Is the pope Catholic?

The praise heaped on Benedict XVI for effectively destroying the idea of papal infallibility speaks to the flighty, narcissistic nature of our times.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
Editor

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The most shocking thing about yesterday was not Pope Benedict XVI becoming the first pontiff in 600 years to hang up his pointy hat, but rather the reaction to that news.

At first there was shock – shock that the words ‘pope’ and ‘resign’ could appear in the same news headlines, as if being pontiff is a 9-to-5 job one can jack in when the going gets tough. But then the shock subsided and weird admiration emerged: Benedict was praised for ‘breaking a 600-year-old taboo’ and for carrying out a ‘liberating act’; for sending out a ‘great message of humility’; for providing ‘a compelling example for people worldwide’, especially older people, which says it is sometimes okay to admit: ‘I can’t handle my job anymore.’

In essence, he was patted on the back for revealing that he isn’t infallible after all; that for all the papal bull about this one bloke embodying ‘supreme apostolic authority’ and being incapable of error, in fact he’s just like the rest of us – frail, knackered, ‘confronting health problems in late life’.

The praise chucked at the pope speaks to modern society’s discomfort with the idea of lifelong commitment to a cause or vocation, and its preference for elevating public admissions of frailty over single-mindedly slogging it out through thick and thin. There is a palpable sense of glee in some of the commentary that the doctrines of the Catholic Church – particularly that of papal infallibility, the idea that popes are ‘[exempt] from the possibility of error’ – have now been subordinated to the personal health needs of an ageing pontiff. A leader in the Guardian, whose writers usually come out in hives at the mere mention of the words ‘Catholic’, ‘Vatican’ or ‘pope’, is tellingly headlined ‘Papal fallibility’. It praises Benedict (yep, that’s right – it’s nice about him) for showing that the ‘historic permanence of the office [of pope]’ frequently crashes against the reality of ‘the fragility of its human occupants’.

It isn’t surprising that the Catholic-bashing set is taking pleasure in Benedict’s resignation, in this effective kennelling of the man they knew as ‘God’s rottweiler’, because it does fundamentally call into question many of the ideas these anti-Catholics cannot abide. The papacy has never traditionally been viewed as a mere function, a position one occupies for a period of time, but rather as something more mystical and binding. As one historian of the papacy describes it, in the past a pope was seen as ‘ceasing to be a human being’; he was ‘totally absorbed by his office’; there was a ‘mystical marriage’ between man and office which was ‘indissoluble’ (1). Not anymore. Now we know that there isn’t much mystical or infallible about being Christ’s vicar on Earth. Even health experts have been called upon by the media to analyse everything from the pope’s gait to his speech in order to work out what they reveal about his ‘functional status’. What about his spiritual status? Doesn’t matter, it seems. Being pope is just a position, like CEO, and as one European archbishop excitedly said, perhaps with a knowing eye on his own future, ‘Popes from now on will no longer feel compelled to stay on until their death’.

Even Catholic commentators are taking pleasure in Benedict’s subtle signalling that papal infallibility is a myth. A former editor of the Catholic Herald says it’s refreshing that a pope has admitted he doesn’t have ‘the stamina for it any more’. ‘In any other multinational organisation… the idea that an 85-year-old could continue to exercise absolute authority on a daily basis would be regarded as untenable’, he says. But the Catholic Church isn’t just another multinational organisation, is it? It is based on faith, authority, thousand-year-old traditions. That even Catholics can welcome the resignation of ‘the living image of Christ’ in the same way a Virgin employee might at some point welcome the resignation of a past-it Richard Branson speaks volumes about today’s crisis of Catholic faith.

Many, especially defensive Catholics, point out that popes have resigned before, and canon law ‘explicitly sets out conditions for abdication’. But this is disingenuous. For the fact is there have been only a handful of papal resignations in history, the last six centuries ago, and they were a result of Vatican infighting and schisms. Even when popes were permitted to resign, the ‘taboo’ against it remained. As Business Week reminded us yesterday, ‘The last time a pope resigned, Dante put him in hell’. Pope Celestine V, who resigned in 1294, was plonked by Dante into the antechamber of his Inferno, branded as a ‘coward’ who was guilty of a ‘great refusal’. No amount of law-citing by Catholics or analysis of Benedict’s posture by health experts can disguise the fact that what happened yesterday was genuinely startling, unique in the history of the papacy.

What the resignation really points to – or rather what the congratulatory reaction reveals – is how uncomfortable our society is with the idea of vocation. In the back-slapping for Benedict we’re really witnessing the breathing of a mass, global sigh of relief that pretty much the last institution which elevates its own needs over the needs of its occupant, which demands unwavering, total, literally Christ-like commitment, has now allowed the reality of frailty to creep into its hallowed halls. Today’s fashionable allergy to the pope, and to the Catholic Church more broadly, is driven more by a petit-bourgeois disdain for firm commitment to a cause and belief in something bigger than ourselves than it is by a grown-up critique of Catholic theology. Ours is an era in which people are implored to cultivate their self-esteem, or to focus obsessively on preserving their bovine physical wellbeing, rather than to give themselves fully to a cause or a mission or even another individual. We’re so hostile to the idea of vocation, and to its underpinning: commitment, that we have pathologised self-sacrifice, now referring to it as the psychological ailment of ‘co-dependency’: ‘placing a lower priority on one’s own needs while being excessively preoccupied with the needs of others.’ In such a narcissistic era, where ‘one’s own needs’ are everything, the idea of a man remaining married to his mission forever is extraordinarily alien, and so we cheer like crazy when even the moral descendant of St Peter elevates his own physical wellbeing over his devotion to something bigger.

Ironically, Benedict is aware of the crisis of vocation in the modern world, the way in which he what he called the ‘relativist cultural context… adversely affects the formation of consistent and stable vocational figures’ – that is, how modern society’s cult of the narrow self eats away at old notions of sacrificing oneself to a greater cause. Indeed, a couple of years ago he got his cardinals to warn against the ‘transformation of the priesthood into a profession’ and to remind people that actually it is a ‘lifelong vocation’. Yet now he has sent out the message that even being pope is kind of a profession, something one can retire from when exhausted or ill or in need of some ‘me time’. Even those of us, like this former altar boy, who are as atheistic as it gets and only set foot in Catholic churches to admire the paintings, yet who think the idea of causes and commitment and solidarity is a pretty good one, should be concerned by the cheering that greeted Benedict’s step-down yesterday.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his personal website here.

(1) The Problem of Sovereignty in the Later Middle Ages, MJ Wilks, Cambridge University Press, 1963

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