This is the third in a three-part series in which apologist Mark Shea explains the nuances behind some aspects of Catholic language.
To continue from our previous discussion of commonly misunderstood Catholic jargon, one enormously popular candidate to commonly mess up is the word infallibility. Popular American culture, both religious and secular, tends to have a merry time taking it to mean “omnicompetence,” “sinlessness” or “omniscience.”
“If the pope is infallible, then why did the Church condemn Galileo?” is one common retort. Another is “Galatians says that Paul had to rebuke Peter, the supposed ‘first pope,’ for refusing to eat with Gentiles. So how can he be ‘infallible’?”
A third is “Infallibility means claiming to have all the truth in the world.” And still another is that popes have obviously committed grave sins. Heck! Dante even consigns a couple of them to hell. And it’s no secret that some of them, such as Alexander VI, were emphatically not saints. So how can they be “infallible”?
The problem with all these objections is that they all refute things the Church does not say. Infallibility does not mean that the pope or the Church can never make mistakes. The pope and the Church can and have made all sorts of mistakes about all kinds of things. If the pope gets up in the morning and says “Looks like rain today!” and the sun comes out, infallibility is not in ruins. Likewise, when the Church makes a mis-step and orders Jews to wear a badge to mark them out (as was done by, among other things, a decree from the Synod of Narbonne in 1227), we don’t have to go to the mat defending that. That’s why Pope St. John Paul II could begin the third millennium by apologizing for the sins of the Church, including sins or foolish judgment calls committed by councils and popes.
Bottom line: Infallibility protects only a tiny portion of ecclesial definitions of doctrine and does not mean that Trent was not silly to order that clothes be painted on St. Catherine of Alexandria in Michelangelo’s “Last Judgment.”
Nor is infallibility a guarantee of sinlessness. The pope goes to confession like everybody else and for the same reason — because he is a sinner. And the pope and the bishops in council do not claim to “have all the truth in the world.”
On the contrary, infallibility is actually a very minimalist claim. It, in fact, presupposes that the Church is composed of nothing but sinners and that, as sinners, we are prone to stupidity, selfishness, cowardice, corruption, graft, sleaze and all the other blights to which flesh is heir.
Because of this, without the help of the Holy Spirit, the Church would have lost track of the Gospel, not centuries after Jesus, but five minutes after Pentecost.
Happily, Jesus promised the Church that he would be with her always and would, by his Holy Spirit, lead her into all truth and not let her drop the ball. It is he, not we, who is the guarantor of infallibility. Indeed, even Dante sees this, which is why, when he consigns his bad popes to hell, he buries them head downward. Why? Recall the topsy-turvy geography of Dante’s hell. He is writing the original “Journey to the Center of the Earth.” His goal is to get to the bottom of hell, then come out the other side to Mt. Purgatory and onto heaven. Therefore, heaven is “down” in Dante’s hell. His point is that the bad popes, in their persons, are mortal sinners, but because of their office as pope (established by Christ) they are oriented toward heaven nonetheless.
In short, infallibility is a confession of the Church’s weakness. So, far from being a claim to “total possession of all truth,” it is the confession, “We don’t know much, but we do know these things God entrusted to us, and we hold onto them (sometimes despite our best efforts to mess them up) because the Holy Spirit won’t let us forget them.” The Church is given the grace of infallibility because she desperately needs it, not because she is awesome.
Similarly, inspiration is often taken to mean that the Bible is the “Big Book of Everything,” written by human dictaphones to tell us about everything from the age of the universe to the evolution of dinosaurs. In fact, however, it means that the Holy Spirit is the principal author of Scripture, and that “where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom” (2 Cor 3:17). So the paradox is that human authors write with complete freedom, yet in that freedom they write what the Holy Spirit intended for us and for our salvation, not information to satisfy our curiosity about the future with hidden codes predicting the JFK assassination, foretelling 9/11 or giving us weightloss formulae. The Bible is not a science book, a work of political theory or a Ouija board. Its “failure” to act in those roles only means that we are asking it to do something the Holy Spirit never meant it to do.
Another term that many people misunderstand is “excommunicate.” Many assume it means “damn to hell,” but it doesn’t. Nor is it something the Church hands out like candy to any Catholic who dares to think for himself. Excommunications are rare for much the same reason that doctors do not resort to amputations unless a patient’s status is utterly desperate. This is often a great disappointment for certain Catholics, who long for the imaginary “good old days” when the Church supposedly routinely excommunicated people — so that people they don’t like will be kicked out.
In reality, excommunications have always been rare, not just since Vatican II. And they have never consisted of damning anybody to hell for the very good reason that God has that job, not us. To excommunicate somebody is to forbid them Communion in order to restore a fractious sinner to his senses. We see this happen, for instance, when Paul, confronted with a believer guilty of gross sin in the Corinthian community, tells the Corinthians to “deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved on the day of the Lord” (1 Cor 5:5). The key word there is “saved” not “damned.” The point of excommunication is repentance and healing, not death.
Yet another term that is often misunderstood is the Immaculate Conception. It is commonly taken to refer to the conception of Jesus in the womb of Mary. In fact, the conception of Jesus is called the virgin birth and refers to the fact that Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit without the help of man.
The Immaculate Conception, in contrast, refers to the conception (by normal sexual means) of the Blessed Virgin Mary in the womb of her mother. It means that Mary, by a singular act of grace, was prevented from contracting original sin in the very moment of her conception. Its corollary is that not only was Mary saved by the grace of God from original sin, she never committed a sin in her life. She was, to use a crude illustration, saved from sin in much the same way that I was saved from a life as the grandson of a Nazi war criminal, living in Columbia and overseeing a drug cartel responsible for thousands of murders around the globe. How did God save me from that? By preventing my being born into such circumstances and committing such sins in the first place. Salvation isn’t just curative. It’s also preventive. Mary is the most saved person who ever lived.
Fulton Sheen once remarked that there were not 10 people who hated what the Church taught, but only what they thought the Church taught. I suspect that was optimistic since Jesus did not lack communication skills yet still suffered hatred from considerably more than 10 people. But all and all, we can help do our bit to make sure that the Gospel trumpet sounds a clear and certain note by making sure that what we mean is what they hear.
Next time somebody misunderstands Catholic jargon, see what you can do to translate it.
Mark Shea is the author of “Salt and Light: The Commandments, the Beatitudes, and a Joyful Life” (Servant, $15.99). He writes the “Catholic and Enjoying It” blog at Patheos.com.