John Allen on Benedict XVI on Conclaves

John Allen on Benedict XVI on Conclaves February 20, 2013

Just in case you were wondering whether conclaves were exercises in infallibility, Benedict brings the refreshing sound of common sense:

Perhaps the classic expression of this idea belongs to none other than the outgoing pope, Benedict XVI, who as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was asked on Bavarian television in 1997 if the Holy Spirit is responsible for who gets elected. This was his response:

I would not say so, in the sense that the Holy Spirit picks out the Pope. … I would say that the Spirit does not exactly take control of the affair, but rather like a good educator, as it were, leaves us much space, much freedom, without entirely abandoning us. Thus the Spirit’s role should be understood in a much more elastic sense, not that he dictates the candidate for whom one must vote. Probably the only assurance he offers is that the thing cannot be totally ruined.

Then the clincher:

There are too many contrary instances of popes the Holy Spirit obviously would not have picked!

The paradox of papal infallibility (an entirely negative protection, recall, which is there because the pope participates in all the normal human frailties, sins, corruptions, and stupidities flesh is heir to) is that it is a gift of the Holy Spirit necessary due to the fact that papal conclaves can and have elected such specimens as Alexander VI. Not that I think this likely: we’ve had rather a good long run of fine popes for the past century or so. But it’s exactly because it’s quite on the cards that we could wind up with a real dog that the Holy Spirit guarantees the bare minimum protection we call infallibility: the promise the the Holy Father will be prevented from ever defining falsehood as an article of faith. As Yr. Obdt Svt wrote some time back:

Infallibility is a special gift given by God to the Church in her weakness, not bestowed on her for being especially clever or strong. If we want to get the hang of it, we have to imagine the Church, not as an ace student who letters in football, gets all the girls and never has to study, but as a character in a farce who is guided through life miraculously (by the good graces of his fairy godmother) and who (only through those good graces) is preserved from walking into walls or off cliffs. Thus the term is, if anything, a confession of failure, blindness and ineptitude on the part of the Church. That is how the Church sees her gift of infallibility.

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  • James

    Chipping away at the mythical papacy of legends, private apparitions, inner locutions, and well-placed lightening bolts one sensible observation grounded in solid theology at a time. Thank you, Pope Benedict, for your wisdom, for your learning, and for your level-headed leadership. While I’m grateful for the example you are setting by your voluntary abdication of the See of Rome in the face of an incapacitation that you, yourself, perceive, I cannot help but suspect I’m going to miss having you around.

  • An Aaron, not the Aaron

    Get Religion had a post a few days back that quoted some professor asking whether Pope Benedict would still be infallible when he steps down. The obvious answer is no. Infallibility follows authority. If you have the authority to lead the Church, the Holy Spirit will prevent you from leading her off a cliff. If you no longer have the authority to lead the Church, the Holy Spirit no longer has the need to protect her from you.

  • Bob

    Of course, the catch-22 here is that it is the church itself that discerned the very existence of this gift. So it’s kind of circular: it is infallibly taught that church dogma is infallible.

    • vox borealis

      How else would it be taught? In any case, it’s not really a circular argument. The claim of infallibility is made based on several arguments themselves grounded in evidence. One may accept or reject the arguments. I think you are trying to say that it is an argument by assertion, that the claim itself is the only argument of the claim. But that too is demonstrably false. The claim of papal (or for that matter, magisterial) infallibility is not the product of the church saying “the Church is infallible because the Church says so.” It is based again on a particular interpretation of evidence and underlying logic. And again, any individual can reject those claims.

    • Andy, Bad Person

      Your rational mind determines whether or not your mind is behaving rationally. Do you see the circular reasoning there? Do you cease to think because of that?

    • Maiki

      Actually, no, you are oversimplifying it. The doctrine of papal infallibility was defined in the First Vatican council. Their authority does not rest on papal infallibility, it rests on the authority of the College of Bishops. Their Authority rests on the words of Jesus Christ, on the teaching authority of bishops in concert. The general idea that Hell will not prevail on the Church (pope -independent) also rests in the words of Jesus Christ. Now, yes, it is possible that the idea of Church Councils is invalid and the Church has no authority whatsoever, but, yeah, faith has to start somewhere. Sorry, we don’t have perfect history goggles.

  • Subsistent

    To further place infallibility in proper context — Mr. Shea’s been spot-on here, IMO — let’s note that the bishop of Rome is not divinely guaranteed to be infallible absolutely, but only relatively: relatively to any declaration he may make *ex cathedra*; and that the vast majority of popes have never even purported to make such a declaration ever — a declaration theologians call “extraordinary”, right?
    So, such divinely guaranteed infallibility is not inherent in a pope, but transient; and applies not to an entire document presenting the declaration, but only to the solemnly declared assertion itself. And being something more negative than positive, the divine guarantee doesn’t mean that the wording itself is divinely inspired: this wording might be, say, unduly technical, or unduly polemic, etc.

    • JimPV

      If I’m understanding you correctly, Subsistent, I believe you are incorrect. Any official teaching by the Pope, whether in union with the Bishops or on his own, is infallible. It may be poorly written, ill-timed, what-have-you, but it is guaranteed to be doctrinally sound. This would include not only *ex cathedra* pronouncements, but encyclicals, catechisms, etc. This is my understanding of it anyway.

      • Ed

        Jim, I think Subsistent is correct. The Pope together with the Church infallibly defines dogmas, not documents per se, and then only when certain conditions are met.

    • Subsistent

      Well, an encyclical, or apostolic letter,or the like, may CONTAIN a sentence which is *ex cathedra* and thus infallible (as I personally think is JP2’s declaration in *Ordinatio Sacerdotalis* that it’s to be “definitively held by all the Church’s faithful” that the Church has simply not been divinely empowered to ordain a woman presbyter). And peremptory doctrinal statements in encyclicals, catechisms, etc. are certainly authentically “magisterial”. But they are not necessarily *definitive* or *ex cathedra*. And here, as Vatican II’s Dogmatic Constitution *Lumen Gentium* (Section 25) puts it, “… religious submission of mind and will must be shown … to the authentic magisterium of the Roman pontiff, even when he is not speaking *ex cathedra*; that is, it must be shown in such a way that his supreme magisterium is acknowledged with reverence, [and] the judgments made by him are sincerely adhered to, *et sententiis ab eo prolatis sincere adhaereatur*, according to his manifest mind and will.” 
When a pope’s magisterium is thus not definitive, the sincere adherence to be given to it is of course provisional; but, as Cardinal Newman indicated in his *Letter to the Duke of Norfolk*, the teaching is “in possession”: the burden of proof against that teaching is on the Catholic who would dissent.
      Now infallible and definitive indeed, even though not *ex cathedra*, is the ordinary day-to-day Gospel teaching which has always been universally proclaimed peremptorily by the Catholic bishops. Especially in the Church’s first centuries, before solemn papal or conciliar statements came about, there were a great many such teachings (e.g., “there’s only one God”; “Jesus Christ is truly God”; “Jesus Christ is truly a man”; …).
      Unable myself to speak with the Church’s magisterial authority, all I’m doing here is speaking my mind, on a “for what it’s worth” basis.

      • Subsistent

        A clear and (to me) quite interesting instance of a “Roman pontiff” NOT speaking or writing Magisterially, even on Gospel subjects, is Pope Benedict’s book-series *Jesus of Nazareth*: introducing Volume 1 of that series, Benedict wrote, “It goes without saying that this book is in no way an exercise of the magisterium [that is, the Church’s teaching authority], but is solely an expression of my personal search ‘for the face of the Lord’ (cf. Ps 27:8). Everyone is free, then, to contradict me. I would only ask my readers for that initial goodwill without which there can be no understanding.” (Of course, much of what Benedict states in his books is already part of the Church’s infallibly taught doctrine.)

  • Mark R

    This shows a strong parallel to Catholic Christian theories of the inspiration of Scripture, if I am not mistaken.

  • midwestlady

    I hate conclaves, even though they’re necessary. I hope they listen to God VERY well, and I hope they get it over with as soon as they listen to God VERY well.

  • Dan C

    Jim PV is incorrect. And hence the whole matter of the teaching magisterial church vs. ex cathedra dogma. The Pope is one element of a magisterial church. The teaching functions of which are NOT protected by infallibility. Such statements are made with certain conditions from a Pope as outlined by Subsistent.

    Hence the discussion provoked by the encyclical Truth in Love by Benedict which is squarely against many conservative economic stances (see Jody Bottum’s and George Weigel’s response to taste the exact level of disagreement).

    In terms of the Gospel, yes infallible but exactly how. For example, I firmly believe that Luke is sound on his Sermon on the Mount, yet again, there has been 2 thousand years of back-pedaling on what the “turn the cheek” type comments mean. Even on usury, clearly defined as interest on money loaned until about 1300-1400 AD, when the definition became wishy-washy, evidence of change on Church teaching is identified. We may be seein the same on the death penalty. Time will tell with that.

    Ex cathedra statements by a Pope are rare. Not all statements by a Pope are infallible, although authoritative. Even still, they may not be upheld two centuries later.

  • ED

    [To fulfill this task of teaching the faith without error, Christ granted the Church the charism of infallibility in faith and morals: “In order to preserve the Church in the purity of the faith handed on by the Apostles, Christ who is the Truth willed to confer on her a share in His own infallibility” (No. 889). In essence, the charism of infallibility is the magisterium’s ability to know the truth of God and to teach without error. As explained in Vatican II’s “Dogmatic Constitution on the Church” (No. 25), this charism of infallibility is exercised in two ways: First, the college of bishops united with the Holy Father, “in their authoritative teaching concerning faith and morals,” can render an infallible teaching when “they are in agreement that a particular teaching is to be held definitively and absolutely.”

    The exercise of the charism of infallibility often occurs during an ecumenical council (a formal meeting of all the bishops with the Holy Father). For instance, the Ecumenical Councils of Nicaea I (325) and Constantinople I (381) promulgated the Nicene Creed, an infallible testament of our faith. The articles of the creed are true and certain, and to deny any or part of them is heresy. These decisions of the councils on matters of faith and morals “must be adhered to with the loyal and obedient assent of faith” (No. 25).

    Second, the pope, as successor of St. Peter

  • ED

    Obviously, the ‘excerpt’ from this very short and simple article by Fr. Saunders was a bit *too* long for this blog?

    So… if you are interested, go read it here:

  • Bill

    The Sermon on the Mount was St Matthew. St Luke had the similar Sermon in the Plain