It’s presumptuous to address this topic, but since the web makes expansive punditry impossible to resist, I will anyway. Fortunately, the web has also made possible the Catholic Encyclopedia online (1917 edition), which used to be very difficult to find and expensive to own.
At last, persistent confusions on the question of the papacy can be clarified despite popular misconceptions (held by Catholics and non-Catholics). You can even read the entry on the Pope, along with a defense of the papacy against its detractors and a listing of its powers and responsibilities.
It turns out that the Pope, in addition to the pastoral duties required of every priest and Bishop, and the special duties and powers that come with being the Bishop of Rome, has only one primary job: to exercise “ordinary, immediate, and episcopal jurisdiction over all the faithful” toward the goal of “the preservation and the propagation of the faith.” That is to say, the purpose of all the power of his office is to spread Catholicism (not his peculiar version but the unchanging faith as taught by the apostles and developed over two millennia) and protect it from error.
My, how far we’ve come. Nowadays, the Pope, when not being treated as a world media figure, is seen as an all-powerful spokesman for the Holy Spirit in all matters. But that has never been Church teaching: even the Pope’s ex cathedra power of infallibility extends only to matters of faith and morals (not politics, economics, or administrative disciplines within the Church) and only insofar as he defines a teaching that can be shown to have always been taught.
The danger that comes with exaggerating the personal power and perfection of the Pope, or confusing doctrinal infallibility with personal impeccability is that it can so easily be shown to be contradicted by history, which is so clearly full of Popes who were personally compromised in one way or another.
The miracle of the Papacy is not that such great men have held the office (though many have); it is that no matter how bad things have been in the history of the Church, the core doctrine and moral system of the Catholic religion has never been falsely taught from the Chair of Peter in 2,000 years.
So what should be the goal of the next Pope? To preserve and propagate the faith. In these times, there are at least three strategic imperatives.
First, forget about politics and start protecting the Catholic faithful against the actions by the Bishops that have made it very difficult to be a Catholic in today’s setting. Catholics expect attacks from the media and the government. They don’t expect attacks from the local Bishop and his henchpeople. If the Vatican bothered to read the chilling weekly content of The Wanderer newspaper, it would have plenty of evidence that the Bishops are out of control.
Second, forget about treating Vatican II as the “new Pentecost” and start to regard it as just another ecumenical council, albeit a “pastoral” one that took place during the embarrassing but thankfully gone Age of Aquarius. It is understandable that the Vatican will not soon be ready to acknowledge that the council and its aftermath was a disaster. It is not even necessary to do so. Just let it fade into the past and get on with reasserting what has been always known to be true.
That requires, above all else, tolerance for those who continued to practice and live the faith as if the Beatles and their epoch never happened. Amnesty now for all the priests who refused to compromise during these years! Permit the Latin Mass and the old calendar to make a return! Provide for an unconditional restoration of the Society of St. Pius X back into the fold, along with every other independent group that chose faith over administrative obedience.
Third, massively beef up the Vatican website. Everything in the Vatican library should be online, from the first writings of the first Pope all the way to the present. Every letter, every papal bull, every catechism, every encyclical, the writings of the saints and martyrs, the libraries and libraries of theological and spiritual writings, and everything else that relates to Catholicism, including art works and rare manuscripts. Do it in .pdf and text files and do it now.
Where to get the money? Defund the Bishops’ palaces and bureaucracies around the world. Uproot the Papal travel budget. A couple dozen Pontifical Councils on This and That could be abolished. Above all, gut the press office. These guys put out more words in one month than the Church did in the first 1500 years of Christianity!
So there’s the agenda: check the power of Bishops, conveniently forget about Vatican 2, and spread information and truth again. Yes, that will require that the Pope curb his ambitions to become the world’s most powerful force for political and social revolution. But when the pasture is burning, the first job is to save the sheep.
Llewellyn H. Rockwell, Jr. [send him mail] is president of the Ludwig von Mises Institute in Auburn, Alabama, editor of LewRockwell.com and author of Speaking of Liberty. This article was written in 2000, and appeared on the now-defunct site Spintech as part of a symposium on the question.