The Pope: Rock or Stumbling-Block?

I recently ran across this reflection about “popes” from Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (B16, now Pope Emeritus)…

“We have grown accustomed to making a clear distinction between Peter the rock and Peter the denier of Christ—the denier of Christ: that is Peter as he was before Easter; the rock: that is Peter as he was after Pentecost, the Peter of whom we have constructed a singularly idealistic image. But, in reality, he was at both times both of these…. Has it not been thus throughout the history of the Church that the pope, the successor of Peter, has been at once Petra and Skandalon—both the rock of God and a stumbling-block? In fact, the faithful will always have to reckon with this paradox of the divine dispensation that shames their pride again and again.”1

I’m typically a “big picture” type of guy and I like taking the long view. One could take a long view of Judeo-Christian history in terms of leadership, like reviewing the “good” vs. “bad” kings of Israel and then the “good” vs. “bad” popes of Church history. Seems to me we’ve had a pretty good run of popes in the past 100 years or so with the current papacy in a TBD category or perhaps “stumbling-block under construction”.

But another interesting way to look at Church history is via the history of heresy. I have a comprehensive list of all the major heresies courtesy of study materials from “Epic: A Journey Through Church History” and there seems to be a trend of sorts.


In the early Church (2nd & 3rd centuries) a major theme in heresy had to do with the nature of God:

  • Gnosticism – Matter is evil and spirit is good; God is the creator of heaven (good), not earth (evil).
  • Modalism – Denied the separate Persons of the Trinity.
  • Monarchianism – God is one Person, not three.


During the 4th – 7th centuries a major theme had to do with the nature of Jesus:

  • Arianism – Denied the divinity of Christ. Jesus was a created being.
  • Nestorianism – Christ is two persons (divine and human) and only the human person was in the womb. Therefore, Mary is not the Mother of God
  • Monothelitism – Christ has only one divine nature and therefore one divine Will


Moving on to the 14th– 16th centuries a major theme had to do with the nature of The Church:

  • John Wycliffe – Denied Transubstantiation, papal authority; predecessor to Protestantism
  • Jan Hus – Denied Sacred Tradition as part of the Deposit of Faith; predecessor to Protestantism
  • Protestantism – Scripture alone, faith alone, denied papal authority, free will, sacrificial nature of the priesthood, sacraments, etc.


Seems that heresy in today’s postmodern world has a lot to do with the nature of man

  • Modernism – Faith and reason are opposed; an anti-Catholic worldview
  • Relativism – Right and wrong are relative to the individual or culture
  • Absolute Autonomy – BYOG…Be your own god!


Note: How ironic that even the question “What is the nature of man?” is seen as sexist and will invoke a politically correct reaction relating to the very problem it asks about.

Being more specific about heresy in our day and age, I think it’s fair to say that almost all dissent from Catholic teaching involves what it means to be human in terms of human life and human sexuality. Abortion, euthanasia, artificial fertilization methods, homosexuality, marriage confusion, gender confusion, contraception, women’s ordination, fornication, divorce and remarriage all relate to what it means to be human, both male & female.

If you’ve been concerned about things the Pope and other Church leaders have said or written lately, like “Who am I to Judge?” or the now infamous footnote #351 of Amoris Laetitia, you might also be concerned about what is not being said or written in the face of modern heresy; sometimes the silence is deafening. Instead of boldly speaking Truth to power consistently, lovingly and intelligently, some leaders seem to be compromising the ideals of Catholicism by softening the hard lines of Catholic moral teaching with respect to what it means to be human.

The Church councils of the past addressed the heresies of the past and the Nicene Creed we say at each Mass reflects the clarity which was ultimately achieved:

  • I believe in one God…(clarity about the nature of God)
  • I believe in one Lord Jesus Christ… (clarity about the nature of Jesus)
  • I believe in one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church…(clarity about the nature of the Church)

It’s also no coincidence that the very first pillar of the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches at great length about the creed, since it is foundational for the other three pillars.

The Church can be very clear when she wants to be. Maybe one day there’ll be a new council and then a new section to the creed all about the nature of man. In the meantime, what are we to do? I’m not exactly sure, but I do know this much…“Faith in the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church requires us to soldier on, minding our consciences, upholding the truth out of love, and avoiding evil and false doctrine.”2


  1. Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Co-workers of the Truth: Meditations for Every Day of the Year (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 1992) p. 208.
  2. Richard Rex, First Things [Website], “A Church in Doubt”, (1 April 2018), Site address:

More to explorer


  1. “Maybe one day there’ll be a new council and then a new section to the creed all about the nature of man.” I doubt it, for the same reason I doubt there will be a section on the logical principle of non-contradiction. The Creed is about truths we could not know without divine revelation, not about what can be known by unaided human reason. It is possible to know the currently controversial truths about human nature even without the gift of faith, but it is also possible to ignore or deny them.

  2. I find myself exclaiming, “Truly this Pope is a successor of Peter,”
    more and more often these days.

  3. Hi Ben – this might be what you are looking for
    Paragraph 6. Man
    355 “God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him, male and female he created them.” Man occupies a unique place in creation: (I) he is “in the image of God”; (II) in his own nature he unites the spiritual and material worlds; (III) he is created “male and female”; (IV) God established him in his friendship.
    356 Of all visible creatures only man is “able to know and love his creator”. He is “the only creature on earth that God has willed for its own sake”,and he alone is called to share, by knowledge and love, in God’s own life. It was for this end that he was created, and this is the fundamental reason for his dignity:
    What made you establish man in so great a dignity? Certainly the incalculable love by which you have looked on your creature in yourself! You are taken with love for her; for by love indeed you created her, by love you have given her a being capable of tasting your eternal Good.
    357 Being in the image of God the human individual possesses the dignity of a person, who is not just something, but someone. He is capable of self-knowledge, of self-possession and of freely giving himself and entering into communion with other persons. And he is called by grace to a covenant with his Creator, to offer him a response of faith and love that no other creature can give in his stead.
    358 God created everything for man, but man in turn was created to serve and love God and to offer all creation back to him:
    What is it that is about to be created, that enjoys such honor? It is man that great and wonderful living creature, more precious in the eyes of God than all other creatures! For him the heavens and the earth, the sea and all the rest of creation exist. God attached so much importance to his salvation that he did not spare his own Son for the sake of man. Nor does he ever cease to work, trying every possible means, until he has raised man up to himself and made him sit at his right hand.
    359 “In reality it is only in the mystery of the Word made flesh that the mystery of man truly becomes clear.”
    St. Paul tells us that the human race takes its origin from two men: Adam and Christ. . . The first man, Adam, he says, became a living soul, the last Adam a life-giving spirit. The first Adam was made by the last Adam, from whom he also received his soul, to give him life. . . The second Adam stamped his image on the first Adam when he created him. That is why he took on himself the role and the name of the first Adam, in order that he might not lose what he had made in his own image. The first Adam, the last Adam: the first had a beginning, the last knows no end. The last Adam is indeed the first; as he himself says: “I am the first and the last.”
    360 Because of its common origin the human race forms a unity, for “from one ancestor [God] made all nations to inhabit the whole earth”:
    O wondrous vision, which makes us contemplate the human race in the unity of its origin in God. . . in the unity of its nature, composed equally in all men of a material body and a spiritual soul; in the unity of its immediate end and its mission in the world; in the unity of its dwelling, the earth, whose benefits all men, by right of nature, may use to sustain and develop life; in the unity of its supernatural end: God himself, to whom all ought to tend; in the unity of the means for attaining this end;. . . in the unity of the redemption wrought by Christ for all.
    361 “This law of human solidarity and charity”, without excluding the rich variety of persons, cultures and peoples, assures us that all men are truly brethren.
    362 The human person, created in the image of God, is a being at once corporeal and spiritual. The biblical account expresses this reality in symbolic language when it affirms that “then the LORD God formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being.” Man, whole and entire, is therefore willed by God.
    363 In Sacred Scripture the term “soul” often refers to human life or the entire human person. But “soul” also refers to the innermost aspect of man, that which is of greatest value in him, that by which he is most especially in God’s image: “soul” signifies the spiritual principle in man.
    364 The human body shares in the dignity of “the image of God”: it is a human body precisely because it is animated by a spiritual soul, and it is the whole human person that is intended to become, in the body of Christ, a temple of the Spirit:
    Man, though made of body and soul, is a unity. Through his very bodily condition he sums up in himself the elements of the material world. Through him they are thus brought to their highest perfection and can raise their voice in praise freely given to the Creator. For this reason man may not despise his bodily life. Rather he is obliged to regard his body as good and to hold it in honor since God has created it and will raise it up on the last day.
    365 The unity of soul and body is so profound that one has to consider the soul to be the “form” of the body: i.e., it is because of its spiritual soul that the body made of matter becomes a living, human body; spirit and matter, in man, are not two natures united, but rather their union forms a single nature.
    366 The Church teaches that every spiritual soul is created immediately by God – it is not “produced” by the parents – and also that it is immortal: it does not perish when it separates from the body at death, and it will be reunited with the body at the final Resurrection.
    367 Sometimes the soul is distinguished from the spirit: St. Paul for instance prays that God may sanctify his people “wholly”, with “spirit and soul and body” kept sound and blameless at the Lord’s coming. The Church teaches that this distinction does not introduce a duality into the soul. “Spirit” signifies that from creation man is ordered to a supernatural end and that his soul can gratuitously be raised beyond all it deserves to communion with God.
    368 The spiritual tradition of the Church also emphasizes the heart, in the biblical sense of the depths of one’s being, where the person decides for or against God.
    Equality and difference willed by God
    369 Man and woman have been created, which is to say, willed by God: on the one hand, in perfect equality as human persons; on the other, in their respective beings as man and woman. “Being man” or “being woman” is a reality which is good and willed by God: man and woman possess an inalienable dignity which comes to them immediately from God their Creator.Man and woman are both with one and the same dignity “in the image of God”. In their “being-man” and “being-woman”, they reflect the Creator’s wisdom and goodness.
    370 In no way is God in man’s image. He is neither man nor woman. God is pure spirit in which there is no place for the difference between the sexes. But the respective “perfections” of man and woman reflect something of the infinite perfection of God: those of a mother and those of a father and husband.
    “Each for the other” – “A unity in two”
    371 God created man and woman together and willed each for the other. The Word of God gives us to understand this through various features of the sacred text. “It is not good that the man should be alone. I will make him a helper fit for him.” None of the animals can be man’s partner. The woman God “fashions” from the man’s rib and brings to him elicits on the man’s part a cry of wonder, an exclamation of love and communion: “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh.” Man discovers woman as another “I”, sharing the same humanity.
    372 Man and woman were made “for each other” – not that God left them half-made and incomplete: he created them to be a communion of persons, in which each can be “helpmate” to the other, for they are equal as persons (“bone of my bones. . .”) and complementary as masculine and feminine. In marriage God unites them in such a way that, by forming “one flesh”, they can transmit human life: “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth.”By transmitting human life to their descendants, man and woman as spouses and parents cooperate in a unique way in the Creator’s work.
    373 In God’s plan man and woman have the vocation of “subduing” the earth as stewards of God. This sovereignty is not to be an arbitrary and destructive domination. God calls man and woman, made in the image of the Creator “who loves everything that exists”,to share in his providence toward other creatures; hence their responsibility for the world God has entrusted to them.
    374 The first man was not only created good, but was also established in friendship with his Creator and in harmony with himself and with the creation around him, in a state that would be surpassed only by the glory of the new creation in Christ.
    375 The Church, interpreting the symbolism of biblical language in an authentic way, in the light of the New Testament and Tradition, teaches that our first parents, Adam and Eve, were constituted in an original “state of holiness and justice”.This grace of original holiness was “to share in. . .divine life”.
    376 By the radiance of this grace all dimensions of man’s life were confirmed. As long as he remained in the divine intimacy, man would not have to suffer or die. The inner harmony of the human person, the harmony between man and woman, and finally the harmony between the first couple and all creation, comprised the state called “original justice”.
    377 The “mastery” over the world that God offered man from the beginning was realized above all within man himself: mastery of self. The first man was unimpaired and ordered in his whole being because he was free from the triple concupiscencethat subjugates him to the pleasures of the senses, covetousness for earthly goods, and self-assertion, contrary to the dictates of reason.
    378 The sign of man’s familiarity with God is that God places him in the garden.There he lives “to till it and keep it”. Work is not yet a burden, but rather the collaboration of man and woman with God in perfecting the visible creation.
    379 This entire harmony of original justice, foreseen for man in God’s plan, will be lost by the sin of our first parents.
    380 “Father,. . . you formed man in your own likeness and set him over the whole world to serve you, his creator, and to rule over all creatures” (Roman Missal, EP IV, 118).
    381 Man is predestined to reproduce the image of God’s Son made man, the “image of the invisible God” (Col 1:15), so that Christ shall be the first-born of a multitude of brothers and sisters (cf. Eph 1:3-6; Rom 8:29).
    382 “Man, though made of body and soul, is a unity” (GS 14 § 1). The doctrine of the faith affirms that the spiritual and immortal soul is created immediately by God.
    383 “God did not create man a solitary being. From the beginning, “male and female he created them” (Gen 1:27). This partnership of man and woman constitutes the first form of communion between persons” (GS 12 § 4).
    384 Revelation makes known to us the state of original holiness and justice of man and woman before sin: from their friendship with God flowed the happiness of their existence in paradise.

  4. Anzlyne,
    It’s in the CCC, yes, but not part of the Nicene Creed.
    The CCC reminds me of that old spaghetti sauce commercial…”It’s in there!” A sure norm for the faith.

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