Year in Review 2013
Is Infallibility Fallible?
Editors' Note: This article is part of a Public Square conversation on 2013 in Review. Read other perspectives here.
The pink smoke from the Vatican has turned into a rosy dawn. Not just the major religious story of the year but possibly of the decade, the arrival of Pope Francis has been earth-quaking and ground-shaking and theology-making. He is seismic, spiritually. Whether he names "unfettered capitalism," or thinking of the poor first, or lifting the ban on speech about women and power, or declining to judge people who are gay, he shakes things up. This week he demoted a conservative U.S. bishop who until now had a key role in vetting candidates for other episcopal appointments. The demoted bishop had publicly criticized Francis for suggesting that the church might wish to talk about things other than abortion and homosexuality.
The seismic impact is felt not just in what Francis pulls off the closet shelf but also in the way he addresses the issues. He exhibits a hard-to-imitate sincerity in a world where sincerity itself is often contaminated with spin. From the kind of car he drives to the kind of shoes he wears, this pope demonstrates genuine humility in a milieu where the "holy haughty" have typically—and hypocritically—reigned over Christendom.
Francis works undoctrinally and post-doctrinally while maintaining respect for the cement factory that theology has become for so many, and not just Catholics. The bricks of abused authority are crumbling, and I would not be at all surprised to see the doctrine of papal infallibility either ignored or neglected or just quietly undermined.
Every time you forge a new way, you are (with or without conscious intent) critiquing the past. You might even be acknowledging that "God is still speaking," the theological claim made by the (Protestant) United Church of Christ. That claim indirectly taunted the doctrine of infallibility, a doctrine that ostensibly applies only to the ecclesial but wears the brocaded robes of so much more.
If something new can happen, then by implication at least some of what was asserted in past was not infallible. I don't want to go too far too soon. Let us consider this to be a whisper from the unfettered God. God is being unchained from the theological concrete under which God has festered, fettered, for centuries.
Thank you, Pope Francis.
Rev. Dr. Donna Schaper is Senior Minister of the Judson Memorial Church in New York City and the author of thirty-one books, including, most recently, Grace at Table: Small Spiritual Solutions to Large Spiritual Problems.