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.