Dear Friends in Christ,
The current controversies in the Church have placed many faithful Catholics in a position to which they are unaccustomed: namely, having grave disagreements with the pope about some of his policies and decisions and even having doubts about the capacity of the man now on the Chair of Saint Peter to fulfill his essential duties. Given these difficulties, let us consider what our duties are towards the Bishop of Rome, beginning by taking note of the difference between the office and the man who holds that office.
The papacy is the world’s oldest continuing office, and if we start the count with Saint Peter, then Pope Francis is the 266th Bishop of Rome. For two millennia the papacy has served as the visible principle of unity in the Church, and we believe that this Petrine office and its primacy were instituted by the Lord Jesus. First at Jerusalem, then at Antioch, and finally at Rome, Saint Peter served as the leader of the Apostles and as the touchstone of authenticity of the Church’s proclamation of the Gospel, and from the death of Saint Peter around the year 64 each of his successors in Rome has been understood as the pastor of the universal Church as well as the pastor of the local diocese of Rome. For these reasons, the office of Bishop of Rome is essential to the full life of the Catholic Church, and as the Code of Canon Law puts it in canon 331: “The Bishop of the Roman Church, in whom continues the office given by the Lord uniquely to Peter, the first of the Apostles, and to be transmitted to his successors, is the head of the College of Bishops, the Vicar of Christ, and the pastor of the universal Church on earth. By virtue of his office he possesses supreme, full, immediate, and universal ordinary power in the Church, which he is always able to exercise freely.” And that is why all Catholics owe to the successors of Saint Peter deep respect and filial devotion, however worthy or unworthy they may be.
But while the papacy remains a constant in the life of the Church, the men who sit on the Chair of Saint Peter at any given time bring their own human qualities to their office and the execution of their duties. Many popes have been saints, and not a few have been notorious sinners. Many have been scholars, while others have been indifferent students. Many have been wise and prudent pastors, but some have been scandalously negligent of their obligations to tend the Lord’s flock and feed his sheep. In the past two hundred years nearly all popes have been saints, scholars, and wise pastors, and so most Catholics have forgotten what it is like to be surprised by the human faults and foibles of a given pope. We are now, though, living through a time of great trials in the Church, and the choices of Pope Francis are provoking debate and disagreements among Catholics. Provided that we always speak the truth in love, such debates in the Church are not inappropriate and can even serve the common good, so long as we remember that whatever his flaws may be, every man who serves as Bishop of Rome is the true pastor of the universal Church. And that is why every Mass includes prayers by name for both the local bishop and the pope, through whose ministry we remain united in Christ to Catholics everywhere.