Tuesday, February 10, 2009

why i respect the pope

After hearing about those un-excommunications, I feel both fiercely angry at the Pope and fiercely defensive. Weird, right? But it’s the same way you’d feel if a leader you respected took an action that you (majorly) didn’t agree with: you wish they hadn’t done it, but you think the criticism is over the top.

And yes, I did just refer to the Pope as a leader I respect.

[Side point: people have often asked me how I can square my liberal politics with my religion. “Isn’t the whole point of Catholicism that you follow the Pope?” NO!! The point of Catholicism is the same as the point of any other strand of Christianity: that God sent his son to suffer in our place so that we could be saved from out sins. The Pope is miniature compared to all that.]

Okay, so why do I respect the Pope? And where does that respect end?

The Pope (whichever Pope, any and all Popes) is a far holier person than I am or can every hope to be. He has probably spent more time in prayer / conversation with God in the last month than I’ve spent in the last year. He’s also far more learned in theology / church history than I will ever be. This means that, at least sometimes, he’s going to be right and I’m going to be wrong.

In addition, Stanley Fish summarizes an Augustinian argument nicely:
St. Augustine (rejecting the position that the church should be made up only of saints) contended that priestly authority derived from the institution of the Church and ultimately from its head, Jesus Christ. Whatever infirmities a man may have (and as fallen creatures, Augustine observes, we all have them) are submerged in the office he holds. It is the office that speaks, appoints and consecrates. Its legitimacy does not vary with personal qualities of the imperfect human being who is the temporary custodian of a power that at once exceeds and transforms him.
Nonetheless, I definitely disagree with a lot of the Pope’s politics. (Do you agree on every point with every person you respect?) For example, I do not agree with the Catholic Church’s teaching about condoms – not only does it fail to make sense logically (why would natural family planning be ok if condoms aren’t?), but it doesn’t “ring true” to me.

When the Pope makes what to me appear to be bad decisions, I have to remember (apart form how much holier he is than I am):
  • Everyone screws up on their job. The pope is not immune to that.
  • The pope is a spiritual leader, but also a politician and, like all politicians, must sometimes make concessions for unity’s sake. (Though why he wants to make a concession about the existence of the Holocaust and not about the use of condoms is a little beyond me.)
  • ...or he might be right. He's not infallible, but I'm even less infallible! And I need to reflect and pray about what our differences are and if maybe I'm the one who's not seeing the big picture.


  1. > Though why he wants to make a concession about > the existence of the Holocaust [snip]

    My understanding is that he now has told the offending bishop that he has to recant his holocaust-denying before he can fully be accepted back into the Church (although it's possible I've read that wrong or the article I read was mistaken).

    I like the point you bring up about having respect for the Papacy, while acknowledging that there can be issues with individual popes. The current pope seems to be burning a lot of bridges that the previous one worked very hard to build (particularly in regard to the Jewish community) however, and that makes me sad.

  2. I would say you have this issue with the Pope because you, like many Catholics, fail to study their faith. Equating condoms to natural family planning is like equating abortion and miscarriage. One is an intentional barrier in an act that is meant to be total, free, and life giving. One works with how God made the human body to avoid pregnancy if necessary, but still remains total, free, and life-giving because nothing is being held back. And yes, the Pope actually is infallible, on matters of faith and morals. Not all pope's were holy men, but all were infallible. And finally, to lift an excommunication is not the same to sanction a belief. Lifting the excommunications was a way to open the door for SSPX to start their return to Rome, but that also includes embrace all that the Church teaches, including the teaches of the Shoah.

  3. Another important distinction between condoms and NFP is that one is an action, the other is NOT an action.

    Condoms are intended to separate the unitive and the procreative elements of the marital embrace, as well as put a barrier (literally!) between husband and wife. With NFP, couples choose to abstain during the fertile time, which means they aren't "doing" anything.

    Another way to look at it is "ends and means." Condoms and NFP may have the same ends, but different means to get there. Suppose my friend and I each need $1,000. I go to the bank, fill out the forms, put collateral on the line, and then get a $1,000 loan. My friend, on the other hand, robs the bank and steals $1,000. We both met our goal (ends) and got our $1,000, but we each used entirely different means to get there. Our actions and "means" are important; not just our intent and ends to get there.

    Hope that helps.


  4. On Papal infallibility:

    Sorry, I used a commonplace word that has taken on specific meaning. However, I want to clarify about papal infallibility: according to the Catholic Church, the pope's teaching is considered infallible ONLY when he's speaking on behalf of his general councils OR when he's speaking "ex cathedra" (which has happened only once since the doctrine of Papal infallibility was codified in 1870).

    I find the following chart helpful: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Magisterium#The_levels_of_the_Magisterium

  5. On condoms/natural family planning:

    I don't see how NFP can be considered "total, free, and life-giving" if it relies on things like counting days in a calendar and taking people's temperatures. A condom is no more a barrier than a calendar and a thermometer.

  6. Hi Jen. My daughter, Marin, linked to this blog and I very much enjoyed reading it. I think I can understand how non-Catholics can not quite understand the Catholics' (especially American Catholics, who are used to Democracy--up until 8 years ago, anyway) love/hate relationship with their own Church.
    A few years ago I was teaching a cooking class to sixth graders. With only 42 minutes from start to finish, I had to come up with some simple recipes to teach kids how to measure and to safely use the stove. I decided we would make Rice Krispie treats. It seemed such an innocent thing to make, but the Muslim kids soon made it clear that it wasn't. First of all, it was Ramadan and second, marshmallows are not Halal. We put our heads together and made plans for packing up the treats so they could be eaten after sunset and one of the students agreed to bring the correct kind of marshmallows and we would have two Halal kitchens in the class. The day came, and the student forgot to bring the marshmallows, saying, "It's okay. My mom said it was such a small amount I could go ahead and eat it."
    I watched in surprise as half the Muslim kids ate the Rice Krispie treats right there and then and the rest packed theirs up for after sunset. Only one said that she could not eat them. As I was telling another teacher about this "strange" behavior, I started laughing, realizing that I could just as easily be describing a room full of Catholics on a Friday during Lent.
    As a lifelong Catholic myself, I believe that "Cafeteria Catholics" are the future of the Church. A study of the history of the Church makes it clear that policies have changed and mistakes have been made. I look forward to reading more. It is a pleasure to read someone who is willing to agree and disagree with something intelligently.