B. Practical Mottramism, or the Inscrutability of Papal Providence
Whenever a person chooses to do something, he acts in a definite context, and with some goal in mind, however vague. In order to achieve his goals, a reasonable person will use the information available to him to shape his acts to fit present circumstances. The habit of rationally conditioning one's actions to fit the needs of the present is called prudence.
Prudence is a virtue because it tends to make our actions more effective in achieving whatever we are trying to achieve. Prudence directs us to carry an umbrella when it looks like rain, or to choose the right words with which to respond to a critic, or to measure correctly the length of time needed for a task. Without prudence, our actions tend to be very hit or miss—sometimes they will be effective, often they will achieve nothing, sometimes they will be positively harmful.
No merely human prudence can be absolutely perfect, because it is impossible to know and prepare for all the contingencies of life. Nevertheless, it is possible for individuals to decisively lack prudence, either by failing to take sufficient account of the context of their actions, or by having an incorrect understanding of the situation, which leads them to do things that are objectively counterproductive or harmful.
Yesterday we discussed the ultramontane error called "Mottramism". Mottramism is the relegation of papal utterances to a special, spiritual realm in which they cannot be wrong. No matter how factually incorrect the Pope's words might be according to their plain meaning, the Mottramist will always find a way to spin them or re-interpret them to make them spiritually correct.
Mottramism is an error of logic—it strips away the Pope's ability to actually mean what he says, because the Mottramist is so worried about not letting the Pope make any mistakes, that he can't afford to let the Pope mean what he says. An analogous error exists in the domain of prudence, which we will call "Practical Mottramism."
Practical Mottramists relegate all of the Pope's actions to a special domain, which is independent of ordinary prudence or practical reason. No matter how objectively unfitting or counterproductive a Pope's actions or words might be in a given situation, the Practical Mottramist will always insist that the Pope's actions were prudent and well-considered. They do this by dreaming up a plan the Pope is supposedly following. In long-term strategic action, it is sometimes necessary to do things which seem imprudent close up, but prove to be fitting in the long run. As a result, these people simply assign any imprudent papal acts to an especially subtle or long-term goal.
In discussing the Pope's actions, Practical Mottramists make assessments on a sliding scale: the more obviously prudent an act is, the more they assess it by ordinary standards. But as the Pope's actions become less clearly thought out, or less effective, or more outwardly harmful or scandalous, the Practical Mottramist leaps into action to assign a special providence to the Pope's actions. "Of course the Pope is doing the right thing at the right time! This [apparently imprudent] action makes perfect sense when you understand the Pope's real intention." Usually this sort of person will have a speculative interpretation of the Pope's plan to offer, which has been worked out specifically to make sense of the present absurdity. And if anyone insists that the Pope's actions are imprudent, the Mottramist will accuse them of misunderstanding what the Pope is really trying to do.
The ultimate effect of Practical Mottramism is that it ascribes to the Pope an inscrutable providential grasp of any given situation. Again, the Pope cannot err in matters of prudence, because the Mottramist will not allow him to err. This means that, whenever people are scandalized, confused, or harmed by a misdirected papal action, the Practical Mottramist will fault them for being scandalized, confused, or harmed, because obviously the Pope is right. And people should just know that the Pope is doing the right thing. Furthermore, the Mottramist line goes, to suggest that the Pope is not always prudent, and does not always act with due caution or understanding, is impious and uncharitable, and therefore a sin, akin to the sin of schism.
The problems with Practical Mottramism are analogous to those discussed yesterday:
- According to Pastor Aeternus, the Vatican I dogmatic constitution on the role of the Pope, the Pope is granted a special munus of infallibility, when he teaches authoritatively on matters of faith and morals. No guarantee is made there, or anywhere else in the tradition, that the occupant of the See of Peter will exercise infallible prudence in his own personal or official acts. The very notion is absurd, first because it would so profoundly over-ride the natural human fallibility of the Pope as to make him a visible saint immediately upon election; secondly, because many Popes have obviously done many imprudent things, throughout the history of the Church, both in their official acts and in their personal affairs.
- Proponents of Practical Mottramism blind themselves to the actual character and implications of papal acts, thereby effacing their own personal prudence and making themselves less effective servants of the Gospel in their own proper spheres. If one is committed to saying that the Pope's actions are always prudent, then one will develop a habit (especially if the Pope seems to lack prudence) of developing justifications for objectively imprudent acts. As above, so below—what these people justify by tendentious reasoning on behalf of the Pope, they will begin to believe is good behavior in their own lives, so that any potential scandal on account of papal imprudence is magnified by becoming a source of imprudence on the part of the Mottramist faithful, as they imitate the Pope.
- As mentioned previously, proponents of Practical Mottramism tend to judge the world for not being in harmony with the actions and supposed intentions of the Pope, rather than accepting the possibility that the Pope makes errors of practical judgment. This leads to bizarre judgmentalism on the part of Mottramists toward anyone who is dismayed or confused by papal actions. The defensiveness with which these people attack anyone who suggests that the Pope acts imprudently itself tends to be uncharitable, and even worse are suggestions that calling a Papal act wrongheaded or imprudent somehow places one in schism or makes one a sedevacantist. Which is the more extreme position: to profess, as the Church teaches, that the Pope is an ordinary, fallen man capable of error, or to trump up the doctrine of infallibility to mean that the Pope can do no wrong? But Mottramists cannot abide the discomfort caused by the idea of Papal error. And thus they are on a constant crusade, explaining and defending every word and deed, decrying any criticism, circling the wagons against the possibility that not everything is always right in the Church.