by Rene De Cramer
by Rene De Cramer
I am a Roman Catholic. And I mean that in the sense that I come with all the trappings. 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 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, all these terms (like "infallibility") that the Church uses aren't 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.
Infallibility is not a license to say anything or do anything you want and have it be binding on the Church no matter how contradictory or how wrong it is.
Infallibility is more of a restriction on the human tendency toward madness and the lust for power than it is anything like a license to wallow in them unchecked.
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 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.