When the Second Vatican Council was putting the finishing touches on one of its key documents, the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium), Pope Paul VI proposed that it include a statement that the pope is “accountable to the Lord alone.”
The suggestion was referred to the Council’s Theological Commission, which, perhaps to Pope Paul’s surprise, flatly rejected it: the Roman Pontiff, the Theological Commission noted, “is . . . 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.” The pope cannot, in other words, change the deposit of faith, of which he is the custodian, not the master. The pope can’t decide that the Church can do without bishops, or that there really are eleven sacraments, or that Arius had it right in denying the divinity of Christ.
As for those “other obligations too numerous to mention,” they include the pope’s accountability to the ways things are, which is another boundary to papal authority. Well do I remember an academic conference at which a serious philosopher (who thought himself an extremely orthodox Catholic and had, with tongue only partly in cheek, introduced himself to our ecumenical assembly by saying, “I’m the kind of Catholic it’s still OK to hate”) announced, “If the pope said that ‘2 + 2 = 5’, I’d believe him.” Another philosopher, even more distinguished, gave the proper, Catholic answer to this over-the-top ultramontanism: “If the pope said, ‘2 + 2 = 5,’ I would say, publicly, ‘Perhaps I have misunderstood His Holiness’s meaning.’ Privately, I would pray for his sanity.”
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