Sunday, October 31, 2010

Does the infallibility doctrine drive people away from the church?

My previous posting discussed how the Vatican partially attributes the U.S. church’s pedophilia problem to priests not clearly understanding their hierarchical superiority over laity.  It also discussed the pope’s concern about people leaving the church and his belief that it ties to people not hearing enough of the church’s catechism.

I’ve continued reflecting on the concept of hierarchical superiority and I keep returning to the example Jesus set for the original twelve apostles.  Jesus said the greatest were the least (Lk 14:7-11, Mark 10:36-44).  He rode on a borrowed donkey not in a Mercedes Benz modified SUV Popemobile equipped with hydraulic lift. He promoted humble service and modeled the humility he expected of leaders.  Assuming the lowliest household slave’s position Jesus washed feet and instructed his followers to do likewise (John 13:4-17).  Outside of Holy Thursday’s ceremonial washing of feet, when’s the last time the pope washed dirty stinky feet, changed a dirty diaper, or mopped up someone’s vomit?

I scoured the Bible seeking examples of Jesus telling the apostles to think themselves superior to others and I didn’t find any.  I found passages where he rebuked apostles trying to be superior (Mk 10:36-44).  He did say whatever Peter held bound would be held bound but that seemed more related to desiring “mercy not sacrifice” (Mt 16:19, Mt 9:13, Luke 6:36)  or that “the measure with which you measure will be measured against you” (Luke 6:36-38) rather than superiority.  Also, just four verses later in Mt 16:23 Jesus called Peter, “Satan”, because he so completely misunderstood him.  So much for Peter’s infallibility…

This brings me to reflect upon the church’s infallibility doctrine.  When I err, I know I’m fallible and thus, can retract my words.  Fallibility carries a lot of freedom.  I always get a “do over”.  If I admit I am wrong or don’t know something, I have a profound opportunity to learn and grow towards becoming a better person. 

Conversely, belief in one’s infallibility hinders learning new things.  Here’s an analogous example.  Think of water in a pitcher as representing all knowledge.  Pour a few drops from the pitcher into a glass; that represents your knowledge.  When someone thinks they “already know” something it closes the mind like covering the glass with plastic wrap.  It’s pretty much impossible to intake any more.  When invoking infallibility doctrine, church leaders seem to cover their glass with plastic wrap, disallowing further learning opportunities.

What is the infallibility doctrine?  It says the church must accept certain papal teachings on matters concerning faith or morals.  Such teachings must emanate ex cathedra (from the chair of the pope), meaning from the pope’s office as the church’s chief shepherd.  Papal infallibility was promulgated formally during the First Vatican Council in 1870 though several pre-Vatican I documents discussed the concept too.  Papal infallibility rarely has been invoked, the last time being in 1950 by Pope Pius XII regarding the Assumption of Mary.  Ecumenical councils’ teachings can also be infallible. 

For a teaching to be infallible it must clearly state that it is definitive and binding.  Often a statement of “anathema” accompanies it saying that anyone who dissents is outside the church.  For example, these words accompanied the doctrine about the Assumption of Mary, “Hence if anyone, which God forbid, should dare willfully to deny or to call into doubt that which We have defined, let him know that he has fallen away completely from the divine and Catholic Faith.”

Infallible teachings can contradict previous church teachings.  However a previously stated infallible teaching cannot later be decreed as infallible.  The infallibility doctrine itself contains an anathema statement.  Thus according to the church’s current rules, it can’t decide it erred in creating the infallibility doctrine and negate or retract it. 

An interesting statistic is that only about 39% of Catholics believe in papal infallibility.  Perhaps they share prominent British historian and Roman Catholic, Lord Acton’s philosophy, “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”  Regardless, in denying the infallibility doctrine’s infallibleness, evidently 61% of Catholics are ex-communicated implicitly and they either don’t know it or don’t care.   

I wouldn’t want the burden of having to be infallible on anything.  To me, once a person or group decides they are perfect in even one area, it seems very easy to blur boundaries between areas of perfection and imperfection.  It might become very tempting to adopt Mac Davis’ song, “Oh Lord it's hard to be humble when you're perfect in every way” as your theme song.

Are humility and infallible perfection mutually exclusive?  I attended a bishop’s installation a few years ago and his homily tried to express his “humble” perfection.  In referring to himself he said that we were to “…rightly thank God today.  Why?  Because our Almighty Father has loved us so much as to provide another, unworthy though he may be, as your bishop, a successor to the Apostles.”   This statement appalled many lay people in attendance.  To fallible lay people someone saying “you should thank God because I, humble as I am, have been appointed to rule over you” comes across as many things but humble is not one of them.

Fortunately mostly fellow semi-infallible clergy attended the installation so few laity heard the message.  I’ve not learned the bishop’s “humble” homily inspired anyone to leave the church.   

Unfortunately, when the church declared its infallibility doctrine, it caused lots of people to leave the church.  But, because church leaders decided they were right, they had to lay blame elsewhere for people’s departure.

Is this same concept coming into play now?  People flee the church now usually because of church leaders’ actions: hypocrisy, lack of accountability, abuse of children or power, or discriminatory policies.  Since church leaders believe they are perfect in some dimension, they rarely if ever consider their actions or non-infallible teachings as the root cause for people’s exodus. Instead they have to find another reason.  

Thus, the pope believes people leaving the church just haven’t heard enough of clergy’s infallibly perfect teachings.  Do people leave because they’ve heard too little of infallible teachings or because they feel they’ve heard enough?  Do they leave because they have heard church leaders teach the catechism but not seen them live the gospel message of humble service? 

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