Papal teaching and authority

By Michael Hornsby-Smith
From Roman Catholic beliefs in England
Published by Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1991. pp. 129-138.

Following our invitation to comment on the role of the pope in general and the particular leadership style of the present pope, we Introduced two key questions on papal authority. The first asked: ‘Do you feel bound to obey all his teachings?’ Although five-sixths of the Catholics we interviewed claimed to attend Mass weekly, their responses spanned the whole range from unconditional acceptance of the pope’s teaching to outright rejection.

While classification of these responses proved to be difficult, two coders working independently reached agreement that one-quarter of the interviewees gave unqualified acceptance to the pope’s teaching. Just over one-half gave a qualified acceptance, or appeared confused, or replied that they would ‘pick and choose’. The remaining quarter did not accept the pope’s teaching. An indication of the nature and range of these unpremeditated comments from all six research sites is given in Table 6. i.

The first groups of responses (1-5) gives something of the flavour of those who gave an unqualified acceptance to the pope’s teaching. Response 3 gives a hint that such acceptance is regarded as something inevitable if one wishes to profess a Catholic affiliation. The next response (4) goes further and explicitly pays deference to the charisma of the office-holder as pope. The fifth response is more difficult to categorise since it stresses the notion that the pope’s teaching provides guidelines (see also 16-19). In this case the interviewee stresses his view that these guidelines ought to be followed without question by Catholics.

In her analysis of these data, Ann Scurfield observed that most respondents in this category, who were nearly all middle-aged or elderly and stressed their traditional or ‘old-style’ upbringing, ‘felt they had to elaborate, often at some length, at times in an almost apologetic way, the reasons why they felt bound to obey’ (1982: 955). Responses 6 and 7 illustrate these almost automatic reactions. They seem to indicate an almost unreflective response of those who have the ascribed status and identity of Roman Catholic. Rather like sex or ethnicity, it is something one is born with, part of one’s fundamental identity; one cannot do anything about it. The drift of much of our research into English Catholicism over the past fifteen years is that this type of response is rapidly declining with the dissolution of the distinct Catholic sub-culture as a result of post-war social and post-Vatican religious change (Hornsby-Smith, 1987: 208-14).

The second group of responses all qualify their acceptance of the pope’s teaching in some way or other. Six different subgroups might be identified. The first of these (8-11) distinguishes between thosecases where the pope claims to be teaching infallibly and those where he does not. Few Catholics had any problems about following the pope in doctrinal matters, but clearly many Catholics – around one-half of those attending the papal events – felt they could use their own conscience ‘when he’s speaking … on social and related matters’ (11), often a euphemism for contraception, abortion and divorce. The second group (12-15) were similar, though they did not specifically refer to infallible teachings and other teachings. A good example of a respondent’s attempt to make some sort of distinction is Respondent 14 who is concerned not to give the impression of denying ‘some aspect of your faith’, that is doctrinal beliefs. As we have previously noted, some respondents specifically argued that the pope’s teaching was intended to offer guidelines for action, not invariable rules of behaviour for all circumstances (16-19). These respondents are implicitly arguing their right to make up their own minds, even if in the knowledge of the pope’s guidelines. The fourth subgroup specifically articulates this in terms of personal conscience (20-4). Respondent 24 insists that one has to make up one’s own mind on all matters and recommends prayer in coping with the dilemma of reconciling this with the pope’s teaching. The fifth subgroup distinguishes between the theory and actual practice (25-7), indicating that while there may be no fundamental disagreement with the teaching, nevertheless, in the facing of everyday problems, it is necessary to be pragmatic or ‘realistic’ about one’s practice. In the case of the sixth subgroup (28-30), the qualification of acceptance of the pope’s teaching is considerable and typically,reference is made to the modification or ‘modernising’ of teachings regarded as ‘out-of-date’ (28) with contemporary needs.

Table 6.1. Classification of responses to papal teaching (Pope’s visit; six events)

A. Unqualified Acceptance

1. Er, well, I do, yes. I’m quite happy to do so. (Coventry)

2. I wouldn’t doubt him or anything (York)

3. Oh yes … I obey the pope’s teachings, every pope. And if we don’t go with the pope, we might as well give up our religion (Cardiff)

4. Yes, I do … and I feel that I, as a lay person, cannot possibly have studied religion in the same way that he has done, to come to the same conclusions. I know we all have our own free will of our own … But nevertheless, I feel that someone of his stature … who has devoted his life to religion and so on, that his conclusions, therefore, must be more accurate than mine. (Wembley)

5. I think that the pope is there to give you guidance … for you to follow and I think … it’s your choice what you eventually decide. But he docs give guidelines, which I think ought to be followed if you’re a Catholic. (Coventry)

product of upbringing

6. Well yes. I’ve never thought about it like that. You know, when you’re brought up a Catholic you accept … all that sort of thing, really. You don’t … question it. Perhaps when you are older … but not me. I just accept. (Coventry)

7. Yes, I’m afraid I do ’cause I suppose I’m a bit old hat … I’ve been brought up that way. But, of course, I know that the younger people these days … look at things in a different light. And I think they’re brought up different to we were, you know. (Liverpool)

B. Qualified Acceptance when teaching infallibly

8. Well, this might sound a bit naive, but we think what he docs say, when he’s speaking for all Catholics in the world, he is divinely inspired. So we believe practically everything he says. (Manchester)

9. Er, if he was speaking ex cathedra, yes, as an infallible, on a matter of faith and morals, yes … Well, there’s nothing … that I disagree with him about. (Manchester)

10. Yes … in the sense that, um, I believe in the doctrine of infallibility. So in certain aspects of doctrine, where he decides, if you are a Catholic, you have got to accept it. But in other matters, of course, one can make one’s own decision. Conscience, to that extent, is very personal. (Coventry)

11. Well, I think if one is putting it into theological terms, when it is speaking ex cathedra, I do, because I feel that’s almost a definition of being a Catholic. Er, when he’s speaking on, er, social and related matters, no. (Wembley)

other contingent

12. In principle, yes, but … sometimes … I think some of them arc a bit shaky … if the idea is right, then I’ll support it. (York)

13. Well, we do make up our own minds on some things but mostly we believe in the teachings. (Cardiff)

14. That’s quite a difficult question to answer. If you say an outright ‘no’, it looks like you are denying some aspects of your faith. If you say ‘yes’, it wouldn’t be true. (Liverpool)

15. Yes, most of it I feel bound to obey … there are certain things I’d rather make my own mind up about. (Coventry)


16. Um. Well, I think the commandments are guidelines, I mean, and it’s the same for the pope, that they are there for ideals. But you can’t always live up to ideals. (Cardiff)

17. Not all … He’s not saying ‘you have to do everything I say’. He’s just trying to teach what we should do … but leaving it up to yourself whether you do or don’t. (Liverpool)

18 No, I wouldn’t go so far as to say that. I can think for meself. I’ve got to admit… I’m guided to a very large extent. (Manchester)

19. They’re guidelines. I think everybody has their own individual faith … Yes, I believe in the Catholic teachings, but… I think everybody has different views on all of them. (Wembley)


20. Um, I think it’s up to everybody’s personal conscience, and 1 try to … it’s a very personal thing. Mm, and really, throughout life you just have to try and do the best you can, following the lines, but if it’s impossible, then it’s impossible. (Cardiff)

21. I think one accepts the teachings but nobody but the individual can ultimately … determine how they might apply to himself at every juncture of life. (Coventry)

22. I wouldn’t feel obliged to ifit didn’t sort of go along with my own … I mean ifit was my conscience that sort of decided first of all but… certainly I would listen to the things he’s got to say and take it very much into consideration. (Wembley)

23 No, I have me own conscience on some of the Catholic teaching. But basically his ideas are great to unite all Christians. (Manchester)

24. I don’t know that I feel bound to obey them but I feel that they’re right and that I should obey them … I think that by praying and everything else it helps you to make up your mind. (Wembley)

teaching and practice

25. Well you can try to do them all. Whether you achieve it is another thing, isn’t it? (Manchester)

26. Um. I try but, er, strictly speaking the answer is yes, of course. But, um, not without some reservations and misgivings. (Wembley)

27. I think it’s up to the individual … I don’t think that anyone just sticks to the Catholic faith just like that. I mean, they all have their own ways of living their life. (Liverpool)

anticipation of change

28. Er, bound, yes … but I think there is a couple that are completely out of date … they should try and slightly modernise it Some principles are completely out of date. (Wembley)

29. Yes, but I do think that many of these things that they talk about are goner change in the future … I don’t think they’re goner be so dogmatical as they’ve been in the past, you know. (Liverpool)

30. Er … infallibility, I think … has lost its edge … I think it would be unwise if we were ever to make any er rulings, say on doctrine, cr with the power of infallibility; I think that is unlikely ever to happen again, er, simply because people are very much more open-minded, um, better educated, and they don’t always need this sort of rigid doctrine to show them where to go. (Wembley)

C. Rejection

31. No … I don’t feel bound to go by his 100 per cent word (Coventry)

32. No. No, not at all … Um. I think … it’s … a matter of conscience … He is there to lead you to guide you, but it’s down to your own personal conscience. (Liverpool)

33. No … not in every aspect, I suppose. I use my own conscience where … I see fit to. (Wembley)

34. No, no. I think there are … some things that you’ve got to make your own judgement on. (Manchester)

35. Yes, no, I go my own way really. I … think I try to think things out. (Wembley)

36. Ar, well, I don’t know about that. I think everybody’s pleased theirselves, don’t they, you know? I don’t know … No. (Cardiff)

The third broad group of responses, offered by around one-quarter of our respondents, was a substantially unqualified rejection of the need to follow the pope’s teaching. As Ann Scurfield reported (1982: 955), these Catholics appeared content in many cases simply to reply ‘No’ or ‘No, not at all’ without further elaboration. This can be discerned from the relative brevity of the examples given (31-6). Ann Scurfield regarded the combination of overwhelmingly positive evaluations of Pope John-Paul II, with the emphasis expressed by many of our interviewees on ‘making up one’s own mind’, as paradoxical; she concluded that ‘most Catholics living and worshipping in England and Wales put greater reliance on private judgement than on Church orthodoxy in many areas of their lives’ (1982: 956).

These findings were given quantitative elaboration in the returns from the postal survey of our interviewees four months after the pope’s visit. They were asked to select between three pairs of alternatives relating to the authority of the pope. Of those responding, about four-fifths believed that ‘the pope’s teachings are all directly inspired by God’, rather than being ‘his personal view of things’. Similarly, about five-sixths of the respondents felt that ‘the pope’s teachings show that he really understands the problems that face people living in the modern world’ while only one-sixth felt he was ‘rather out of touch’ with them. On the other hand just over one-half considered ‘one can question and then disobey some of the pope’s teachings and still be a good Catholic’ while just under one-half thought that ‘as a good Catholic one should try to obey all the pope’s teachings without question’.

These findings seem to be consistent with the conclusions that:

(a) Catholics generally accept the pope as an authoritative guide but reserve the right to ‘make up their own minds’ in most areas of their lives; and:

(b) they distinguish between core doctrinal beliefs, on which they are inclined to accept claims of infallible teaching, on the one hand, and teachings on other matters, for example social and personal morality, and also questions of Church discipline such as the Sunday Mass obligation and rules prescribing a celibate clergy and proscribing intercommunion, on the other hand, where they feel entitled to use their own conscience.

This leads us to the second key question in our interviews with people at the papal events in 1982. We asked: ‘Are there any matters you feel entitled to make up your own mind about?

About one- quarter of our interviewees explicitly referred to contraception. As we have suggested earlier, several other people seemed to be using euphemisms for birth control; in longer interviews this could have been explored further. Smaller numbers of respondents also mentioned abortion, divorce, married priests, the role of women in the Church, keeping the Mass attendance obligation, pre-marital sex, and making up their own minds generally.

Our question prompted some defensive sparring from several of our interviewees. Thus a young woman interviewed at Coventry laughed and said: ‘Oh! I’m not going into that!’ and an older man in Liverpool replied ‘You’re getting very deep there, aren’t you?’ A mother interviewed at Wembley said: ‘Oh yes there are! My very personal matters’, and proceeded to imply that she would have found it difficult to be a good mother if she had any more children. Several comments hinted more-or-less strongly at contraception, such as the man at Manchester who commented: ‘the obvious thing, you know. You have to live in the modern age. You have to decide for yourself how many children you are going to have’.

The following extract from an interview with a young woman at Coventry reflects both a generally defensive posture, and also an assumption of implicit, shared understandings with the interviewer of what it is like to be a Catholic:

I. Are there any matters you feel entitled to make your own mind up about?

R. Um. [Pause] Um, I don’t know. When you’re young it’s a lot more difficult to know, um, how far you go to being good, or something. It’s easier, I suppose, for older- well, if you get what I mean (laughs). When you’re young there are so many pressures around you to conform to what everybody else is doing. A lot of people often question why you are a Catholic and say it’s a lot more fun not to be, and, er, but you just have to be strong and so [laughs]. But, er, I try to, you know, live up to the teachings.

I. But you haven’t quite said there are any matters you feel entitled to make up your own mind on.

R. Um. Well I make up my own mind on all of them, but I bear in mind what I’ve been taught. There isn’t a particular issue I’ve really ever come to grief over, if you know what I mean. So I suppose, in the main, I would try and agree with all of them, you know. There isn’t anything I would really, you know.

There are hints in this extract that the respondent deviates in some respects from the pope’s teaching, which she recognises as providing guidelines, but offers ‘excuses’ (‘when you’re young there are so many pressures’), in Scott and Lyman’s sense (1968), for her implicit behaviour. One can also discern here something of the flavour of the ‘customary’ religion we discussed in the previous chapter and of the somewhat calculative nature ofCatholic moral practice (‘how far you go’, reminiscent of David Lodge’s novel, 1980).

Not all our interviewers probed further when people responded defensively to our question. One respondent at Coventry was pushed by his interviewer to clarify his rather vague comments in response to the same initial question:

R I think it’s a question of definition, really. No, I think there’s a question of a teaching and the question of its applicability. 1 mean, killing, I mean murder is forbidden, but they say there is such a thing as a ‘just war’. You know there are a number of defined circumstances, er. One hopes it never happens to one but one could find oneself in a situation when one would say, at this moment, you know, should I, am I justified in killing another person? That’s just by way of example. Um, and, er, there are obviously other people who find themselves in regard to particular teachings, you know, doctrines, in the same sort of situation, you know.

I. What have you in mind?

R. Um. Nothing more than anything else. Both of us know what teachings the Catholic Church is most questioned [about] at the moment, um … I. Do you mean contraception?

R. Well the whole range: contraception, divorce, abortion, yes, yes, yes.

There is in this extract something of a Catholic casuistry (the distinction between a teaching and its applicability) as well as a Catholic prudery (the avoidance of mentioning sexual matters explicitly). But there is also evidence that ordinary Catholics, even if they are regularly practising and institutionally involved, are not uniformly rigid in their stance on the issues not only of contraception but also on divorce and even abortion, often regarded as particularly abhorrent to Catholic eyes. Thus a woman at Cardiff replied:

Well yes … 1 mean, not necessarily myself, but as on birth control, if people, I think people do use it, then I think that it is up to them, their own conscience, especially if it’s a ‘mixed’ marriage … You know it’s a very difficult problem. I do think it’s a personal thing and people will make their own minds. Most people anyway … But, er, divorce. It’s regrettable and very sad, but there again, if people can’t live together then, you know, it’s very hard to stay together. I think it’s just a really very personal [matter of] conscience.

This perhaps indicates something of a pragmatic judgement in the light of everyday realities, not so much as a rejection of the teachings which are still implicitly recognised as legitimate and authoritative guidelines. A common view was that ‘it is up to them, really’ in these matters. The following extract from an interview at Wembley in response to the same question reflects a general rejection of the official teaching on contraception but also a continuing general (but not universal) opposition to abortion:

I. Do you feel bound to obey all his teachings?

R. Um. I try but, er. Strictly the answer is yes, of course, but, um, not without some reservations and misgivings.

I. Uhhm.

R. And in fact 1 don’t in practice follow them all anyway. But, er, that’s something I keep close to my heart [laughs],

I. You wouldn’t elaborate on that, would you?

R. No.

I. Fair enough. Are there any matters you feel entitled to make your own mind up about then?

R. Well I think birth control is the, is the basic …

I. Mm.

R. problem. On things like abortions and that sort of thing, of course I’m totally in agreement with the Church. Um. I think birth control is the one controversial subject that we try to deal with, or the pope’s tried to deal with, that I really don’t too much agree with the way he’s come out.

These extracts have been selected to give something of the flavour of people’s response to our questions in a situation where extended probing was not possible. Four months after the interviews we were able to test some of the findings more systematically in the mail questionnaire which was answered by nearly three-quarters of the Catholics previously interviewed. We asked a version of some of the key questions in the 1978 national survey (Hornsby-Smith and Lee, 1979), simplified to require responses of either ‘yes’ or ‘no’. The results parallel those of the national survey when taking account of the fact that those attending the papal events were much more institutionally involved than Catholics generally. Thus six-sevenths of our respondents accepted the official teaching on the consecration but only just under three-fifths agreed that ‘under certain conditions, when he speaks on matters of faith and morals, the pope is infallible’. Under one-quarter thought there had been too many changes in the Church recently though seven in every ten respondents did not approve of the reduction in the number of traditional devotions in the Church. Nearly two-thirds did not think the Church was right to condemn birth control but three-fifths did agree with the condemnation of pre-marital sex. Finally just under one-half agreed with the view that ‘the Church should become more involved in politics in the pursuit of social justice’.