Thursday, May 26, 2011

And Today's Infallible Pronouncement Is . . . Whatever I Decide Is Infallible

Despite the efforts of two Vatican Councils to contain the ultramontanist view of papal infallibility, it continues to rear its ugly head in the official pronouncements of the current pontiff.

The ultramontanists--who held that the pope should be understood as "as if heaven were always open over his head and the light shone down upon him" and that opposition to him was the sin against the Holy Spirit--could conceive of nothing more beneficial than "an infallible statement at the breakfast table each morning with their copy of the London Times."

By insisting that infallibility could only be exercised ex cathedra, i.e. from the chair of Peter under the most stringent of conditions, the First Vatican Council tried to seriously restrict the ultramontanist view. The Second Vatican Council tried to dilute it still further, by recontextualizing papal infallibility alongside of the infallibility of the church's bishops when they taught together and the infallibility of the body of the faithful as a whole.

But since the papacy of John Paul II, guided intellectually by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who succeeded John Paul II as Benedict XVI, ultramontanism has been on the ascendant once again.

The latest manifestation was the claim, made by Benedict XVI in a recent letter dismissing an Australian bishop, that John Paul II “decided infallibly and irrevocably that the church has not the right to ordain women to the priesthood.”

On May 23, 2011, the National Catholic Reporter published two postings challenging the validity and accuracy of Benedict's claim--one an article quoting several theologians who said that Benedict was on very shaky ground, the other an editorial whose title speaks for itself: Ordination ban not infallibly taught.

The editorial states the case succinctly. John Paul II never said ex cathedra that the church had no right to ordain women. What he said was that such was the constant teaching of the church's bishops over several centuries. A few years later, Ratzinger (as the Vatican's chief enforcer of orthodoxy) issued a statement saying that because it was a constant teaching of the bishops, John Paul's edict had to be definitively held by all Catholics. Now, decades after that chain of events, Ratzinger as Pope Benedict translates his interpretation of John Paul's statement into an infallible pronouncement by John Paul! What is infallible is what I say is infallible. What could be more ultramontane?

Of course, what this illustrates above all is how slippery and untenable the notion of any infallibility really is. My dissertation shows on historical, linguistic and cosmological grounds why it is impossible for any church teaching to be irreformable. (Those who are interested in the documentation should click on the link to the right of these postings.) So the real problem is that when Vatican I, in partial deference to the ultramontanists, declared that the pope possesses "that infallibility with which the divine Redeemer willed His Church to be endowed," it gratuitously attributed infallibility to the will of Jesus Christ. What the bishops at Vatican I refused to consider is that Jesus Christ may not have willed his church or its leaders to be infallible at all--because such a wish contradicts the metaphysical structure of the universe and future actions by the living God.

So we can continue to fight about "creeping infallibility" and try to rein it in. But even if Benedict were to buy the argument that he has misrepresented what John Paul II said, all he would have to do to overcome the problem would be to mount the chair of Peter and declare ex cathedra what John Paul attributed (inaccurately) to the constant, universal teaching of the bishops.

What really needs to be addressed is how any kind of infallibility can be sustained--philosophically, linguistically or historically. The honest answer is that it cannot be sustained under any of those tests, and that continuing to adhere to a dishonest doctrine can only result in more dishonesty.

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