I do not desire to wander from the way.
We Catholics believe that when the pope teaches ex cathedra on a matter of faith or morals, the Holy Spirit protects him from wandering—from error. That is what infallible means. The word does not guarantee wisdom, courage, temperance, or even a just appraisal of his political or ecclesiastical enemies. It means that his teaching will not veer out of the path, even though he, as a man, may well do so.
In his satire Julius Exclusus, Erasmus imagined the warlike Pope Julius II arriving at the gates of Heaven to be interrogated by Peter and being refused entry. Yet the same Erasmus would not join Martin Luther in rejecting the office of the pope.
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The Holy Spirit, we may say, exercises a veto on the pope’s will. The Spirit may grant more. He may grant to the pope words that help to clarify what the Church has always taught, or to draw out its implications. The Spirit, then, is doing for the Church what St. Paul did for his proselytes. First come the milk and the bread for babies and small children; afterward comes the meat (1 Corinthians 3:2).
Indeed, one of the signs that the Corinthians were still babies was that they conceived of the Church and her truth as they had been used to conceiving of political factions in the city, saying, “I am of Paul; and I of Apollos; and I of Cephas; and I of Christ” (1:12). It was predictable of the Greeks to think of political posturing and action as exercising the highest of man’s powers; yet Paul calls them carnal and puerile.
Or we may think of Jesus and the apostles. Jesus Himself is the fullness of truth, but that does not mean that we are ready for that fullness. He preaches by stages, knowing where He wishes to lead us and preparing us, step by step, to see more of the truth, to see it more clearly, to see the interrelationships of one truth with another, and to bathe it all in light. For He says, “I have yet many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now” (John 16:12). In no case does Jesus show us what is not there; and in no case does He command us to reject any truth He has already shown us.
We really must recover here the person and the intention of the teacher. We are not to be enveloped in fog, misdirection, fickleness, and arbitrary will. The teacher is not an oracle whose utterances we await with bated breath, as we might watch the ball roll around the roulette wheel, or the votes being tallied on election night. The priestess at Delphi was not a teacher, dispensing truth, stage by stage, to the people whose eyes she opened and cleared. Quite the reverse.
She snuffed up the fumes from the burning laurel and the volcanic steam, and with their narcotic power and with, no doubt, the frenzy of her imagination, not to mention the appeal of generous donations to the oracle business, she uttered her mad words. And who knows what they might be, from one donor to the next? The Fates need not weave a consistent tale, and Apollo himself could mislead men by telling the truth in ambiguous terms. A little truth mingled with mystery and indirection—call it salting the mine.
The pope, unlike the laurel-toking priestess, may be a very wise man. Whether he is wise or not, he is our father whom piety demands we treat with honor, listening to and considering his words. But he is a person speaking for a Person, and the Person for whom he speaks does not contradict Himself, does not change His mind, does not permit Himself to be impressed by cultural currents or the power of numbers; the Person is Himself the Truth. [The pope] is a person speaking for a Person, and the Person for whom he speaks does not contradict Himself, does not change His mind, does not permit Himself to be impressed by cultural currents or the power of numbers. Tweet This
Nor is the pope a free agent. His authority, humanly considered, flows from his submission to and dependence upon Peter, that fisherman, that first pilot of the bark of the Church. Peter’s authority derives, in turn, from Christ: “We have not followed cunningly devised fables, when we made known to you the power and the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but were eyewitnesses of his majesty” (2 Peter 1:16).
Jesus teaches Peter; and He prays for Peter, that he may instruct his brethren and strengthen them in the faith (Luke 22:32). The same Jesus says that any man who puts away his wife and marries another commits adultery, for divorce was permitted by the law of Moses only on account of man’s hardness of heart. From the beginning, when God made them male and female, it was not so (Matthew 19:8-9).
That is Jesus’ teaching. Unless we are so bold as to sever the teaching of Jesus and indeed His very person from the Wisdom of God, the second Person of the Trinity—in which case we may as well subject the whole New Testament to a plebiscite—we must believe that the same Jesus, the same divine Person who rejected divorce, was in full possession of the moral truth. And He was giving to the people as much of the truth as they could understand, just as a teacher of mathematics instructs his very young charges in arithmetic, the foundation for what he will later teach them in geometry. The teaching, from the point of view of the youngsters, unfolds; but the truth does not change.
Jesus does not change. Christ is the same, yesterday, today, and tomorrow (Hebrews 13:8). He cannot say to Peter on Monday, “A man who but looks at a woman with lust in his heart has already committed adultery” (Matthew 5:28), and then say to him on Tuesday, “By the way, Peter, I was wrong about what I said yesterday; a lusty look now and then is not a bad thing,” and then on Wednesday, “Did I mention that I wasn’t talking about how a man might look on another man?” He cannot say it, unless he is not Truth but Confusion; or unless he is a liar and the father of lies. If we say that Jesus deliberately teaches one thing now and its opposite later, we have made Him into a liar, and it is not Jesus we adore but the liar.
I insist upon this because when people say that “doctrine develops,” they had better mean that the person, Jesus—or the Holy Spirit, it does not matter here which of the Persons of the Trinity we have in mind—teaches us gradually, unfolding for us more and more of the truth, which does not change. If we mean anything else by it, we have replaced Jesus the Person, whether we are aware of it or not, with an abstract and impersonal force, with “progress” or “historical evolution” or “the ascent of man,” something that cannot be held to account for inconsistency. A force cannot lie because a force has no will.
The platform of a political party may change from year to year without developing; it may simply float with the tide of popular opinion. There are Catholics who appear to want the pope to contradict past teachings. For some of these Catholics, the problems I have described do not arise because, if we may be quite frank about it, they do not believe that Jesus was in full possession of the moral truth. Perhaps they do not believe that Jesus actually taught what the Gospels attribute to Him.
For them, then, the Spirit, too, fades into abstraction; He is not a definite Person with a will, teaching only and always what is true, but a spirituality, a spiritedness, diversely inspiring this person and that person, and we no more expect consistency from such inspiration than we would expect that all the poets touched by the Muses would sing songs in accord with one another.
Hence, their claim to read “the signs of the times” loses the admonitory force with which Jesus uttered those words; instead, it is a rush to gauge the supposed direction of history, led by the people among us who are most inspired. Why should what the Church now teaches have to submit to what she taught before? Is President Biden bound by the economic thinking of Grover Cleveland?
If President Biden is wrong about his economic policies, the country will suffer economically for it, but no one will lose his soul. But if we are wrong about good and evil—if we smile at evil and pretend that we know better than the Lord who condemned much less than what we want to accept—the consequences for the souls of individual persons may be eternal.
God has chosen to save men by means of men. But that means that men may mislead one another; we must keep watch; the evil path leads to the brink of the pit. Perhaps those who conceive the doctrine of the Church as an ever-changing political platform, or as subject to metamorphosis brought on by an impersonal spirituality, do not believe the words of Jesus, who warns us about those who can kill the soul as well as the body.
Perhaps they retain a slender belief in God, a weak conviction that Jesus was a remarkable man whom God ratified because of His personal virtues, and a trust in a vagabond spirit-thing, a wandering It, a demiurge generally though fitfully working toward human enlightenment. If so, they are not walking along the same path with the faithful Christian. When they call to us, saying, “You must walk on our path,” we must beckon to them to turn from their ways, and never for one moment accept the path they tread. A common path is worth treading only if it is going the right way: the Way, the Truth, and the Life.
[Image: Calling of the Apostles by Domenico Ghirlandaio]