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The Papal “Apology”

March 14, 2000

If I were Pope — not that I’m seeking the office, or being considered for it — I’d keep a slogan on my desk: “You’re infallible. Don’t 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 isn’t that sort of thing at all.

[Breaker quote: If I were 
Pope]Infallibility is not a guarantee of papal wisdom. It’s a guarantee of protection against papal follies and foibles. It means that however flawed the Pope’s personal judgment or behavior may be, we can trust that it won’t permanently mislead ordinary believers in essential matters of faith and morals. Since God expects us to accept the Church’s authority, he assures us that that authority won’t 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 II’s 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 don’t 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 didn’t register with most people. Non-Catholics (including plenty of nominal Catholics, many theologians among them) don’t 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 hadn’t specifically mentioned the Holocaust and the “silence” of Pope Pius XII during World War II.

An editorial in the New York Times lamented the Pope’s “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 isn’t 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 Pope’s “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 won’t 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.

It’s 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 wouldn’t 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.

Joseph Sobran

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