The problem and the associated illusions
1. Popes - supported by the Councils of the Roman Catholic Church - have claimed to teach infallibly on matters of faith and morals. This claim was written into Roman Catholic dogma in 1870, with the decree Pastor Aeternus by the First Vatican Council.
The text of the Vatican I decree on papal infallibility makes it clear that the scope of this authority is limited; it applies to a Papal definition of doctrine on faith and morals, intended to be binding on all:
"We teach and define as a divinely revealed dogma that when the Roman Pontiff speaks EX CATHEDRA, that is, when, in the exercise of his office as shepherd and teacher of all Christians, in virtue of his supreme apostolic authority, he defines a doctrine concerning faith or morals to be held by the whole Church, he possesses, by the divine assistance promised to him in blessed Peter, that infallibility which the divine Redeemer willed his Church to enjoy in defining doctrine concerning faith or morals. Therefore, such definitions of the Roman Pontiff are of themselves, and not by the consent of the Church, irreformable." (3)
This dogma was not defined by the Hierarchy until 1870 - which means either:
(a) that the Holy Spirit offered infallibility to the Church only after 1870 - about 1,840 years after Pentecost, when the Church began,
(b) that this decree was retroactive, covering all binding Papal teachings on "faith and morals" since the Church was founded. This poses obvious problems, as I discuss below.
In any case, there's Scriptural evidence that Peter, who Roman Catholics consider to be the first of the Popes, erred at least once after Pentecost in teaching "faith and morals," and required correction from St. Paul. As Paul said:
"But when Cephas came to Antioch I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. For before certain men came from James, he ate with the Gentiles; but when they came he drew back and separated himself, fearing the circumcision party. And with him the rest of the Jews acted insincerely, so that even Barnabas was carried away by their insincerity. But when I saw that they were not straightforward about the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas before them all, 'If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you compel the Gentiles to live like Jews?'" (Gal. 2:11-14)
2. The Vatican has given the doctrine of infallibility a very wide interpretation, so as to cover almost any Papal teachings with the mantle of infallibility. Pope John Paul II said in 1993:
"Alongside this infallibility of ex cathedra definitions, there is the charism of the Holy Spirit's assistance, granted to Peter and his successors so that they would not err in matters of faith and morals, but rather shed great light on the Christian people. This charism is not limited to exceptional cases, but embraces in varying degrees the whole exercise of the Magisterium. ... We will close by noting that the exercise of the Magisterium is a concrete expression of the Roman Pontiff's contribution to the development of the Church's teaching." (6)
Therefore, as article 2037 of the 1994 Catechism of the Catholic Church says:
"The law of God entrusted to the Church is taught to the faithful as the way of life and truth. ... They have the duty of observing the constitutions and decrees conveyed by the legitimate authority of the Church. Even if they concern disciplinary matters, these determinations call for docility in charity." (7)
In other words, the Vatican says the faithful are to obey all teachings issued by the Catholic Church, in matters of discipline as well as in faith and morals. A recent participant in a Catholic discussion group understands what the Vatican wants, and urges us all to trust and obey:
"When doubts cloud our minds and things seem grey, we should exhibit humble, childlike trust in the Church and in the Pope. The Church is our sweet mother on earth and the Pope is our spiritual father. Sometimes to children their parents seem arbitrary and contradictory, but it is only because they are lacking in the maturity to grasp things that are beyond them." (8)
The Vatican now extends its claim of infallibility
even to the canonization of saints. A 1997 decree by Ratzinger's Congregation
for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) says that "truths connected to revelation
by historical necessity and which are to be held definitively" by Catholics
include "the canonizations of saints (dogmatic facts)."
The CDF says that Catholics must assent, "based on faith in the Holy Spirit's assistance to the Magisterium and on the Catholic doctrine of the infallibility of the Magisterium." (10) A pre-Vatican II theological manual explains that "if the Church could err in her opinion" that "a member of the Church has been assumed into eternal bliss and may be the object of general veneration," "consequences would arise which would be incompatible with the sanctity of the Church." (11) So, the Vatican now says that whoever "denies these truths" - including the accuracy of canonizations - "would be in a position of rejecting a truth of Catholic doctrine and would therefore no longer be in full communion with the Catholic Church." (12)
3. In conjunction with this new doctrine on Papal authority, the trend since Pius IX has been to promote the Pope as a living icon and a media star, and to make him the center of Catholicism.
A historian of the Papacy says that in the mid-1800s, "in the age of cheap popular print and the emergence of the mass media, the Pope himself became, quite literally, a popular icon. Catholic households from Africa to the Americas were as likely to display a picture of the Pope as a crucifix or a statue of the Virgin, and the face of Pio Nono [Pius IX] was better known than that of any Pope in history." (14) In 1876, Cardinal Henry Manning of England said that the Pope, "stripped of his 'temporal glory,' was the living icon of the Sacred Heart." (15) A popular hymn of the time ran thus:
Such veneration apparently went to the Pope's head. When Cardinal Guidi spoke at Vatican I in favor of limiting the scope of Papal infallibility (saying that its use must be assisted by "the counsel of the bishops manifesting the tradition of the churches"), Pius IX reprimanded the Cardinal, saying "I am the tradition." (17)
There's more ...
The Greek-Catholic Patriarch Youssef had opposed the infallibility decree, and left Rome before the dogma was voted upon. Later, Pius IX "forced the Patriarch to kneel in front of him, then placed his foot on the Patriarch's neck," (18) and said, "testa dura" (19) (in essence, calling him a stubborn mule). (20)
Pius IX, incidentally, was declared "Blessed" by John Paul II in 2000, putting him on the road to canonization.
As Pius IX did, Leo XIII (1878-1903) continued. The historian Eamon Duffy said that Leo "surrounded himself with the trappings of monarchy, insisted that Catholics received in audiences kneel before him throughout the interview, never allowed his entourage to sit in his presence, never in twenty-five years exchanged a single word with his coachman." (21)
John XXIII and Paul VI divested the Papacy of some of the courtly pomp and regal trappings that it had inherited - but since the election of John Paul II, there has been a renewed emphasis on the idolatrous mystique of the Papacy. The Pope is no longer lifted up and carried about on a sedan chair by his footmen; he is lifted up before the whole world by his publicists, with the cooperation of image-hungry media.
4. With the media-star status of current Popes goes encouragement of adulation of the Pope, and uncritical support for his teachings and actions.
Catholic apologist Patrick Madrid says: "We call the Pope 'The Holy Father' because he extends heaven's paternal presence." (24) He adds, "The Lord kept His promise to be with the Church always, and this promise has been kept, par excellence, in the office of the Papacy." (25) Madrid describes St. Peter's Basilica and the Vatican as "the universal focal point of the Christian religion" (26) - even though the Basilica was funded, in part, by the sale of indulgences. (It was these sales, directed by Julius II and Leo X, that sparked Luther's protest in 1517). In the conclusion of his book-length defense of the Papacy against its critics, Madrid says that Peter "was the first in a two-thousand-year line of bishops of Rome who stand at the center of the Christian Church. In a sense you can say the popes are its center." (27) (Do you see the bait-and-switch being done: the substitution of a human ruler for God as the head and center of the Church?)
What Madrid says, many have echoed - including the current Pope. On the day after his election, Benedict XVI told the Cardinals that during "the death and the funeral of the lamented John Paul II ... the entire world looked to him with trust. To many it seemed as if that intense participation, amplified to the confines of the planet by the social communications media, was like a choral request for help addressed to the pope by modern humanity which, wracked by fear and uncertainty, questions itself about the future." (28)
Ratzinger seemed to put himself forward as the one to answer that "request for help," by reason of his election by God to the Papacy:
"If the weight of the responsibility that now lies on my poor shoulders is enormous, the divine power on which I can count is surely immeasurable: 'You are Peter and on this rock I will build my Church.' Electing me as the Bishop of Rome, the Lord wanted me as his Vicar, he wished me to be the 'rock' upon which everyone may rest with confidence." (29)
These, indeed, are new teachings! Who knew that "everyone may rest with confidence" in the God-appointed Bishop of Rome, or that the mass interest in the funeral of John Paul II constituted a "choral request for help addressed to the pope by modern humanity"?
Strong leaders need willing followers. In response to the ongoing decay of Roman Catholic institutions, various Catholic commentators have proposed strict obedience to the hierarchy as the solution. Archbishop Charles Chaput of the Archdiocese of Denver spoke for them when - as an antidote to the "prophetic" antics of liberal dissenters in religious orders - he proposed that we follow one of the "Rules for Thinking with the Church" (30) offered during the Reformation by St. Ignatius of Loyola. The "Thirteenth Rule," cited by the Archbishop, is:
With the call to strict obedience comes the habit of secrecy, as may be required to protect the assets and reputation of the institution. In October 2003, when John Paul II named 30 men as cardinals, the oath they all swore included this vow: "not to reveal to any one what is confided to me in secret, nor to divulge what may bring harm or dishonor to Holy Church." (33) This reads like a charter for covering up priestly abuse and hierarchical malfeasance.
Such policies and propaganda encourage people to focus on, and follow, the Pope - without considering whether Papal teachings and policies are consistent with the teachings of Christ.
This view of authority and obedience is straight
out of George Orwell's novel 1984. As the Inner Party inquisitor told
Winston, the imprisoned dissident, "Whatever the Party holds to be truth
is truth. It is impossible to see reality except by looking through the
eyes of the Party." (32) Acceptance of this
irrational mind-set prepares the faithful to goose-step off a spiritual
Published on February 2, 2006 - The Presentation of the Lord