Infallible Evasion of Scandal?

by Mario Rizzo  

It was one of the great virtues of Lord Acton to have realized that the Catholic Church is subject to all of the imperfections of any other human institution, especially those with little transparency. The current sex-abuse scandals in the Catholic Church would have been of great concern to him. He was also concerned with the issue of papal infallibility on faith and morals. He opposed the doctrine and helped organize opposition to it at the First Vatican Council.  He lost this battle but remained a Catholic. He never really accepted the doctrine (although he kept a certain ambiguous stance toward it). He believed that it had no basis in history or theology.  

In the Virginia Quarterly Review Perez Zagorin reviews a biography of Lord Acton and presents the man’s attitude compactly: 

[Acton] cared most about the history of political, religious, and intellectual liberty, and his historical studies taught him that Catholic writers and scholars had often been willing to conceal and falsify the truth about the church’s past and the evil and immoral actions of pontiffs, saints, and princes in what they deemed the higher interests of Catholicism. For Acton this was inexcusable. He came to think that nothing was more important in the historian’s dealing with the past than to stigmatize wrongdoing, especially deeds like murder, assassination, persecution, and massacres carried out in the name of religion. The more powerful the worldly position of the culprits, he felt, the more they were to be condemned, and he considered that the authors and apologists who tried to justify or hide their crimes were even worse than the perpetrators. 

Today, the two issues of exposing the truth about sex-abuse, the cover-ups, on the one hand, and the doctrine of infallibility, on the other, may seem not to be related. But they are in a “sociological” way.  

The same mindset that led the Church to this doctrine is at work in the refusal to shine the light of day on the sex-abuse incidents and their cover-up. The mindset of infallibility is the mindset of unaccountability to any human criticism. And since the Church has privileged access to the divine, it is effectively unaccountable, full stop.  

Anyone who knows the Catholic Church and how it operates will not find it difficult to believe that the “hush-hush” re-assign-the-priest solution was done with at least tacit approval from the highest levels. As a boy in the late 1950s and early 1960s in Catholic school, I learned over and over again from the nuns that scandal in the Church must be avoided. By this they meant that if something “bad” happened the Church was right in trying to ensure as little publicity as possible.  

The reason given was that it is important that the faithful be confused between the faith and imperfect churchmen.  

But if the faith is what the pope and authoritative Churchmen say it is (else why would we need them?), maybe there is no difference. Maybe what you see is what you get: protectors of an institution of ambiguous infallibility claims.  

My point is that although the doctrine of infallibility has not been used much, it has colored all of the pronouncements of the pope and Church. (The history of the doctrine is curious. It is has been invoked only to proclaim the bodily assumption of Mary into heaven. Similar, I guess, to the apotheosis of Julius Caesar as proclaimed by the Roman Senate.)  

The pope may not be speaking ex cathedra (from the Chair of Peter – infallibly) but various formal statements seem to have different degrees of seriousness and hence somehow partake in the infallibility aura. For example, statements in encyclical letters are not strictly infallible but must be taken very “seriously.”  

So when the pope denies cover-up we are to take this quite seriously. When he, by omission, does not shed the “avoidance of scandal” mindset, we are right to feel manipulated. Just as manipulated as the First Vatican Council was by Pope Pius IX. (Would the current pope like to open all the records of that council?) 

The reader is right to feel confusion here. The whole system is self-referential, closed, unable and unwilling to accept criticism. Ambiguous claims of infallibility, lack of transparency, fears about the faithful getting confused between the churchmen and the Church, fallible people and infallible (sometimes) pope, and so forth. 

“Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely,” said Lord Acton. This seems more consistent with Jesus’s statement, “The truth shall set you free” than the Church’s institutional desire to avoid scandal.  

I wish Lord Acton were here today.  

Addendum: For those curious about the doctrine of infallibility, here is a declaration from the First Vatican Council (Chapter 4, no. 9):

Therefore, faithfully adhering to the tradition received from the beginning of the Christian faith, to the glory of God our savior, for the exaltation of the Catholic religion and for the salvation of the Christian people, with the approval of the Sacred Council, 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.

So then, should anyone, which God forbid, have the temerity to reject this definition of ours: let him be anathema.


7 thoughts on “Infallible Evasion of Scandal?

  1. Well said.

    The only question I do have is if the scale of these problems is being accurately reported.

    I’ve no doubt that abuse has happened, but the current climate suggests that every priest in the US (why not worldwide?) is a pedophile, or a “would be” pedophile and that becoming a priest is positive proof of unwholesome tendencies, which we are certain every priest must possess, even when we lack proof that he acted on them.

    The fact that “priest” and “pedophile” are fast becoming synonymous in any US public discourse suggests a scale of problem I just don’t believe, and a collective assumption that–for reasons that are never given or explained–men who choose to be priests are known to be more apt to deviant behavior than men who choose any other office or profession.

  2. To ThomasL’s question: George Weigel has a long article on the issue in First Things with a link at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. He addresses your question.

  3. Mario,

    Your points are well taken. But let me disagree for a moment. The claim “scandal in the Church must be avoided” does not seem to me to be unusual. Even the most open and transparent organizations always seek to avoid scandal. The RCC is no exception. Clearly it has to be extra cautious because of its claim to be the guardian of faith and morals. If those who belong to the organization do not follow its own rules, then indeed the image of the RCC may suffer. How can it be the guardian of morals if those who are supposed to defend it are liars and hypocrites? The public abhors hypocrisy above all. Nobody disagrees with this.

    Denial of papal infallibility has been one of the power horses of the protestants in recent times. The claim runs something like this: “even though the pope pretends to be the vicar of Christ, he is just human and thus there is no reason to believe that he is infallible (and he is not the vicar of Christ anyway).”

    The claim of infallibility is only a problem for those who attack catholic dogma of course, it is not for catholics. Indeed, if the pope could not speak on points of dogma with infallibility (which he very very rarely does), then there would be no reason for catholic to believe that the tradition that has developed in the last 2000 years rests on the deposit of the Apostles. Remember that the RCC is a living Church, which means that the deposit is not only preserved but also extended through tradition. This is something the protestants reject through the sola scriptura doctrine.

    So I believe the confusion that you are referring to is more important amongst those who already have some prejudices against the RCC (and thus are already “confused” about the dogma of the RCC). In my view, there is no infallibility involved in the current statements of the pope. When the pope says that there was no cover-up, we have no reason to doubt is words, but this doesn’t mean that he is factually right. There may have been cover-up at some other echelon that the pope did not know about. You say that there is confusion here, but I think there is only confusion if one is already biased. Catholics dissociate the invisible Church (the meaning of Christianity) from the visible one (the men and women who carry the meaning in our current times). The visible Church is subject to all the laws that apply to any human organization that economics has established, including the fact that power may corrupt.

    I am not trying to find excuses for crimes committed by churchmen, including bishops and others. I am simply saying that members of the visible Church do not always live up to the standards of the invisible Church. There is nothing new in this. Victims should speak and those who have committed crimes should be prosecuted. I don’t think catholics would disagree with this. But infallibility has nothing to do with it.

  4. Frederic,

    The connection I suggested between the scandal and infallibility is “sociological” and not theological. If the Church claims to have privileged access to the divine then the “visible Church’ is all people can see. Infallibility is a claimed-aspect of the visible Church about things that are invisible. Who can *theologically* challenge that? It is a closed system.

    But from a sociological perspective, the Church loses its infallibility-on faith-and- morals credibility to the extent that Churchmen cannot be trusted. We can’t see the invisible.

    But even more. The Church thinks it is, or should be, immune to criticism. The whole canon law approach to disciplining priests keeps it out of the secular law. This has been a long-standing practice of the Church.

    This is related to the Vatican’s claim of sovereignty. And the canon law idea that the Holy See (“First See”)is not to be judged by others, etc. These are sociological, not theological, connections.

    I do not share your faith so perhaps the key is that I simply do not accept that there is a difference between the “invisible” Church and the “visible” Church. The Church sometimes says there is but they don’t allow that others can be in direct contact with the invisible Church. So the circle is closed.

  5. Mario,

    I see that your distinction was sociological rather than theological. I also agree that hypocrisy and deceit amongst clergy is a very serious issue and does a lot to destroy the message of the Church. But it is a problem because people (I mean most people including non-catholics and non-Christians) take the RCC claims about morals seriously. If they didn’t, who would care that the clergy is not to be trusted? Nobody would. It is similar in my view to what people expect from the office of the US President. People take it seriously even though they also know that the president is just human.

    I don’t agree that no one can challenge the claims of the Church and thus that it is a closed system. Anyone can and has. Ever since the great schism, christians and others have challenged the claims of Rome. Because of the nature of its claim (that it represents The Christ on earth), RCC dogma has an aura of universality (as its name indicates). But so does any system of thought organized around some claimed divine revelation that explains the meaning of reality and of human existence. Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism for instance all make that type of claim. Since they all make different claims about what exists, either one of them is true or none of them are true. But the fact that they are competing on this issue shows to me that while they each claim to have the ultimate truth, they also are open to competition.

    You got me interested in the use of Canon Law to judge priests. I don’t know enough about the subject. I will look into it.

    Wishing you a happy and blessed Easter, Mario.

  6. The most salient point in Mario’s post was that Papal Infallibility is hardly ever invoked. It reminds one of Sherlock Holmes and the Curious Case of the Barking Dog at night. The Inspector responded to Holmes that the dog had done nothing at night. That was what was curious, answered Holmes.

    I thought Mario reached on this one, and didn’t comment because I figured it would get very Catholic very soon. Since it has, I’ll elaborate.

    The first part of Mario’s post undermines the second half. Lord Acton criticized the Church for its human failings for the roughly 18 centuries before the doctrine of Papal infallibility was put forward by Pius IX. Acton’s point was that, unfortunately, the Church acted too much like all other human institutions. His lament was precisely that the Chruch was not distinctive among human institutions. The doctrine of infallibility is just a red-herring in the discussion. It has nothing to do with the Church’s failings, then or now.

    The distinction between the Visible and Invisible Church does not require faith, but logic. Amazingly, Bill O’Reilly’s column this week (which I hardly ever read) is pithy and on topic. He writes the Chruch is about its teachings, not the people teaching.

    The Catholic Church’s handling of the abuse was horrible, a point acknowledged by its most ardent defenders. (Read George Weigel’s denunciation of “clericalism.”) The role of priests in abuse of children has been wildly exagerated from the beginning, down to today. As always, the coverup is worse than the crime. But abstruse theological doctrines played no role. One observes this in all human institutions. That was Acton’s sad lament.

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