Letter to Moses “Mo” Derniste continued: “Why I remain a Catholic”
I am a Catholic because the pope is infallible. “What?” I hear you say. “Have you read any history? There have been some truly whackadoodle popes. What about Pope Boniface VIII (1235 – 1303)? He really believed he was in charge of EVERTHING and EVERYBODY. For instance, he got into a fight with the powerful Colonna family, and trashed several of the towns they ran including Palestrina where 6,000 citizens were killed. Then there’s Benedict IX (1012 – 1065, maybe). He was made pope when he was a teenager and was tossed out of office twice, because he was so dissolute and then abdicated because he was not sure he could stay pope and wanted to marry his cousin anyway. He sold the papal throne to his uncle. He got tired of being married and wanted to be pope for a third time. He was finally deposed by Emperor Henry III of Germany. His father, a Roman politician, had gotten him elected. He had no qualifications and led a dissolute life of rape, adultery, and murder. St. Peter Damian said that Benedict was “a demon from hell in the disguise of a priest.” “His life as a pope,” wrote Pope Victor III, “was so vile, so foul, and so execrable, that I shudder to think of it.” There is a possibility that he repented and died as a monk. Let’s hope.
Everybody’s favorite bad pope is a Spaniard, Rodrigo Borgia, Pope Alexander VI (1431 – 1503), father of the murderous Cesare -and Lucretia, the poison-pouring tramp (who actually may not have been as bad as everybody says.) The whole Borgia crew currently has a couple of miniseries going. The Borgias are very popular in syndication.
Rodrigo’s uncle was Pope Calixtus III who whisked this very capable and crafty nephew through the ranks of bishop and cardinal, naming him vice-chancellor of the Papal States. This made him so rich that he was able to buy the papacy by bribing the electing cardinals. He had at least seven different children by several women. Rodrigo was refreshingly honest in so far as he recognized his children as his children. He also gave them lavish bequests at church expense. He made his son Cesare a cardinal at one point, but Cesare eventually quit the job and went back to what he was good at; killing and soldiering. Giovanni de Medici said “Now we are in the power of a wolf, the most rapacious perhaps that this world has ever seen. And if we do not flee, he will inevitably devour us all.” I could go on for quite a while. There are a lot more horrible popes. Read Mike Aquilina’s book, “Good Pope Bad Pope.”
All this said, I am a Catholic because the pope is infallible. “What?” Again, I can hear you mutter. “I wouldn’t be part of that institution for a minute!” Hold on a minute, there have been 266 popes and only ten truly horrible ones. There have also been a lot of anti-popes. These are guys who thought they were pope but weren’t. The list includes some very powerful men and some true loons who put on a white beanie and declare, “I’m the pope. Jesus told me so.” There’s about five or ten of them around right now! I am not saying I am Catholic because most of the popes have been decent. I am a Catholic because the popes have proved to be infallible. None of them have succeeded in changing the universal teaching of the faith to suite their own peculiarities.
My point is this. There have been some very bad popes elected. We have been blessed in modern times with good and holy men, so it may come as a surprise to you that there have been some very bad men who have parked their papal dignity on the throne of St. Peter. That is one of the reasons I am a Catholic. The faith has not been derailed by the some of the worst men in history. The faith handed down to us from the apostles Peter and Paul remains intact. It has been assailed by countless theologians, politicians and self-serving clerics and yet it remains. Back to papal infallibility which, as history proves, is a real thing. What then is papal infallibility? Here is the text book definition from the First Vatican Council.
“We teach and define that it is a dogma Divinely revealed that the Roman pontiff when he speaks ex cathedra, that is when in discharge of the office of pastor and doctor of all Christians, by virtue of his supreme Apostolic authority, he defines a doctrine regarding faith or morals to be held by the universal Church, by the Divine assistance promised to him in Blessed Peter, is possessed of that infallibility with which the Divine Redeemer willed that his Church should be endowed in defining doctrine regarding faith or morals, and that therefore such definitions of the Roman pontiff are of themselves and not from the consent of the Church irreformable.”
What most people don’t understand is that the doctrine of papal infallibility serves to limit papal power. For instance, in a document called the “Dictaus Papae”, Pope Gregory VII, or one of his minions in 1075, insisted “That all princes shall kiss the feet of only the pope.” This means that the pope has complete political power. The doctrine of papal infallibility means that the pope is infallible only in matters of faith and morals. He is not politically infallible. He cannot dictate political policy to anyone nor infallibly endorse one political system over another. The doctrine of papal infallibility is a reaction and a refutation to the error of Ultramontanism.
Ultramontanism which means “beyond the mountains” – the Alps to be precise. The pope lives beyond the Alps, down there in sunny Italy. Ultramontanism places strong emphasis on the prerogatives and powers of the pope. From the 17th century on, Ultramontanism became closely associated with the Jesuits, who take a vow of personal loyalty to the pope. They were excellent teachers and were tutors in the royal courts in Europe. They were famous for their political influence promoting papal interests in European politics. They held the pope to be superior to governments and kings, even in temporal questions. In other words, if the pope says it will rain tomorrow, it will rain tomorrow. This means that papal infallibility does not extend to political theory or weather forecasting. The popes may comment on such things, but they are not part of the deposit of Catholic faith.
Another limitation, the pope is infallible only when speaking Ex Cathedra. This is very important. In times past a rabbi had a chair on which he sat when teaching. We see in the gospel of Matthew that Jesus goes up the mountain and sits down to teach his sermon on the mount. The pope when he “sits” in the Chair of Peter, that is he speaks as the spiritual descendant of Peter, will not be allowed by the Holy Spirit to fall into error. He still cannot predict the weather. That would be to “sit” in the chair of the 10 O’clock weather report. Different chair. The pope cannot change revealed truth. He cannot add to revealed truth. He can and must reemphasize and bring forward in current language what the Lord and the Church have always taught. His infallibility is a catholic infallibility. It is part of an unbroken chain of truth that reaches back to Christ.
Infallibility does not give anyone the ability to contradict Christ and the consistent two-thousand-year-old deposit of faith. Take the case of Pope Liberius (310 – 366) He got into a tussle with the Christian Roman emperor Constantius who favored Arianism – the doctrine that Jesus wasn’t really divine and there wasn’t really a Holy Trinity. Constantius arrested Liberius and after a couple years of exile, Liberius seems to have written a couple of letters to Constantius that waffled on Arianism, thus winning his freedom and returning to Rome. These letters may or may not have been written by Liberius, but they certainly weren’t Ex Cathedra, and the faith in one God in three persons and the divine person of Jesus, fully human and fully divine in nature have been taught since before the Scriptures were written and continue to be taught. It is a universal that is “catholic” teaching believed by the whole Church for its entire history. To radically depart from the catholic nature of a teaching, that is its consistent teaching throughout history, is to cease to be Catholic. In a certain sense Jesus gave his teaching chair to Peter and Peter gave it to his successors, the bishops of Rome. When a pope like Liberius or Alexander sits in his own chair he is simply not speaking infallibly.
Despite all the corruption and the theological controversy of times past, the faith is still the faith and the little red lamp still burns before the tabernacle. And I am still a Catholic.