Father Hunwicke, always a good read, has written that even the Roman Pontiff is subject to the Word of God. Now there is something not often said out loud. As good as it is, it does seem to make me vaguely recall a 16th Century Movement sometimes called the Reformation that presumed to make exactly that point. Popes can err. Councils can be wrong. The Word of the Lord endures forever -- it does not change nor can it speak one message to one people and another message to another.
The problem of the papacy is not the idea of such an office but the practice in which popes become elevated above Scripture or presume to possess revelation that can trump Scripture. This is a basic principle of Catholic Theology. Joseph Ratzinger memorably asserted "The Pope's authority is bound to the Tradition of Faith ... [it] is not unlimited; it is at the service of Sacred Tradition". This chimes with the teaching of Vatican I, that the Holy Spirit was not
given to popes to proclaim new doctrine, but to defend and to put forth
the Deposit of Faith, the Tradition received through the Apostles. (Italics refer to Fr. Hunwicke)
The Lutheran Reformation was at its heart a conflict over authority -- the authority of God's Word to norm popes, bishops, councils, etc... It was certainly over justification by grace through faith but the real issue at the heart of it all was what truth was trustworthy and true, strong enough on which to hang the hope of redemption. What Word did not lie or deceive or change or adapt. What Word was the norming norm of all that the Church believed, taught, and confessed.
If what we believe, confess, and teach has no basis in Scripture -- no foundation in the Word of the Lord that endures forever -- then by what right do we preach it and teach it? How can we bind the conscience of man to that which is not eternally and everywhere true?
In essence, the Reformation has become an even more urgent cause in a day when Popes seem to flirt with doctrine as if it were all the prerogative of his office and culture considers feelings to be more certain and true than the Word of the Lord endures forever. In the end what the Reformation was about is the eternal question. Lord, where can we go to hear the Word of eternal life but to You, to the Word that endures forever, and to the one constant in a world of change? Christ alone has the words of eternal life, so said Peter so long ago, and so do we struggle to say it today.
Much has been made of the idea that were it not for the authority of the Catholic Church I would not have believed (so said St. Augustine) but the authority of the Catholic Church is not an authority apart from or in contradistinction to the authority of the Word that endures forever. Indeed, this Word is the only real authority. Augustine can equally be quoted to affirm that it is the Word that gives to the Church her authority to act and speak and apart from the Word.
“The Fathers of the Church, St. Augustine above all, themselves
practiced that devotion derived from Scripture, whose ideal the
Protestants steadily upheld; they hardly knew any other. No doubt they
were much more careful than many Protestants not to isolate the Word of
God in its settled form of Scripture from its living form in the Church,
particularly in the liturgy. But, this reserve apart…they were no less
enthusiastic, or insistent, or formal, in recommending this use of
Scripture and in actually promoting it. Particularly from St. John
Chrysostom, one might assemble exhortations and injunctions couched in
the most forcible terms; they have often been recalled by those
Protestants, from the sixteenth century onwards, the best grounded in
Christian antiquity. It would be impossible to find, even among
Protestants, statements more sweeping than those in which St. Jerome
abounds: Ignoratio scripturarum, ignoratio Christi is doubtless the most
lapidary, but not necessarily the most explicit. What is more, in this
case just as when the authority of Scripture is viewed as the
foundation of theology, the constant practice of the Church, in the
Middle Ages as well as in the patristic times, is a more eloquent
witness than all the doctors…For them, it was not simply one source
among others, but the source par excellence, in a sense the only one.”
Bouyer, The Spirit and Forms of Protestantism (Cleveland: World
Publishing, 1964), pp. 132-133. Translated by A.V. Littledale. First
published by Les Editions du Cerf, Paris, 1954.