by Rene De Cramer
by Rene De Cramer
I believe Jesus Christ is God incarnate, that Mary is His Mother and, in tern, the mother of all the living, I believe that Christ gathered 12 apostles and made Peter their head, an office that was passed down in an unbroken line to the current Pope and that every current bishop can trace a Sacramental lineage of ordination by the laying on of hands back to one of the apostles, preserving the Truth for all the ages of the earth. There's a lot more, but this paragraph alone should be controversial enough to assure everyone that I am, in fact, uncompromisingly Catholic.
I also believe in papal infallibility, which is practically a bad word to most of the people that I know.
It seems to me that most people who have a problem with this demonstrably have no clue what it means, so let me explain what it isn't:
- It does not mean that I think that the Pope is God or a divine person in any sense of the word.
- It does not mean that I believe that everything the Pope chooses to say is true.
- It does not mean that I believe that the Pope can not or does not commit sin.
- It does not mean that the Pope can declare anything that he wants to be an infallible teaching any time he wants without restriction.
Believe it or not, terms like "infallibility" are not just words that the Church just grabbed out of the air and left for anyone to define based on what they sound like or how they are used in the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries. They are actually strictly defined legal terms. In places like England and the United States, countries that are founded largely on anti-Catholic prejudice and revisionist history, criticisms against Catholic doctrines are often based on how scary a particular word can be made to sound outside the cultural and historical context in which it is used, not upon the actual doctrine.
The term "infallibility" refers to the doctrine of the Catholic Church that maintains that her dogmas are protected by the Holy Spirit. What is often misunderstood is that this protective action is most commonly understood to operate through the ordinary structure and law of the Church. Where many non-Catholic Christians see the Holy Spirit as something like a mystical force that mysteriously guides the actions of individuals and causes spectacular miracles, the Church usually identifies it as operating through the mundane procedures of Her hierarchical structure. Yes, of course the Holy Spirit can move outside of this mundane definition of its action and into the realm of the spectacular, but the reality is that most of what God does through the action of the Holy Spirit appears to be rather mundane and ordinary. This is illustrated through many of the miracles of the Old Testament. Normally, a miracle was actually something that could happen naturally, but what made it amazing was that it happened when and how God said that it would. What was the first miracle that happened when the Holy Spirit swept through the upper room and poured into the Apostles? They went outside and talked to people in their respective languages. They also healed people and drove out demons, of course, but we usually talk about them speaking in tongues, which is really a miracle that would be pretty easy to miss even if you were standing right there witnessing it. It's perfectly possible for a man to speak a different language. On the surface it would seem pretty mundane. Miraculous things happen within the structure of the Church every day that people dismiss because they don't seem to be spectacular. One of them is that the Church's dogmas are preserved in spite of the comings and goings of many corrupt bishops and popes. What makes this a miracle is not that it is an explosive, obvious spectacle. It is a miracle because Christ said it would happen and it does happen every day.
The way that this happens is what seems to throw off the Church's critics. They expect that this claim is supposed to manifest through the spectacle of a pope who is incapable of committing sin. When they don't see this they point and cry out that the concept of infallibility is hypocrisy. They are looking for a spectacle and when they don't see it, they assume the miracle has not taken place. They forget that it was Christ who appointed the first pope and that the man he appointed would commit apostasy before taking that office. Christ asserts that Peter will maintain that office even after he apostatized. If this is the case, Christ's assertion that the gates of Hell will not prevail against the Church he has promised to build upon the foundation of Peter cannot be dependent upon Peter being sinless or incapable of making any kind of judicial mistake. Peter was guilty of one of the very worst sins possible and took the office in the midst of committing it. The infallibility of the Church is not contingent upon the corruptibility of a pope. The Catholic teaching on infallibility reflects this in every way.
The problem is that most non-Catholics don't understand that papal infallibility is a dogma of the Catholic Church that restricts popes from abusing their power. Not a sneaky distortion of scripture that allows them to get away with whatever they like. Nor is it a claim that a pope is morally perfect or that he is expected to be. It is a rare instance in which the Church herself enforces Christ's promise that her dogmas will not go unprotected upon the actions of a pope. If anything it is an acknowledgement of the moral weakness of human beings, specifically popes.
Just as the "just war doctrine" is not an excuse to justify wars, but an intense restriction against war, papal infallibility, in all my studies of it, seems to restrict the abuse of power more than just about any underpinning of the Catholic world. In it's simplest terms, an infallible statement can only be made by the Pope in a very specific context: It can't contradict Sacred Tradition, It can't contradict Sacred Scripture, it can't contradict dogma and it can't contradict the Church's interpretation of Sacred Scripture. Basically, it cannot contradict anything that comes before it. It also isn't passive, meaning, it doesn't mean that anything that the Pope says that fits those criteria is an infallible declaration. It's an attribute of the Church that has to be invoked on purpose.
All of these things are very easy to check by just about anyone who can read, which means that the simple definition I just gave you greatly restricts what an infallible statement can be.
Another attribute of infallible dogmatic declarations (outside of the canonization of Saints) is that they are relatively rare by the standards of the modern secular world and the ones that have been made have ONLY been declarations of things that the Church already taught for it's entire history before the declarations were made. It pretty much only happens if a particular Tradition of the Church is being attacked or misunderstood by that generation. To drive this home, the last infallible Dogmatic declaration to be made by a Pope was made on November 1st, 1950. The next one before that was on the 8th of December, 1854. That means that one of the most despised beliefs that I hold has, in fact, never been witnessed actually happening in the entire course of my own lifetime or even within my father's lifetime.
Though they don't necessarily have to be, these declarations are usually made in unity with the entire Magisterium.
Magisterium is another scary word that just means, for simplicity's sake, all of the Catholic bishops on the face of the earth (there are like 5,133 of them.) The Pope is actually one of these bishops. The Bishop of Rome. He's only different because the Bishop of Rome is the head of the bishops, filling the office of Peter. In most regards, he's literally just a bishop and does the same job as the rest of them. I'm being honest here, on most days, you'll find the Pope performing all the exact same duties as the Bishop of Nashville, Tennessee, and if you didn't know anything about what the pope looked like other than the vestments he wore at a liturgy and the duties he performed, I could take you to my own church for the Easter Vigil and point at Bishop Choby and say, "there's the Pope," and you'd have no real way to prove it wasn't him.
The Pope's office is extraordinary, as is the office of every Bishop as we believe that these offices were established by Christ Himself, but the man who fills that office, in every respect, is just another guy. He can sin, he goes to confession regularly in fact, just like every other Catholic is called to do, he can make mistakes in conversation, even when talking about the teachings of the Church. Literally anything any other guy could succeed at or fail at. Seriously, any Baptized male is eligible to become the Pope, even if he wasn't necessarily baptized in the Catholic Tradition. So what does infallibility effectively do if even the most uneducated person can hold the office? I think the most important answer that I can give you is that it literally makes it impossible for even the most blundering idiot to declare a dogma that goes against the Tradition of the Church or it's exegesis of scripture. A guy could become Pope and go out on the balcony the next second and tell you that it's okay to steal anything you want and, while this would be a horrible thing for him to do, the dogmas of the Church would be protected from him. Dogmatically, nothing would change. The Church would continue teaching that stealing is wrong. But, infallibility ALSO gives him the authority to be the final say in any debate within the context of those dogmas, which keeps the Church from sliding off into disunity and chaos.
That means that if the Pope says something that goes against Church teaching in an off the cuff interview on an airplane after a very long and tiring trip and the media has a field day with it and people start pointing at me as if they have me trapped in a contradiction, I don't have to defend him outside of the benefit of the doubt you might give a regular guy. I'm free to disagree with him and I am free, even, to convict him of his responsibility toward those who he is responsible for teaching and who listen to him.
It also means that the Pope can say something in an encyclical about how we are custodians of our environment (which is actually a Church teaching) and then say in the same document that climate change is the number one problem in that regard (an opinion) and I might agree with him and I might not. One of those statements is a reference to a doctrine. The other is an opinion about how that doctrine should be applied to a specific situation. I'm not subject to the personal opinions of any man and neither are you.
But the infallible teachings of the Church? That's something I'm not ashamed to subject myself to at all.