Fr. Bevil Bramwell, OMI “If There Is a Pope . . . “

Originally published on The Catholic Thing.

Fr. Bevil Bramwell, OMIWell, there is. What follows from that fact? First of all he is not an isolated figurehead or a religious figure who is far away in another country. That would be the Protestant view and the common cultural view in the United States. Rather in the Catholic Church, Christ “rules her through the Supreme Pontiff and the bishops. ”(Vatican II) In the Church, we speak of the mystery where, in reality: “The bonds which bind men to the Church in a visible way are [the] profession of faith, the sacraments, and ecclesiastical government and communion.”

In the same document (the Constitution on the Church), the Council was very specific about the relationship between the faithful and those in the government of the Church: “In matters of faith and morals, the bishops speak in the name of Christ and the faithful are to accept their teaching and adhere to it with a religious assent.” Now, in the United States, we know that this does not happen in the majority of cases. So are any bishops animated enough to teach on this point? Is this even seen as an issue? The answer would certainly explain the hierarchy’s failure to reach people before the election.

Bishops do speak, of course. But why the reticence to explain what their speaking implies? An issue for another time perhaps, because then the Council continues:

This religious submission of mind and will must be shown in a special way to the authentic magisterium of the Roman Pontiff, even when he is not speaking ex cathedra; that is, it must be shown in such a way that his supreme magisterium is acknowledged with reverence, the judgments made by him are sincerely adhered to, according to his manifest mind and will.

Remember this the next time someone tries to push something different by invoking the Council. And point out the specific mention of the magisterium of the pope – pace all those who erroneously think that we only offer religious submission to formally infallible teachings. Also, there is nothing in there about American exceptionalism. Political parties superseding what the pope teaches says is not even mentioned once.

Given the need for this relationship of “special reverence,” where is the immersion in papal teaching in the American church that Vatican II was expecting to occur? Where are all those helping the faithful towards religious submission of mind – all the bishops, the clergy, the religious superiors and religious? Am I leading too cloistered a life to see the tens of millions of U.S. Catholics being trained on evenings and weekends in the meaning of the latest encyclical?

Granted we live in a Protestant culture, but why do we have to fall so completely for Protestant parochialism? This widespread bias denies part of the nature of the Catholic Church, and a large part too. Most Americans Catholics live with paltry knowledge of the faith because dioceses have left them with the notion that they know enough just the way they are. What could our wonderful American people possibly learn from Familiaris consortio or Verbum Domini?

The reciprocal relationship of communion between the faithful and the pope is basic to Catholicism. Unfortunately, we have had at least fifty years of the Church being out of the education business once people are confirmed – and of a Church being afraid to ask people what they believe. This smacks of Protestant individualism. Church officials seem to be furthering Unitarianism rather than Catholicism and doing remarkably well, if a bystander might comment.

What is at stake is communion in truth, where the Holy Father is at the center pointing to Christ, the Word, the source of all truth. This communion does not consist of individuals occasionally imagining that they are in union with the pope, but rather of individuals who actually know what he says in his ordinary magisterium and then join themselves to the truth (the Word) by their religious assent to what he says.

This union is personal rather than impersonal, close rather than distant, and based on truth rather than imaginings. It relies on everyone knowing what the pope says in substantial detail. The people in large part will only learn that from their pastors. Since the United States is not under occupation or ravaged by epidemics, dioceses are free and able to do their part in sustaining the communion of the faithful with the Holy Father – or not.

Papal teaching also holds a privileged place because it has a formidable consistency and clarity. One looks in vain for the same level of scholarship and knowledge of the intellectual tradition from other world figures, theologians or writers. We have been blessed with popes who are intellectual and spiritual giants at a time when few bishops and no academics can hold a candle to them.

In this time of frightening intellectual mediocrity, when more people will listen to a movie star than a pope – and many Church officials treat this as harmless – the value of truth for human society itself needs to be very clearly explained. Then perhaps papal documents will not stall at the water’s edge.


Bevil Bramwell, priest of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, teaches theology at Catholic Distance University. He holds a Ph.D. from Boston College and works in the area of ecclesiology. His new book, Laity: Beautiful, Good and True: Hans Urs von Balthasar’s Theology of the Laity, is now available from Amazon.