Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Papal Positivism

"We teach and define as a divinely revealed dogma that when the Roman Pontiff speaks EX CATHEDRA, that is, when, in the exercise of his office as shepherd and teacher of all Christians, in virtue of his supreme apostolic authority, he defines a doctrine concerning faith or morals to be held by the whole Church, he possesses, by the divine assistance promised to him in blessed Peter, that infallibility which the divine Redeemer willed his Church to enjoy in defining doctrine concerning faith or morals. Therefore, such definitions of the Roman Pontiff are of themselves, and not by the consent of the Church, irreformable."
This is what the First Vatican Council taught about the ever-misunderstood doctrine of papal infallibility. For the sake of the Church, the Holy Spirit protects the Pope from error when he speaks "ex cathedra" (literally, "from the chair"), meaning when he speaks in his official capacity as head of Christendom., and he defines or clarifies a matter pertaining to faith or morals. That's it. That's all. The pope is not infallible in all of his actions. He is not infallible even in all of his teachings or homilies or in any of the many speeches he gives. The Holy Spirit does not protect those things from error.

In former times, before the onset of mass media and instant communication, Catholics could go their whole life and never hear about what Pope was saying or doing. If he did something momentous, then news of it might reach your far-flung village, but otherwise what the Pope said didn't generally affect you.

This changed with modern communication. Now I can know what the Pope said in a homily, translated into my own language, even before he finishes the Mass. And with this comes a new danger. Nowadays we fall into the danger of thinking that every utterance of the Pope is infallible and that to disagree with the Pope means you have to turn in your Catholic card. In various quarters this is called either papal positivism or papolatry. I prefer papal positivism.

This means that during the pontificate of John Paul, the enemies of the Church were communism and the culture of death, but then during then upon his death in 2005 that was no longer the Catholic thing to oppose. Then when Pope Benedict was elected, the enemy became the dictatorship of relativism. Upon his resignation and the election of Pope Francis, opposing the dictatorship of relativism was no longer Catholic because that might make you a culture warrior; now the enemy to oppose is frowning faces and pharisees who oppose mercy.

The mental gymnastics one has to perform to adhere to papal positivism, to make call one thing Catholic today and another thing Catholic tomorrow, reminds me of a scene in the quintessential dystopian novel 1984, where Winston notices how his country's enemy subtly switches from one enemy to another with barely a feather ruffled and everyone just going along with the charade:
[A]fter the procession, the speeches, the shouting, the singing, the banners, the posters...at just this moment it had been announced that Oceania was not after all at war with Eurasia. Oceania was at war with Eastasia. Eurasia was an ally. There was, of course, no admission that any change had take place. Merely it became known, with extreme suddenness and everywhere at once, that Eastasia and not Eurasia was the enemy. Winston was taking part in a demonstration in one of the central London squares at the moment when it happened...On a scarlet-draped platform an orator of the Inner Party...was haranguing the crowd...The speech had been proceeding for perhaps twenty minutes when a messenger hurried onto the platform and a scrap of paper was slipped into the speaker's hand. He unrolled and read it without pausing in his speech. Nothing altered in his voice or manner, or in the content of what he was saying, but suddenly the names were different. Without words said, a wave of understanding rippled through the crowd. Oceania was at war with Eastasia! The next moment there was a tremendous commotion. The banners and posters were ripped from the walls, banners torn to shreds and trampled underfoot. But within two or three minutes it was all over. The orator, still gripping the neck of the microphone...had gone straight on with his speech. The thing that impressed Winston in looking back was that the speaker had switched from one line to the other actually in midsentence, not only without a pause, but without even breaking syntax...Oceania was at war with Eastasia: Oceania had always been at war with Eastasia.
We run the risk of voluntarily pulling the wool over our own eyes when we act like the mission and the purpose of the Church changes when the Pope changes, even more so if we pretend like the dogma and practice of the Church changes with the Pope. We don't do the Church any favors if we think we have to like or agree with everything the Pope says or does. We are called to love the Pope and to respect him, to obey and believe what he teaches on faith and morals, but we are not called to agree with everything he says. In fact, it may be our duty to resist him when he is in error. It may be our duty to say, "Your Holiness, what you're doing doesn't make a lot of sense to me." Obviously we aren't calling the Pope on the phone to express these things, yet disagreement  is always done with respect in whatever venue we have available to us.

Resist this error of papal positivism. The Pope is just human, and can make mistakes. Love him and respect him, but you don't have to look cross-eyed at the poor decisions he makes until they look like good decisions. It's ok to call a spade a spade. It's good for the Church, and good for Christ's Vicar who leads her.

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