What is the role of the Holy Spirit in papal elections?

Mirus’ View

Over at CatholicCulture.org, Jeff Mirus takes a dim view of the work of the Holy Spirit when the Cardinals of the universal Church gather to elect the next Vicar of Christ. His post, On the role of the Holy Spirit in papal elections, offers his view on the topic, but with no theological argument, and no sources from Tradition, Scripture, Magisterium. Mirus merely pontificates. And what he says on the topic is biased by his strong disagreements with the current Pontiff.

Mirus begins by dissing the current Pope: “A common question among Catholics today is: ‘What was the Holy Spirit doing during the conclave that elected Jorge Bergoglio as Pope Francis?’ … But the Holy Spirit does not choose the pope; that is left to the vagaries of men, and the vagaries of their response to grace.” In this not so subtle manner, Mirus is implying that the Holy Spirit was trying to prompt the Cardinals to vote for someone other than Pope Francis. Since Mirus doesn’t agree with the words and deeds of the Roman Pontiff, he tells his readers that the Holy Spirit wanted someone else (who?) to be Pope, but the Cardinals supposedly ignored the Spirit. And that is quite a vicious attack on the Pope, as well as a sinful attitude toward the work of the Holy Spirit.

Mirus’ position is that whoever is elected Pope was permitted by God to take that office. But sometimes the new Pope is the result of the Cardinal electors cooperating with grace, and other times it is the result of them resisting God’s grace.

“There is no guarantee whatsoever that the choice will reflect God’s active will, though the choice of a particular man as pope obviously fits within God’s permissive will. To put the matter succinctly, the promptings of the Holy Spirit are as certainly real as they are frequently resisted.”

By permissive will, Mirus means merely that God permits it to occur. But all manner of grave sins and great harm occur in the world, with God permitting. So Mirus does not think that God’s providence actively chooses the Roman Pontiff. Then he asserts that the Holy Spirit offers graces, prompting the Cardinal electors to make a good choice, but supposedly this grace can be effectively resisted.

To the contrary, some graces from God cannot be resisted by human persons. Prevenient grace is given to human persons and is effective, without cooperation from the human person. Subsequent grace is offered, and may be accepted or rejected. And the providence of God is not merely permissive, letting all manner of harm occur. Especially concerning the Church, which is the Body of Christ, God’s providence actively guides and helps the Church. So I reject these claims by Mirus that the Cardinals resisted the graces of the Holy Spirit, and rejected the guidance of God, in electing the current Roman Pontiff.

Mirus goes on to state that it is “historically obvious” that “many deficient men … have been elected to the papacy over the centuries.” Not only has Jeff Mirus exalted himself above Pope Francis, to judge and condemn him, but he has the gall to stand in judgment over all the Popes.

To support his point, Mirus offers a strange list of Popes who are somehow “deficient” or “did not work out so well.” The list includes Pope Celestine V, who is a canonized Saint, and Pope John Paul I, whom Mirus hints was brought to an early death by God, 33 days into his pontificate, because he would not have been a good Pope. Pope John 22 makes the list because he taught an opinion, not as an act of the Magisterium, which turned out to be theologically incorrect. In describing other deficient Popes on his list, Mirus seems to assume that every accusation made against them must be true. His view of the papacy is like that of a secular historian, and not like that of a person of faith who sees every Pope as the successor to Peter and the Vicar of Christ.

Magisterium and Error

I’ll explain my differing view on the election of each Roman Pontiff in a moment. But first, I want to point out an error in the claims of Jeff Mirus about the Magisterium. His post states that God guarantees that “the Church’s Magisterial teachings will be completely free from error.” That claim is false. The non-infallible teachings of the Magisterium allow for a limited possibility of error and reform. Non-infallible teachings are authentic teachings of the Magisterium, but they are non-irreformable. They can be changed. Only the infallible teachings of the Magisterium are “completely free from error”.

The First Vatican Council infallibly taught the dogma of Papal Infallibility, which specifies the criteria which must be met for a papal teaching to be infallible. Only when papal teachings meet all of the criteria are the teachings infallible under Papal Infallibility. A similar set of criteria applies to Conciliar Infallibility, though then the Pope is teaching with the Council, not alone. And then the third way that the Magisterium teaches infallibly is through the ordinary and universal Magisterium. However, not every magisterial teaching is guaranteed to be completely free from error.

The claim that all magisterial teachings are completely free from error is necessarily incompatible with the dogma of Papal Infallibility. For Mirus is essentially saying that every teaching of the papal magisterium is free from all error, even when the criteria for Papal Infallibility taught by the First Vatican Council is not met. In other words, he is rejecting that dogma, and replacing it with the claim that no criteria are necessary, other than that a teaching be of the Magisterium.

And this error raises the question as to whether Mirus thinks that individual Bishops can teach under the Magisterium? If so, then are all the magisterial teachings of every individual Bishop completely free from error? The only other position would be to claim that Bishops can’t teach under the Magisterium.

To the contrary, the Church teaches that individual Bishops exercise the authentic Magisterium, but they lack the prerogative of infallibility [Lumen Gentium 25]. So the teachings of both the First and Second Vatican Councils contradict Mirus’ position. He has a poor understanding of Catholic doctrine, and yet he feels qualified and entitled to judge and condemn Popes.

My View of Papal Elections

Jesus chose the first Pope, Peter the Apostle, so let’s start there.

{16:15} Jesus said to them, “But who do you say that I am?”
{16:16} Simon Peter responded by saying, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”
{16:17} And in response, Jesus said to him: “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah. For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father, who is in heaven.
{16:18} And I say to you, that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of Hell shall not prevail against it.
{16:19} And I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven. And whatever you shall bind on earth shall be bound, even in heaven. And whatever you shall release on earth shall be released, even in heaven.”

Peter was chosen because he had faith, and that faith is a gift from God. It is not a merely human attribute, such as loyalty, nor a skill, such as eloquence. Peter and each of his successors is guaranteed by God to have the theological virtue of faith. For the Church is founded on the Rock that is Peter and his successors. But if the head goes astray, or loses the faith, then the Church would not remain secure, as a house on a rock. And this truth is further confirmed by another promise of Jesus.

{22:32} But I have prayed for you, so that your faith may not fail, and so that you, once converted, may confirm your brothers.”

Jesus has prayed for Peter and each of his successors, so that each will have a never-failing faith. And this interpretation of the Gospel is not merely my opinion, but the teaching of the First Vatican Council.

First, the Council quotes the words of the Fourth Council of Constantinople: “And since that saying of our lord Jesus Christ, ‘You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church’ [Mt 16:18], cannot fail of its effect, the words spoken are confirmed by their consequences. For in the Apostolic See the Catholic religion has always been preserved unblemished, and sacred doctrine been held in honor.”

Then the First Vatican Council asserts: “this See of St. Peter always remains unblemished by any error, in accordance with the divine promise of our Lord and Savior to the prince of his disciples: ‘I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail; and when you have turned again, strengthen your brethren.’ [Lk 22:32] ”

Finally, the Council draws the conclusion, from the above two Scripture verses as well as from past teachings of Ecumenical Councils, that: “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.”

Therefore, every Pope is guaranteed by God, as promised by Christ in the Gospels, as taught by the Ecumenical Councils, to have the gift of truth and of a faith that cannot fail. And therefore, each successor of Peter can ALWAYS be trusted to guide the Church as a whole, the Bishops and other clergy, and all the faithful.

How, then is this accomplished by God? And what role does the election of each successive Roman Pontiff play?

Mirus proposes that God’s permissive providence allows all manner of unfit men to become Pope, and he further claims that the grace of God can be thoroughly resisted by the Cardinal electors, so that a man will be elected who is unfit for the office. I disagree. The above teachings of Jesus and His Church are incompatible with that view.

Instead, we must hold that the providence of God actively assists the Cardinals in choosing each successive Pope. And though each Pope is a fallen sinner, God chooses him, for one reason or another. We cannot stand in judgment over the choice of each Pope, and thereby stand in judgment over God. Jesus chose Peter, and Jesus chooses, by grace and providence, each of Peter’s successors.

Perhaps Pope Celestine V was chosen to guide the Church by his example of holiness, since he is a canonized Saint. Perhaps Pope John 22nd was chosen to teach the Church that the faithful may licitly and morally hold a range of pious opinions, on matters of faith, morals, and salvation, until the Magisterium decides the questions. Perhaps Pope Alexander VI was chosen, being less sinful that his reputation today would claim, despite his sexual sins, for his other attributes in guiding the Church. Or perhaps he was chosen to show the Church the sins that are extensively prevalent among laity and clergy alike.

People used to say, “God works in mysterious ways.” Now they assume that, if anything occurs outside of their own understanding and preferences, God is not involved and the Church or its Head has gone astray.

What role does grace play?

It is not true, and it is a heresy, to say that men may resist every grace of God. The teaching of the Church is that some graces, many in fact, are of a type that do not involve even the possibility of cooperation by human persons. Some graces from God are given and received, regardless of whether the person is wicked or holy, with no possibility of rejection of those graces by the person.

So the idea is harmful, false, and heretical that the Cardinals of the Church, each of them ordained Bishops, can simply resist the providence and grace of God, to elect a Roman Pontiff, contrary to the will of God, to the harm of the Church.

Some Popes are, in fact, more sinful than others. Peter said to Christ, “Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.” (Lk 5:8). Saint Peter the Apostle remained a fallen sinner, even after he took the reins of the first papacy. But the degree of holiness of each Pope is not ours to judge. Now you might point out to me that Peter did betray Christ, denying him three times. But that grave sin against faith happened prior to the Crucifixion and Resurrection, prior to the reception by Peter of holy Orders, and certainly prior to the start of Peter’s papacy. After his papacy began, his faith never wavered.

But no Pope can ever teach material heresy, and no Pope can commit the sins of apostasy, heresy, or schism. For each Pope, Saint or sinner, has the gift of truth and of a faith that cannot fail. The prevenient grace of God ensures that each Pope will not lose faith or teach heresy.

Is each Pope positively chosen by God, or merely permitted by God, contrary to the promptings of his grace?

“We know that CORNELIUS, bishop of the most holy Catholic Church, was chosen by God almighty and by Christ our Lord….” [Denzinger 44]

The quoted assertion is from a group of former heretics and schismatics, who were, by these words, reconciled to the one true Church and to the authority of Pope St. Cornelius I (AD 251-253). The formula asserts that the Pope in question was chosen by God and by Christ.

The Council of Constance (AD 1414-1418) CONDEMNED the following claim: “If the pope lives in a manner contrary to Christ, even if he should ascend through legal and legitimate election according to the common human constitution, yet he would ascend from another place than through Christ, even though it be granted that he entered by an election made principally by God….” [Denzinger 650].

What is condemned here is essentially the idea that a bad Pope can be elected, validly, and yet not be the one chosen by Christ. So Mirus’ view has already been rejected by the Magisterium.

The Council of Florence: “We also define that the holy apostolic see and the Roman pontiff holds the primacy over the whole world and the Roman pontiff is the successor of blessed Peter prince of the apostles, and that he is the true vicar of Christ, the head of the whole church and the father and teacher of all Christians, and to him was committed in blessed Peter the full power of tending, ruling and governing the whole church, as is contained also in the acts of ecumenical councils and in the sacred canons.” [Florence, Session 6 in 1439]

This Council teaches that every successor of Peter is the true Vicar of Christ, and the true head of the Church. A man cannot be elected Pope who is so unworthy that he is not really the head of the Church, being supposedly excommunicated for teaching or holding heresy, nor can any man be elected who is not, in the fullest sense of the word, the true father and teacher of all Christians.

First Vatican Council: “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.”

How could it be true that every Pope has these gifts, the gift of truth and of a never-failing faith, if the Cardinal electors, and by extension the Pope himself, had only a bare minimum of providential care from God, and could resist the grace of God entirely? It could not be true. Mirus’ position is entirely untenable and faithless.

“It arises from the necessity of salvation that all the faithful of Christ are to be subject to the Roman Pontiff.” — Fifth Lateran Council

Pope Francis is:
* Our Holy Father
* Supreme Head of the whole Church
* Father and Teacher of all Christians
* Supreme Pontiff
* True Vicar of Christ
* Supreme and Universal Pastor
* Ruler of Christ’s whole fold
* Supreme Judge of the faithful
* Successor to Saint Peter
* Supreme Teacher of the Universal Church
* Rock on which the Church is founded
* Pilot and Helmsman of the Ark of Salvation

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

Please take a look at this list of my books and booklets, and see if any topic interests you.

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4 Responses to What is the role of the Holy Spirit in papal elections?

  1. Francisco says:

    [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.

    [John 3]
    {3:27} … “A man is not able to receive anything, unless it has been given to him from heaven.

    [John 19]
    {19:11} Jesus responded, “You would not have any authority over me, unless it were given to you from above. For this reason, he who has handed me over to you has the greater sin.”

    If the Lord talks about authorities in general, how much more it is when it is regarding HIS OWN CHURCH! that is indefectible and built on the Rock.

  2. Francisco says:

    {20:28} Take care of yourselves and of the entire flock, over which the Holy Spirit has stationed you as Bishops to rule the Church of God, which he has purchased by his own blood.

  3. Guest says:

    I am a convert. Many of these people now attacking the pope used to talk about the pope being rather the rock and that every Catholic must submit to the magisterium. Were these people insincere? They don’t really submit to a pope or a magisterium, but rather to concepts in their minds. But the living magisterium is what decides what is truly Catholic, not what they interpret the magisterium to have taught. That is the error of traditionalists. They decide what is Catholic, regardless of what the pope and bishops in union with him say is Catholic.

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