Popes, Infallible and Otherwise

As a recovering Catholic (for better or for worse, one is never an “ex” Catholic any more than one is an “ex” alcoholic), I can’t let the Pope’s passing go without some comment.

Let me start with one point. People are joking in various ways about the loss of the “infallible” Pope. No one in modern times has ever claimed the Pope was “infallible” except under a very narrow set of circumstances. Basically it is only when he speaks as the head of the Church (rather than as a private person, or a theologian, or a diplomat), to define a point of doctrine once and for all in a way that will be binding for the entire Church. This was more or less settled at the First Vatican Council in 1870, although a significant schism resulted (dissenters became known as “Old Catholics“).

Speaking under these circumstances, the Pope is said to be speaking Ex Cathedra (literally, “from the chair”) and it happens only rarely. The last time was in 1950 when Pius XII issued Munificentissimus Deus, declaring that Mary had been assumed into Heaven without dying. It has been argued that Paul VI’s encyclical affirming the ban on contraception (Humanae Vitae, 1968) was issued ex-cathedra, but this is not commonly accepted. (In fact, it was probably one of the single stupidest things the Catholic Church has done in modern times.)

Thomas Cahill wrote about “infallibility” in the Times yesterday, perhaps one of the only worthwhile bits of reading in the sea of imbecilic coverage since Saturday. Regretfully but sternly, he says what almost no one has been saying: that whatever his gifts as a diplomat and spokesperson, John Paul II damaged the Catholic Church perhaps beyond repair. Preaching against the use of condoms as millions died of AIDS, undercutting his own statements about Third World debt and treatment of the poor by aggressively supporting rapacious dictators in the name of anti-Communism, and systematically purging the Church of any shred of independent thought (in Cahill’s words, “the ranks of the episcopate are filled with mindless sycophants and intellectual incompetents”), he has driven millions away from the Church.

Furthermore, his blind insistence on celibacy and his misogynistic refusal to consider any role for women in the Church has thinned the ranks of the priesthood in the U.S. even as the number of Catholics has increased. (Lots of interesting statistics at Future Church.) And his successors are likely to think exactly as he did, given that only three of the cardinals voting for his replacement were not appointed by John Paul II.

I doubt I’d be part of the Catholic Church no matter what direction it had taken, but one really has to wonder what would have happened in the world over the past quarter-century had John Paul II, who spoke with perhaps the most moral authority of anyone on the planet (someone pointed out that he had been seen live by more people than any other human in history) had spoken out against bigotry, rather than in favor of it; had encouraged a rational approach to sexual health and practices in the Church rather than covering up for child abusers and promulgating nonsensical and dangerous doctrine; or had evinced even the slightest support for the priests and nuns who worked so hard, and in some cases died, for the poor of Latin America and other places.

One should not allow the misbehaviors of its hierarchies to disguise the good that Catholic organizations do or the many Catholics who work hard for social justice. But it is a shame that the most genuinely Christian people in the Church are doing their work in spite of, rather than with the support of, the hierarchy.

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