ROME – As an all-star cast of leading Catholic prelates who have been critical of Pope Francis, from Cardinal Raymond Burke on Amoris Laetitia to Cardinal Joseph Zen on China, prepares to assemble in Rome on Saturday, some may be tempted to think this kind of open questioning of a pope among bishops is unprecedented, or at least rare.
They might, that is, unless they know even a smattering of Church history, either ancient or recent.
Few stories in the Catholic Church are as old as splits at the top. It’s a narrative that goes all the way back to the New Testament, where, in Paul’s letter to the Galatians, he describes being in Antioch and confronting Peter, recalled by tradition as the very first pope, and the dispute was over which requirements were necessary to impose on gentiles to become Christians.
The Greek phrase used by Paul is kata prosōpon autōi antestēn, a literal translation would be, “I resisted him in a faceoff.”
It may well be that in an age of 24/7 news cycles, social media and a toxic political climate, the clamor around Pope Francis can seem louder, nastier and more ubiquitous than in earlier periods. As the following vignettes illustrate, however, regardless of volume level, the “Bishops v. Pope” show is actually one of the longest-running dramas Catholicism has ever produced.
These examples come from just the last 150 years, though one could easily reach much further back in Church history than that. There’s a danger of apples v. oranges comparisons in pushing the similarities too far, but all involve prelates, in one way or another, expressing contrasting views to a sitting pope.
Bishops storm out of the First Vatican Council
The main thing Pope Pius IX wanted out of the First Vatican Council was for papal infallibility to be recognized as a dogma. When it didn’t end up on the agenda on January 21, 1870, the pontiff insisted that it be inserted, so the bishops asked that it be discussed right away.
Papal infallibility means that a pope is preserved from the possibility of error “when, in the exercise of his office as shepherd and teacher of all Christians, in virtue of his supreme apostolic authority, he defines a doctrine concerning faith or morals to be held by the whole Church.”
Pius IX had already invoked papal infallibility to recognize the dogma of the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary, but some bishops at the time criticized the move as a power grab by the pope.
From May 13 to July 18, 1870, bishops discussed the issue adamantly and at length, some in support and others against. On July 13, when the voting was supposed to take place, over 50 bishops walked out of the council. Their absence was counted as negative votes that were added to the others opposing papal infallibility, so the final tally showed that one-fourth of the bishops were against the dogma.
Still the document passed, and the council went forward to vote on single chapters. On July 17, the contrary bishops communicated to Pope Pius IX that they would prefer to stay home rather than vote for something they didn’t believe.
The day after, the final text of Pastor Aeternus, which recognized the dogma of papal infallibility, was read and approved by almost every bishop who remained. (One of the two who stayed behind to vote against it was an American, Bishop Edward Fitzgerald of Little Rock, Arkansas.)
The day of the vote, an unusual storm loomed over Rome, but another was brewing among those who believed Pius IX was dangerously concentrating power in the pontificate. British Cardinal John Henry Newman brought a degree of realpolitik to the debate in a letter to the Duke of Norfolk, where he stated, “The Vatican Council left the pope just as it had found him.”
Handing in the red hat
Cardinal Louis Billot was known as a conservative theologian and supporter of Thomistic neo-scholasticism on the turbulent French political landscape of the early 1920s. He had been a vocal supporter of the monarchist, right-wing and conservative movement Action Française, which soon created tension between Pope Pius XI and him.
The Vatican had banned the newspaper of the movement from all Catholic homes by placing it on its banned books list, believing the group was using the political and social force of Catholicism to further its own gains. Billot opposed this decision, and he emphasized that French Catholics and supporters of the monarchy could not be muzzled by Rome.
The French cardinal repeatedly was asked by Pius XI to resign as a cardinal, but the pontiff was denied. Finally, on September 21, 1927, the pope accepted his letter of renunciation as a cardinal after an audience with the aggrieved Billot.
Pius XI said in the announcement that the former cardinal had “high spiritual motives” to take the step, and the Vatican claimed that the decision was motivated by his advanced age, at the time 81. But Action Française insisted that it was the Holy See’s opposition to its newspaper that marked the end for the cardinal.
Blowing the dome off St. Peter’s
Every journalist waiting outside the doors of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) knew that Italian Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani, leader of the conservative opposition in the meeting of bishops, was the guy to look for to get the nitty-gritty details and the powerful quotes.
Despite his being nearly blind, Ottaviani led a brigade of curial traditionalists, neck-and-neck as the leading opposition force with fellow conservative French Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre. Ottaviani once took part in such a heated argument about religious liberty, which he supported in a limited form, that Cardinal Ernesto Ruffini had to intervene and scold him.
On another occasion, during a working session of the Council in November 1963, German Cardinal Joseph Richard Frings called the Holy Office headed by Ottaviani “a source of scandal” for the entire world. Media attention to the statement, which revealed the internal divisions of the Church, was such that one Vatican commentator said it had “blown the dome off St. Peter.”
Ottaviani was skeptical of the Council’s emphasis on “collegiality,” and, in one speech to the summit of bishops, stated that only once in the Bible did the apostles display this quality: at the Garden of Gethsemane, when they “all fled.”
On October 30, Ottaviani was humiliated before the assembly of bishops, when his speech was met with tepid applause and mild laughter when it surpassed the 10-minute limit for its presentation. His opposition to the changes made during the council, and the sour embarrassment, led Ottaviani to boycott the following six working sessions.
Paul VI and blowback from both sides
Lefebvre had begun working against the liberalizing agenda of the council even before it started, during a preparatory commission under Pope John XXIII. After its end, he founded the Society of St. Pius X in 1970, its seminary nestled in the Swiss hills near Ecône, with the aim of opposing the novelties introduced at the bishops’ summit.
In 1971, the archbishop prohibited his seminarians from adopting the liturgical innovations on conscience grounds. He was strongly criticized by French and Swiss bishops, who petitioned the Vatican for action. In 1975, Pope Paul VI withdrew canonical recognition of the order and closed the seminary.
This led to a rift between Lefebvre’s followers and the Vatican, which reached a crescendo in 1976, when Paul VI suspended Lefebvre a divinis, meaning, essentially, he was not allowed to perform the functions of a priest or bishop. That didn’t stop Lefebvre, who went on to ordain four bishops without papal approval in 1988, earning him an excommunication that was later revoked.
Paul VI also crossed swords with bishops of the Catholic left, however, after his 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae, “On the Regulation of Birth,” which upheld the Church’s opposition to the use of artificial birth control. It came after a period in which many observers believed those views might give way.
The document was welcomed coldly by leading prelates in some parts of the West. Belgian Cardinal Leo Joseph Suenens, for instance, begged the Church “to avoid another Galileo affair” by ignoring scientific innovation, and criticized the pope’s lack of collegiality.
The Canadian bishops’ conference basically encouraged its faithful to dismiss the papal document in the “Winnipeg Statement,” and not to feel ousted by the Church if they could not incorporate it after an honest attempt.
German bishops bow to papal power
Newspapers compared the rift between Pope John Paul II and the German bishops over the issue of abortion to that over papal infallibility back in 1870.
In 1999, German law required that women seeking an abortion provide a document stating that they had had pre-natal counseling. The German Church owned some of the pregnancy advice centers and would, at times, issue the legal certificates required to have abortions, showing they had completed a counseling session. The Vatican worried that this would signify the Church’s implicit endorsement of abortion.
Even though the bishops agreed to put a statement in the certificates saying that they were not meant to allow abortions, women could still have the procedure by presenting them. When the Vatican brought the hammer down, saying that the bishops were no longer allowed to issue those certificates, some threatened to oppose the pope, insisting that the system saved lives.
Ultimately, however, the bishops bowed, deciding no longer to issue the certificates. Nevertheless, a lay-led organization called Donum Vitae, independent of the bishops’ conference, soldiered on in running some centers, and earlier this year Cardinal Reinhard Marx of Munich wrote that the goal of the group is “the protection of unborn persons.”
Latin Mass: a win for some, mourning for others
In July 2007, Pope Benedict XVI (now “pope emeritus”) issued the apostolic letter Summorum Pontificium, which allowed wider use of the pre-Vatican II Latin Mass. The pope said that the aim was that of repairing the deep divisions after Vatican II, and in fact, the document was well received by traditionalists.
By others, however, including several leading progressive-minded prelates, it was lamented.
Bishop Donald Walter Trautman in Pennsylvania, for example, basically put it in a deep-freeze by requiring that priests wishing to perform the Tridentine Rite, meaning the older Latin Mass, prove their knowledge and understanding of its rites.
Other bishop-critics reacted more emotionally, such as Bishop Luca Brandolini in Sora-Aquino-Pontecorvo in Italy.
“This is the saddest moment in my life as a man, priest and bishop,” Brandolini said. “It’s a day of mourning, not just for me but for the many people who worked for the Second Vatican Council.”
Though the list could easily go on, these case studies should be enough to drive home the main point: While Saturday’s summit of Princes of the Church with a bone to pick with the boss may be great theater, in all honesty, the Church has seen various versions of this show before.