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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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