In the combox on Out of His Mind—a blog that makes John Bugay look like a marvel of intellectual depth—chronic goofball Kevin Failoni posts the following weird remarks about papal infallibility. (The syntax is a little muddy, but you’ll get the drift of what he means.)
Romans 1 says that men suppress the truth in all unrighteousness. Paul goes on to say that there are none righteous, none who understand, none who seek for good. [Soft! here follows bad prose.] So we see outside the men who were appointed by God to speak and write his infallible word until the once delivered faith saw this end, men’s judgment and understanding is affected by sin. [Got that? Read it twice if you got lost; I had to. The rest is more clear.] The [p]ope is a mere sinner like ourselves and in no way can claim infallibility. Thats [sic] why there is error in theology and the [C]hurch[:] sinful men suppress the truth.
Well, there is a gem of truth buried deep in all this rubbish: Sin makes people stupid. That’s true. You don’t need to go further than the combox on Out of His Mind to figure that one out. There the men are as mad as a March hare. Human reason is corrupted by original sin; I’ve made that point before. But the real flaw in the loopy Mr. F’s thinking is the idea that infallibility somehow would mean that the pope does not sin. Read what he says on a different thread.
[T]he problem is, Rome cant reform, its impossible, they are infallible. False churches cant deal with their own sin. Thats why its all revisionism, right.
Now, if this were just the apostrophe-free ignorance of someone who trolls around blogs, it would hardly be worth bothering with. I could be watching the game, or reading a good book, rather than writing this post. But the loopy Mr. F does not just make this stuff up; he actually steals it from people like Dr. John MacArthur, who said these words in an anti-Catholic sermon [transcript here] on May 1, 2005.
John Paul II apologized for the historical failings of Catholics in a very vague way because when he was confronted with some of the issues of the past, some of the embarrassing things like forced conversion and anti-Semitism and some of the horrible things that were done, he apologized in a vague way. And you have to understand this. How can you apologize if you’re infallible? How can an infallible church apologize? But listen to what they believe. They do not believe that the church consists in the laity. The church does not consist in the laity. … The sins have been committed by the sons and daughters of the church who make up the laity. This is absolutely ridiculous given the sexual perversion of the priesthood.
Let me unpack this for you. What Dr. MacArthur is saying here is that the Church teaches that the laity can sin, but that somehow the clergy can not. If you scratch your head over how anyone could possibly have such an idea, I scratch my head too. This idea—that infallibility means that the pope cannot sin—is a howler that is not limited just to the kind of people who rant at the bottom of blogs. It can grip the brain even of someone who should know better but doesn’t, or refuses to, or pretends not to. (I haven’t made up my mind which of these is true about Dr. J. Mac.)
And there are two ways you can answer the error, apart from the obvious one of pointing out that, since even the pope goes to confession, the Church can hardly teach that he is like Mary, or Christ, and does not sin.
The first is to point to the actual texts in which the Church speaks about infallibility and thus show that she makes no claim about the sins of popes. Infallibility means something quite else. Here, for example, is the Catechism of the Catholic Church, §890.
It is [the] Magisterium’s task to preserve God’s people from deviations and defections and to guarantee them the objective possibility of professing the true faith without error. Thus, the pastoral duty of the Magisterium is aimed at seeing to it that the People of God abides in the truth that liberates. To fulfill this service, Christ endowed the Church’s shepherds with the charism of infallibility in matters of faith and morals.
So the teaching here is not that the pope will not do bad things, but that he will not teach false things. The point of all this is for Catholics to know the truth, not for them to have leaders who do not sin.
Nor does Pastor Aeternus make any mention of a sinless pope. PA is the Vatican I document that first defined the dogma of infallibility. Here is what it says.
We teach and define that it is a divinely-revealed dogma: that the Roman Pontiff, when he speaks ex Cathedra, that is, when in discharge of the office of Pastor and Teacher of all Christians, by virtue of his supreme Apostolic authority, he defines a doctrine regarding faith or morals to be held by the Universal Church, by the divine assistance promised to him in blessed Peter, is possessed of that infallibility with which the divine Redeemer willed that His Church should be endowed for defining doctrine regarding faith or morals: and that therefore such definitions of the Roman Pontiff are irreformable of themselves, and not from the consent of the Church.
The pope, says Vatican I, is infallible when he defines doctrine. It does not say that the pope will be without sin.
So all this is one response that you can make to this bit of anti-Catholic lore. A second is to employ the Socratic method against it. You might ask questions such as these ones.
Was Paul a sinner?
Are his epistles infallible?
If your answer to the first question is yes, how can your answer to the second question also be yes?
If your answer to questions 1 and 2 are “yes,” and you are not being inconsistent, how is it inconsistent for the pope’s words to be infallible under the conditions set forth in Pastor Aeternus?
A line of inquiry such as this is useful when the anti-Catholic comes at the issue of infallibility from the opposite direction. Perhaps he concedes that the Church does not teach that the pope is without sin. Perhaps his claim is that the the pope, being a sinner, cannot possibly be infallible. Sin has made him stupid.
The problem with that line of reasoning is that a Protestant fully accepts that the Bible is infallible, though it was written by sinners. Paul was the “chief of sinners,” which means he was the chief of stupid people. But Romans is still infallible. If the Holy Spirit could ensure that the authors of Scripture made no errors, how is it that the Holy Spirit cannot ensure that the pope makes no errors when defining doctrine to be held by the Church?
Now, none of this proves that papal infallibility is true. But what it does do is force people who use the MacArthur-Failoni argument to back down from some of their myths. Bad claims are out there, and come back from time to time like flies that are in regular need of swatting. Better ones also exist, though, and must also be answered. And one of those I will take up, Lord willing, in a future post.
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