Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Personal Aside: Let’s Get This Straight on Papal Infallibility: It Doesn’t Include Redistribution of Income or Environmental Science.


Pope Benedict XVI, a man of immense learning in philosophy and theology, has just been quoted as saying that rich nations must assume environmental duties, should shed their “consumerism” and embrace more sober lifestyles: this datelined Vatican City by Reuters.

Let’s get this straight. We Catholics believe the Pope is infallible on matters of faith and morals but with this caveat: The doctrine of infallibility is a negative i.e. the Pope cannot err on faith and morals. Moreover infallibility does not mean impeccability. The Blessed Virgin, conceived without Original Sin, was and is impeccable but Popes are not. Peter, the first Pope, certainly was not nor was any of his successors.

Infallibility is also different than revelation. With revelation, God enlightens the human mind. Infallibility, in contrast, presupposes an already existing revelation needs to be preserved. Nor is infallibility the same as inspiration. Inspiration assumes God is the principle deliverer of the word. A good theologian as the late Fr. Ernie (Fr. Ernest Kilzer OSB) said truthfully that (a) in revelation God speaks His divine word; (b) in inspiration He projects it and (c) through papal infallibility on faith and morals He safeguards (prevents error disseminated).

What do we mean when we say the Pope is infallible on faith and morals? We mean that God who is absolutely infallible bestowed on His new people, the Church, a shared infallibility within three circumscribed limits. And what are they? First, as previously said, in matters of faith and morals. Second, when the whole people of God unhesitatingly hold a point of doctrine on these matters and third always dependent on what Ernie used to call “the wise providence” and “anointing grace of the Holy Spirit” who leads the Church, guards it from straying from the truth until the 2nd Coming.

All these things having been said, what weight does a view of a Pontiff on particular matters not specifically linked to faith and morals take on with faithful Catholics? We owe to give that view serious consideration but not more. The view of John Paul II that capital punishment is almost always wrong does not negate the right of the state to punish criminals with appropriate penalties “not excluding in cases of extreme gravity, the death penalty” not does it, frankly, command me to change my conscience which guides me by the light of human reason. I must say my views have become more tolerant because of the discovery of DNA and the wise counsel of the Pope: but I’m still a capital punishment man.

It is my personal view that on economics this particular Pope does not fathom the beneficent nature of development of wealth—that entrepreneurship is a gesture of generosity, a risk without a guarantee of return and that the Church has been delinquent in perceiving this. There is no doubt in my mind that Benedict reflects a Bismarckian view of the Big State versus appreciation of the value of entrepreneurism. But of course that does not invalidate the papacy’s role on faith and morals but does mean that injunctions about no nation or people can remain indifferent to problems such as climate change, pollution, the loss of biodiversity, the increase of natural catastrophes and deforestation of equatorial and tropical regions, I take as advice—nothing more.

The Pope is not an expert on the environment or environmental science—thus it would be foolish, after consideration of his views, to accept views on science and other issues not specifically connected to faith and morals as anything approaching “ex-cathedra” (Latin for “from the chair” of Peter). In a sense his view on this could…could I say…be assumed to endorse goofy and unrealistic projects such as the one journalist Steve Huntley reported in yesterday’s “Sun-Times” to-wit geothermal projects to extract energy from below the earth’s surface, using natural heat to provide carbon-emission-free energy could backfire with repercussions to humanity. Drilling into hot bedrock and circulating water through it to generate steam ended in producing an earthquake in Switzerland in 2006.

Having pointed this out, let me as one human vouchsafe my own opinion to the Pope… as one human to another… and to those on his staff who churn out statements on this and other non-relevant disquisitions. And that is this: You have more than enough to do to correct the propensity of man to sin without getting into the fringes of economic policy. As we have found out with Climate-gate, statistics and numbers can be juggled and inverted so as to advance a particular political position.

Further papal statements on the economy, world trade et al trigger pronouncements from ambitious but de-facto groups as the U. S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) pontificating on things the mitered ones know very little about…the economy…globalization…the negatives of capital punishment…the positives of nuclear freeze. It is revelatory that very little is generated by the mitered ones on something they have great responsibility for: the safeguarding of morals in the priesthood and the training of young people in Catholic schools on the articles of the faith.

In summary, I don’t know how many Catholics I speak for but please regard respectfully this from the back pews: I don’t want to read further dispatches from Reuters telling us how the Pope or the USCCB feel about taxpayer-paid universal health care…the Guantanamo detainees and whether they should go to Thomson, Illinois…Keynesian principles of economics… inflation…deflation…the Fed…or the selection of winners of the Golden Globe. Thank you very much.

We Catholics look to the papacy for remonstrances on faith and morals without expansion into politics via embellishment from staffers lay or clerical who do not have Jesus Christ’s authorization to generate views on how the world should be steered, much less providing directions for the bark of Peter.

I will appreciate your views on these thoughts…especially from Catholics. Send it to

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