A Slip of the Tongue, Part Two

A Slip of the Tongue, Part Two November 11, 2019

Part One

In my last, I discussed various sins of the tongue, and, in particular, the fact that giving others the benefit of the doubt is not an above-and-beyond act of generosity on Catholic grounds, but a requirement. I also said that the problem with distrusting the Holy See is not that there is no justification for doing so, but that it is in point of fact a bad idea, and promised to explore that a little.

The Catholic doctrine of the papacy is that, when the Pope invokes his full authority as the shepherd of the universal Church—which he may do either on his own, or gathered with the Church’s bishops in council—the Holy Ghost protects him from teaching theological error. This belief is grounded partly on Scriptures such as Matthew 16, Luke 10, and John 1416; partly also on the principle that there could be no permanent unity in the Church without a concrete principle of unity, and that such a principle must have a supernatural guarantee of preserving the truth, if it is to maintain real unity with Christ and not merely the continuity of an earthly institution. There are a lot of different ways of approaching the doctrine of papal infallibility, and I couldn’t exhaust them here if I wished to: but “When the Pope invokes his full authority, he cannot err theologically” is a quick-and-dirty summary of the Catholic belief.

There are several things that this grace does not cover. It does not, for example, mean that the Holy Father cannot have mixed or even malicious motives, either in his theological pronouncements or anything else: the guarantee is that what he teaches will be correct, not that he will be pure of heart in teaching it. (Caiaphas was quite right about the facts when he said that it was expedient that one man should die for the people.) It does not guarantee that the Pope’s private opinions, even about theological matters, will always be right. It does not guarantee that a Pope will ever actually invoke his full authority; most circumstances don’t require that level of certainty. It does not protect the Pope from sinning, or from being misinformed, or from failing to make himself clear. The way I put is that, while the full exercise of his authority is invincibly protected by the Holy Ghost, nothing else is protected to that same absolute degree; and therefore, every other thing can go wrong, and, given enough time, almost certainly will.

Here’s the thing, though. No one except the Pope and the Church in union with him enjoys that same kind of definitive protection from God. Every other person, including every other Catholic—be he a conservative cardinal, a successful author, the CEO of a Catholic media network, or an ostentatiously unchaste Twitter influencer (Twitfluencer?)—is therefore at least one degree more fallible than the Pope, no matter how much wiser and holier and smarter they might be. That doesn’t mean wisdom or sanctity or intelligence aren’t well worth having, but it does mean that one ingredient in those things, if one accepts the Catholic religion, is a readiness to surrender one’s own judgment to any infallible definitions made by the Holy See, because, on the premises set forth by the Church, those definitions are divinely guaranteed to be correct. Exhaustive? No. Easy to grasp? No. Well-meaning? No. But correct.

Now, it’s worth adding that even when the Pope doesn’t invoke his full authority, his judgments shouldn’t be casually dismissed. When he directs that a change be made in the Catechism, for example, even if he’s not making an infallible definition, that’s obviously him acting as a pastor and teacher rather than simply expressing a private opinion: it could in theory be incorrect, but it’s far more reasonable to assume the opposite. Non-infallible judgments can be wrong, but when they come from the Vicar of Christ, it isn’t at all likely.

We are responsible for what we think and say. Yet the temptation to listen to hearsay, snap judgments, and even slanders of the Holy Father is something that the Church herself—her priests, her catechists, her liturgists, her religious, and above all her bishops—must bear some responsibility for. The drastic disciplinary changes of the 60s and 70s would have disoriented many people in any case; the horrific scandals of sexual and financial corruption that have been revealed over the last few decades, these would have provoked a massive failure of trust and a considerable amount of apostasy in any case, both among victims and among those who learned of the scandals. The combination of the two is deadly indeed; and while, say, instituting 24/7 Eucharistic Adoration for a week in all our parishes would certainly be a good thing to do, measures like these are only thoughts and prayers. They must be incarnated in authentic reform: as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead, and take note of what corresponds to what in St James’ analogy there.

The hostility to Pope Francis evinced by men like Cardinal Burke or Raymond Arroyo or Taylor Marshall, because it paints itself as traditional, accordingly gives the false impression that it will restore stability to a chaotic and faithless Church. It’s not the truth. Merely going back to the outward forms of a time when we trusted the Church is not going to fix anything, and it’s the only thing these proto-schismatics really have to offer. The office of Peter—the office, not the æsthetics or the habits or the policies—is what is founded upon a Rock. An apparelled alb, however beautiful, is only fabric; and fabric burns as well as anything else, when it’s exposed to the fires of hell that Christ promised would not prevail against that Rock.

Images via Pixabay

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  • Irksome1

    If you’re going to hold that the Pope is supernaturally preserved from error in the exercise of his full authority, even if he may have mixed motives or malicious intentions, then certainly if you’re going to counsel reliance on judgements that do not enjoy such infallibility and may also be subject to mixed motives and the like, you’d need a foundation to ground the likelihood that the Pope is reliable in these instances beyond mere custom or traditional deference. I don’t see that you’ve provided any.

    You might, say, believe that charity requires respect for the Pope’s opinions and judgements, even in the absence of any guarantee of infallibility, and that, as such, the natural starting point might be to assume the Pope is correct, but that, by its nature, is conditional on not having been presented with a plausible argument to the contrary. As I understand it, Burke, Arroyo, et al. believe themselves to have such an argument, and so it must be dealt with on its own terms, not automatically dismissed by mere convention.

  • “Non-infallible judgments can be wrong, but when they come from the Vicar of Christ, it isn’t at all likely.”

    Quite. Which is why the Church teaches that one is obligated to give religious submission of mind and will to the authentic magisterium of the Roman Pontiff, even when he is not speaking ex cathedra.

  • Mark

    I’d have to agree with Irksome. You assert the pope only enjoys a protection in ex cathedra statements, and then assert his being wrong in other matters “isn’t likely”…based on what?

    We owe submission of intellect and will to the magisterium. But this is a matter of obedience, not faith. The Ordinary and Universal magisterium is infallible, but the very question many people are asking is whether certain Recent “ordinary magisterium” teachings can be considered to line up at all with what has been “universally” taught.

  • I’d certainly suggest that any Pope may be presumed to enjoy considerable theological expertise, though of course the same applies to anyone with a good education in theology. More than that, though, I would argue that while the Holy Ghost preserves the dogmatic definitions of the Popes from error, this is not His primary means of guiding the Papacy.

    Dogmatic definitions are comparatively rare, because things rarely come to the point that nothing but an exacting definition will serve. Most of the time, we are called upon to exercise wisdom, attention, and trust — and those are the things the Spirit normally guides the Popes with. This is not invariably the case, certainly, and I think that’s one of the reasons we do sometimes need dogmatic definitions.

    But I think that Catholic teaching effectively says that our presumption should always be in favor of the Pope being correct. Even his personal opinions are probably, at minimum, plausible and likely; his non-dogmatic pastoral and doctrinal statements must (I think) be assented to unless we have an exceedingly strong case to believe otherwise; and if ever he rises to the degree of dogmatic definition, then the necessary assent of faith comes in.

    The trouble I have with Burke and Arroyo and co. is that I don’t see them making any serious case against Pope Francis’ pastoral and doctrinal statements. I see them demanding clarifications of things that he has already said (nearly every concern the infamous Dubia raised had already been addressed in the very text of Amoris Laetitia), claiming on incredibly flimsy grounds that pastoral and doctrinal statements made by His Holiness are personal opinions (e.g. claiming that the modification of the Catechism on the death penalty is “Pope Francis speaking as a man,” when deliberately changing the Catechism is quite obviously an exercise of his pastoral and magisterial office and not a mere expression of personal opinion), and generally looking for or inventing grounds to doubt and disbelieve a Pontiff who does not align with their doctrinal, and perhaps political, preferences. Interpreted in the context of all previous Catholic teaching, which is the natural and obvious thing to do with any papal documents, His Holiness Francis has not only said nothing new but even nothing very remarkable — except possibly about climate change, a reality accepted basically everywhere but in the US.

    I tried very hard, when the Dubia were issued three years ago, to believe that Burke and co. were acting in good faith, and at the time I succeeded. I can’t believe that any more. The fruit of division, suspicion, and rebellion that they have borne, and the mounting refusal of Burke to brook the limits placed by the Pope on his authority, tells its own tale.

  • Important addendum: my own ideas of how far the Pope can err may themselves be inadequate. This article is good in its own right, and also hints at a distinction between the irreformable and the reformable — which I take to mean that some truths can have different applications depending on circumstance and others cannot. E.g., there are circumstances that can make the death penalty justifiable (when it is the only way to preserve the safety of the community as a whole), and other circumstances that eliminate any such justification; by contrast, there aren’t really any circumstantial considerations that could modify whether the Virgin Mary was conceived immaculately. I may well have some more learning of my own to do. https://wherepeteris.com/are-you-certain-that-youre-on-the-right-side/