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January 17, 2003

Journalist Charles Pierce, a frequent contributor to Eric Alterman’s Altercation, is particularly glorious today:
You probably saw the story where the Vatican put the knuckle down on American Catholic politicians—read John Kerry and (maybe) Nancy Pelosi—about hewing to the company line regarding certain issues on which a “well-formed Christian conscience” does not permit them to take a certain position. Now, ever since John Kennedy gave his speech to the Baptist ministers in Texas back in 1960, we American Papists have taken comfort in the fact that this peculiar “double loyalty” issue had been put to rest. Now, with their institutional church possessing on issues of human sexuality the approximate moral credibility of a barnyard goat, the bureaucrats in red beanies have decided to raise it again. If Kerry has any brains at all, he’ll make a speech this week telling these ermined layabouts to go climb a tree. My own informed Christian conscience won’t rest until a battalion of them are hauled off to the sneezer on conspiracy charges.
This Boston Globe piece suggests that, by and large, modern American Catholic politicians aren’t taking much guff from the Curia. It concludes:
Some scholars said the Vatican’s ability to impose its moral views on American politicians has been lessened by the clergy sex abuse crisis.

”One of the lessons of the sex scandal is that lawyers and prosecutors and politicians can’t automatically defer to the church on legal and moral questions,” said Leslie Griffin, a legal ethics professor at the University of Houston Law Center, who studies the relationship between law and religion. ”On all these questions of sexuality, of marriage, of peace, the lay people have expertise.”

You could light a match on that. [05:55 PM]
Welcome to Electrolite's comments section.
Hard-Hitting Moderator: Teresa Nielsen Hayden.

Comments on Journalist Charles Pierce,:

Bruce Baugh ::: (view all by) ::: January 17, 2003, 09:14 PM:

I admit to looking at this one as an outsider, but I'm not sure why people who don't want to accept the Pope as Supreme Pontiff still want to be Roman Catholics. There are, after all, other denominations out there for people who wish to draw on the Christian tradition(s) in one mix or another without the papacy. Trying to be Roman Catholic without that key element of submission to the clerical hierarchy strikes me as something like claiming to be a patriotic supporter of America without being at all interested in constitutional government - in each case, these are tenets that define the thing as opposed to its alternatives.

Graydon ::: (view all by) ::: January 18, 2003, 12:56 AM:

Well, couple of things; the Church isn't the hierarchy, and a perfectly good lay Catholic can believe that the hiearchy has fallen into error.

Other thing is that a claim of American patriotism without respect or desire for constitutional government is not such a farfetched notion, being observed going iron fist in mailed glove in the conduct of the current American government.

Rivka ::: (view all by) ::: January 18, 2003, 09:57 AM:

Bruce: It's a common misconception (encouraged by the Vatican, I expect) that Catholics are required to believe everything the Pope believes. In fact, there are a limited set of articles of faith that are required for Catholics, and "the Pope should be telling Catholic politicians how to vote" isn't one of them.

That said, some people I know have left the Roman Catholic Church for the United Catholic Church, which claims to have a valid apostolic succession separate from the Pope. They have the traditional Mass and Sacraments, without (for example) the institutionalized sexism and heterosexism.

Mris ::: (view all by) ::: January 18, 2003, 10:24 AM:

The Episcopalian Church in the U.S. also claims a valid non-sexist, largely non-heterosexist apostolic succession in their "historic episcopacy," and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America is now participating in it with them. (Reason #3612 I no longer belong to the ELCA -- not the lack of sexism or heterosexism, but the h.e., which I don't believe either theologically or historically.) So really we have no lack of supposed apostolic succession.

Rivka, I can see why this misperception comes into play: while Catholics are only supposed to hold the Pope as infallible when he's speaking ex cathedra, he can start speaking ex cathedra whenever he wants to. Presumably there's supposed to be divine inspiration involved, but for lack of a divine-inspiration-o-meter, they can't really rule out any issues as ones where the Pope *can't* talk to them with God's voice, even if he hasn't so far.

I don't assume that most American Catholics even buy the ex cathedra rule, though, as many of them seem to think of the Pope as "that nice old man in the beanie." Seems like a decent position to me, compared to the alternatives.

David Moles ::: (view all by) ::: January 18, 2003, 01:20 PM:

Wasn't the Pope only declared infallible in the 1870s? I suppose if one never believed he was infallible before that, one needn't believe the declaration, either; in which case the Pope's assertion of infallibility is only another one of those amusing little pecadilloes pontiffs perpetrate from time to time; one can smile tolerantly and thank God for not sending us another Alexander VI.

(Still, in the good old days the Pope would've just excommunicated 'em. Nothing against Mr. Kerry and Ms. Pelosi, but I'd take most politicians' professions of faith more seriously if they were willing to spend three days and nights in the snow at Canossa for them.)

Kevin J. Maroney ::: (view all by) ::: January 18, 2003, 02:03 PM:

The Pope is not "infallible" by any definition.

The Catholic Church has, at least since the early parts of the first millennium CE, claimed to itself the ability to promulgage "infalliably true" dogma--that is, statements about the nature of reality which are absolutely guaranteed to be true. Examples of this include the historical truth of the Virgin Birth, the existence of Hell, and the fact that the Father and the Son are of the same substance, whatever the hell that means.

Until about 200 years ago, the mechanism for promulgating infallible dogma was reserved to the mechanism of Ecumenical Councils. The doctrine of Papal Infallibility just says that the Pope, by virtue of his office, can promulgate infallibly true dogma of the Catholic Church.

David Goldfarb ::: (view all by) ::: January 18, 2003, 02:15 PM:

What Kevin says is in accord with my understanding of things. It also, I think, bears mention that the Pope must very specifically mention that he is being infallible, in order to be so. And that this power has only been exercised a few times; I think only twice since it was established. (I am too lazy at the moment to check the exact number.)

Bruce Baugh ::: (view all by) ::: January 18, 2003, 11:28 PM:

I didn't actually say anything about papal infallibility - I know enough to know that the subject is a lot more complex than it's stereotyped as being, and not enough to feel that I have the clues I'd want about it. I was referring to the fact of clerical hierarchy and the teaching magisterium; as I understand it, much that Protestant teaching leaves to the individual conscience is given to the hierarchy in Roman Catholicism. The church isn't just a social club, but a genuine authority. If it isn't working that way, why have it? I guess I'm wondering what actually comprises Catholicism for some of the dissenters.

Arthur D. Hlavaty ::: (view all by) ::: January 19, 2003, 10:54 AM:

Bruce: You might want to read Garry Wills's _Why I Am a Catholic_, which speaks to the question you are raising.

Bruce Baugh ::: (view all by) ::: January 19, 2003, 05:33 PM:

I've looked through that at Powell's and should give it a longer read, I guess. Based on skimming - which means, given my luck, that I'm dead wrong - I didn't see a whole lot that my friends in sundry Reformed denominations would say is out of bounds for them.

Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: January 20, 2003, 11:02 AM:

I have a real problem with "The Pope is infallible because the Pope says Popes are infallible." Also with the observable fact that, historically speaking, Popes have been way fallible.

But my big problem with it is that there can be no virtue without moral volition, and an infallible Pope by definition has none, since volition necessarily brings with it the possibility of error.

This is just wrong. It's also contrary to the entire body and sense of Christian scripture -- where, as you'll have doubtless already noticed, no one is ever deprived of moral volition. Quite the opposite, in fact; no matter how high the stakes, there's always freedom of choice. This is established in Genesis. It's the unambiguous basis of the story of Jonah. Mary gives her assent at the annunciation, and Jesus gives his before he's crucified. Et cetera.

Besides, look at the episode of Christ being tempted by Satan. If there weren't some chance of the temptation succeeding, the whole thing would be meaningless. And if He wasn't infallible, how's the Pope manage it?

I think we have to conclude that Popes are fallible, and that the doctrine of Papal Infallibility is one instance of this. It belongs in the same roundfile as the Divine Right of Kings: like Papal Infallibility, a principle which, if valid, would have needed no help or support to remain in force.

Charlotte Freeman ::: (view all by) ::: January 20, 2003, 11:49 AM:

The reason some of us don't leave, despite our dissent, is because Catholicism isn't only theology, but also our cultural heritage. It makes all the intellectual and theological sense in the world for me to "cross the street" and start attending the Episcopalian church -- it gets me out from under the hierarchy issue, which is enormous, as well as the sexism issue. But I can't quite do it. Why? As an Irish Catholic, becoming an Episcopalian is fraught, as is crossing over to any of the other Protestant denominations. The Catholic church is my home, and although I disagree heartily with the heirarchy, it's like having dysfunctional parents. They're still your family. I guess what I'm trying to convey is that faith is as much an emotional as an intellectual issue ... I keep trying to leave,and keep finding myself at Mass. Go figure.

Alan Bostick ::: (view all by) ::: January 20, 2003, 12:40 PM:

Trying to be Roman Catholic without that key element of submission to the clerical hierarchy strikes me as something like claiming to be a patriotic supporter of America without being at all interested in constitutional government - in each case, these are tenets that define the thing as opposed to its alternatives.

Can one not love the land and the people who live on it without giving a tinker's cuss for its form of government? America is America, whether its government is a constitutional republic or a hereditary monarchy; and so the Church is the Church regardless of whether the Pope is chosen by the College of Cardinals, popular vote of parishoners, or by lottery.

Mris ::: (view all by) ::: January 20, 2003, 02:02 PM:

Actually, I'd say that America is one of the few countries in the world that *isn't* itself regardless of form of government. For me, America is about the Constitution, and if you've got no Constitution, you can still love the land and people and all that, but if you fight for its new hereditary monarch, that's not recognizable to me as fighting for America. (If you do the un-Constitutional bidding of a current government agency, that's also not serving America.)

Many forms of Protestantism are like that, too -- Congregationalism and Presbyterianism both take their names from their form of governance. You can't be a Presbyterian without a Presbytery. You still may have Christian love and fellowship with the people you go to church with, but no Presbytery, no Presbyterian. (Also, no potluck, no Presbyterian, but that's another issue entirely.)

This may be where some of us Prots get so confused when dealing with Catholics, because we try to claim that the Papacy is to Catholicism what the congregation is to a Congregationalist, and that doesn't appear to be true from their standpoint. I can list all of the many theological, ethical, political, and social reasons why I am not a Catholic, and one of my best friends who is Catholic agrees with every last one of them. Our fundamental disagreement is not on those points but on whether those are the important points in choosing a religion. That seems like a much deeper disagreement in some ways, but it also allows for meaningful ecumenical activity, so I can't think it's all bad.

Brad DeLong ::: (view all by) ::: January 20, 2003, 04:07 PM:

>>statements about the nature of reality which are absolutely guaranteed to be true. Examples of this include the historical truth of the Virgin Birth, the existence of Hell, and the fact that the Father and the Son are of the same substance, whatever the hell that means.

Not to mention that the Son is "eternally begotten."

Now when you have an Aristotelian view of begetting this idea that the Jesus who was born of Mary is the same person with the same body as the Word that was with God in the beginning makes a certain kind of sense. But with a modern view of begetting--according to which the woman contributes 50% of the 22 chromosome pairs, the bigger of the X and Y chromosomes, and all the mitochondrial DNA--"eternally begotten" seems to call for an eternal co-presence of Mary the Godbearer back to before the beginning of time.

I have never yet found a theologian who can tell me how the proclamations of the Councils of Nicaea and Constantinople can be squared with meiosis without elevating Mary to the rank of Eternal Mother Goddess...


Brad DeLong

Chip Hitchcock ::: (view all by) ::: January 20, 2003, 07:53 PM:

Brad -- it's not surprising you can't find a theologian who can cope with meiosis; wasn't it only in this century that the Catholic church admitted that Galileo had been right? Unlike The New York Times, which took only a few decades to retract its blatantly ignorant slam of Robert Goddard, the church apparently takes many centuries to catch up with technology; they'll probably acknowledge the mechanics of cell reproduction sometime in the middle of this millennium. (Yes, that assumes that people will still be paying attention to them. I'd love to see hierarchical religion wither the way the State didn't, but I'm not betting on it.)

Yehudit ::: (view all by) ::: January 20, 2003, 09:05 PM:

Charlotte, I know how you feel, as I daven in Conservative minyans about 20 blocks from the rabbinical Assembly of the Conservative Movement which is still wrestling about whether to let openly gay Jews apply to their rabbinical school.

Not to mention the Orthodox women and gays who fight homophobia and sexism from insdie their movements rather than leave for other Jewish denominations because the "flavor" just isn't the same.

This is a cultural thing. You're not just a Catholic, you're an Irish Catholic. If your religion is woven deeply into your culture with its language, music, food, etc. you can't just neatly cut off the part that doesn't fit any more. This is very hard to explain to people who don't have a strong childhood culture or who threw over the whole thing.

Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: January 20, 2003, 09:29 PM:

Tell me about it. I was hauled up in front of a Bishop's Court and excommunicated twenty-three years ago, but ethnically I'm still a Rocky Mountain West Mormon. It's how I was raised. That sticks. You can't go back and get raised in a different faith.

I make darned good jello.

Simon Shoedecker ::: (view all by) ::: January 21, 2003, 12:50 PM:

"America the Beautiful" is a nice song, but it would make a bad national anthem because America is about its Constitution and governmental ethics, not about the land it happens to occupy.

Most countries aren't like that. Israel wouldn't be Israel if it were somewhere else, and it would still be Israel if the rabbis took over the government (not that it doesn't often seem as if they have already).

This is why Constitutional vandals, like R. Nixon and G. B--h, are the greatest threat to America.

Kevin J. Maroney ::: (view all by) ::: January 21, 2003, 04:14 PM:

One of the reasons that I explained papal infallibility is that it's important to remember that the Catholic Church has long had "infallibility" as part of its defined set of powers. God keeps the Ecumenical Councils free from error.

As a no-longer-a-Catholic, I don't see the difference in theory between "a group of people can be the conduit for infallible dogma if God wills it" and "a specific person can be the conduit for infallible dogma if God wills it". In practice, yes, I can see the difference; I like consensus much more than than dictat. But if you believe that God is pulling the strings, then I'm not sure what the difference is.

John Farrell ::: (view all by) ::: January 21, 2003, 08:28 PM:

I think Kevin's right. My understanding is that the doctrine declared in 1870 or whenever it was simply formalized what the bishops had believed for a long time previously.

If I'm not mistaken, I think the Eastern Orthodox Church also teaches something similar—but in relation to the bishops as a group, that the Holy Spirit would prevent them from teaching error on matters of faith and morals.

Actually, in regard to Galileo as someone mentioned above, it's interesting that Pope Urban actually considered declaring heliocentrism an error—but decided not to at the last moment when some pro-Galileo cardinal dissuaded him.

I could be wrong here, but also, I don't think the Church finally decided Galileo was not wrong a few years ago, so much as it decided to apologize for persecuting him.