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Infallibility Doesn't Mean Never Having to Say You're Sorry
There is no greater scandal among moderns than the Catholic Church's claim to infallibility. And who can blame them? For as this century begins, it does look as though only a cretin could seriously believe any institution possesses modest integrity, much less infallibility. We've been so schooled in cynicism since Watergate and Vietnam; we've seen so much goop on Kennedy affairs and libidinous preachers and people injected with plutonium that we aren't even shockable anymore. So when we read of Borgia Popes, pedophile priests, and radical nuns praying to Diana, we just fold the paper and look for the "Far Side" cartoons.
And yet... here is this strange divine sea of a Church, embraced by apparently rational, intelligent and good people (more and more of them well-educated converts from both Protestantism and secularism) who seriously subscribe to the dogma that the Holy Catholic Church is, in very truth, infallible. Why?
Here's my story, for what it's worth.
As an unbeliever in the 70s, I ate, drank and breathed (like all my generation) a hazy philosophy of relativism and "open-mindedness." For anyone (especially Christians and especially the Catholic Church) to make a dogmatic statement about some matter of metaphysical truth was regarded as embarrassing and silly in the extreme. And, though I came to a Protestant faith in Jesus Christ in 1979, I retained for years afterward a deep gut conviction that only the openness and liberalism of secular culture could temper Christianity's dangerous dogmatism (dogma being dangerous by definition).
But odd things were afoot in "open" secular society. The horizons of the level plain of tolerant public discourse began, in the 80s, to curl up and up steeply until I found myself in the bottom of a deepening ideological rut. More and more topics of discussion were either forbidden in the academy or forced into narrow channels through which the fashions of deconstruction, multiculturalism, gender feminism, relativism and other dogmatic "isms" roared in violent flash floods. Shakespeare became a forbidden DWEM (Dead White European Male). Beatrix Potter was an anthropomorphic imperialist typifying the Western subjugation of Nature to bourgeois values. Tolkien was a racist. And my love of English was thrown into a cocked hat by academics railing that the idea of "good" literature was simply one more example of Eurocentric political control. Having studied English because I thought words magical things somehow rooted in the mystery of creation itself, I was suddenly shouted at daily that the only reality behind language, behind anything, is power, conflict and domination.
Now oddly, the academy saying this was the same which had once taught me that "liberalism" and "open-mindedness" were the one and only escape from the power and domination of Christian dogma and into the sunny meadows of love and freedom so warmly hailed in the 60s. Yet the philosophical and moral progress of these apostles of love and freedom was frightening to behold. For eventually they came to polemicize against individual freedom as "racist" and (even more chillingly) against the reality of love as a western patriarchal, Eurocentric (read: Judeo-Christian) mask on the face of power. As this hardening process continued, more and more of secularism slid into a stiff ideology that Power and Conflict — between man and woman, rich and poor, white and black, oppressor and oppressed — was the one and only fact in a factless world.
Now, call me a disillusioned idealist, but I parted ways with this fashion long ago. For I did not and do not detect in this ideological prostitution to power a solid reason for abandoning love and freedom and pursuing kounterkulturkampf, class war, racial hatred and sexual animosity as a solution to the world's ills. All I can see, for the life of me, is a mood swing.
And so, all willy nilly, my head's conversion to Christianity was followed by a gut conversion. I began to realize in my bones that the Christian dogmas, apparently so arrogant and dangerous, were ironically the only real barrier against the altar of power at the end of relativism's road. Whatever may be wrong with Christians (of whatever stripe) at any rate their insistence on revealed inviolable truth had landed even the least of them on their feet here. They may believe in a goofy and harmless six day creationism, but by God they are not such fools as to prostitute themselves to the "Might Makes Right" philosophy which much of the academy, claiming to be wise, now fondly embraces. Fools that Christians were, they had not the "sophistication" (nor the permission of Almighty God) to define all relationships as power plays and call Good "whatever wins." Indeed, these glorious fools still say and think that Auschwitz was simply evil and cannot be "contextualized" out of the pit of Hell. They still believe in and practice love (that great 60s buzzword) as a thing in accord, not with "good vibes," but with God's eternal and unchanging will. Love — painful, sacrificing, ecstatic and wonderfully co-dependent — is still in fashion for them. For it is no fashion but a command.
Still. That was the operative word. For Christians held to love as a creed, not a mood; yet 70s relativism "progressed" to the point where it abandoned love as it abandoned love beads. So I was confronted with the strange paradox of "dogmatic" Christian (and especially Catholic) theology salvaging my secular education's own best treasures while secularism went a-whoring after power. I wondered why.
My answer came from G.K. Chesterton, who characterizes the fads and fashions of modernity this way in his splendid little book, The Thing: Why I Am a Catholic:
To a serious Protestant like me, this was a thunderbolt. For as I reflected on modernity's "progress" from rebellion against dogma to relativism to the mere worship of power I couldn't help tracing the problem not merely to the 60's, nor to the 20th Century, nor to the Enlightenment, but to something inherent in the whole Protestant experiment. Eventually my thoughts took this shape:
Reformation polemics were as loud as Rome about possessing "truth" and the "Primitive Apostolic Gospel" and so forth. Yet though these various attempts at return to the Primitive Church were often hailed as a liberation from or purification of the Catholic Faith, what they nearly always meant in practice was that different communions emphasized this and that aspect of Catholic belief (say, predestination or justification by faith or the interior witness of the Spirit). At their best, the various communions (and many great saints within them) mined these aspects for all they were worth. And, God bless them, they still do.
But Protestantism did not and could not discover anything not already part of the Faith as it was preserved by the Catholic Church. How could it? The Faith had already been given to the saints 1500 years before by Christ (Jude 3). Therefore, what Protestants did, at their very best (and they were often at their very best), was mine the gold of truth latent (and sometimes shabbily neglected) in the Catholic depositum fidei.
Now as the years rolled on, Protestants were by and large faithful believers (like Catholics). But with the central Protestant principle of Private Interpretation enthroned in much of Western culture, more and more people failed to recognize they were emphasizing truths which formed only part of the whole from which they were taken. As Protestant Christendom continued to fragment, each subdivision seemed to make it a habit to rediscover what Jesus was "really" saying till (depending on who you talked to) the essence of the gospel seemed to reside in anything from adult baptism to the forbiddance of musical instruments in worship. And this had a cost. For (with the advent of secularism) the itch to deconstruct the old Christian worldview in order to find out what Jesus was "truly" saying eventually allowed enlightened minds to discover he was not saying anything at all. For, according to them, the supernatural did not exist, only Reason and Nature did.
How did they come to this conclusion? They borrowed simple faith in Reason and Nature from the depositum fidei.
For instance, 19th Century materialists took the ancient Catholic belief in a lawful, orderly universe and in the validity of reason and used it as a weapon against the common Catholic and Protestant belief in a Legislator. "The universe," they intoned with perfect Catholic faith, "is governed by law. Therefore," they concluded with perfect anti-Christian skepticism, "there is no Lawgiver. It all just whirls through its motions on its own."
This seems to me the ironic conclusion to the Protestant experiment. For Catholicism's ruling instinct is to see the spiritual sacramentally enfleshed in matter since Her Lord is the Word made Flesh. Yet, over time, more and more of Protestantism dumped a great deal of this sacramentality overboard in favor of the bodiless Word of God. Out with Mary and all that sacramental dogma about her "special significance." She was just the disposable first stage of the drama of Redemption; a mere woman and nothing more. Out with nonsense about the Eucharist as the Body and Blood of Christ. It's mere bread and wine, nothing more. Out with baptism as the means of spiritual rebirth. It's mere water, nothing more. Out with icons and statues as windows on the Holy. They're mere paint and plaster, nothing more. So said growing sectors of Protestantism in its various branches and subdivisions. Yet for some reason Protestants held on to the purely mystical belief that a certain Book was, by pure sacramentality, more than ink and paper.
But their secular descendants didn't. For in the 19th century people began to do to the sacrosanct book exactly what much of Protestantism had done to much of Catholic sacramentality in the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries. They pulled apart the book and analyzed it as the "mere" human document it is, discovering you could tear it to pieces and root out its sources and editors, just as you could tear apart the Catholic altar and burn the Eucharist without detecting a trace of "sacramental presence" there. This was a great shock to many devout Protestants, but Catholics (who were somewhat used to the debunking of sacred things by this time) knew the secret of sacramentality is not exploded by destroying a sacrament. So they continued to see in Scripture what they had always seen — a revelation that is both human (and therefore mortal) and divine (and therefore immortal) just as the Christ of which it speaks is both very man and very God.
But the Enlightened who held a childlike Catholic faith in the validity of Reason were not immortal. For without the safeguard of other Catholic dogmas to balance their faith in materialism they were eventually forced to conclude that reason itself is, at root, simply a function of molecular activity in brain tissue if materialism is the only truth. Thus truth itself became relativized till, by the time I got to high school and college, the shredding of the whole cloth of Catholic truth had resulted in a deeply rooted cultural assumption (180° opposed to the Reformers and their popish opponents) that no one can know truth about anything at all. Even the few old fashioned ideologues (such as Carl Sagan) with a 19th century faith in atheistic rationalism are starting to look rather antique, for they have largely been replaced in the academy by new-fashioned ideologues with an even stronger faith in atheistic irrationalism.
Yet trendy irrationalism is hopeless too. For "no truth" means, in real life, "no way of saying it's wrong to shoot someone for a pair of Nikes." There is no way to write coherent laws to punish unpleasant people like child pornographers (Next on Geraldo: "Kidpornos: Bottom Feeding Scum or Cutting Edge Artists?") There's no way you can speak with anyone about anything coherently. So when Rationalism is sacrificed on the altar of "Revolt Against Religious Dogma" by its usurping bastard Irrationalism there is only one option left: the worship of power which now grips the liberal academy (and will, I fear, soon grip our culture as a whole).
In contrast, to all this the Magisterium states there is such a thing as truth possessing a real shape and texture. The Church dares to say definitely "You cannot believe whatever you like and call it true since truth is from God, not created by humans. You cannot deny the Trinity and call it 'alternative Christianity.' You cannot practice witchcraft and declare it to be 'diversity in the Body of Christ.' You cannot write the Book of Mormon and reconcile it with Scripture. You cannot interpret the Bible privately. You cannot pass laws that declare black white by main force. You cannot run a nation — even a secular one — on terms which defy the will of God in Christ."
The Church says this because she still quite scandalously claims that she is, by direct apostolic succession from Christ Himself, the pillar and foundation of the truth (as Paul says in 1 Timothy 3:15) and that she is therefore competent to speak truth to the nations.
It is here that the modern reader recoils in disgust. Yet to all such recoiling readers, let me offer this word of advice: Stop for a moment and consider how the Church understands infallibility. For she does not make her claims on the basis of power. As Stalin said, "How many divisions does the Pope have?" Nor does she see infallibility as some sort of mark of special virtue or braininess. Indeed, infallibility does not mean that the members of the Church (including the Pope) are without sin. On the contrary, it is a solemn teaching of the Church that every man who ever occupied a bishop's chair was a sinner (and, we might add, it is a matter of historical record that many were fools as well.) Yet all this is exactly what the Spirit's gift of infallibility is given to the Church to amend. For infallibility is a special gift given by God to the Church in her weakness, not bestowed on her for being especially clever or strong. If we want to get the hang of it, we have to imagine the Church, not as an ace student who letters in football, gets all the girls and never has to study, but as a character in a farce who is guided through life miraculously (by the good graces of his fairy godmother) and who (only through those good graces) is preserved from walking into walls or off cliffs. Thus the term is, if anything, a confession of failure, blindness and ineptitude on the part of the Church. That is how the Church sees her gift of infallibility. For she holds with gratitude to the promise which Christ gave her, that He would lead her (often by the nose) into all truth; not that she would figure truth out because of her brilliance. For truth possesses her; she does not possess it.
This explains why, in union with this hard-headed attitude to truth, the Church cherishes a curiously flexible, intuitive and feminine wisdom with respect to the myriad fluid realities of human existence called freedom and love. For the Church recognizes that truth is not, at bottom, a static set of doctrines but a Person who loves us into a freely embraced relationship of love with Himself.
Person Truth — especially when the Persons are the Three Persons of the Trinity — is a different thing than rigid Fact Truth. It is quite as unbending in certain areas and quite as willing to fight falsehood when necessary (like the early Councils which faced down the Christological heresies). It does not allow that 2+2=5, no matter how politically correct it would be to say so. Yet it is also full of mercy, mystery and common sense — conceiving of the Faith not as an unchanging crystal, but as a growing child. Growing children have all the fullness of humanity within them just as the Church has had, since the beginning, the fullness of truth subsisting in it. Yet something still unfolds in a baby as time goes on. So with the Church in union with Peter. The Church at Pentecost was not an adult at birth. Rather, it was a healthy baby with the fullness of a truth it was only beginning to comprehend. God's promise of infallibility to that Church is not that baby will never soil its pants, misbehave or get a bad cut. It is that God will not let baby starve, walk off a cliff or evolve into something with tentacles and a snout, but will instead cause baby to freely "grow up into him who is the head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work." (Eph 4:15-16). Thus, the Church was divinely kept from erring in its dogmatic definitions of the various aspects of the Faith, yet it was also, over time, enabled to understand more deeply aspects of the truth reveal in Christ Jesus as the Holy Spirit guided it. The Faith never changed, yet the Faith has always grown and deepened, like the tiny mustard seed putting down roots and throwing out branches.
So unlike the rigid ideologies which are coming to dominate the culture, the supreme irony is that infallibility does not mean never having to say you're sorry. For the gift of infallibility necessarily implies that the Church receiving it needs it. It is because those Borgia Popes, pedophile priests, radical nuns (and worst of all, because people like me) fail in their individual lives to obey that which the Spirit infallibly reveals through the Church that the Church must be supported by Christ at every step or she is ruined. That's the point of all those Acts of Contrition. Not exactly prideful — especially in contrast to the arrogant noise from the academy that all is Race War, Class War and Gender War (accompanied by threats against chattel students who dare to differ). In comparison to these snarls from elitists in the Vanguard of History, the Church's claim of infallibility is refreshingly humble and hopeful. For it is just another way of expressing confidence in Christ's promise to guide us none-too-bright sheep into truth, freedom and love "even unto the end of the age."
Freedom and love were what my liberal mentors (in the warm mood of the 70s) once taught me to desire. And they taught me so well, I desire it still. May they soon come to their senses and remember the wisdom of their youth — a wisdom preserved, not by the mood of the 70's, but by the infallibly guarded creed of the ages.
Mark P. Shea "Infallibility Doesn't Mean Never Having to Say You're Sorry."
Reprinted with permission of Mark P. Shea.
Mark Shea is Senior Content Editor for Catholic Exchange. You may visit his website at www.mark-shea.com or check out his blog, Catholic and Enjoying It!. Mark is the author of Making Senses Out of Scripture: Reading the Bible as the First Christians Did (Basilica), By What Authority?: An Evangelical Discovers Catholic Tradition (Our Sunday Visitor), and This Is My Body: An Evangelical Discovers the Real Presence (Christendom).
Copyright 2001 Mark P. Shea