The Pope Has No Checks and Balances!

One argument I’ve heard against the Catholic Church goes something like this:

Since the Pope cannot be deposed, and there is no person or group who can bound his authority, he is free to do whatever he likes, act tyrannically, and even unilaterally teach as divine truth whatever fits his fancy.

Protestants compare this with their own pastors, who are subject to a council of elders. These elders have the authority to elect or unelect a pastor–to vote him out essentially–a democratic notion that finds approval in our American minds.

So what about the pope? Does he have unilateral authority? Absolutely not! Paradoxically, the pope has less ability than most Protestant pastors to teach what he likes, for the simple reason that the pope is bound by the existing doctrines and Tradition of the Church.

The dogmas of the Church have, over the centuries, circumscribed a large circle around the theological and moral landscape of questions. He cannot move beyond the area enclosed. Instead, he is bound by it–and this is a good thing–being free to more deeply develop the understanding of the Faith within that circle, but not to break it.

Protestantism has no hard lines of dogma. The Oneness Pentecostals prove that even the doctrine of the Trinity is fair game for modification. As is baptism, the Lord’s Supper, moral issues, and many others. One Protestant apologist I have been dialoguing with elsewhere is known to maintain the belief that masturbation is acceptable. Sure, why not? His own opinion about what the Bible says (or does not say) is gospel as far as he’s concerned. The Catholic Church, on the other hand, cannot reverse her teachings like this.

So the pope, who seems to have all the authority in the world, is actually one of the most constrained men in the world. He is not free to make up or change the deposit of faith, but instead is bound to preserve it without corruption.

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13 thoughts on “The Pope Has No Checks and Balances!”

  1. Devin, thank you, this is spot on!! So many people misunderstand!

    I’ve even written about the subject, here:

    You know, our good friend Shawn told me recently that he answers to no human authority at all. He is the highest authority on earth, then. That means, of course, that he himself has a lot more power to change and determine “Truth” than any old pope has!

    Ah, the irony!

  2. The more pertinent question – is a system of “checks and balances” Biblical?

    Could the Israelites legitimately deposed Moses? Could the Apostles have gathered after Pentecost and decided that they didn’t like the speech Peter made and that they wanted to change that theology? Could the Church in Alexandria have decided that the declarations of the Council of Jerusalem overstepped the mark and should be altered?

    Since when did the faith become a democracy?

    1. It is very interesting to dialogue on the story of Korah in Numbers 16. Jude explicitly compares those who oppose the apostles to Korah. So what is the difference between Luther and Korah or the people Jude compares to Korah?

      1. I think the comparison to Korah is a good one. I have asked Protestants before: “What was the sin of Korah?” I didn’t get an answer, or at least not a coherent one. I would love to know the Protestant answer to that.

        Luther was a modern day Korah.

  3. “The Pope is actually one of the most constrained men in the world.”

    None of what you mention stopped Paul VI from introducing a cult of man in the wake of the Council or even introducing a New Mass four years later. An unbridled ecumenism led John Paul II to take a trainload of pagans to Assisi. What about the Hierarchy’s post conciliar take on Religious Freedom? I am not convinced.

      1. Before discussing things further, are you in communion with the bishop of Rome?


        Steve, what is the “cult of man” you are speaking of?

        “The religion of the God who became man has met the religion (for such it is) of man who makes himself God. And what happened? Was there a clash, a battle, a condemnation? There could have been, but there was none. The old story of the Samaritan has been the model of the spirituality of the council. A feeling of boundless sympathy has permeated the whole of it. The attention of our council has been absorbed by the discovery of human needs (and these needs grow in proportion to the greatness which the son of the earth claims for himself)…” -Pope Paul VI, 12/07/1965

        At this point I like to draw the following contrast:

        “5. When all this is considered there is good reason to fear lest this great perversity may be as it were a foretaste, and perhaps the beginning of those evils which are reserved for the last days; and that there may be already in the world the “Son of Perdition” of whom the Apostle speaks (II. Thess. ii., 3). Such, in truth, is the audacity and the wrath employed everywhere in persecuting religion, in combating the dogmas of the faith, in brazen effort to uproot and destroy all relations between man and the Divinity! While, on the other hand, and this according to the same apostle is the distinguishing mark of Antichrist, man has with infinite temerity put himself in the place of God…” -Pope Saint Pius X, E Supremi, 1903

        1. Steve,

          Glad to hear you are in full communion.

          I read a little more of the context of Pope Paul VI’s concluding speech at Vatican II–he’s addressing the Council’s view of man vs. secular humanism’s view, saying that both have the intention of being truly “for” humankind, showing how the Church’s vision for man, as expressed in the Council, is one of hope and optimism, founded on God.

          What is the problem you are seeing in his speech?

          1. Steve,

            Certain “innovations” are fine. Translating the Bible to Latin was an “innovation” at the time. Celebrating the liturgy in different languages was an innovation at one time as well.

            That is not to say that, for instance, the relatively recent translation of the liturgy into English last century was done well. It wasn’t. Which is why a new translation of the Mass is coming this year, one that is more faithful. And also why Pope Benedict made it possible for any priest to celebrate the Latin Mass.

            What the Church claims is that none of her irreformable teachings have ever been changed. Disciplines change; traditions change; languages change; but the doctrines don’t.

  4. Very good, Devin. Another angle is that the Pope doesn’t rule in his own name like a king but as a stand-in for the king like a steward (referring back to the symbol of the keys in Is 22:15-25). As such, he may have the authority of the King, but he’s also bound by the mandate of the King and can’t institute a policy or teaching against His will. We have something of a cultural worship of democracy as The Solution to All Man’s Problems, and we aren’t willing to admit that in some times and places it’s not the kind of government needed or appropriate.

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