Does the Editor of the Pope’s Journal Think 2+2 = 5, if the Pope Says So?
On January 5, Rev. Antonio Spadoro, editor of the quasi-official Vatican Jesuit journal La Civilta Cattolica, continued his defense of Pope Francis against Catholic critics — including four prominent cardinals — who fear that the pope is flouting infallible church teaching on marriage, divorce, and communion. While those critics clearly have the high ground when it comes to any honest reading of almost 2,000 years of church documents, along with the plain words of the New Testament, Spadoro opines that such critics are placing far too much faith in reason. On Twitter he answered them with this reflection:
— Antonio Spadaro (@antoniospadaro) January 5, 2017
This led to a Tweetstorm of outraged reaction from two overlapping groups of people:
- Catholics who know that God binds Himself by the rule of reason that inheres in His very nature, and
- Readers of Orwell’s 1984, who remember that Winston Smith was tortured almost to death for refusing to agree that 2 plus 2 is 5, or whatever other number Big Brother (as opposed to the Holy Father) said it was. Given that critics of Pope Francis are reporting intra-church persecution at the hands of the pope’s loyal followers, Spadoro’s choice of metaphor was especially unfortunate.
Just How Infallible is He?
This entertaining social media meltdown points to deeper issues, especially this one: What kind of power do Catholics believe the pope has over doctrine? Do we think that he is authorized to pass along unchanged what Christ delivered to the Apostles, with a kind of negative guarantee from God that He will never let a pope officially contradict it? Presumably, if one tried to, he would keel over dead or wake up beneath a meteorite, as illustrated in this video:
Or do we think that the pope gets special insights from God, little tweaks, nips and tucks he can make to Christian teaching to refine it and get it just right? In other words, is the Faith like our country’s “living Constitution,” and the pope a one-man Supreme Court who rewrites it to suit the times?
Is the Moral Law a Set of Stifling Arbitrary Rules?
It is clear that secular media and millions of ordinary Catholics mistakenly believe in the second theory.
Periodically, the New York Times or AP’s religion reporter will speculate over whether the pope — especially a newly elected one — will relax the Catholic church’s “rules” or “stance” on some moral issue connected to … well, sex. These reporters aren’t concerned about the church’s transmission of Jesus’ teaching on any other subject, except when it can be garbled to sound like one of Bernie Sanders’ talking points.
No, the subject is always sex, and the reporter’s attitude is invariably one of foot-tapping impatience, as if the pope were a killjoy boss who refused to tolerate casual Fridays. Maybe he’s simply stuffy, a stickler for protocol, or downright mean, but he never agrees to do it. (Or almost never — the subject of what Pope Francis is doing to Catholic teaching on marriage, divorce and communion deserves an article all its own.)
Would those same reporters get frustrated with a physicist who insisted that gravity applies even in Manhattan, so it isn’t safe to jump off the Chrysler Building? A doctor who told them that smoking causes cancer for people of every race? Of course not. Because these good journalists would realize that the expert they were interviewing was simply reporting facts beyond his control. No one would call him “scientifically rigid,” then seek out more progressive physicists or physicians to offer dissenting views. I doubt that longtime smokers consider themselves cancer “dissidents” who are bravely obeying their consciences, in defiance of the oppressive medical establishment.
The only reason you’d resent an authority figure for giving you unwelcome news is if you blamed him for it, because you thought he possessed the power to change things but simply refused to. It is clear that religion journalists, and millions of Catholics around the world, feel that way about the Christian moral teachings passed on from pope to pope since the age of the apostles, and reflected in the Bible. They think the pope could change all the rules of Christian morality, and make them as lax as he wants. So if he doesn’t, it’s because he’s got an “authoritarian personality,” is hostile to pleasure, or simply “homophobic.”
I got the idea that St. Peter, and hence each subsequent pope, could control ultimate reality. He could make a change here on earth, and Christ would be bound by His promise to shrug and enact it up in heaven.
An Eight-Year-Old’s Understanding of the Bible
Ironically, such people are giving the pope a lot more power than the most chauvinistic Catholic would ever imagine. In fact, in the back of their heads, they have a picture of papal authority that is downright childish. I know, because I had that same idea — at eight years old. From reading the children’s catechism which my parents left lying around, I learned that the church believes each pope inherits the promise that Jesus gave to St. Peter: “Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” (Matt. 18:18)
What I took away from this passage was the idea that St. Peter, and hence each subsequent pope, could control ultimate reality. He could make a change here on earth, and Christ would be bound by His promise to shrug and enact it up in heaven, maybe shaking His head and wishing He hadn’t handed off such a blank check to mere mortals like Alexander VI and Julius II. I accepted this theory for years, and at some point actually wondered why the pope never got around to improving the human condition in some simple, obvious ways. Why didn’t the pope simply declare (and force God’s hand to make it true) that:
- No sin is really that serious. God knows we’re a bunch of screw-ups. Like puppies. He shrugs and laughs it all off.
- Any religion is good enough, all on its own, to get you into heaven. We don’t need to schlep off as missionaries to godforsaken countries full of foreigners, giant bugs, and weird diseases.
- Revenge is virtuous. Teaching people a lesson is your fundamental duty.
- All sex is pleasing to God, as long as you’re considerate to your partner and don’t kiss and tell.
- Everyone goes to heaven, period. Because God is love and love is God, or whatever.
On my eight-year-old’s theory of papal metaphysical supremacy — which is implicitly accepted by secular religion reporters, most liberal Catholics, and apparently Rev. Spadoro — Pope Francis could walk into St. Peter’s Basilica tomorrow, sit on the throne of St. Peter, and issue an infallible decree teaching that every soul is saved, and that this applies retroactively to every human being who has ever lived. At that, hell would burst its gates and all the souls of the damned would be hosed off and shipped up to heaven, whether God liked it or not.
But hey, He must have seen that this was coming, right? So He meant us to do this. Why didn’t a pope think to take this humanitarian step any sooner? Leaving all those souls in hell for all those centuries, like puppies in a hot car in summertime … it’s downright inhumane.
No wonder people have resented the church, and especially the popes, over the centuries. They’ve been acting like bad dog owners. If Rev. Spadoro were right, we should hope that Pope Francis would finally rectify this injustice, and use his vast cosmic power to ensure that in eternity the whole human race is together, to paraphrase Evelyn Waugh, wagging our tails in heaven.
Of course, on an adult’s theory of faith and reason, such as Pope Benedict XVI laid out at Regensburg, all the above is toxic nonsense, a pretext for men in power to flout God’s laws and hijack His gospel, exactly as justices Kennedy and Ginsburg have corrupted the Constitution. But there I go, using my rational faculty again. No wonder Rev. Spadoro was forced to block me on Twitter.
An earlier version of this story misidentified Rev. Spadoro’s newspaper as L’Osservatore Romano.