Scripture through our 21st century Western lens. But Scripture was, first and foremost, written for an early Christian context that was almost exclusively Jewish in context, understanding and conversion. Yes, the Gentiles became converts but the vast majority of the earliest converts to Christianity were Jewish in ethnicity and faith practice. This is super important for us to understand.
Ok, back to Matthew 16. This is the famous passage where Peter proclaims Jesus as the Christ. And Jesus says something back to Peter, something that has deep ties to the Jewish Scriptures (what we call the Old Testament) and rabbinic tradition and is prophetic in nature. Jesus says to Peter, “You are Peter and upon this rock I will build My Church. I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven and whatever you bind on earth will have been bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth will have been loosed in heaven.”
If you are Protestant reading this, I know that your view of this passage is different than the Catholic one. However, let’s look at this text closely. First off, we need to read this in light of Isaiah 22. So be prepared to flip back and forth. Isaiah 22:15-25 is the primary text that we’ll read together with Matthew 16:13-20.
The Isaiah text seems kind of obscure unless we know some things. The steward that is talked about here serves in a certain capacity. Think of this person like a prime minister if you will. This is someone who is in charge of the king’s house and, in the absence of the king, will act in the interests of the king with the king’s authority. That last part is important. While this “steward” is not the king, he acts with the same authority as the king. I mean, look at the language used, “clothe him with your robe...bind your sash on him…commit your authority to his hand…he shall be a father to the inhabitants of Jerusalem and the house of Judah…” These are all symbols of authority (and fatherhood). But look closely at verse 22-24,
“And I will place on his shoulder the key of the house of David. He shall open, and none shall shut; and he shall shut, and none shall open. And I will fasten him like a peg in a secure place, and he will become a throne of honor to his father's house. And they will hang on him the whole honor of his father's house, the offspring and issue, every small vessel, from the cups to all the flagons.”
The key to the house of David. I think we can all agree that Jesus was and is the holder of the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven. But what if He went away for awhile? Like, in this case, He was on His way to Jerusalem to be crucified, buried, resurrected and eventually would ascend into heaven. So, knowing He’s going to be gone (in a physical sense), He has to put someone in charge. All kings did this. All “kings” still do this.
Somebody has to be in charge.
But this is more than just someone being in charge. Look again at the Isaiah text. Look at verse 24. What in the world does it mean when it talks about small vessels and flagons and such? Well, I’m glad you asked. Those are priestly things, used in the temple for the offerings and worship. So, we can see pretty plainly that this steward, Eliakim, in Isaiah 22 is more than just a guy in charge but there is a priestly function to his role also.
This is the text and image that Jesus is invoking when delivering this to Peter in the presence of the other apostles. This also has overt spiritual implications in the image of opening and shutting. In other words, what that’s saying is that the same earthly and spiritual authority that the king enjoys, the steward will now participate in.
Let’s talk about the binding and loosing thing. This doesn’t make a lot of sense to us 21st century Western types but it made perfect sense to a 1st century Jew. This comes directly from rabbinic tradition. There were apparently several ways in which this was applicable but it’s especially important for our consideration here that it included both the giving of authoritative teaching and the lifting or imposing the ban of excommunication. In other words, what Jesus was saying (among other things) to Peter was that he was being given the authority to authoritatively teach, as well as lift or impose the ban of excommunication.
It’s important to note that, later in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus says something similar to the other apostles (Matthew 18:18). But Jesus did not go into the whole keys of the kingdom thing with them.
Jesus clearly singled out Peter, in the context of and in the company of the other apostles. That’s important and we’ll come back to that but Jesus clearly singled out Peter.
So, I think it’s pretty clear from a plain reading of the Matthew 16 text (and other texts) in light of Isaiah 22 (and many other OT texts involving the High Priest and other authority figures) what Jesus was doing with Peter. It seems clear that Jesus was giving to Peter an authority over the Church and even a sort of “first place” among his fellow apostles. It is also clear that Peter was to exercise that authority within the context of the Church in communion with (in the presence of) his fellow apostles.
This is important because it goes directly to the consideration of what is called papal infallibility. This needs to be defined because it is misunderstood by both Catholic and Protestant Christians. Papal infallibility does not mean that the Pope is without sin. I should think that’s pretty obvious. I mean, almost immediately after Jesus imbues Peter with this authority, Peter says something stupid and Jesus calls him Satan. So, to say that Peter was perfect would be a drastic stretch. And so it has been for Peter’s successors. No one, and I mean, no one, would say that any pope has been perfect. Infallible does not mean perfect. History has shown us that. So let’s just all agree on that one and move on.
I used to think that papal infallibility meant that whatever the Pope said was infallible. Like, he could order his eggs sunny side up and that was considered infallible. As silly as that sounds, I bet some of you reading this thought that also. Papal infallibility is really not even about the Pope. Infallibility is really about the fulfillment of Jesus’ promise that the gates of hell would not prevail against His Church.
Go back and read that again.
I used to think that infallibility meant that the Pope had to be perfect. No, the infallibility of the message is about the Messenger. In other words, we can trust the teaching of the Church delivered by the Pope because Jesus has promised that He would protect His Church…even from false teaching.
It’s not that the Pope can’t be wrong; Jesus can’t be wrong.
When the Pope (or any other bishop) teaches with the authority of the Church, their teaching can be trusted. However, there are things we must know, and their teaching must live up to. The authoritative teaching of the Bishop or Rome, or any other bishop, cannot teach what the Church has never taught. In other words, their teaching must align with the doctrine that the Church has always taught and as it is supported by/not contradicted by Holy Scripture. If the teaching of any bishop, Rome or otherwise, strays outside the bounds of either Holy Scripture or the Great Tradition, you may be sure that it is not authoritative.
Let’s circle back to something that we talked about earlier. Peter’s authority (and that of his successors) is exercised within the bounds of the Church and in company with the other apostles and their successors, the bishops. In other words, outside the bounds of the Church and the communion of the other bishops, the Pope has no authority to deliver authoritative teaching. For example, he can’t offer an opinion on climate change outside those bounds and it be “authoritative.” The opinion of the Pope on things is just that…his opinion. He must be delivering official doctrinal teaching within the context of the Church and in communion with his fellow bishops or it is not authoritative and infallible. He can’t just make it up as he goes, despite some popes attempting to do just that.
This has been long and I hope you’re still with me. If not, it’s okay. I want you to know that I’m not an official spokesperson for the Holy Father. I’m just a guy who loves Jesus and His Church who is Catholic and wants people to know, who don’t know, what the Catholic Church actually teaches.
At the end of the day, I hope this brings you great comfort, as it has me. I hope that comfort comes when you consider that Jesus is still on the throne. Jesus has promised that His Church would go on and on. Jesus has promised that the gates of hell would not prevail against His Church. Jesus will have His spotless Bride and nothing will stop that. Jesus has given us leaders in His Church, earthly and spiritual fathers who, in His absence, will care for us and teach us. You are not alone in your journey to figure things out on your own. What grace He has shown us by giving us fathers to walk with us!