Peter, Trump, and Francis | Carl E. Olson | CWR
No pope and no body of bishops—or laity, for that matter—have the authority to change, revise, reverse, alter, or fundamentally rework what has been gifted to the Mystical Body of Christ in Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture.
Last summer, while visiting family in Montana, I had a conversation with my brother-in-law—an Evangelical Protestant—about the papacy in general and the pontificate of Francis specifically. Chris's questions were very thoughtful and not contentious in any way; he was genuinely interested in what Catholics believe about the pope. So, for instance, he asked a common and understandable question: "Is the pope able to change doctrine or belief?" The question, he added, was inspired in part because he had read Francis was trying to change Church teaching in some ways; it was both confusing and fascinating to someone who had a master's degree from an Evangelical seminary and also had a certain level of interest in things Catholic.
My response was threefold. First, I said, it's essential to understand the Church teaches that Jesus Christ gave the apostles what is called "the deposit of faith"—consisting of Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture—and that the apostles, in turn, entrusted this depositum fidei "to the whole of the Church" (CCC 84ff; cf Dei Verbum 10). This body of belief and doctrinal truth cannot be changed or altered, but can be—must be!—defended, defined, explained, explicated, and otherwise conveyed. However, the "task of authentically interpreting the word of God, whether written or handed on, has been entrusted exclusively to the living teaching office of the Church..." (DV 10)
Secondly, I told Chris, the pope holds a unique place in the Magisterium, or teaching office, of the Church. So, for instance, the "task of interpretation [of the deposit of faith] has been entrusted to the bishops in communion with the successor of Peter, the Bishop of Rome"; the Petrine office, in other words, always has a central and essential role in "unpacking" this deposit of faith.
Third, it's vital to understand that no pope and no body of bishops—or laity, for that matter—have the authority to change, revise, reverse, alter, or fundamentally rework what has been gifted to the Mystical Body of Christ in Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture. This is why the Second Vatican Council stated, "This teaching office is not above the word of God, but serves it, teaching only what has been handed on, listening to it devoutly, guarding it scrupulously and explaining it faithfully in accord with a divine commission and with the help of the Holy Spirit, it draws from this one deposit of faith everything which it presents for belief as divinely revealed" (DV 10; cf CCC 86)
I then said (perhaps not as well or as clearly as I hoped) that the authority of the pope is both tremendous and remarkably limited. It's not just that the pope cannot change anything in divine revelation, but that his office is one largely defined by negative powers. That is, the pope rarely puts forth "new" ideas or interpretations, but far more often exercises his authority by saying, "No, that is false" or "No, that is heretical" or "No, that is unbalanced". And when he does define some particular point, it is almost always in order to save it from a false, mishapen, or lacking interpretation. Thus:
But when either the Roman Pontiff or the Body of Bishops together with him defines a judgment, they pronounce it in accordance with Revelation itself, which all are obliged to abide by and be in conformity with, that is, the Revelation which as written or orally handed down is transmitted in its entirety through the legitimate succession of bishops and especially in care of the Roman Pontiff himself, and which under the guiding light of the Spirit of truth is religiously preserved and faithfully expounded in the Church. The Roman Pontiff and the bishops, in view of their office and the importance of the matter, by fitting means diligently strive to inquire properly into that revelation and to give apt expression to its contents; but a new public revelation they do not accept as pertaining to the divine deposit of faith. (Lumen Gentium, 25; emphasis added)
All of that is an introduction of sorts to some excerpts from a few recent articles about Pope Francis and what he is doing—or seems to be doing.