The Dowager Pope and the (Very) Fallible Media


How long can stupid go on? The renunciation of the papacy by Pope Benedict XVI is certainly providing a test case. Not only is the MSM uncharacteristically obsessed with the story—more so, from what I can tell, than many Catholic commentators and even your average Catholic-in-the-pew-a-couple-of-times-a-month—but it continues to heap ignorant on ignorant in truly unprecedented fashion.

Like today. I mean, we know that when it comes to Catholicism the New York Times is unlikely to Get Religion. But the  story that hit the Times’ website about an hour ago contained twaddle so egregious it just made me go, well, Gaaaaaaaaaaaaaaahhhh.

I’m not referring to Ross Douthat’s op-ed wondering whether this is the end of a Catholic Moment with a capital-M. It may or may not be, but Ross gets religion, especially his own, fairly well. No, I’m looking at the Vatican Memo from Rachel Donadio headlined What Do You Call a Retired Pope? And Is He Still Infallible?

I’ll admit to joining the speculation on the first question. My own Downton-influenced preference would be Dowager Pontiff, because I think that even in retirement Papa Ratzinger might have some choice Maggie Smithlike pronouncements to share. On the second question, however, to which Ms Donadio devotes most of the two-page memo, there’s just one answer.

No. Gaaaaaaaaaaaaahhhh.

No matter how profound or witty, no Dowager Pontiff’s pronouncements would be infallible. And that’s nowhere near the conundrum the article makes it out to be.

In transforming an office with an aura of divinity into something far more human, Benedict’s decision has sent shock waves through the Vatican hierarchy, who next month will elect his successor. But it has also puzzled the faithful and scholars, who wonder how a pope can be infallible one day and fallible again the next — and whether that might undermine the authority of church teaching.

Benedict stunned the world last week when he said that he would retire on Feb. 28, a decision he said he had made “in full liberty and for the good of the church.” Even as the Vatican has tried to play down the confusion, saying that Canon Law provides for a clear transfer of power if a pope resigns, the implications of Benedict’s act remain unclear.

“What is the status of an ex-pope?” asked Ken Pennington, a professor of ecclesiastical and legal history at the Catholic University of America in Washington. “We have no rules about that at all. What is his title? What are his powers? Does he lose infallibility?”

Not quite sure why Professor Pennington has his knickers in a twist. The answer (clear to anyone with the vaguest grasp of ecclesiastical history, or common sense) is that infallibility resides in the office, not the man. Can’t quite imagine why that’s so difficult to understand. An ex-president is no longer the Commander in Chief, and does not retain executive powers. The ecclesiogical parallels are not exact, but close enough.

Ms Donadio actually includes (or more accurately, buries) the correct, non-puzzling answer to the Pennington Quandary in the next paragraph but one.

The Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, has repeatedly said that Canon Law ensures the infallibility of Benedict’s successor, and that once he retires, Benedict will no longer have the authority to promulgate dogma.

But apparently that’s not juicy enough to fill two pages of whatiffery in what, long ago, was an actual newspaper. (You know, one in which reporters answered the whoiffery, whatiffery, wheniffery, whereiffery, and whyiffery themselves before deadline, most of the time by interviewing people who actually had a clue.) Nope, back we go to Professor Pennington’s theological angst.

Still, many remain puzzled by the larger implications. “From a theological point of view, how can a person be considered to be infallible and not be infallible anymore?” Mr. Pennington asked.

And we get more wish fulfillment from Eamon Duffy, a Cambridge historian. Duffy, who is shocked, shocked I tell you that the pope seems to have defied a 150-year-old tradition of acting in the person of Christ (hello, 150 years? try as long as there’s been a papacy), which Duffy seems to think makes Catholics worship the pope as a deity (say what?), is sure that this “taboo-breaking” move will undermine the Church’s teaching authority forever:

That the supreme pontiff can pass authority to his successor at retirement rather than death inevitably introduces more ambiguity to the authority of church doctrine, some scholars say, since it calls into question the authority of the pontiff who promulgated that doctrine. “Benedict actually by resigning has introduced some cracks into that infallibility. It’s bound to relativize doctrine,” Mr. MacCullough said.

No. The only thing it’s bound to do is make academics break out crapwords like relativize.

But it’s not just academics. Italian journalists, Ms Donadio finds, are also really worried about HOW THE FAITHFUL WILL KNOW WHAT’S WHAT. She says “experts and prelates are worried,” but cites no nailbiting members of the hierarchy.

Although the Vatican has tried to play down concerns, experts and prelates worry what it will mean to have two popes alive at the same time, and both living inside the Vatican.

“It’s completely uncharted waters,” said Andrea Tornielli, a Vatican expert for the Turin daily La Stampa and Vatican Insider. “They say they’re calm about it, but it’s not easy to say what the role of the new pope will be. Will the new pope be able to create new decisions that go against those of Benedict? It’s a question.”

Yeah. A question of How clueless can you get? The answer to Tornielli’s question, btw, is Yes, a new pope will be able to issue statements and preside over synods and councils that may produce doctrinal reflections that run counter to those of Pope Benedict XVI, but that hypothetical is true in every papal transition. Duh.

And then there’s the Pope v Pope Steel Cage Title Belt Match scenario, on which the benighted Professor Pennington has (of course) an opinion:

Others say that if he were to leave the Vatican, having the former pope in a different city might lead to more confusion, if the faithful perceived him to preside in a different center of power, and made pilgrimages to see him.

Assuming Benedict stays at the Vatican, as has been announced, “I can imagine these unhappy Catholics going to the old pope and saying, ‘What do you think about that?’ ” Mr. Pennington said. “I think that this would raise serious issues of where authority and where infallibility and where the truth in the church lies.”

The silliness here is that those interviewed, for the most part, have absolutely no understanding of the Church, or of the magisterial process of defining doctrine, or of how the papacy works. They think we Catholics are a bunch of pope worshipers who believe magic comes with the little red shoes. (That wasn’t even true for Dorothy.) They think we’re going so be soooooo confuuuuuuused if a new pope makes up a whole lotta new doctrines while the old one is still camping out in the Vatican backyard. (As indeed we would be, if that impossibility were to occur. Popes don’t make up doctrine, and the truth is the truth from age to age.)

There’d have been no story, but here’s what I or any Catholic (expert or prelate or ordinary schmo) would have replied to the questions in the title:

In this case, Cardinal Ratzinger. And no.



  • MaryMargaret

    LOL..hang in there. It is insanity out there in the media. I have read that he may be called the Bishop Emeritus of Rome. We are in uncharted waters, but I suspect that the Barque of St Peter will sail serenely on. I am personally more concerned with whether Joseph Ratzinger will still get deliveries of Pizza Ebraica. Am guessing that he will, if he still has a taste for sweets. God Bless him and keep him till the end of his days..and beyond.

  • Thinkling

    Over the last two or three years, I kept seeing pieces of (so called) journalism, always about something Catholic, which convinced me I could never see any worse.

    Dear journalists, thank you for teaching me to never say never.

    BTW, absolutely loved “whatiffery” and friends. Must. Pilfer.

  • The Hermit

    “How long can stupid go on?”
    As long as the Smart People exist.

    • lucy luckless

      Or “Brights.”

  • Peadar Ban

    All you really needed to do was quote the NYT headline. Everyone knows that what appears in that rag is stupid.

  • Subsistent

    Regarding infallibility in general, may I point out what I think is a glorious truism? It’s this: While none of us humans here on earth is infallible absolutely, every adult human is infallible relatively: relatively to such judgments of ours (whether verbally expressed or not) as, “I exist”; “other beings than myself exist”; “at least some things really change”; — and, “people make mistakes.” Likewise infallibly true, n’est-ce pas?, are our sincere momentary perceptions that “I’m feeling weary”; “I’m feeling thirsty”, etc.
    So let no one say, as I once saw stated seriously in some academic journal, “There is no such thing as infallibility.”

  • Ikilope

    While the MSM as you call it might look for juicy details where none exist. indeed all of this is unsettled territory and a potential place for schism within the church — albeit small. While canon law allows the possibility of a renunciation of the papacy, theologians have been unsettled on the matter throughout history. Is the successor of Peter a charism given to a person for the good of the church or is it a charism given to the church through a person. You will find ample and hefty theological opinions on either side of this discussion from time immemorial. While Father Lombardi speaks on behalf of the Holy See, his comments, conjectures and opinions do not carry any real theological significance.
    We await the next successor to Peter to offer us a sense of direction on this matter. Benedict XVI has offered us scant theological opinion on the matter.
    We must pray for him, but we must pray that when the successor to Peter is announced, that those who may not like the selection and favor Benedict, do not stir up some nonsense scandal for the life of the church.

  • Ignatz

    [. Not only is the MSM uncharacteristically obsessed with the story]

    How shocking. They are treating big news as if it was big news.

    It really IS big news, you know. He the leader of a billion people. And popes don’t resign. I don’t think a Pope has EVER resigned due to health. In 2000 years. That’s big news. Very big news.

    YOU, however, seem to be obsessed over the fact that the New York Times doesn’t know the finer points of theology – which even many CATHOLICS don’t know.

    • joannemcportland

      It’s not “news” to raise questions that aren’t even questions, or to which the answer has been given, and then produce “experts” who provide groundless speculation and inaccuracy.

      Also, it’s funny that the same folks who condemn the papacy for holding to “outmoded” tradition are the first to freak out when a pope breaks with it (in an entirely foreseen and canonical process).

    • Kristen inDallas

      It’s not just about “not knowing” the finer points of theology. It’s the WILLFUL ignorance. She could have saved her employers a lot of $ by just interviewing one knowledgable coworker about “how this pope stuff works” or read any of the statements released by the vatican that explain it fairly clearly. She’s clearly going out of her way here to interview someone with a very specific viewpoint, turning a blind eye to everything that doesn’t affirm it and relying heavily on the opinions of “some” theologians. This is sensationalist fiction writing, not journalism. I don’t expect journalists to know everything, but I do expect them to know who to ask.

  • I M Forman

    I thought these guys were supposed to be so smart; then why is it that the Faithful have no problem with this and these guys sound so dumb?

  • jy

    Problem: liars and fools are speaking lies and foolishness.
    Solution: don’t listen to them.

    The New York Times does not, like my children, come into your room in the morning and climb into your bed and wake you up with irresistible demands for attention and oatmeal. :D

  • Cynthia

    Most of ths article was just the usual inanity, but the comments and questions provoked by Prof. Pennington, without the disclaimer “students have asked me questions like the following,” made me wonder about the academic credentials of a man who is supposed to be some sort of expert in ecclesiastical history!?! GAAAAA! Indeed!

  • Susan

    One thing that always bothers me is the assumption that the faithful are all blithering idiots. We won’t understand which man is pope. We think everything the pope says is infallible. We won’t be able to handle a pope resigning. We’re going to freak at every little thing. Shoot, we’ve all known pastors and bishops who’ve retired, and, well, life went on. No one keeled over in shock. This is the pope. Resigning from the position is not unprecedented, and evidently there are provisions for resignation. I love and will miss Benedict. But the Church and the papacy will go on. I’m sorry, but we faithful are not all going to collapse in a befuddled heap, as it seems the MSM seems to think we will.

  • Mary

    I absolutely must quibble with your description of Pennington and Duffy as ‘having no understanding of the Church.’ In fact, they are two of the most accomplished historians of the church, Pennington in Canon Law and Duffy of the medieval church. Duffy has written a book on the papacy and he completely rewrote how we understand the Reformation in England. It’s because of him that we know England didn’t embrace Protestantism wholesale and immediately. (See ‘The Striping of the Altars.’) there’s no way they don’t understand the Church.

    The problem here is, I’m sure, you have a journalist who can’t or won’t delineate between the speculation of two academics whose fields are NOT modern Church history from the pronouncements of, say, the curia whose job it is to explain exactly what is happening, for her readers. Which, in the end, still proves your point about the MSM.

  • PatJenn

    The definition of papal infalability contains this “when, in the exercise of his office”. Pole Benedict XVI will be retired from his office and therefore, cannot exercise an office. Enough already.

    PS. He will always be Pope Benedict XVI – in office or out of office. That is the name he chose and it is his.

    Think of all thse brilliant member of the MSM who constantly refer to pst presidents, senators, with they are no longer hold the office.

  • Kathleen Lundquist

    Thanks so much for this, Joanne. Otherwise, I was going to have to fisk this inane blathering myself – now I just share this with my friends. :)

    Thanks again!

  • Susan Peterson

    Duffy, despite his wonderful work about Catholicism in England, does not really understand the Papacy. He has an ultramontanist view in which the Pope, by the fact of being Pope, can do or declare anything, no matter how contrary to tradition. I think for him the resignation of a Pope is upsetting to that point of view. I oppose to that point of view the idea that the office of the Papacy is to be the guarantor of tradition, the one who keeps the Church from running off the rails. I look upon it as one of the benefits of Pope Benedict’s resignation, and one that he himself intends, that it will make Catholics see the pope as much more human and understand his office much more clearly as the Petrine ministry and not as a personal exaltation.
    Susan Peterson

  • Joseph

    I would like to emphasize Susan’s point regarding pastors and bishops. Sometimes retired bishops stay in the diocese, and sometimes retired pastors even live in the parish rectory. The one thing any retired priest can say (and with a smile on his face) is, “You will have to ask the pastor.” Then he can breathe a sigh of relief that responsibility has been lifted from his shoulders. I know. I am one!

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  • Charles

    Not even a standing Pope is infallible when he acts in opposition to Tradition.

    The Church is bound by the same laws and reasoning they compel others to follow. That is what makes it one of the most remarkable institutions of the modern era. No self-serving definitions, no cynical games, no double standards, no coordination with allies to distract detractors, no was-for-it-before-against-it. Perhaps the last institution of its kind.

  • prasad

    Dear Joanne,

    the MSM [across the entire globe] had made a decision to continuously sling mud, and entertain contempt and hatred for the Christ and the Church. There is no surprise in this, it is proven fact across the globe. Why should we grouse at that? Christ Himself had to put up such animosity and hatred from his hearers and those in the first century.

    But anyway, I thank you for explaining and delineating the discrepancies of some of those articles in the MSM, certainly it is of help to many of us. Thank you.

  • Gavin

    The article conflates Eamon Duffy with Diarmaid MacCulloch. They are quoted separately in the NYT article.

  • Uomo Senzanome

    Regarding your answer to the first question, what will he be called, in fact, NO, “Cardinal Ratzinger” will not be appropriate. That cardinalate ended when he became pope and it is not revived simply because he is stepping down as pope. He no more automatically reverts to being a Cardinal than he automatically reverts to being ArchBishop of Munich (someone else has filled that chair).
    Father Benedict is an option; he remains a priest, of course. But the question is not as idiotic as you seem to think.

    • joannemcportland

      Actually, it appears to be settled. Emeritus Bishop of Rome.

  • Dave

    Please desist using the word Dowager for Benedict. That is only a title reserved for widowed women.

    • joannemcportland

      Humor check, please. I know that.

      • Jo Ann

        I know that, too, but I was thinking the same thing! Especially with staying on Vatican property in a smaller residence. The thought just jumped out at me (obviously, I read too many English historical romances). Glad to know someone else had that funny thought. :)

  • Summer Frost

    How stupid are they? Well … as a Protestant totally unfamiliar with Catholic history who is halfway across the Tiber (until I finish RCIA) I seem to know more than Joe and Jane Reporter. Which also explains a lot (to me, anyway) about the Reformation. Lots of people totally misunderstanding the truths of the Church, expounding upon them, when in fact, the truths are not the problem — the misunderstanding is.


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  • Connie

    Personally, I like “Pontiff Emeritus” as a way of referring to the soon-t0-be-former Pope Benedict,

  • Gail Finke

    “Yeah. A question of How clueless can you get?” Hee hee, I love this post.
    I’m not familiar with Pennington but Duffy left me scratching my head. He KNOWS this stuff. Makes me wonder if he wasn’t misquoted… which would make me wonder about the rest of the quotes as well.

  • MaryMargaret

    The NYT has lost their collective mind. Today, they tell us that “The church believes that Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger transmutated into Benedict XVI in 2005.” Seriously, he transmutated! Cue seriously scary music. Bwahahaha.

    • MaryMargaret

      Oops..Washington Post, not the NYT. Apparently, I can no longer read.