I. Laws of Reason
The Pope, like everyone, is subject to the ordinary laws of reason. In other words, whatever the Pope says or does ought to be compatible with the principles of logic and prudence. He cannot render two contradictory statements compatible. He cannot make what is absurd reasonable, or what is imprudent prudent, or what is false true. There are three ways of rejecting this fact, and three kinds of ultramontanism corresponding to it. Today we will look at the first, and tomorrow we will present two more.
The first ultramontanism consigns papal utterances to a special, "spiritual" domain, so that they can all be held true, regardless of existing facts. In his classic novel Brideshead Revisited, Evelyn Waugh parodies this error in the person of Rex Mottram. Rex is in the midst of private catechesis, preparing to enter the Church before his wedding, when the poor priest charged with the task reports back to Lady Marchmain, his future mother-in-law:
After the third interview he came to tea with Lady Marchmain.
“Well, how do you find my future son-in-law?”
“He’s the most difficult convert I have ever met.”
“Oh dear, I thought he was going to make it so easy.”
“That’s exactly it. I can’t get anywhere near him. He doesn’t seem to have the least intellectual curiosity or natural piety.
The first day I wanted to find out what sort of religious life he had till now, so I asked him what he meant by prayer. He said: ‘I don’t mean anything. You tell me.’ I tried to, in a few words, and he said: ‘Right. So much for prayer. What’s the next thing?’ I gave him the catechism to take away. Yesterday I asked him whether Our Lord had more than one nature. He said: ‘Just as many as you say, Father.’ “Then again I asked him: ‘Supposing the Pope looked up and saw a cloud and said “It’s going to rain,” would that be bound to happen?’ ‘Oh, yes, Father.’ ‘But supposing it didn’t?’ He thought a moment and said, ‘I suppose it would be sort of raining spiritually, only we were too sinful to see it.’
“Lady Marchmain, he doesn’t correspond to any degree of paganism known to the missionaries.”The logic underlying Mottram's view seems to be that there is no objective fact about how many natures Christ has, or whether it is raining, or anything pertaining to religion. Instead, all matters of faith occupy a special, spiritual domain which is totally dependent on the authorities proper to it, of which the Pope is primary. Of course whatever the Pope says is true, one just has to relativize his meaning to the proper sphere. If the Pope says it will rain, then it must rain. Even if it isn't raining, if the Pope says so, it must be raining, because the Pope's word is always right, according to its spiritual meaning, whatever that might be. And, of course, it's up to the Pope to determine what the spiritual meaning of whatever he says should be.
This kind of ultramontanism is extremely common today. The Pope utters an absurdity or a heresy, and then a flurry of analysis follows. And in the midst of the fray, the dominant attitude tends to be "Of course the Pope is right! One just has to understand him the right way!" The Mottramists regard the plain content of the Pope's utterances only selectively. The interpretation of Papal Truth works on a sliding scale. The more factually or theologically correct the Pope's words are, the more literally they are read. But as the Pope's words become vaguer, more suggestive of error, or plainly wrong, the Mottramists dig in further and further and insist that anyone who does not adequately spiritualize or sufficiently qualify the Pope's words until they come out being correct, is simply mis-reading the Pope.
There are several problems with this "Mottramism".
- Nothing in the tradition says that Popes are incapable of all error, and only a small minority have held that a Pope cannot believe and informally teach heresy while holding the Petrine Office. In fact, the case of Pope John XXII demonstrates a Pope can indeed believe and informally teach heresy while he is Pope,* not to mention errors of a natural, factual variety, with respect to which which Popes have no special munus or charism.
- Mottramists deafen themselves to what the Pope is actually saying. They are so busy making sure that he is right, that the plausibility of their hermeneutical contortionism is never examined. Suppose the Pope is actually making a mistake? Is it charitable to allow someone to persist in manifest and public error by pretending that they do not mean what they are clearly saying? No, the work of charity is to instruct the ignorant. In order to instruct, one must admit that there is ignorance or error. It is uncharitable to the Pope to pretend that he is not wrong when he manifestly errs, and uncharitable to those who are potentially mislead by his error simply to ignore it.
- Mottramism is a scandal to non-believers. One of the main claims of modern secularists is that religious people cannot abide any evidence which contradicts their existing beliefs. The Catholic Church claims to believe the truth, to love the truth, and to follow the truth at all costs. The Church is built on the blood of the martyrs, which was spilled in testimony to the truth. But when Catholics cannot abide the discomfort caused by the Pope's public errors, and have to blind themselves to the plain meaning of what he says, because "somehow he must be right", they are falling into the pattern described by the secularists: they qualify and equivocate and bury their heads in the sand, as long as it preserves them from having to admit the existence of an uncomfortable error. People see this behavior, see the manifest blindness of Catholic Mottramists incapable of facing facts, and it merely confirms to them that Catholicism is a massive self-delusion.
* Some readers may protest "But the issue in the case of John XXII had not yet been defined, so he wasn't guilty of heresy!" This objection fails to distinguish: John XXII did indeed believe and teach something contrary to the Catholic Faith, which is heresy. It is possible that he was not formally culpable for his error, but it was still an error. And if the error was capable of being formally defined under Benedict XII, then it was capable of being known as an error by John XXII. To deny this is to claim that Popes are capable of adding to the deposit of faith—another errant form of ultramontanism, which will be discussed in a later post.