For the past 30 years I have commuted by train into the City of Chicago. After pulling into Union Station, I walk up the steps to Madison Street and cross the Chicago River to get to my office. On Thursday mornings I grab a copy of the Chicago Reader, a weekly alternative paper, to read on the train ride home.
One of the regular features of the Reader is The Straight Dope. Today’s column was on the concept of infallibility. The actual question was as follows:
What’s the deal with papal infallibility? Can the pope modify any church teaching he so desires, and Catholics would have to obey? Can he make abortion ok? What about worshiping Satan?
Cecil talks about the challenge of the Enlightenment to the church. The pope’s authority seemed to be waning and was being challenged on every side. So in hopes of buttressing that authority, the dogma of papal infallibility was formalized and put into writing. Specifically, this was done when Pope Pius IX was facing external political threats and convened the first Vatican Council in the 1860s to shore up the power of his office.
I know from experience that your average Mormon thinks that every utterance of the pope is supposed to be infallible. But that’s not actually the way it works. Infallibility only applies if two conditions are present. First the teaching has to be ex cathedra (“from the chair”), spoken in his role as the church’s supreme leader. Second, the subject matter may only be faith and morals.
The thing is, most popes realize that claiming infallibility for some teaching is sort of a religious nuclear option, to be used only in extremis. In the mid-20th century John XXIII famously said “I am only infallible if I speak infallibly, but I shall never do that, so I am not infallible.”
What counts as infallible teaching is a matter of some debate. The clearest example is probably Mary’s assumption into heaven. Many would also include the Immaculate Conception (another Marian doctrine), although since it preceded Vatican I by a decade, that is not certain. Some consider the concept of infallible statements as retroactive to important statements of the popes through history, and others do not.
Pope Benedict was accused by some of creeping infallibility, for instance by claiming that John Paul II’s rejection of female ordination was infallible, although John Paul did not claim it so at the time. Infallibility became a tool to try to remove certain such hot button issues from the realm of debate.
So anyway, I’m reading all this on the train coming home this evening, and a little light bulb goes on in my brain.
We Mormons scoff at the idea of infallibility. To us it’s all popish foolishness. And I freely confess, I have long had a negative view of claims of infallibility. To me human beings are inherently mortal and subject to error by very definition. I don’t believe any human can truly be “infallible.”
But what suddenly became clear to me while reading the article is that we Mormons do the very same thing in our religious tradition. We don’t use the word “infallibility,” but we believe and teach the same thing conceptually. And here is my Exhibit A:
The November policy changes were slipped into an electronic manual without fanfare or notice. They immediately faced an absolute storm of criticism, beyond any I can recall ever witnessing in my life in the Church. A week later the Church issued a revision to the policy, which didn’t do much to stem the overwhelming criticism.
So last month during a devotional Elder Russell M. Nelson claimed that the new rules were not an administrative policy, but in fact were a revelation from God to his prophet. In part he said:
And then, when the Lord inspired His prophet, President Thomas S. Monson, to declare the mind of the Lord and the will of the Lord, each of us during that sacred moment felt a spiritual confirmation. It was our privilege as Apostles to sustain what had been revealed to President Monson. Revelation from the Lord to His servants is a sacred process.
I was struck by the similar strategic effect of this tack to papal infallibility. Where Pope Benedict used infallibility as a tool to avoid extremely controversial hot-button issues like contraception, this claim of revelation seems a clear attempt to do the very same thing vis-a-vis the policy. The claim of revelation is intended to put the policy beyond rational critique and criticism.
As a good Mormon boy, I’m a believer in modern revelation. But I have a tough time swallowing this as such. We don’t usher in revelations by trying to slip them unnoticed into the handbook. The policy read like the sloppy draftsmanship of a Kirton & McConkie first-year associate, not like the mind and will of Almighty God. And which version did the united spiritual confirmation of the Twelve smile upon, the first or the second?
So we Mormons may be turned off by the hoity-toity latinate term of art ‘infallible.” But we believe the very same thing, just under different names and guises. If the prophet can’t lead us astray, that’s the Mormon way of saying he’s infallible. I hereby repent of ever having a disparaging thought concerning the dogma of infallibility. It turns out my own faith practices the same dogma, just using a different lexicon.