Media fallibility on papal infallibility

Media fallibility on papal infallibility February 19, 2013

Last week in my post “Turkson wouldn’t be first African pope,” I quoted from an humorous guide for journalists covering the election. The last tip:

  • Yes, the next Pope will be a man and a Catholic.

So obvious that it was barely funny, right? And yet … you can view here New York magazine contributing editor Chris Smith suggest on an MSNBC panel that the next pope be … Sonia Sotomayor. The Washington Post‘s E.J. Dionne humbly notes that the Holy Spirit is running behind him — see, Dionne is ready for a female pope.

These are both instances of opinion journalists offering their opinions. We’re more interested in straight journalists writing up the news. But I still think these opinions are quite telling. And sometimes the straight news guys go into the more transparent opinion business and reveal what you probably suspected knew all along. Speaking of, the New York Times‘ former executive editor Bill Keller — who describes himself as a “collapsed Catholic” (get it?) — has some advice for the Roman Catholic Church. It begins:

Behold a global business in distress — incoherently managed, resistant to the modernizing forces of the Internet age, tainted by scandal and corruption. It needs to tweak its marketing, straighten out its finances, up its recruiting game and repair its battered brand. Ecce Catholicism Inc.

Because when you want business advice, you get it from the folks who are running the New York Times, amiright? I mean, God bless ’em but they are seriously not the group to be offering business advice. Ever.

Anyway, let’s move on to the news pages. This piece, which also ran in the New York Times, is headlined “When a Pope Retires, Is He Still Infallible?” I was alerted to this piece via Twitter, where various people were mocking it relentlessly. It’s not a piece about how people who are uninformed or confused about the Catholic teaching on infallibility view what’s about to happen. No, it’s an earnest look at the topic, as if it’s a totally legitimate idea. And it somehow rounds up people who agree that this is a very tough question. The second paragraph:

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.

Uh, speaking as a Lutheran who completely and utterly rejects this teaching (even if I don’t go as far as Lord Acton, who was so upset by the teaching that we got his great quote about how absolute power corrupts), that’s just silly. I may disagree with the teaching but I know enough about what it is to find the whole premise of this article odd. It doesn’t help that the article is completely confusing. To be sure, it explains quite clearly two important points. First:

Although in the popular imagination, everything a pope says and writes is often perceived as infallible, in fact, papal pronouncements are only considered infallible when a pope speaks “ex cathedra,” in his capacity as leader of the universal church, on questions of faith and morals. 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.

Later, we’re told:

In fact, the invocation of papal infallibility “ex cathedra” has only occurred twice in the modern era: In 1854, when Pope Pius IX promulgated the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, that Mary was without original sin. And in 1950, Pope Pius XII pronounced the doctrine of the Assumption of the Virgin, that Mary had been assumed into heaven, body and spirit. The church has not ruled on whether the Virgin Mary died before she was assumed into heaven.

So we’re told that papal infallibility has only been invoked twice, never by Benedict XVI, and refers not to the individual who holds the papacy but the office itself. And yet we get quote after quote after quote from people who, we’re told, think this infallibility question is a tough one.

There’s a professor at Catholic University who is quoted up at the top of the story saying:

“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?”

That line about his powers makes me think he should have a cloak of invisibility or something. Did “he” ever have infallibility? Or as one blogger put it:

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.

Yes, it is silly. I mean, I know it would be hard to bleed hundreds of words out of a simple response to the headline of “No, you fool, don’t you know anything about Catholic teaching on infallibility?” But that’s not really an excuse for an article like this.

Or as Matt Frost put it on Twitter:

Imagine being a reporter, and once a month your priest gave a sermon that criticized & misunderstood the idea of “on background.”

He jokes that he’d consign reporters to this afterlife. And since we’re talking about this guy, I rather enjoyed another comment he made: “One religious tradition that the news media covers diligently and respectfully: popular Catholic apostasy.” The reverence for that religious tradition is striking indeed.

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17 responses to “Media fallibility on papal infallibility”

  1. Good job it’s Lent, otherwise if I was still partaking of alcohol my liver would never survive the hammering it would be getting from reading this kind of articles.

    How do you wring a story out of “Q. Will the Pope still be deemed infallible after his retirement? A. No, according to the Official Vatican Spokesman (and for once, this really is an Official Vatican Spokesman, not some bloke in a dog-collar our stringer in Rome had a coffee with)”.

    The other thing about “modernizing forces of the Internet age” is beyond silly. Yes, indeed; we’ve never been anywhere like this before, what with a technology that allows us to have instant global access to humorous cat photos and men in their twenties being idiots. Persecutions under the Roman Emperors? A minor annoyance. St. Augustine living his final days in a city besieged by the invading Vandals, seeing the crumbling of the Western Empire? Pshaw, who cares? The Great Schism? So what if a bunch of Greeks went their own way? The Eastern empire overthrown by the Ottoman Turks? Time it went away! The Avignon Schism, the French Revolution, the Kulturkampf, two World Wars – none of that was anything like living right this minute, because the Church has never before ever had to grapple with questions of human sexuality, marriage, temporal and spiritual power, accommodation to the state, or opposition from rival philosophies.

    And in two hundred years, when the Internet is as quaint as the ticker-tape machine – what do you recommend the Church do then, Bill?

  2. Martha:

    Actually, in a technology-shapes-content world, the Internet is a major force for involuntary change. Tech does things. Ask evangelical church leaders who now live with giant video screens hanging over their heads.

    Often, the Church handles regimes made out of metal better than it does regimes made of plastic.

    • But tmatt, we’ve been here before with the printing press, and wireless telegraphy, and radio, and television, and… whatever is coming down the line (probably corneal implant screens or something).

      Yes, technology does bring about change, but the implication that “Oh, never before has the Church had to face change or grapple with Big Questions” is historical illiteracy of a kind that makes me weep. So there were never questions about what exactly is the definition of marriage? Ancient Roman society recognised three or four kinds of arrangements, with the older, more religious version falling out of favour (goodness, now what does that remind me of?) Multiple divorces and remarriages, extramarital affairs, functional bisexuality, procurement of abortions, trophy wives (and husbands), marrying for money, pre-nuptial agreements, legacy-hunting – it all happened before.

      The advice that the Church should ‘get with the times’ is very funny, because a lot of the things it is supposed to hurry up and get modern about are things that it already dealt with far back in its past.

  3. Catholic News Service has an interesting piece about how the current rules for electing the Pope were first promulgated. Actually, it was St Celestine, the last Pope to voluntarily resign of his own accord and not from outside pressure in the 1200s. Most of it is reporting on the thoughts of a church historian named Birk. The whole thing is interesting, but here’s the core of it:

    “The case of Pope Celestine also resulted in some innovative changes that he brought with his decision to resign, he said.

    For example, Birk said, the principles behind Pope Celestine’s decision to step down and “how Celestine articulated the ability of a pope to resign are incredibly important,” as is the papal bull he issued establishing rules for an abdication.

    The late 13th-century pope also “established the ground rules for how papal conclaves will operate in selecting the pope,” said Birk, who teaches history at Smith College in Northampton, Mass.

    The formal process used for centuries to select a new pope, a process that generally follows the death of a pope, is actually the model St. Celestine established for “how to select a pope after a resignation,” he said.

    Before Pope Celestine, the selection process was “less formalized” and often operated much differently from one papal selection to the next, he said.”

  4. Because so many people –including media religion “experts”— misunderstand the Catholic teaching on “papal infallibility” Pope Benedict made it a point to say that the 3 books he wrote as pope do not come under the umbrella of papal infallibility. That only comes into play when a pope officially confirms –in his role as successor to St. Peter– a particular Church teaching as firm Catholic dogma. Since in ages past teachers sat in a chair to officially teach, when the pope officially teaches a dogma he is said to be teaching from his chair (ex cathedra). And such teaching is considered infallible because the pope has the final say of what teachings are authentically Catholic . In this role Catholics believe( based on many Bible passages and Tradition) that Christ will protect, through the power of the Holy Spirit, the pope– and thereby His Church– from teaching error. So what it boils down to is whether a person believes in the power of the Holy Spirit to guide the Church in teaching faithfully the Way, the Truth, and the Life who is Christ.

  5. Great piece by Ann Rodgers – straight and with lots of useful quotations from a variety of knowledgeable and relevant people. hat tip to the anchoress.

    I’m claiming it fits here because one non-Catholic person she interviewed implied it was difficult for a Pope to change his mind about anything becuase of the infallibility thing. It was too long a piece for Ann to go into why that is not correct.

  6. I would just like to add a subtlety that is lost even on most Catholics about infallibility, not to mention the media. While the two definitions mentioned (the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption) are known to be infallible, many of the other teachings of popes may also qualify (depending on the circumstances) although an official determination has not been made.

    Another is this: Even if a regular teaching of a pope has no determination of infallibility it carries a high degree of authority. Just because an official determination of infallibility has not been made, that does not means the teaching can be rejected.

    An example of this is the definition regarding the Church as having no power to ordain women. It was asked and officially determined that the definition by Pope John Paul II was not in itself infallible, but it did cite or relate an infallible doctrine – which means that infallibility is not only the domain of the pope.

  7. Sotomayor – becuase she’s lived in the “real world.” Because Nazi Germany, THAT wasn’t real enough I suppose.

  8. It is important to note that neither the Catholic Church nor the Pope himself believes that the Pope is infallible. I am quite sure that Benedict XVI,who demonstrated so much humility in this decision, is under no illusions about that. What Papal Infallibility means is that in certain, very specific circumstances, when the Pope clarifies a matter of doctrine that God, who is infallible, can be said definitively to be speaking through him on that matter.

    Maybe I have different view because I’m a Christian who doesn’t believe in papal infallibility because it don’t believe that the Holy Spirit works in exactly that way, as opposed to the non-believer or liberal Christian who believes that the Holy Spirit is a myth or a metaphor or something, but I think if a journal doesn’t take the subject seriously enough to appreciate the difference between these two things, then he ought of find another career.

  9. To the folks who say I’m censoring their anti-religious diatribes, you are correct. We limit comments here to discussion of media coverage of religion news, not personal feelings about religion. You are welcome to tailor your comments to the topics we do cover and submit again.

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