Wednesday September 27 2006
Infallibility and the Pope
By Leonardo Boff
The Church's absolutist approach explains why Benedict XVI doesn't want to ask forgiveness.
Pope Benedict XVI’s unfortunate citation of the statement of a 14th century Byzantine emperor has provoked justified indignation in Islamic communities: “Show me just what Muhammad brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached”. But the Pope’s act is a cause of scandal and shame for Christians as well.
This quotation is completely inappropriate. The Pope knows perfectly well that there is a confrontation underway between Muslims and the West, which has brought war to Afghanistan and Iraq and openly backs the Israeli cause against the Palestinians, the majority of whom are Muslim. Thus Benedict XVI’s quotation has created an association between the papacy and the military strategies of the West. How could this not give rise to irritation?
For Christians, the Pope’s act is perplexing because the essence of the Christian faith is forgiveness, expressed in the words of Saint Francis of Assisi: “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace. Where there is hate, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon”. Not wanting to forgive, the Pope legitimised all those who do not want to ask for forgiveness, neither of those they wrong in daily life, nor of the blacks enslaved for centuries, nor of those who survived the decimation of the Red Indians. If the Pope does not officially ask for forgiveness, he sets a bad example. He does not fulfil the Lord’s calling of “confirming brothers and sisters in faith”.
It must be pointed out that this is not an isolated incident for this Pope. As Cardinal, Joseph Ratzinger opposed allowing Turkey to join the European Union because it has a Muslim majority. Not long ago, he suppressed an initiative in the Vatican to promote dialogue between Christianity and Islam. In the document Dominus Jesus, one of the most fundamentalist texts in recent centuries, prepared by him in September 2000, he stated that “the only true religion is the Roman Catholic Church” and that “objectively speaking the followers of other religions are in a gravely deficient situation in comparison with those who, in the Church, have the fullness of the means of salvation”. Thus, dialogue with other religions makes no sense given that “it is contrary to the Catholic faith to consider the Church as one way of salvation equal to others”. Given this record, the Pope’s remarks at the University of Regensburg approach should not be surprising.
But even so, wouldn’t it be more virtuous for the Pope to openly ask forgiveness for the misunderstanding that he caused with his words, albeit unintentionally.
Why hasn’t he?
To answer this question, one must consider the ideology of infallibility that reigns in the Vatican and the Catholic Church in general. According to this ideology, the Pope can make no mistakes, though in reality the doctrine of infallibility is very limited in its application: it states that the Pope is infallible only in certain well-defined situations in which he personally enjoys an infallibility that is of the entire church. However, the notion of infallibility has been wrongly extended to cover every word the Pope speaks. Thus, for the Pope to ask forgiveness would be construed as a contradiction of this infallibility.
The mind of Pope Benedict XVI is still ruled by the doctrine of papal absolutism formulated in 1302 by Boniface VIII, which sustains that it is necessary “that every human being submit to the Pope to obtain salvation”. This doctrine was not abolished even by the Second Vatican Council of 1964 which introduced an explanatory note reaffirming that the Pope can always act “according to his personal judgement”, as in the nomination of bishops, or the establishment of norms or ecclesiastical policy. In other words: a Pope can, on his own, make decisions on everything. Meanwhile millions of Catholics, together, do not have the authority to make decisions on anything. This absolutism explains why Benedict XVI doesn’t want to ask forgiveness. (IPS)
(The writer is a Brazilian theologian and writer.)