Does God Choose the Pope? Yes. He certainly does.

Here’s the post: The Holy Spirit Does Not Choose the Pope. It’s a prime example of what’s wrong in the Catholic blogosphere.

First, the author, Dr. Jared Staudt, speaks as if he could not possibly be wrong. He puts forth a theological opinion, which is not a teaching of the Magisterium, and yet he presents it as if it were absolute truth. He supports his opinion by quoting the personal theological opinion of then-Cardinal Ratzinger. All that this establishes is that it is a tenable opinion.

Second, Staudt belittles those who think otherwise: “It’s amazing how many times I’ve heard from fellow Catholics that they think that God directly chooses the pope.” This is what happens when you assume that all your opinions are right, and anything to the contrary is wrong.

Third, he oversimplifies the theological issues. He states that “the Church does not teach” the position that the Pope is given to the Church by the Holy Spirit. Well, it’s more complicated than that.

There are documents of the Holy See and of Ecumenical Councils stating, explicitly, that the Pope is chosen by Divine Providence. Examples:
* The Council of Trent, Decree of Justification: “Paul III, by divine providence Pope”
* “Encyclical Letter of His Holiness Pius XII by Divine Providence Pope”
* And documents of the Holy See often use the wording in this example: “The Most Holy Father by divine Providence, Pope John Paul II, approved the above mentioned responses at an Audience granted to the undersigned Secretary of the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and ordered that they be published.”

It is entirely tenable, therefore, to say that the Holy Spirit chooses the Pope by Divine Providence, and also of course by grace working in the Cardinals. The opinion of Cardinal Ratzinger is not the teaching of the Church, and the contrary opinion is not so much doctrine, as it is the more common opinion, as attested by the above documents.

Fourth, the author contradicts himself by making one argument, and then asserting the contrary:

“Would we really want to ascribe all of the bad popes of history to the Holy Spirit? The Holy Spirit still guides corrupt popes, particularly by preserving them from teaching authoritatively something false in regards to faith and morals.”

If the Spirit “still guides corrupt popes”, then why can’t the Spirit choose those Popes? But it is particularly arrogant to sit in judgment over all the Popes of history, and blithely declare that man are bad and corrupt.

Fifth, no pope is truly corrupt. There have been Popes who committed some objectively grave sins, and every Pope goes to Confession. But the idea proposed by many conservative Catholics today, that some Popes are just utterly evil is utterly false and proximate to heresy.

Doctor of the Church St. Robert Bellarmine taught that no Pope can teach or commit heresy, and he also defended a long list of Popes against a longer list of accusations [Papal Error?].

We are obliged to give the submission of our hearts and minds to even the ordinary teaching of the Roman Pontiff, obliged to obey him in matters of discipline, and we must give the full assent of faith to his infallible teachings. So then, how could he be corrupt? If the head of the Church were corrupt, then the Church would not be indefectible. Therefore, no Roman Pontiff is truly corrupt, though some are more sinful than others.

So, this set of claims is particularly troubling:

“God does not abandon us, however, but makes good come from evil, including the corruption of popes, though the remedy to evil may be painful.”

God not only does not abandon us, but He also does not abandon the Church, which is indefectible. This claim of “the corruption of popes” is a rejection of the indefectibility of the Church. For it is impossible for the Church to be indefectible, if Her head on earth is corrupt and (he claims twice) “evil”.

Sixth, Staudt incorrectly distances God from His Church: “God generally acts in and through human agency in the Church”. No. The Church is the body of Christ, enlivened by the Holy Spirit. The Church does not experience limited and “particular moments of divine intervention”, but rather the continuous guidance of the Holy Spirit and the continuous leadership of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Why would the Holy Spirit choose sinful Popes? First, I don’t believe that any of the so-called worst Popes are guilty of all that they are accused. Popes had enemies then, just as now. And the enemies of any Pope exaggerate faults and support false accusations. Second, every Pope is a sinner. Perhaps, God gives the Church a more sinful Pope, at times, because that is the Pope they deserve, the Pope who shows them their sins. Other times, God is using the Pope as a rod of correction or as a test of faith, just as today.

Pope Francis was specifically chosen by God to put conservative Catholics to the test. And far from being corrupt, he is — I sincerely believe — a true Saint. He is like Pope Saint Celestine V, who was not very good at the administrative task of running the Church, but was personally holy. It is just arrogance for conservative Catholics to judge Pope Francis, and treat him like a mistake of the Cardinals, rather than the chosen Vicar of Christ. Do you really think that God would never choose a liberal Pope?

Finally, I have to ask: What is happening to conservative Catholics today? They used to speak as if every teaching of the Pope were infallible. I literally had to argue, again and again, with conservative Catholics who mistakenly thought that all papal teachings were necessarily error-free. And now conservatives are exalting themselves above every Pope and above the Magisterium itself, declaring that some Popes are evil and corrupt, and speaking as if God has all but abandoned His Church. Is it really so traumatic that we have a liberal Pope? Is that all it takes for conservatives to lose faith and start calling Popes corrupt?

Or is all this due to pride? For so many years, conservative Catholics have spoken as if they were the defenders of orthodoxy in the Church. Now it turns out that they were simply compiling their own set of errors, different from those of liberal Catholics, but not really any better.

Vatican I: “This gift of truth and never-failing faith was therefore divinely conferred on Peter and his successors in this See so that they might discharge their exalted office for the salvation of all, and so that the whole flock of Christ might be kept away by them from the poisonous food of error and be nourished with the sustenance of heavenly doctrine.”

Is Staudt referring to Pope Francis, obliquely, when he refers to corrupt and evil popes? It certainly seems that way.

Edited to add:

As for then-Cardinal Ratzinger’s remark, he does not call past Popes “corrupt” and “evil” like Staudt did. He was making an extemporaneous remark, so I don’t think it is fair to treat it like a well-considered theological opinion. I disagree with Ratzinger that the Spirit only keeps the vote from total ruination.

Many people, in examining their own lives, see the work of God’s providence and grace in many ways. And are we to believe, then, when it comes to the Pope as the head of the Church, God’s providence and grace applies in a lesser way, or not at all?

As I said in my comments at “The Reproach of Christ”, Staudt has departed from the true faith by accusing past Popes of being evil and corrupt. Popes are fallen sinners, but if any Pope was truly evil or truly corrupt, then the Church would not be indefectible.

Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian

3 thoughts on “Does God Choose the Pope? Yes. He certainly does.

  1. [Romans 13]
    {13:1} Let every soul be subject to higher authorities. For there is no authority except from God and those who have been ordained by God.
    {13:2} And so, whoever resists authority, resists what has been ordained by God. And those who resist are acquiring damnation for themselves.

    Could St. Paul be cleared than that? Furthermore, if this also refers to secular governments, how much more regarding God’s own (divinely) instituted Church who was founded upon Peter and the Apostles in communion with Peter (Matt 16:18-19) (Matt 18:18).

    “They [the faithful] are fully incorporated in the society of the Church who, possessing the Spirit of Christ accept her entire system and all the means of salvation given to her, and are united with her as part of her visible bodily structure and through her with Christ, who rules her through the Supreme Pontiff and the bishops“. – (Dogmatic Constitution – Lumen Gentium – Light of Nations, n. 14, 3; Vatican II)


  2. Besides St. Paul’s teaching that authorities being ordained by God, the Decree Presbyterorum Ordinis explicitly estates that God selects the visible rulers of His Church:

    “They (priests) must preserve and strengthen a necessary oneness with their brothers in the ministry, especially with those whom God has selected as visible rulers of his Church.” (Decree – Presbyterorum Ordinis – On The Ministry And Life Of Priests # 15, n 3; Vatican II)


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