Media fallibility on papal infallibility

Last week in my post "Turkson wouldn’t be first African pope," I quoted from an humorous guide for journalists covering the election. The last tip:

  • Yes, the next Pope will be a man and a Catholic.

So obvious that it was barely funny, right? And yet ... you can view here New York magazine contributing editor Chris Smith suggest on an MSNBC panel that the next pope be ... Sonia Sotomayor. The Washington Post's E.J. Dionne humbly notes that the Holy Spirit is running behind him -- see, Dionne is ready for a female pope.

These are both instances of opinion journalists offering their opinions. We're more interested in straight journalists writing up the news. But I still think these opinions are quite telling. And sometimes the straight news guys go into the more transparent opinion business and reveal what you probably suspected knew all along. Speaking of, the New York Times' former executive editor Bill Keller -- who describes himself as a "collapsed Catholic" (get it?) -- has some advice for the Roman Catholic Church. It begins:

Behold a global business in distress — incoherently managed, resistant to the modernizing forces of the Internet age, tainted by scandal and corruption. It needs to tweak its marketing, straighten out its finances, up its recruiting game and repair its battered brand. Ecce Catholicism Inc.

Because when you want business advice, you get it from the folks who are running the New York Times, amiright? I mean, God bless 'em but they are seriously not the group to be offering business advice. Ever.

Anyway, let's move on to the news pages. This piece, which also ran in the New York Times, is headlined "When a Pope Retires, Is He Still Infallible?" I was alerted to this piece via Twitter, where various people were mocking it relentlessly. It's not a piece about how people who are uninformed or confused about the Catholic teaching on infallibility view what's about to happen. No, it's an earnest look at the topic, as if it's a totally legitimate idea. And it somehow rounds up people who agree that this is a very tough question. The second paragraph:

In transforming an office with an aura of divinity into something far more human, Benedict’s decision has sent shock waves through the Vatican hierarchy, who next month will elect his successor. But it has also puzzled the faithful and scholars, who wonder how a pope can be infallible one day and fallible again the next — and whether that might undermine the authority of church teaching.

Uh, speaking as a Lutheran who completely and utterly rejects this teaching (even if I don't go as far as Lord Acton, who was so upset by the teaching that we got his great quote about how absolute power corrupts), that's just silly. I may disagree with the teaching but I know enough about what it is to find the whole premise of this article odd. It doesn't help that the article is completely confusing. To be sure, it explains quite clearly two important points. First:

Although in the popular imagination, everything a pope says and writes is often perceived as infallible, in fact, papal pronouncements are only considered infallible when a pope speaks “ex cathedra,” in his capacity as leader of the universal church, on questions of faith and morals. The Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, has repeatedly said that Canon Law ensures the infallibility of Benedict’s successor, and that once he retires, Benedict will no longer have the authority to promulgate dogma.

Later, we're told:

In fact, the invocation of papal infallibility “ex cathedra” has only occurred twice in the modern era: In 1854, when Pope Pius IX promulgated the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, that Mary was without original sin. And in 1950, Pope Pius XII pronounced the doctrine of the Assumption of the Virgin, that Mary had been assumed into heaven, body and spirit. The church has not ruled on whether the Virgin Mary died before she was assumed into heaven.

So we're told that papal infallibility has only been invoked twice, never by Benedict XVI, and refers not to the individual who holds the papacy but the office itself. And yet we get quote after quote after quote from people who, we're told, think this infallibility question is a tough one.

There's a professor at Catholic University who is quoted up at the top of the story saying:

“What is the status of an ex-pope?” asked Ken Pennington, a professor of ecclesiastical and legal history at the Catholic University of America in Washington. “We have no rules about that at all. What is his title? What are his powers? Does he lose infallibility?”

That line about his powers makes me think he should have a cloak of invisibility or something. Did "he" ever have infallibility? Or as one blogger put it:

The silliness here is that those interviewed, for the most part, have absolutely no understanding of the Church, or of the magisterial process of defining doctrine, or of how the papacy works.

Yes, it is silly. I mean, I know it would be hard to bleed hundreds of words out of a simple response to the headline of "No, you fool, don't you know anything about Catholic teaching on infallibility?" But that's not really an excuse for an article like this.

Or as Matt Frost put it on Twitter:

Imagine being a reporter, and once a month your priest gave a sermon that criticized & misunderstood the idea of "on background."

He jokes that he'd consign reporters to this afterlife. And since we're talking about this guy, I rather enjoyed another comment he made: "One religious tradition that the news media covers diligently and respectfully: popular Catholic apostasy." The reverence for that religious tradition is striking indeed.

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