Amongst the numerous inquiries that must be made in the wake of Pope Benedict’s announcement that he will retire at month’s end, is the question of Papal Infallibility. Yes the issue of child rape is paramount. And no the church should not be permitted to remain shielded from secular agencies that- if this were any other kind of institution lacking the dubious supernatural element at the core of religion- would normally be investigating and prosecuting without discrimination, the lurid accounts of rape and molestation at the hands of the Catholic clergy, world-wide.
Propelling these egregious abuses of power is a claim that exceeds audacity and pomp. And yet, after one hears it, it’s not difficult to discern where the all too prevalent idea of church impunity originates. The idea that the Pope, in each successive embodiment, is infallible. In other words, the Pope- who is a mere human being- upon ascending the throne of St. Peter- is immediately anointed with the power to be without fault, error, or imperfection. Everything he does and says is beyond reproach and must be considered divinely inspired. He is a conduit; a kind of mouthpiece for a sky deity which has (for some reason) given him heavenly authority on earth. (A separate question altogether would be why an omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent being would require any help?)
You tell me in what other institution that kind of claim would be treated seriously? Of course there have been examples of governments and populations that have been coerced and controlled by dictators to the extent that any dissenting opinion against the validity of their rule was considered heresy, treason, or worse. But I think it’s fair to state that the distinction between these two “infallibilities” is glaring. Admittedly, this parallel finds more sodality in the church’s earlier days of violence and control, and it’s not a stretch to suggest that it was totalitarian in many ways. Even when confronted with life in somewhere like North Korea, where everything and everyone is immersed in the “Dear Leader”, you wouldn’t find anyone outside of that nation, or any like it, willing to swear allegiance to him or any of his brethren, in the same manner that billions acquiesce to the major religions, and Catholicism in particular.
The reach for this power isn’t hard to imagine is it? Centuries ago, a group of charlatans realizing they had a monopoly on the public consciousness, decided to adorn this man-made station with complete and total amnesty. The remnants of this monopolization exist still. Exploited is the all too human act of allowing our perceptions to be shaped, not by something that is objectively or inherently true, but by something that we’ve been inculcated (culturally) from birth to believe. And so rather than render suspect any beliefs that affirm the objective superiority of one’s religion or religious leader, these ideas are treated as fact, beyond the discerning eye of skepticism, even though they aren’t rationally assessed to be true, and carry with them the supreme prejudice that comes with being “trained” to believe in them.
The fact is, in the civilized parts of our world, there is no other institution that would grant a human being this kind of leeway. If the leader of a secular organization was to claim infallibility granted by an invisible being, after it was discovered that he/she had participated in major criminal activity, not only would said leader be deposed and arrested, but he/she would invariably find themselves institutionalized. And yet because this is religion, the church remains immune to all but criticism. Credulous believers adhere to the church’s idea that once the priesthood is attained, the priest has become something of a man apart. His insight and morality have miraculously transcended the level of mere mortal, becoming a liaison between man and God. The church has exploited this superstition, both in the power their clergy enjoys, and in what they are allowed to get away with.
In many of the child rape cases, a recurring theme of parental refusal to believe that a priest would commit such an act, is based in this belief of priest/layperson inequality. This kind of “head in the sand” mentality, is no small thing, particularly in the mind of the child. They see their parents’ denial as a refutation of their own sense of discomfort. Self-doubt begins to brew. Perhaps they had misconstrued the Father’s intentions all along? He is, after all, a priest and someone who so many adults seem to trust. And thus, the cycle of indoctrination by way of superstition continues, with much more at stake it seems than one’s personal atonement with God.
All of this begs the question, if the Holy See decides that the handling of these cases is something only the church is fit to undertake, and the Holy Father is considered infallible, and the source of that infallibility is God, then who is right? Surely an institution, and a man, that makes such large claims for itself has it on good authority that their perfection is warranted? Certainly the rest of us do as well, right? But, since no Pope has resigned in 600 years, and since the church (and belief in general) has begun to wane in the modern era, (granting us the freedom to ask these questions), what I’m curious to understand is what happens to Pope Benedict’s infallibility once he is officially retired? Will he retain his state of perfection? Or will it be stripped from him after he becomes Joseph Ratzinger again? If he remains infallible, then what happens when the new Pope is crowned? Won’t he also be infallible? Can two infallible beings coexist on one planet? Would they be equal conduits of God? Or, like all “Divine Right” monarchies of the past, can there only be one? There is no precedent for this. 600 years ago suggesting these kinds of inconsistencies would have resulted in death. There was no alternative perspective, let alone a questioning one. And so this is quite possibly the first time the church has ever been confronted with this detail.
Basic logic is at stake here and I’m anxious to have the church pressed on this problem. I see this for what it is: human beings enjoying protection and success, as the result of what Christopher Hitchens used to say is a, “species that prefers a conspiracy theory, to no theory at all.” Even still I find these inquiries valid. If only to illuminate how preposterous and infantile this claim of infallibility really is. The desultory manner in which humility is disdained should find crescive doubt permeating the flock. And the vertiginous rationale behind the church’s accountability (or lack thereof) should be abhorrent to all Catholics that take their faith seriously.
But this is religion after all. And religion has a peculiar affect on the superstitious. And because of this affect, the disconnect between humility and audacity is rarely acknowledged. And so one must ask- if only to hear the church address it- once infallibility is granted, can one simply surrender it? If you’ve been blessed enough to win this faculty, surely you aren’t expected to relinquish it? I don’t see how you could ever retreat from that kind of power. You could literally stand up in front of millions of people, and say things like, “Condoms are more dangerous than AIDS.”, and be believed, because you are, after all, infallible. In the midst of two infallible beings, an ineluctable power struggle could ensue. After this weekend’s disclosure that the Pope’s resignation could have more to do with being notified that he would be susceptible to arrest for being complicit in the cover-up of child rape, and less to do with old age, I don’t think it’s implausible to suggest that Ratzinger is reluctantly leaving power, and could find himself in a rather lugubrious state of seclusion.
Infallible? I don’t think so. Ratzinger, like all men, is extremely fallible and has proven to be so, time and time again. The church should drop this claim, admit that no human being is entirely without error, and concentrate on helping those in need. Allowing rampant child rape allegations to be investigated, and seeing the perpetrators charged, would be a good place to start.