New Vatican Document Is the Stuff of Fairy Tales

The papal magisterium ain't what it used to be. And it never was.

By Jules Gomes Published on April 10, 2024

Have you read the Vatican’s new bestseller? It’s called Pope Dumbledore and the Magic Wand of the Roman Magisterium. The fantasy novel is the latest in the Harry Potter series and is set in the Vatican’s Casa Santa Marta instead of Scotland’s Hogwarts Castle.

It tells the story of how Albus Dumbledore, headmaster of the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, is elected pope to help the Roman curia formulate its most powerful spell for converting centuries of papal contradictions into doctrinal development.

The novel climaxes with Dumbledore transfiguring himself into the form of a messianic character named Wizard Franciscus. He then performs magic’s most fantastical feat by turning centuries of ecclesiastical dehumanization into “infinite human dignity.”

Franciscus’s magic is so potent, it even turns the Bible — a sacred book used by Muggles (human beings with no magic powers) — upside down. And when God gets it wrong in the Bible — as in the case of the death penalty — Franciscus corrects God and saves the world!

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No doubt, Franciscus must combat enemies like philosopher Edwardus Feserus. In a debate over capital punishment, Feserus says that “simply calling something a ‘development’ rather than a contradiction doesn’t make it so.” But Feserus is mortally defeated because he doesn’t have Franciscus’s magic wand of the magisterium!

Human Beings Have Infinite Dignity

Okay, now back to Mugglespeak, and the real world events about which I’ve been somewhat playful.

On April 8, 2024, Pope Francis issued the declaration Dignitas Infinita — proclaiming not merely the dignity of human beings but, in language never used before by the magisterium, emphasizing that human beings — even mass murderers — possess “infinite dignity.”

Despite its ambivalent position on homosexuality and just war, Dignitas Infinita must be praised for its unequivocal condemnation of abortion, euthanasia, gender ideology, human trafficking and surrogacy (the latter two of which are forms of modern-day slavery).

But for centuries, the magisterium — the church’s official teaching authority — legislated and enforced policies and pronouncements doing just the opposite: it dehumanized slaves, black Africans, Jews, Protestants, and heretics — anyone who was not a Catholic.

Dehumanizing Black Africans with Bad Biblical Interpretation

“Black African enslavement was considered in the attitude of the Holy Office of the Church as a just slavery,” writes Fr. Pius Onyemechi Adiele in his 2017 doctoral thesis The Popes, the Catholic Church and the Transatlantic Enslavement of Black Africans.

“Slavery itself, considered as such in its essential nature is not at all contrary to the natural and divine law,” the Holy Office ruled on June 20, 1866 — thus permitting Catholics to trade in slaves.

Around that time, Jesuit Bro. Joseph Mobberly was asserting that the curse of Ham, Noah’s second son, “brought all Africans not only under an everlasting curse of slavery but also under a perpetual curse of black skin color” and “nothing but their intercourse [i.e., interbreeding] with Whites can change the color of their skin.”

This doctrine was so entrenched in the bishops’ consciousness that at the plenary session of Vatican I, they asked Pope Pius IX to pray for the lifting of Ham’s curse, which he did in a decree issued through the Sacred Congregation of Rites on October 2, 1873.

Ham’s Curse Gets a Papal Indulgence

Pius IX attached an indulgence for 300 days to reward Western Catholics who prayed for the wretched Ethiopians in Africa that God might release them at length from the curse of Ham.

Fr. Adiele details how many Church fathers and popes interpreted the curse of Ham as a justification of slavery. In his Decretal of July 28, 1237, Pope Gregory IX legislated that even “the sacrament of baptism does not change anything in the status of slaves after baptism.”

Debunking “the myth of Catholic social teaching back in 2014,” John Zmirak shows “how popes could be wrong about something like slavery — when Protestant laymen like William Wilberforce were right.” And, may I add, popes could also arrive at fatally flawed interpretations of biblical texts even while issuing magisterial legislation in an official capacity.

The overarching reason why the Church refused to condemn slavery is because “she did not want to break away from the continuity of her doctrines on the subject of slavery,” observes Adiele, citing eminent historians like Maxwell, Noonan, Hurbon, and Boxer on the topic.

Traditionalist Catholics Reject Human Dignity

Unsurprisingly, the almost universally acknowledged concept of “human dignity” has been hotly contested by traditionalist Catholics who, on the one hand, claim to be wholly obedient to the whole magisterium and, at the same time, most vigorously reject the teachings of Dignitatis Humanae — Vatican II’s definitive declaration on human dignity and religious liberty.

Traditionalist Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre triggered the avalanche of Catholic dissent on human dignity by smearing Dignitatis Humanae as “monstrous” and “odious,” especially since it contradicted previous magisterial teaching.

But why contest a doctrine enshrined in the opening chapter of the Bible, which declares human beings to be created in God’s own image (Genesis 1:27)? Why trash a theology based on biblical texts that declare human beings to be created “a little lower than the angels and crowned [him] with glory and honor” (Psalm 8:5)?

Because for centuries, the magisterium of previous popes has rejected the application of the biblical teaching on human dignity and has even misinterpreted the Bible to dehumanize Jews, Protestants, heretics, black Africans, and slaves by depriving them of their freedom.

Bishop Athanasius Schneider’s Credo

In his Credo (2003), a catechism for traditionalist Catholics which intends to correct the alleged errors of Vatican II and the official Catechism of the Catholic Church, Bishop Athanasius Schneider challenges the biblical doctrine of the ontological “dignity of the human person rooted in his creation in God’s image and likeness.”

“This was true for Adam, but with original sin the human person lost this resemblance and dignity in the eyes of God. He recovers this dignity through baptism and keeps it as long as he does not sin mortally,” Schneider declares. 

On religious freedom, Schneider argues that since “the dignity of man consists in the right use of freedom,” hence, “no true and proper right can be given to the human person that contradicts divine truth in the natural or positive law of God.”

Schneider approvingly quotes Pope Pius IX, who ordered papal carabinieri to kidnap a six-year-old Jewish boy, Edgardo Mortara, because the child had been illegally baptized in secret by his teenage Catholic maid, who thought he was dying.

“Catholicism possesses the only genuine right to religious freedom,” Schneider stresses. “But isn’t ‘religious liberty’ a fundamental and inalienable human right?” he asks. Echoing language reminiscent of Islamic sharia law, the bishop categorically answers: “No.”  

Schneider’s Credo perpetuates the myth of magisterial continuity with qualifiers like “changeless,” “constant,” and “perennial” magisterium, while simultaneously downgrading affirmations of Vatican II’s documents, saying that they are “ambiguous and can lead to an erroneous understanding.”

From Hubris to Humility

So how does one trust a magisterium where one pope (Leo X) can definitively declare that it is “pernicious poison” to affirm: “That heretics be burned is against the will of the Spirit,” and another pope (Francis) can definitively declare that the death penalty is “inadmissible” and “violates the inalienable dignity of every person, regardless of the circumstances”?

How can one so brazenly tout the fiction of magisterial continuity when, as I have argued in my article on Catholic antisemitism, the Church taught for centuries that the Jews are cursed by God, and then in an epochal reversal, Vatican II turned the Jew “from enemy to brother,” using the Latin superlative carissimi to describe the Jews as “beloved by God”?

How does one trust a magisterium when the arch-traditionalist Bishop Schneider himself has written an entire catechism to debunk its more recent developments and, in doing so has not only exposed the myth of magisterial continuity but the fiction of Catholic unity?

One solution is to replace the bluff and braggadocio of Catholic hubris and triumphalism with humility and honesty. Don’t let the hierarchy gaslight you with the myth and magic wand of the unchanging magisterium.

What are we to do next? Listen to St. Chrysostom’s exhortation: When “wicked heresy” arises in the “holy places of the church” Christians should “head for the Scriptures” (Homily 49 on Matthew 24).

To plagiarize the prophet Isaiah: “All popes are like grass and their magisterium is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades, but the Word of our God will stand forever.”

 

Dr. Jules Gomes, (BA, BD, MTh, PhD), has a doctorate in biblical studies from the University of Cambridge. Currently a Vatican-accredited journalist based in Rome, he is the author of five books and several academic articles. Gomes lectured at Catholic and Protestant seminaries and universities and was canon theologian and artistic director at Liverpool Cathedral.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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