The Papal Apology
March 14, 2000
were Pope not that Im seeking the office, or being
considered for it Id keep a slogan on my desk:
Youre infallible. Dont blow it.
Most people, including Catholics,
completely misunderstand the principle of papal infallibility. They think
of it as a sort of magical privilege or power of the Pope, something like
omnipotence or omniscience. It isnt that sort of thing at all.
Infallibility is not a guarantee
of papal wisdom. Its a guarantee of protection against papal follies
and foibles. It means that however flawed the Popes personal
judgment or behavior may be, we can trust that it wont
permanently mislead ordinary believers in essential matters of faith and
morals. Since God expects us to accept the Churchs authority, he
assures us that that authority wont draw us into error. It means
that even if I were Pope, the Church would somehow survive.
So faithful Catholics are entitled to
wonder whether Pope John Paul IIs recent apology
for the historical sins of the Church was really a wise idea. The ceremony
alluded, in very general terms, to Catholics violence against, and
intolerance toward, people outside the Church, specifically including
the people of Israel.
His Holiness made two basic
distinctions: he was speaking of sins pertaining to the human part of the
Church her sons and daughters which
dont touch the divine essence of the Church as the Mystical Body of
Christ; and he was asking forgiveness of God, not of non-Catholics.
The reaction showed that these
distinctions didnt register with most people. Non-Catholics
(including plenty of nominal Catholics, many theologians among them)
dont distinguish between the human and divine aspects of the
Catholic Church, because they regard the Church as a purely human
institution; after all, if they believed the Church was of divine origin they
would be Catholics.
And though the expression of
penitence was addressed to God, the usual suspects assumed it was
addressed to them and predictably pronounced it inadequate. Every rabbi
quoted in the media complained that the Pope hadnt specifically
mentioned the Holocaust and the silence of Pope Pius XII
during World War II.
An editorial in the New York
Times lamented the Popes continued opposition
to abortion, contraception, and the ordination of women, adding
this priceless observation: Regrettably, he made no mention of
discrimination against homosexuals. In other words, the Pope
failed to repudiate Catholicism. God may forgive this, but the
Times isnt about to. (This is the newspaper that has
never apologized for publishing the lies of its star reporter Walter
Duranty, who in the early 1930s denied that the Soviet Union was
systematically starving millions of Ukrainians.)
There is no bigotry quite like the
blank-eyed liberal bigotry that demands that the Pope reach liberal
conclusions from Catholic premises. The Popes continued
opposition to abortion, et cetera, is not just the stubborn attitude
of one old priest; it derives from the most fundamental teachings and
principles of Catholicism itself, which differ in certain respects from the
editorial positions of the Times.
Once more we are reminded of the
lesson of Munich: an act of goodwill may satisfy reasonable
people, but it wont appease the insatiable.
But what, one must ask, did the Holy
Father expect? His list of sins and transgressions was indeed incomplete,
from a Catholic point of view; it seems to have been composed with an eye
to what modern liberalism regards as evil. In short, it has a fatal whiff of
trendiness about it.
Its easy to condemn sins of
excessive zeal in the past, to which few are now tempted. But what might
Catholics of the past (or the future) condemn in the Church today?
They certainly wouldnt accuse
us of excessive zeal. They might be shocked by our lukewarmness, our
cowardice masquerading as tolerance, our laxity, our willingness to
countenance heresy, sacrilege, blasphemy, and immorality within the
Church itself, our eagerness to ingratiate ourselves with the secular
world of which the papal statement itself is a symptom.
Nearly a century ago, the French
Catholic poet Charles Peguy remarked: We will never know how
many acts of cowardice have been motivated by the fear of appearing not
sufficiently progressive. Amen.
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