Sunday, August 23, 2009

Caritas in Veritate and Papal Infallibility

On August 18th, a group of sixty-eight people representing the intelligentsia of Evangelical Protestantism released a statement titled “Doing the Truth In Love: An Evangelical Response to Caritas in Veritate”. Now, having been exposed to many years of out-of-power party responses to sitting presidents’ speeches, and having built up the uncharitable notion “Evangelical = anti-Catholic” in my subconscious mind, I was more than a little prepared to read something condemnatory of Pope Benedict XVI’s recent encyclical.

Imagine my surprise when I found the response advocated was warm adoption: “We commend the way in which this encyclical considers economic development in terms of the true trajectory for human flourishing. … We echo its call for a new vision of development that recognizes the dignity of human life in its fullness, and that includes a concern for life from conception to natural death, for religious liberty, for the alleviation of poverty, and for the care of creation.” In short, they love it, love it, love it!


Yeah, that’s our Pope! Gotta love him!


In a century that’s seen plenty of talented, far-sighted men ascend the Throne of Peter, Benedict may be the most brilliant and sensitive of the lot … or at least the equal of his predecessor. You have to have a psyche completely crippled by hatred not to see it in Caritas in Veritate, or his first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est. (Of those there are, alas, all too many.)

But looking backward, there hasn’t been a really bad pope in over 300 years. One can argue that Paul VI was ineffectual, but he certainly wasn’t corrupt or evil. There’s a lot of baloney being passed off as “history” about Pius XII, who was one of the few public leaders in Nazi-occupied Europe to actually stand up to Hitler, and who used bishops, Church buildings and his own personal funds to help Jews escape the death camps. And Pius IX was more a victim of the times than anything else.

To be Catholic is not necessarily to be blind when Popes, bishops, priests and other spiritual leaders don’t live up to Christian morality. If Jesus had expected all of our leaders to be uniformly wise, courageous and incorruptible, He would have handed His Church over to angels rather than to human apostles. That’s why the Church in America didn’t fall apart during the “Long Lent” of 2002. (To be sure, we did take a hit, and we haven’t completely recovered yet, but the predator-priest scandals weren’t a knockout punch.)

“But,” you object, “isn’t the fact that you had such a scandal proof that you’re not really Christ’s Church, that the Holy Spirit has abandoned you … if He was ever present to begin with? Especially when you tie it in with so many other facts of Church history, like Alexander VI (the Borgia Pope), the splitting of the world between Portugal and Spain, the Inquisition, the Crusades … the list goes on and on.”

The problem with such an indictment is that it has the dynamics backward. God did not abandon the Church, for “if we are faithless, [Christ] remains faithful — for he cannot deny himself” (2 Tim 2:13). Moreover, Jesus promised that the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, would be with his Church forever (Jn 14:16), and that he himself would be with us “until the end of the age” (Mt 28:20). Only the Orthodox and Catholic Churches can claim to have been around from the beginning; trace the lineage of a Protestant church’s founders back far enough and you eventually fetch up against a Catholic. No, God did not abandon the Church; rather, many leaders have strayed from God over the centuries.

You wave your hands: “Okay, that sounds like word-games to me, but let’s let that go. The point still remains that it undercuts your Pope’s claim to infallibility. If your leaders have occasionally strayed from God’s Will”—and you may or may not load that word “occasionally” with sarcasm—“how do you know that what they teach is really Christian, and not human tradition?”

Let’s first of all discuss what “infallible” doesn’t mean. All it means is that, when the Pope teaches on matters of faith and morals, he will not teach error. It doesn’t mean the Pope is perfect, that he is all-wise and all-knowing. It’s no guarantee that any particular pope is going to be a zealous, courageous defender of the Faith. It doesn’t even guarantee that any particular pope will speak clearly and unmistakably. (For instance, Honorius [r. 625-638] once signed a creed that could have an orthodox construction, but which some Protestant apologists claim was heretical. When the Sixth Ecumenical Council [680] condemned him, Leo II [682-683], clarified the indictment: Honorius had been negligent in not taking vigorous action against the heresy in question, but was not a heretic himself.)

For the Pope to teach infallibly, several conditions obtain:

  1. He is discussing matters of faith and morals. When discussing matters of science, politics, the arts, sports or anything else, unless something about these topics verge into matters of faith and morals, the Pope is as open to error as anyone else.


  2. He is making positive statements, not offering tentative hypotheses or an opinion in passing.


  3. He is making such statements ex cathedra, that is, from his position and in his role as Supreme Pontiff, not in a personal letter to a friend or over dinner with the Italian President.


  4. Although this condition isn’t stated very often, it’s assumed that the Pope is not debilitated by some illness affecting his reason, or being compelled through physical duress by another.

Moreover, the Pope’s power to define authentic Catholic teaching is bound by what other Popes and previous ecumenical councils have decided before. For instance, Benedict could make some emendations in the Rite of the Eucharist to better suit the times and the needs of the modern Church, but there are certain elements he could never just chuck out. For the same reason, he can’t open the priesthood to women; in 1994, John Paul II formally declared that “the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church’s faithful” (Ordinatio Sacerdotalis 4). By doing so, John Paul bound not only Benedict but every successor from now until the Second Coming to his decision; women who have accepted ordination from some renegade bishop, in the expectation that the Church would change its mind, will wait for recognition in vain.

In fact, papal infallibility can be likened in function to the American judicial principle of stare decisis: Lower courts are not free to make rulings in opposition to the Constitution, the laws and Supreme Court precedents (however, the Court has no obligation to reverse any ruling that isn’t in violation of any of these matters). The point of both principles is to keep everybody on the same page.

In speaking of the “individual priesthood of the believer”, prominent anti-Catholic speaker Dr. James R. White notes:
The individual priesthood of the believer does not mean there is no Church. It does not mean there are no pastors and teachers. It does not mean we are not to learn from one another, learn from the great Christians of the past, or “start from scratch” with every new generation. The doctrine does not do away with the … authority of elders to teach and train, nor does it give license to anybody and everybody to go out and start some new movement based on their own “take” on things. While this may happen, it is an abuse of the doctrine, not an application of it.[1]
The irony is that Dr. White speaks these words in defense of sola scriptura, which has long been the Protestant warrant to do precisely these things. Even given individual responsibility to make decisions of faith for himself, that responsibility includes learning from those with authority to teach; not even the Bible gives the laity “heckler’s rights” over Dr. White’s ”elders”. (“Elders”, by the way, is a common English translation of the New Testament Greek word presbyteroi, from which comes our word “priest”.)

What it all comes down to is a simple syllogism:

  • If the Holy Spirit guides the Church[2] and the Holy Spirit’s guidance is reliable,[3] then the Church’s teachings are reliable.


  • The Church’s teachings are not reliable.


  • Therefore, either the Holy Spirit’s guidance is not reliable, or the Holy Spirit does not guide the Church.

The conclusion is a classic dilemma: To choose either conclusion, you must openly contradict a point of faith substantiated by Scripture. You must either give up Scripture as being equally unreliable or accept that the Church’s teachings are equally reliable. No third alternative is historically or logically tenable.

In short, I trust Benedict and the Catholic Church because I trust Jesus Christ’s promise to be with his Church “always, until the end of the age”. I’ve seen nothing in Scripture that gives any man, no matter how brilliant or pious, the right to determine that Christ has abandoned the Church, or that some other group has a better claim to be “the True Church”. When I consider the apostles — and what a motley bunch they were — I have no qualms about following a hierarchy that is often all too human.
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[1] White, The Roman Catholic Controversy (1996), pp. 52-3.
[2] Jn 14:26, 16:13.
[3] Rom 3:3-4; 2 Tim 2:13.