Pope Benedict XVI has been in the news as of late, primarily for his thoughts on the possible legitimacy of prostitutes using condoms to prevent the spread of AIDS. I’m not especially interested in those article, other than to say that much of the chatter from Christian and secular newspapers has been decidedly hostile and misrepresentative of the carefully conceived and very nuanced position that the Pope has taken. But that aside, it has gotten me thinking about whether or not we can trust the Pope in this matter, or more specifically, whether the Roman Catholics can trust what their leader is saying. I think if I were a Roman Catholic, I would suspend judgement regarding anything any reigning Popes decree in my lifetime, because there is simply no reason for me to trust what they are saying.
There have been hundreds of Popes and a great deal whose private and public proclamations and teachings have openly clashed with each other. They have disagreed with each other. Fought with each other. Excommunicated each other. They have publically taught and defended heresies to the people of the day. They have been publically condemned by ecumenical councils. Pope Stephen VII, after his predecessor Pope Formosus died, exhumed his corpse, cut off three of his fingers, put him on trial where the rotting corpse was tied to a chair and found guilty of several charges. He was then thrown into the river. Some Popes had multiple wives and lovers, had many children with multiple women, and committed murder, rape, and incest. There have been up to three popes ruling at the same time, each condemning the other and teaching that the other Popes were enemies and heretics. We have had 1800 years of Popes, many of whom have engaged in the most immoral of acts and whose character might be described as nothing short of evil. I would imagine that many Popes are burning in Hell right now.
None of those revelations will surprise any knowledgeable Catholic, who would acknowledge that while they are indeed true, that their actions have neither corrupted nor tainted the truthfulness of what the Church teaches. That the miracle of the Church of Rome is that despite centuries upon centuries of hardships and corruption and wicked men at times leading the Church, that she has remained a true and spotless bride in what she teaches and confesses. How do they do that? By imposing the great anachronism known as Ex-Cathedra upon the Church. That is, they would say that the Popes only extremely rarely exercise their power of infallibility. And, of course, any time a contradiction between popes is noted, it is simply alleged that one or the other or both of the popes is not exercising his infallibility. By utilizing this novelty, they can look back thousands of years at the many horrors of the Papacy and say, for example, when Honorius I taught the heresy of Monothelitism and was subsequently condemned by all the Popes and councils for the next three hundred years, that he certainly was not speaking ex-cathedra for the church. Because he had not invoked this, he could not have possibly corrupted the Church’s teaching and therefore the mysteries of Papal succession and its ability to safeguard truth and doctrine remains unbroken.
That in itself is worthy of further examination, but that’s still not my point. My point is this- how can we trust these Popes? In the past we have had Popes who have taught and rejected the apocrypha, who have taught and rejected the sinlessness of the virgin Mary. Who have taught and rejected major tenants of the modern Roman Catholic Church. And like I said, they have condemned each other, excommunicated each other, and taught some very, very bad things. At the time these Popes were living and teaching though, they believed they were right, and were seeking to communicate truth to their people and their adherents. They were speaking because they wanted their listeners to understand and believe their words. When Pope Boniface VIII taught that everyone had to be subject to the Roman pontiff to be saved- he meant it, and he wanted those listening to follow it. I could pull a dozen wild and crazy teachings from Popes that any good Roman Catholic would look at and say “But those were his private teachings” or “those were his papal bulls and letters- those were not official ex-cathedra statements.”
But I don’t find that very helpful. The fact of the matter is that Roman Catholics have no way of knowing whether or not what their Pope says in the year 2010 will later be condemned as heresy. They have no way of knowing whether or not a future Pope will condemn and anathematize poor Benedict XVI. They have no way of knowing whether or not the teachings they hear from the Pope about condom use to prevent prostitutes getting AIDS will later be picked apart by future Catholics and embarrasedly dismissed as his private thoughts and not ex-cathedra. They may distance themselves from him and he may go down in history as one of the many anti-popes. It’s happened before! Popes have called other Popes heretics- why not again? There is no certainty of continuity and there is no assurance that the man will not be a devil. Like the Roman Catholics of centuries ago who were privy to some false teaching without knowing it, right now any Roman Catholic has no way of knowing whether or not he is being deceived from the head of their Church any more than those Christians of old knew the were being deceived. That is a very, scary thing, and that’s why I would not throw my hat in with this potential-heretic to be.