Amazon Synod: Of Indefectibility, Infallibility, Prudence, and Panic

Amazon Synod: Of Indefectibility, Infallibility, Prudence, and Panic October 29, 2019

People ask me if I believe in organized religion.  I always reply: “No.  I am a Catholic.”  I subscribe heartily to Hilaire Belloc’s remark:

The Catholic Church is an institution I am bound to hold divine — but for unbelievers a proof of its divinity might be found in the fact that no merely human institution conducted with such knavish imbecility would have lasted a fortnight.

I regard the casual relationship the Vatican has with efficiency, organization, and clear communication as one of the charming eccentricities of the Petrine office. John XXIII, asked how many people worked there, reflected the warm, Mediterranean and deeply Italian ambience of the place when he replied, “About half.”

Indeed, long ago I once wrote a piece called Treebeard in Rome in which I discussed the hilarious way in which the world’s oldest bureaucracy utterly fails to get in the groove of the modern world.  This drives the denizens of social media wild with exasperation and, truth to tell, makes me shake my head sometimes too.  I well remember when the Vatican totally blew what post-moderns call “messaging” when it tried, under Benedict XVI, to make nice with the SSPX, only to learn that one of their bishops, Richard Williamson was, (not terribly uncharacteristically for these Reactionaries) into Holocaust Denial and other Jew-hating whackjobbery.  Benedict himself is passionately supportive of the Jews and has a deep respect for them.  But because the Vatican is, you know, the Vatican (just look at their website) it never occurred to the Ents to do a Google search on this guy and see if he was barking nuts.  Consequently, they were blind-sided by a perfectly preventable public relations disaster.

That was in 2009, but not a lot has changed on the “getting it together” front for Rome’s communications and (I not-so-secretly believe) it never will.  Peter has always had this peculiar talent for slowly being able to see through a brick wall and getting at the nub of the truth that needs to be said, while still stumbling his way through implementing it.  This is, as I mentioned on Friday, a feature, not a bug, and one intended by Christ.  Peter was not the genius Paul or the mystic John.  Peter is an ordinary Joe, wholly inadequate to the job, whom Jesus has exalted to the post precisely because he will never be able to do the job without the help of the Holy Spirit.

It’s important here to grasp what the Church does and does not mean by “infallibility”.  Most non-Catholics (and a lot of Catholics) think “infallibility” means “perfection”.  Some think it means moral perfection, others intellectual perfection.  I once worked with a woman who was very concerned that my faith might be shaken when JPII fell and broke his leg since she thought Catholics believed the pope was “indestructible.” She was sincerely solicitous for my feelings and it was very hard to keep a straight face as I thanked her for her concern.  People are so kind sometimes.

Infallibility is, in fact, not a boast but something more like a crutch or a wheelchair.  It is a confession that the Church is 100% composed of fools, crooks, and assorted sinners.  Because of this, she requires divine help every second of every day from Pentecost till the end of time to hold on to the revelation that has been entrusted to her.  Otherwise, that revelation would have been garbled, lost, or traded away for a quick buck, not centuries after Pentecost, but five minutes after.  So Jesus has given the Church two promises:

“These things I have spoken to you, while I am still with you. But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you.” (Jn 14:25–26).

“Behold, I am with you always, to the close of the age.” (Mt 28:20).

Because of the Holy Spirit–and only because of him–the Church is prevented from allowing the Tradition to be lost or to mutate into something else.  In short, the Church (and by extension the Holy Father) is infallible (prevented from wrongly defining the teaching by the Spirit,  not the brains of mortals) and indefectible (prevented from abandoning that teaching).

It will be noted that these are pretty minimal protections with lots of opportunity for the Pope to make bad prudential judgment calls such as Peter made at Antioch when he chickened out of eating with Gentiles, or told the Jesuits to stop dressing like the Chinese, or failed to investigate Maciel even when Ratzinger was begging it be done.  One can (and I do) have prudential disagreements with Francis about certain things.

But I also know that “prudential judgment” does not mean “Anything not dogmatically defined can be ignored and used as ammunition to attack Francis.”  The reason for this is twofold. First:

Bishops, teaching in communion with the Roman Pontiff, are to be respected by all as witnesses to divine and Catholic truth. In matters of faith and morals, the bishops speak in the name of Christ and the faithful are to accept their teaching and adhere to it with a religious assent. This religious submission of mind and will must be shown in a special way 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, the judgments made by him are sincerely adhered to, according to his manifest mind and will. His mind and will in the matter may be known either from the character of the documents, from his frequent repetition of the same doctrine, or from his manner of speaking. – Lumen Gentium 25

In short, I regard the pope’s teaching as authoritative, even when it is not (as it nearly never is) infallible.

Beyond this, if there is anything the past six years of Francis-hatred has shown me, it is that only a fool would regard as possessing an ounce of prudence the Reactionaries who pour out contempt for him at the flimsiest provocation and who traffic in rumor, conspiracy theories, crazy, and malice.  So given the choice between the Holy Father and people who seriously believe that “Bergoglio” is a “heretic” whose goal is to turn the Church into a pagan cult of idol worship, I will listen to the Holy Father every time.

This does not mean I think the Holy Father impeccable.  Nor does it mean I think his prudential judgments always right.  But it does mean I extend charity to those judgments even when I think them wrong. I believe, in other words, that he is a good man. And that is the key difference between a normal, ordinary Catholic approach and the Reactionaries’ fanatical years-long hunt for anything and everything to damn him with.

My contention is simply this: if the malignant Francis-haters had attempted just a tiny bit of charity toward Francis and the Amazon Synod, none of the stupid Panic du Jour about Our Lady of the Amazon would have happened.  But because the Right Wing Catholic Noise Machine has learned to emulate the Panic du Jour approach to stampeding a fearful audience they have taught to despair of the indefectibility of the Church and the infallibility of the Pope, that is precisely what happened.

Of which more tomorrow.

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