Tuesday, September 16, 2003

I'm not sure quite why it is, but there must be certain currents in St. Blog's, invisible to the eye, that nevertheless affect who is writing what at any given moment. For a few days, I have been pondering on the attitude of many American Catholics towards the Church, and the Infallibility different groups attribute to different aspects of it, and the problems such views can cause. Then, last night and this morning, I discover that Tom and Mark have been commenting on this very thing.

One obvious problem with what Tom terms "Papocentrism" (a disease of both Right and Left , Conservative-Traditionalist and Post-Conciliar-Unitarian alike, though the latter would deny it hotly, and the former would simply have me burned at the stake) is that it offers one little solace when confronting popes like this, or this. The disease is particularly pronounced on the Right these days, as the current Pope is a man of obvious holiness, who also happens to loathe communism as much as the Right does. (That he isn't a huge fan of unbridled capitalism often gets overlooked.)

But it's not simply Papocentrism that is at fault. It is the modern cult of the celebrity and of personality. Alongside John Paul II, in the past couple of years, stands Bernard Law and 5 or 10 other bishops. For the Left, these men are the latest proof that Romish worship of false gods is leading us all straight to Hell. The Right, by canonizing the Pope even while he still walks the earth, plays right into this. Both sides miss the point.

Popes and bishops come and go. Some are good, some even exceptionally so. Others are bad, and the spectacularly bad get featured in Op-Eds and cartoons by the Gary Willses and Jack Chicks of the world. Eventually, the temporal good that one pope does gets washed away, along with the temporal evil done by another. But the Church has endured for 2,000 years precisely because, in the end, the personality of one man, or of dozens, or even of hundreds is of no account whatsoever.

The difference between me and the Right of the Church is, I don't think the Church always has (moral) things absolutely correct at every given moment--too much has in fact changed over the course of history for that to be true. The difference between me and the Left is, I do think the Church always does get (moral) things absolutely right eventually.**

But the important point is simply that no one person or group of people, save only Christ Himself, is empowered to be the Church, however big or dominant or holy his pesonality. Sooner or later he will die, and be replaced, and one or more of those replacements will be dissolute vermin, and others will be holier still. But the tedency to raise up a holy man as infallible in ALL things, while tearing down a sinner as fallible in every way, ultimately harms the Church far more than the sins of one pope. For it places the focus squarely on our fallenness, and removes it from the goal of our eventual elevation.

**A few quick words about this, though not a complete answer. First, this may sound radical to some, but since I also believe that we are bound to follow the Church's teachings to the maximum extent possible, I can admit that some moral matters might be resolved differently some years hence, while still acknowledging the obligation of people to behave in the prescribed manner today. So, the practice is more sound than the theory may be, to your way of thinking. Second, remember what St. Paul wrote about St. Peter, on the subject of the "circumcisers": "I opposed him to his face, for he was manifestly wrong." It is difficult to be certain, but it appears that Peter and the other Elders at Jerusalem around 50 had settled the question in favor of the circumcisers, though by the end of the Council, Paul had persuaded them otherwise. Peter was at various times on both sides of the issue, and even lapsed into erroneous practice (as distinct from doctrine) after the doctrine was settled. (It is interesting, too, that many Catholics and other Christians tend to treat Paul as if he were the first Pope, rather than Peter. The cult of celebrity and personality is hardly a modern invention....)


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