The Dowager Pope and the (Very) Fallible Media

The Dowager Pope and the (Very) Fallible Media February 17, 2013



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.



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