Cutting the Papa-Bull

I’m off from work, so you get a whole two posts from me today. Aren’t you lucky?

Pat Archbold has written an excellent post at the National Catholic Register that counters some of the arguments we’ve heard in light of Pope Benedict’s resignation, abdication, retirement, ummm not being Pope anymore. Our own Jake Tawney touched upon some of these issues last week, but it’s worth re-emphasizing.

The Holy Spirit picks the Pope, so don’t worry. This is probably the most common bit of balderdash. I refer to this is ‘Holy Spirit as conclave Puppeteer fallacy.’

Let’s get this straight, the Holy-Spirit does not pick the Pope, 117 fallible men do. For certain, many or even most of these men will call on the Holy Spirit in fervent prayer to guide their judgement, but it is still their judgement, their fallible judgment.

To suggest that the Holy Spirit picks the Pope is an insult to the Holy Spirit born of ignorance. To put the blame for some of the horrible Popes that we have had on the Holy Spirit is to blame God for our own contrary wills. No, the Holy Spirit does not pick the Pope.

The Holy Spirit protects the Church from anything bad, so don’t worry. If you worry, you don’t trust the Holy Spirit. I call this the ‘Holy Spirit as fairy-godmother fallacy.’ If you have the temerity to express a bit of apprehension over the abdication of the Pope or for the future, the pious will pummel you as an unbeliever. While the Holy Spirit protects the Church from certain things (more on this later), the Holy Spirit does not protect the Church from calamity. To make such an argument is to be woefully ignorant of history. Ignorant of not only the whole 2,000 years of history, but ignorant of just the last 50 years of history.  Bad things happen, even to the Church.

Part B of this fallacy are those who trot out “The gates of Hell shall not prevail!!!” as their defense of this nonsense. Yes, the gates of hell will not prevail against the Church, but this is no guarantee that there will be not be tremendous loss of life and souls along the way. The Nazis did not prevail, but they sure did a lot of evil before they lost. This line of thinking is merely sticking your head in pious sand.

How dare you critique the Pope! He is guided by the Holy Spirit!! If you have the temerity to question the Pope’s (past, present, or even future) prudential judgment, then you are a cafeteria catholic and a moral relativist of the worst sort. I call this the ‘Pope as God or Jack Chick fallacy.’ I have seen many people comment that we have no right as Catholics to question the Pope’s prudential judgement on anything or even offer advice to a future Pope. The Holy Spirit guides the Pope, dont’cha know, so to question or advise the Pope is to question or advise the Holy Spirit. Heretic!!

In one bit of commentary I warned of the dangers of a ‘trend’ of papal abdications and advised a future pontiff to avoid it. I didn’t even critique the current Pontiff’s decision, just advised a future one. For this, I was branded a moral relativist and a heretic.

Of course, proper respect should be given to any Pope, even in prudential areas, but the Pope is not infallible in this. While I am certain that this Pope prayed and discerned over his decision to abdicate, this is no guarantee that this is the right thing to do or that it is the will of God. There are real consequences to this decision and there are real dangers too. That is not to say that the Pope is doing the wrong thing, but only that he is doing what he thinks is best. It may be, it may not be.

Pat’s previous post, referenced in his third point, was savaged some commenters because he had the brazen temerity to tell the Pope what to do, though that wasn’t exactly the message of his column.

One mistake that some Catholics make is treating every papal utterance and action as divinely inspired and thus immune from even the slightest bit of criticism or doubt. This tendency only fuels the suspicions of non-Catholics and heterodox Catholics that we treat the Pope as something like a deity. Neither Pat nor I are suggesting that we should make like Hans Kung and vigorously dissent in the most arrogant manner possible, however; we need to recognize that Popes are human beings, and though guided by the Holy Spirit, not free from error in everything they do. One reason it’s so important to remember that we have a Pope who is not personally infallible in all things is because he desperately needs our prayers, and we might be less inclined to offer up those prayers if we think he’s got this all covered. So keep those prayers coming for the Pope and for the Cardinals who will be selecting the next Pope.

6 Responses to Cutting the Papa-Bull

  • Paul Zummo: “Pope Benedict’s resignation, abdication, retirement,” all words cross out. Pope Benedict XVI surrenders his office as Vicar of Christ on earth and Successor to Peter to another priest. I am amused as the word SUPER POPE enters my mind. No, Pope Benedict XVI will always be Pope Benedict XVI and Joseph Ratzinger will always be beloved Joseph Ratzinger, Servant of the Servants of God.

  • I’m not sure why it’s either/or: Either we treat every word of every Pope as infallible OR we criticize every word of every Pope relentlessly. In the case at hand, we have had decades of experience of the character of Joseph Ratzinger/ Pope Benedict. He has always shown himself to be a prayerful, thoughtful, devout man. If he has come to the conclusion that he is not fit for his responsibilities, I’m inclined to agree with him on the basis of what we know about him. Did he get a handwritten message from God? I rather doubt it. But can I trust that this man, with this character, made this decision as prudently, prayerfully and lovingly as he possibly could? Yes, I do.

  • One of the problems since Vatican II has been that the Church Militant has confused herself with the Church Triumphant while acting like the Church Mushy.

  • Maggie – Well put. That’s pretty much where my thinking is on this.

    For me, though, there’s another aspect of it. I’ve found that – for me – involvement in Church politics and rumors diminishes my sense of awe and humility toward the Church. I’m not accusing others of falling into the same trap, but it’s a trap that I fall into so easily that I have to believe I’m not alone in it.

  • History should teach us a measure of realism.

    I am not so much thinking of the “bad popes,” as of the average. From Sixtus V, who died in 1590, to Leo XIII, who was elected in 1878, we had a virtually unbroken succession of popes, who had risen through the ranks of the Vatican bureaucracy and who were, by habit, taste and training, administrators. Even Benedict XIV, a giant in that age of pygmies, is better remembered today as Prospero Lambertini, the great canon lawyer, fits this mould.

    It is not unfair to describe the result as one of assiduous mediocrity. Even in Catholic countries, they had the same impact and the same popular appeal, as the average Secretary-General of the United Nations or President of the World Bank. Pio Nono was popular because he was pitied.

    Meanwhile, we had the Church riven by the Thirty Years War, the Quietist controversy, the Jansenist heresy, the Gallican controversy, Josephism, the suppression of the Jesuits, the French Revolution and its aftermath, and the Risorgimento, in none of which can the Holy See be said to have distinguished itself.

    It goes without saying that none of them taught error – that is the guaranteed protection of the Holy Spirit.

  • If I were pope, I’d name myself Sixtus VI. It’s even better in Latin: Sixtus Sextus.

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