by Dr. William Marra
Editor’s note: This is edited transcript of a portion of the speech “Alternative to Schism” given at the Roman Forum Conference in August, 1995. In this presentation, Dr. Marra presents a clarification that will help Catholics to think critically and correctly, when confusing and contradictory statements emanate from even the highest authorities in the Church.
Belief and Obedience
My great teacher, Dietrich von Hildebrande wrote four outstanding books on the present crisis in the Church. Recently, his latest book, The Charitable Anathema was published. I wish we could mail a copy to Rome. A chapter in this book contains one of the most important lectures he ever gave to the Roman Forum. It concerns the difference between belief and obedience. He called it the critical difference. It was masterful.
The point is this: if there is a problem on a question of truth, and there’s a big dispute, and finally Rome speaks (invoking its infallible authority) and says, “This statement must be believed de fide”. Then this is the end of the dispute. Roma locuta causa finita. Rome has spoken, the case is finished. That is the end of it. Therefore, we owe assent of belief to statements of truth.
However, practical decisions of Churchmen, even the highest authorities; the Pope, bishops, priests are something quite different. We do not say, for example, that a command of a Pope or decision of a Pope to call a council is true or not. We can say that it is wise or not … it is opportune or not. Such a decision in no way asks us to assent to its truth. It asks us to obey the command or commands that pertain to us. This is what von Hildebrande meant by difference between belief and obedience. And we Catholics are never obliged to believe that a given command, or given decision of anyone, including the Pope, is necessarily that of the Holy Ghost.
The Limits of Divine Protection
There is a kind of papalotry going around. It acts as if no matter what comes out of Rome, it must have been inspired by the Holy Ghost. This line of thinking holds, for example, that if Vatican II was called, it means that the Holy Ghost wanted to call it. But this is not necessarily the case. Convoking Vatican II was a personal decision of John XXIII. He may have thought God was telling him to call it, but who knows? He has no special charism that guarantees he would recognize such a decision as coming from the Holy Ghost with theological certitude.
We can say that the Pope has the power to call a council. We can say that the authorities in the Church can call upon the Holy Spirit to guarantee, in a very narrow set of cases, that what comes from this council is de fide. (And nothing in Vatican II was pronounced de fide, Ed.)
The glory of the Church is that it has supernatural help to define truth. It has supernatural help to guarantee that its sacraments are efficacious and so on. But who said that the decision to call the council was protected by the Holy Ghost?
Let’s look at certain practical decisions of any Pope.
A Pope could command the suppression of a religious order. That happened a few centuries ago, the Pope suppressed the Jesuits. He was a little premature, I think they should have waited. This type of suppression concerns obedience, not belief.
For all practical purposes, Paul VI suppressed the Roman rite. We have no Roman rite. Pope Paul VI thought he had the liturgical power to do this. Von Hildebrande called it the greatest blunder of Paul VI’s Pontificate. So to suppress a religious order, to suppress a rite, to name a bishop is a matter of obedience, not belief, and it is not protected by the Holy Ghost.
We have 2,600 bishops in the Church. Does that mean the Holy Ghost picked all of those? That is blasphemy, friends. Do you want to blame the Holy Ghost for Archbishop Weakland?
As already mentioned, to call a council is a practical decision of the Pope. A person may piously believe that God inspired it. But no one can say that this is an object of faith.
Also, we must not believe that whoever becomes Pope is the man God wants to be Pope. This is a play on words that “this is the will of God.”
Every theologian has always understood there are two senses to the will of God. The positive will of God and the permissive will of God.
Now, we know that God positively wants holy people in the Church … “this is the will of God, your sanctification”. But when evil is done, this is through the permissive will of God. It is not something that God directly wills, but something that He permits when men exercise their free will.
Before any conclave which elects a Pope, the electors are supposed to pray for guidance by the Holy Spirit. Now, if they are truly men of God, and they really pray, it is to be expected that the Holy Spirit will give them the right choice. But if they’re willful, ambitious, carnal men, and they are not truly opening themselves to inspiration, an unworthy candidate of their own choosing may be the result. That doesn’t mean that the man elected ceases to be Pope. That doesn’t mean that he loses the protection of the Holy Spirit when he teaches faith and morals. But it could be that this Pope will end up to be a disaster.
Now how do I know this? Well, not because I know that any of the modern Popes have been a disaster, this is too controversial. But in Church history, there are many instances of disastrous Pontificates.
We Learn From History
Dr. John Rao is a good friend of mine. He is a professor of Church History. He is very unhappy with the so-called conservative people who, when they do their doctor’s degree in history, they will document all of the disastrous decisions of the past Popes. They will write about all the disastrous things that happened. But when it comes to the present situation, they’re mum. They believe that everything must be right. But if everything must be right and perfect in present Pontificates, then why do they write their doctoral dissertation on the disasters of Pope Honorius, Pope Liberius, Pope Alexander VI or anyone else?
So, Rao insists that we learn from history, and that in no way can we say “ ‘X’ was elected Pope therefore that is the will of God”. No, it may be either the positive will of God or merely the permissive will of God. But it could be that the man selected to be Pope may be the worst candidate for the office.
It is as if God says, “you carnal electors and you carnal people in the Church who did not pray enough will get what you deserve.” The Papacy is still protected, and will never teach with its infallible authority something as true that is false, but everything else is up for grabs. The given Pope might do every type of abomination … his personal life might be a disaster, he might be self-willed, and so on. It could be that he is a horrible person.
He can also be a disaster for the faith even if he is a good person.
The Papacy is not protected from such a calamity. And this is a point on which we ought to have a real dialogue with the so-called conservatives.