01 October 2015

A Critique of Contemporary Ultramontanism (4) – Absolute Infallibility

(This is the third post examining forms of ultramontanism which place the Pope above the laws of reason.  Tomorrow we will perform a close reading of the conciliar constitution Pastor Aeternus.)

C. Absolute Infallibility

Both of the forms of ultramontanism we have discussed so far create a special sphere of logic for the Pope to operate in.  Mottramism qualifies or spiritualizes papal utterances as far as necessary in order to save the Pope from having said anything incorrect.  Practical Mottramism creates a fictitious secret plan or infallible providence which every papal action can be ascribed to, regardless of how objectively imprudent or damaging it might be.

The key to both of these errors is the removal of papal activity from the sphere of ordinary humanity.  Popes do not simply mean things the way other people mean them, nor do they simply plan things the way normal people do.  Theirs is a higher and inscrutably wiser path.  What is most ironic about both of these Mottramisms is that they are based on good impulses, but impulses which are properly applied to God and the treasury of Divine Revelation—not, in general, to the person of the vicar of Christ.  By extending to the Pope the inerrancy ordinarily reserved to God, people who fall victim to these errors seem to attribute to the person of the Pope a divinity which he does not possess.

So far, the ultramontanisms we have discussed have been limited to the interpretation and defense of the acts of the Pope.  Today we look at a more extreme ultramontanism, which pushes the divinization of the Pope even further—the view that the Pope is universally and absolutely infallible in his pronouncements.  According to this view, if the Pope makes a public claim, that claim must be accepted as correct. The Pope's word is held to be true, not just in some ad hoc "spiritual" sense as with Mottramism, but in its plain and proper sense, and not just when he meets the conditions for infallibility as accepted in the tradition and set down in Pastor Aeternus, but in all his public pronouncements.

Obviously, this exaggeration of papal infallibility leads to various difficulties.  Popes contradict each other. Sometimes they contradict manifest facts about reality.  Sometimes they even contradict themselves.  How, then is the Pope supposed to always be right?  One can resolve these problems in a few ways:
  1. By embracing a double theory of truth which accepts the existence of real contradictions, the same statement can be both true and false in the same way at the same time, but the two contradictories are maintained in separate epistemic systems or spheres of discourse, which are held to be equally valid.
  2. By holding Papal utterances above every other form of evidence, so that our natural ability to know or accept empirical realities and historical facts is always called into question by the Pope's testimony.
  3. By attributing to to the Popes the God-like power (through the intervention of divine providence) to cause reality to simply conform to whatever they say, so that when the Pope makes a historical claim or statement of fact, the world is made to correspond to it, even if it had not previously.
The three resulting species of ultramontanism are much rarer than Mottramism, but no less harmful.  The first destroys the notion of truth completely.  The second undercuts the validity of the natural human faculties of knowledge, thereby setting the Church and the order of grace against the order of natural understanding created by God.  The third magnifies the power of the Pope absurdly.  All of them run contrary to the tradition of the Church on papal authority, which never says that the Pope is incapable of error.  They make of the Pope a sort of god-king, an identification which is bizarrely out of sync with the expectations of Christ as expressed in the Gospel and the Epistles of the New Testament.

So much for those forms of ultramontanism which attempt to remove the Roman Pontiff from subjection to the laws of reason and prudence common to all humanity.  Tomorrow, we will do a close reading of Pastor Aeternus, the dogmatic constitution of the First Vatican Council which sets forth an authoritative summary of the Pope's role in the Church.

(To be continued... a complete index of this series can be found here.)