In view of a future conclave, the first question that arises is what sort of figure, what kind of Supreme Pontiff would be ideal with regard to the current situation of the Church and of the world. The issue must be discussed above all against the background of the demands of the current doctrinal, moral and juridical situation.
Examining the last two centuries, one observes in the first place a notable change in the view of their ministry taken by the popes, who began to see themselves no longer as rulers of the Papal States in decline, but as teachers and pastors of the universal Church. Quite soon the very person of the pontiffs came to the forefront of the people’s attention, so that the popes, due in part to the work of the modern press, became known all over the world. A particular contribution was also made by the numerous pilgrimages to the tomb of Peter enabled by the development of the European railway network. Thus, during the nineteenth century, while the Papal States were being threatened and conquered by the Risorgimento, there was the spread of a rather emotional form of devotion around the person of the pope.
The extraordinary personality of Pius IX and his successors contributed to this in a decisive way.
Quite soon another consequence of all this was that the “Roma locuta, causa finita est”, beyond its original meaning, ended up being considered almost a maxim of the sentire cum ecclesia.
But although they facilitated the closing of Catholic ranks in the face of growing hostility towards the Church on the part of societies, or rather of the atheistic liberal states of Europe, these developments also gave rise to a theologically questionable expansion of the ministry and person of the pope, going on to lead, in the run-up to Vatican Council I, to a formation of alliances full of consequences.
On the other hand, once the dust had settled on the struggles around the council, the dogmas on the Primacy and infallibility of the Supreme Pontiff resulted in a closer, even emotional, bond between Catholics and the Pope, which in the future proved useful during the two world wars and in the face of the atheist dictatorships. On the other side there took place the Schism (later resulting in heresies) of the so-called “Old Catholics”.
This changed dramatically after Vatican Council II, as clearly emerged in the crisis year of 1968.
Now, therefore – precisely in the current situation – what is needed first of all is a deeper understanding of the Ministerium Petrinum.
Since the Church – and therefore the papacy as well – are both human-earthly and transcendent-divine realities, they cannot be understood simply through human-earthly categories, but also per analogiam,and must be evaluated according to the corresponding criteria. It is precisely on the basis of this premise that one must evaluate the relationship between the primacy of Rome and the universal Church, between centre and periphery.
This brings up the question of the interrelationship of pope and Church.
It must be forcefully emphasised that the pope in no way stands above the Church or comes before it. As its visible head, he is and remains a member of the Church, to which he has duties as Servus servorum, or as its supreme servant.
This means among other things that the Pope in no way must, or even can, reign as an absolute monarch. In his actions he is bound not only to the norms of the ius naturale and the revealed ius divinum, but also, in a different way, to the ius canonicum.
The Pope is not sic et simpliciter above the canones. His activity reaches a limit when it comes to the “generalis status ecclesiae”, that is, the fundamental nucleus of the doctrine and constitution of the Church. This is the norm for all ecclesiastical legislation, “since it expresses the continuum of revealed truth, manifested in the Church and binding for every single Christian” (cf. Chr. Voigt-Goy, Potestas et ministerium publicum, Tübingen 2014).
This is therefore the measure for the legislation and exercise of pastoral ministry in the Church. The Decretum Gratiani identifies as the basis of this the Apostle Paul, who in his Second Letter to the Corinthians (13:10) states that he is writing that epistle in order to avoid having to personally “durius agam secundum potestatem quam Dominus dedit mihi in aedificationem et non in destructionem”. This second part of the verse also applies to legislation and the administration of justice in the Church.
His words, often quoted in medieval canon law, indicate an essential limit on the exercise of the ministry in the Church. It also applies to rights that are rightly acquired by third parties, which the Pope, as the supreme guardian of the law, cannot violate.
In short: even the pope, when he does not respect the law, can be an offender. However, in this case it would not be possible to take him to court, on account of the principle established in the 4th century: “Prima Sedes a nemine iudicatur”. There nonetheless remains the right and duty of correctio fraterna, there remains the last judgement. In the meantime, however, the abuse of power by a pope cannot be the basis of the duty of obedience.
The pope, therefore, in spite of his plenitudo potestatis is by no means a princeps legibus solutus. If in some individual case he should wish to act contrary to the law, a just and reasonable motive would be needed.
To this corresponds a graduated duty of obedience on the part of the members of the Church, who, however, even with regard to the law must ultimately respond to their conscience.
It is also in this light that one must view the devotion to the pope that developed after Pius VI’s journey into exile. For the French it was an unprecedented opportunity for a personal encounter with the Pope. This journey, we can say, sees the birth of ultramontanism in France and then around Europe. There were two books that made no small contribution to this. One was Il Trionfo della Santa Sede by Mauro Capellari and the other was Du Pape by De Maistre, which became true bestsellers. The particular personal stature of the subsequent popes also contributed to the ultramontane enthusiasm.
Vividly grotesque depictions of the pope’s role later emerged from the heated controversies surrounding Vatican Council I. This is also the background needed for evaluating the reservations of the conciliar opposition regarding the definition of the papal dogmas, especially in consideration of the experiences of the present.
To this day, therefore, theology faces the task of specifying the harmonious ensemble of the ius divinum of Petrine primacy with that of the episcopate. It seems, however, that the difficulty of finding a solution is due to the Church’s being “a mystery of faith”.
It is therefore necessary, in interpreting Pastor aeternus, to take into account the overall ecclesiological context, namely the fact that the episcopal ministry as well, just like the primacy of Peter, is iuris divini. The appointment of a bishop by the Pope is nothing other than the attribution of the diocese, not the conferral of teaching and pastoral power, which takes place through the Sacrament of Orders.
It is in this light that one must analyse the increase in the dismissal of bishops par ordre de Mufti in the recent past. Even popes can commit abuse of office.
In the light of these truths, one must avoid any devotion to the person of the Pope while at the same time venerating his supreme authority as teacher and pastor of the universal Church.
It seems appropriate to bring this back to mind in view of a future conclave, since the choice of candidates should take place in the light of similar fundamental reflections. The opportunity to do this is offered by the pre-conclave consistories.
It will instead be the task of the conclave to elect a pope aware of his apostolic mandate, including its limitations, as well as of his duty to preserve the status generalis ecclesiae.