We’re all practical sedevacantists. For the most part, that’s a good thing. The day-to-day functioning of Catholics and their local Churches should not depend on papal input. Even among those who follow the pope’s statements, how many could be said to allow themselves to be taught by them? Did Amoris laetitia actually change anyone’s mind about ‘”irregular unions”‘? The liberal and the traditionalist will accept or reject what Francis says based on its consistency with their own prior beliefs. Those who claim to accept everything Francis teaches but always read “in the light of tradition” (i.e. replacing his obviously intended meaning with something orthodox) just do this more subtly.
I do not believe that Catholics, because we have a pope, are somehow in a different epistemic situation than Protestants. That is, we are still forced to interpret documents, and we must still each decide whether the source is reliable and the overall system is coherent. In terms of settled, articulated doctrine, we just have more documents to work from than the Protestants. I really don’t know what my fellow Catholics are talking about when they criticize “private interpretation” of the Bible, except that it means interpreting this one document (on one’s own or not doesn’t matter) without checking for consistency with the others.
A pope would be shortsighted to think that being allowed to refashion doctrine without any restrictions would maximize real papal power. If a pope is not bound by his predecessors, his successors are not bound by him, so he cannot expect any of his innovations to outlive him. In fact, it’s worse than that. If Catholic doctrine can be X today and not-X tomorrow, then Catholic doctrine can only be accidentally connected with truth, and no one would have any reason to feel bound by it. Nor does it practically matter what linguistic rationalizations are used to avoid formal contradiction. If the meaning of papal statements are so opaque that the faithful are not qualified to recognize a contradiction, then communication is not really taking place at all, and again, no one need feel bound by statements he is told he can’t understand well enough to reason from independently.
It turns out to be a very tricky thing to give the Church the authority she needs to clarify doctrine without also giving the laity the excuse it wants to ignore clarifications it doesn’t like.
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