Q: A non-Christian friend asked me a question about the Church and I didn’t know how to answer her. She wanted to know whether the pope, since he is the highest authority in the Church, can command anything he wants, like oblige all of us Catholics to wear green on Sundays or silly things like that. It sounds like a joke, but I’m serious! What are the rules on what the pope can and can’t do? –Celine
A: This is indeed a serious question, and one which is widely confused by both Catholics and non-Catholics alike. On the one hand, papal authority certainly does strike many people as absolute—which is factually incorrect. On the other, however, people frequently presume that there are limits on the power of the pope that in fact do not exist. As we have seen here before, canon law follows theology, so when one has a clear understanding of the Church’s teachings about the papacy, the canons that address the parameters of papal power follow logically.
Canon 331, which asserts the authority of the supreme pontiff, is an example of what is often termed a “teaching canon” or “doctrinal canon,” because it contains doctrinal assertions and does not actually tell us something that we can or cannot do. The phrasing of this canon is taken in part from some of the documents of Vatican II (cf., e.g., Lumen Gentium 22 and 27). It states that the office which was committed by the Lord to Peter, and was to be transmitted to his successors, abides in the Bishop of the Church of Rome, who is the Vicar of Christ and pastor of the universal Church on earth. Therefore, by virtue of his office, the pope has supreme, full, immediate and universal ordinary power in the Church, and he can always exercise it.
Offhand, that certainly does sound like the equivalent of absolute power! The pope’s power is supreme, as nobody on earth can overrule it. It is full, for he shares it with no one. It is immediate, since he needs nobody to speak for him. It is universal, because (unlike the power of a diocesan bishop, or that of the mother superior of a convent) it is not limited by any territorial boundaries, or limited to certain categories of persons. And it is ordinary, because it has not been delegated to the pope by anyone else. The power is his personally, and he may exercise it no matter where he is, or what time of day it is, or what he is doing: a papal decree issued at 2 AM while the Pope is on vacation, for example, has full legal effect—which would certainly not be true of a decision rendered by, say, a traffic-court judge.
Catholic Americans, who are used to a constitutional system with three separate branches of government that simultaneously provide checks and balances on each other’s power, are often taken aback when they realize that supreme executive, legislative, and judicial power in the Church all belong to the pope. Unlike the American system, there is no way, for example, that the pope could promulgate a law and have it overturned by a court—since the pope himself is not only the supreme legislator, but he is also the ultimate head of all church courts!
So does this mean the pope can do absolutely anything he wants? No. For while he may be the supreme head of the Church on earth, there is, of course, an authority that is even higher: God Himself. This obvious theological fact requires that a distinction be made between two fundamentally different types of laws: merely ecclesiastical laws, which are man-made; and divine laws, which were laid down by God Himself.
An example of an ecclesiastical law can be seen in canon 378.1 n. 3. In order to become a bishop, a priest must be at least 35 years old. This is not a law which was directly given to the Church by God. Rather, it reflects the prudent judgment of the supreme legislator—the pope—who did not consider it generally wise to consecrate as bishop any man who lacks sufficient life experience to undertake the episcopal role.
A merely ecclesiastical law like this one, since it is established by human authority, can be changed. In fact, this very canon reflects a change that was made by Pope John Paul II, who promulgated a new Code of Canon Law in 1983, replacing the previous code of 1917. The corresponding canon in the 1917 code required for a potential bishop a minimum age of only 30 years. This may have been entirely reasonable 90 years ago, when the average life expectancy was lower, but John Paul II judged that in 1983, it was simply too young to be consecrated a bishop. As supreme legislator, he had every right to change this law. If, theoretically, Pope Benedict XVI or any other future pope subsequently decides that this age-limit should be changed again, he will of course be able to do so.
On a similar note, even if a merely ecclesiastical law remains unchanged, it may be dispensed. The whole concept of dispensation, or the relaxation of an ecclesiastical law in an individual case (c. 85), was discussed in “Marriage Between a Catholic and a Non-Catholic.” The pope may, if he judges it appropriate, dispense on a particular occasion from the 35-year minimum age for a bishop in order to elevate to the episcopacy a priest who is younger. In certain situations, such as mission territories where there are few priests to choose from, or in regions where the Church is enduring political persecution and the government may be interfering with the selection, the Pope may feel it is necessary to pick someone who does not meet the age requirement of the abovementioned canon 378.1 n.3. He is perfectly free to dispense himself from following the law when he wishes—just as he may change the law entirely, if he wishes.
Laws that are held to be of divine origin, however, are an entirely different matter. If God Himself established them, the Church is bound to observe them at all times. They cannot be changed, nor can any church authority ever dispense anyone from them. Many of the laws that fall into the category of “divine law” are also commonly referred to as stemming from natural law (which obviously amounts in the end to the same thing). An example of a law which is considered divine may be found in elements of the very canon 331 that was discussed above, which states that the Pope is the Vicar of Christ here on earth and has supreme power. The Catholic Church holds that this law ultimately has its origin in the words of Christ Himself, Who commissioned Saint Peter to head the Church in Matthew 16:18. Therefore, no church authority has the power to change this integral part of church law.
An example of a divine law that is more commonly thought of as natural law can be found in canon 1091.1. This canon states that persons who are related by consanguinity in any degree of the direct line cannot validly marry. In other words, a child may never marry his parent, and a grandparent cannot ever marry a grandchild, period. This canon obviously has a biological basis. And since all biological laws ultimately came from God, the Creator of all, this natural law amounts to a divine law as well. It was not established simply because the Pope at some point in history decided it was a good idea!
What basic conclusions can be drawn from all this about the scope of papal power? In short, there is no question that the pope wields tremendous authority, but at the same time, his power does have very definite limits. While nobody on earth may overrule him, he certainly does answer to Someone higher than he is. In the end, the pope is directly accountable to God Himself.