Dear Rev. Know it all,
Can you explain papal inscrutability?
I think you mean papal infallibility, and of course I can explain it. Have you forgotten to whom you are writing?
The Oxford dictionary defines “infallible” as incapable of making mistakes or being wrong. Papal infallibility means that the Pope is never wrong when he speaks a) in the exercise of his office as shepherd and teacher of all Christians, b) in virtue of his supreme apostolic authority, and c) when he defines a doctrine concerning faith or morals to be held by the whole Church.
When the pope, successor of St. Peter as Bishop of Rome, speaks “in the exercise of his office as shepherd and teacher of all Christians”, he is said to speak “ex cathedra.” A “cathedra” was a straight backed chair, or throne. A cathedral is, thus, where the teaching chair of the bishop is kept. The “cathedra” in question is the teaching chair of St. Peter. There is an ancient chair kept at St. Peter’s in Rome, enshrined in the great bronze throne behind the main altar. It was thought to be the chair from which St. Peter taught. It was probably a gift from Emperor Charles the Bald to Pope John VIII in 875. Still, it’s a nice thought.
The reason much ado is made about a chair, is that at least at the time of Christ, rabbis taught while sitting in a teaching chair. When Jesus went up the mountain with His disciples to deliver His famous sermon on the mount, He sat down to do it. “Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, and opening his mouth he taught them.” (Matt 5:1) If a rabbi had something important to say, he said it sitting down; hence he spoke “ex cathedra” or “from the chair.”
There is a swell book, a real page-turner by, a German theologian, Heinrich Denzinger (1819-1893) called the Enchiridion Symbolorum et Definitionum. It contains the chief decrees and definitions of all church councils, along with the oldest forms of the Apostles' Creed and a list of condemned propositions. The first edition has just 128 documents. The latest editions have included the teachings of the Second Vatican Council and recent Popes, so if you want to know what some doctrine means, get what, in seminary, we fondly called “a Denzinger.” Here is what Denzinger has to say about infallibility.
“What is claimed for the pope is infallibility merely, not impeccability or inspiration” and that to speak infallibly “The pontiff must teach in his public and official capacity as pastor and doctor of all Christians, not merely in his private capacity as a theologian, preacher or allocutionist, nor in his capacity as a temporal prince or as a mere ordinary of the Diocese of Rome. It must be clear that he speaks as spiritual head of the Church universal.”
Denzinger has a lot more to say about infallibility, but why be tedious in a church bulletin? What people don’t understand about the teaching of papal infallibility taught by the first Vatican Council (1869-70) is that it limits the pope’s authority.
There have been some really wild and wacky things popes have said over the years. For instance, according to Pope Gregory VII (1073-1085) “All princes should kiss the feet of the pope alone…” and “that it is lawful for him to depose emperors …” and in 1302 Pope Boniface VIII said in the papal bull Unam Sanctam, “Furthermore, we declare, we proclaim, we define that it is absolutely necessary for salvation that every human creature be subject to the Roman Pontiff. And how about the unpleasantness with Galileo? Didn’t the church infallibly declare that the earth was the center of the solar system? No, what Cardinal Bellarmine, a really nice guy, said was that “treating heliocentrism as a real phenomenon would be a very dangerous thing, irritating philosophers and theologians, and harming the Holy Faith by rendering Holy Scripture as false.” The Cardinal was thinking about the wars of religion north of the Alps in which Protestants and Catholics were killing each other in the millions and he thought, “We don’t need that down here right now.” The problem was that Galileo was directly saying that the Bible was wrong, and in so doing he was laying the groundwork for a social upheaval that was dangerous. If Galileo had said it differently, there wouldn’t have been a problem.
In fact Galileo was wrong. His theory didn’t fit the number. The planets don’t travel; around the sun in circles as he claimed — they travel in ellipses. Why get thousands killed over a theory that didn’t work mathematically. Galileo declared himself far more infallible than any pope. The Church is not capable of speaking infallibly about science. Neither are scientists and that was the point!
As for the statements of Boniface and Gregory, they were political in nature, and thus couldn’t be called infallible. That is why there is not a lot of foot kissing going on in the Vatican these days. (By the way “papal bull” refers to the Latin word “bulla” or “seal” in English by which the pope applies his personal seal to the letter to guarantee its authenticity. Don’t get any silly ideas.) So you see, the First Vatican Council reminded popes that they were not infallible when they spoke about politics, cosmology, ecology, and most other -ologies. They were infallible only when they spoke about faith and morals, and it has to be clear that they are doing so. Furthermore, the pope has infallibility, not impeccability or inspiration. Lack of impeccability means that he can sin and the lack of inspiration means that he cannot come up with new doctrine. He can only illuminate and declare what the Church has always held and believed. We Catholics are not Mormons. We have no chief “Prophet, Seer, or Revelator, “as do the Mormons. The “Prophet, Seer, and Revelator” is the title of the supreme Mormon authority. A Mormon revelator “makes known, with the Lord’s help, something before unknown. It may be new or forgotten truth, or a new or forgotten application of known truth to man’s need.”
Before 1978, anyone with African ancestry could not be priest in the Mormon Church, and could not participate in most temple ordinances, including celestial marriage. That meant that they could not go to the highest heaven. But, Glory Be! In 1978, the prophet seer and revelator said that God had changed His mind and now blacks would be allowed into the highest heaven. A pope could only dream about such infallibility. Our poor pontiff is stuck with what we have held and taught from the beginning, things like marriage being a relationship between a man and a woman since Jesus said that, “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh” (Matt. 19.5)
For Catholics, Scripture and Sacred Tradition are the only sources of revelation. The magisterium (teaching authority of the Church) is not a source of revelation. It can only bring forward and restate what we have believed from the first. The last words my boyhood pastor said to me were “Keep that faith handed down to us from the apostles Peter and Paul.”
Lord knows I’m trying, Monsignor O’Brien, Lord knows I’m trying.