Does the Holy Spirit choose the Pope?

Each Roman Pontiff, for many generations now, has been chosen by a conclave of Cardinals. Most Cardinals are Bishops, so they are ordained to the episcopal degree and certainly are able to exercise the non-infallible Magisterium individually. Each Bishop can also participate in the infallible teaching authority of the Magisterium, by the ordinary and universal Magisterium and in Ecumenical Councils. But the decision to elect a Pope is not a decision on doctrine, so it cannot fall under the infallibility of the Magisterium. Also, no group of Bishops, however numerous or holy, can exercise the infallible teaching authority apart from the Roman Pontiff. So no conclave can teach infallibly, in some new definition of doctrine, nor is their decision to elect any particular man as Pope an infallible decision. In general, infallibility applies to teachings, to the assertion of truths. But choosing a Pope is not really an assertion of truth, so it does not fall under infallibility.

On the other hand, some say that the Cardinals can reject the grace of God and the guidance of the Holy Spirit, so as to choose any man at all to be Pope, even one who is very sinful (e.g. Michael Voris). This claim is inaccurate. Certainly, God offers grace to the Cardinals when making this decision, just as God offers grace to every human person who makes any decision of any significance. Grace is always available, even to great sinners. Cardinals can decline to cooperate with that grace. But there are two other considerations, often overlooked in this matter.

First, divine providence encompasses all things. Even the fallen angels and the most wicked human persons on earth cannot escape from the providence of God. Nothing occurs at all, unless God at least permits it. And providence is not merely passive, especially when providence is guiding the Church. God actively guides the Church, not only by grace, but also by providence.

How does divine providence affect the choice of Pope? The Council of Trent refers to the Pope at the time of (part of ) the Council, Pope Paul III in these words: “in the name of our most holy father and lord in Christ, Paul III, by divine providence Pope” [Trent, 6th Session, On Justification, Preamble]. The Council asserted that Pope Paul III was chosen “by divine providence” to be the Pope. Now this assertion is not dogmatic; it is not an infallible teaching. But it should weigh on our understanding of the office of Pope.

God never forsakes His Church, which is the Body of Christ, enlivened by the Holy Spirit, with Christ himself as her Head. Divine providence guides the Church, and also the choice of each Pope. I would say that God does not usually choose one person out of all the men on earth, and, having chosen him, guide the Cardinals to elect him and only him, even if he is an obscure person living in isolation. (However, that exact type of event did occur, with the election of Pope Saint Celestine V.) But in every case, the choice of Pope is guided by God.

Now the providence and grace of God are not controlling, as if God were a dictator who always gets His way. God gave men the gift of free will, and He respects that gift, which is part of His own plan. But He also does not merely abandon the Church to the somewhat capricious will of Cardinals. God assists in the choice of each and every Pope, by providence. For the providence of God encompasses all things.

Why, then, have some past Popes (e.g. in the Middle Ages) been so sinful? Sometimes God gives the Church the Pope that the people need, a holy Pope to lead them away from sin by his own example. But other times, God gives the Church the Pope that the people deserve. When the people abandon themselves to many grave sins, God sometimes permits a sinful Pope to rule over them, displaying for all the world to see the very same type of sinfulness common among the people, in the example of their leader. The people should remove the plank from their own eyes, before they complain about plank in their leader’s eye.

Even so, the prevenient grace of God prevents each and every Pope — whether a great sinner or a great Saint — from committing the sins of apostasy, heresy, or schism, and from teaching any heretical error. See my book: In Defense of Pope Francis for more on this point.

And speaking of prevenient grace, the Cardinals in each conclave are not only guided by divine providence, they are also guided by prevenient grace — a type of grace which is always effective, apart from any cooperation by free will. Subsequent grace is subject to free will, and can be accepted or rejected. But prevenient grace is God operating, not cooperating. The sinner and the Saint each receive prevenient grace, and neither is able in the least to reject or even to cooperate with that grace. Prevenient grace is how a sinful Pope can be prevented from committing heresy, or teaching heresy. And prevenient grace is how the sinful Jewish high priest — who condemned the Messiah to death while knowing He was innocent and perhaps even knowing He was the Messiah — could prophesy by grace that Jesus would die for the nation:

{11:49} Then one of them, named Caiaphas, since he was the high priest that year, said to them: “You do not understand anything.
{11:50} Nor do you realize that it is expedient for you that one man should die for the people, and that the entire nation should not perish.”
{11:51} Yet he did not say this from himself, but since he was the high priest that year, he prophesied that Jesus would die for the nation.

By prevenient grace and divine providence, God guides the Cardinals in choosing each Pope. This choice is of the free will of the Cardinals. God does not absolutely control that decision (because He does not wish to, and does not need to). But God is also involved in guiding and influencing that decision.

[Acts of the Apostles]
{9:3} And as he made the journey, it happened that he was approaching Damascus. And suddenly, a light from heaven shone around him.
{9:4} And falling to the ground, he heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?”
{9:5} And he said, “Who are you, Lord?” And he: “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. It is hard for you to kick against the goad.”
{9:6} And he, trembling and astonished, said, “Lord, what do you want me to do?”

The Cardinals, gathered in a conclave, cannot kick against the goad. For they are unable to resist His providence and unable to resist His prevenient grace.

Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian and translator of the Catholic Public Domain Version of the Bible.

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