Pope Goes the Weasel

I have to admit, I got a pretty good chuckle when reading an article last week in the Washington Post that was titled, "Conservative dissent is brewing inside the Vatican."

The problem, as the article explains, is that Pope Francis has been "backing a more inclusive era, giving space to progressive voices on divorced Catholics as well as gays and lesbians," and that's a non-starter for conservatives in the Vatican.

In fact, it's so much of an issue that a "staunch conservative" Cardinal Raymond Burke went to the unprecedented length of doing an interview with French television and going on public recording to that papal power "is not absolute," adding "The pope does not have the power to change teaching [or] doctrine."

Well, so much for the whole "infallibility thing."

I mean, seriously, now. For many decades -- actually, it's more like for a century, even more, for that matter, we've been told since Vatican I in 1870 that the pope is infallible. When the pope speaks ex cathedra, we've been told, it's as if the world of God is coming through him. This infallibility is one of the things that has given the Catholic Church some of its sense of power and authority. After all, when your leader is infallible, that's a pretty strong calling card to play.

But apparently, it turns out that infallibility is limited. Which sort of defeats the point of infallibility. But I guess the pope is only infallible when you agree with him.

But it goes further than just redefining 150 years of Vatican I tenets. It moved into the realm of civil disobedience, something you'd expect from an existentialist like Henry David Thoreau or hippies in the '60s, not the Vatican disagreeing with its pope. The article's author, Anthony Faiola writes that "Burke said he would 'resist' liberal changes -- and seemed to caution Francis about the limits of his authority. 'One must be very attentive regarding the power of the pope.''"

Resist a pope of limited authority?? This makes conservatives in the U.S. Congress look like mere pikers. They merely sued the president for doing something they disagree with. Conservatives in the Vatican are suggesting want to upend the foundation of an entire religion.

Okay, yes, it probably didn't help either that Cardinal Burke had been demoted by the pope. But it seems likely that even those in the Vatican's conservative hierarchy who've kept their positions aren't bowled over by being told by someone previously seen as infallible that their belief is wrong Indeed, "Burke's words belied a growing sense of alarm among strict conservatives, exposing what is fast emerging as a culture war over Francis's papacy and the powerful hierarchy that governs the Roman Catholic Church." The result is that "Francis also is grappling with a conservative backlash to the liberal momentum building inside the church."

To be clear, as the article points out Cardinal Burke is theoretically correct in what he speaks about how the pope can't change church doctrine. But it's still a sticky situation when conservatives have never really had a need to theoretically correct that perception in a very long epoch, which is what sort of undercuts the infallibility message they've pronounced a century-and-a-half ago.

Ultimately, in whatever way the Catholic Church hierarchy works out its internal battles is a matter for the Catholic Church. They've been around for a long time, they'll figure things out. This isn't the first disagreement between pope and Vatican opponents. History has shown us all manner of internal conflicts and results of that. If the contradiction of an infallible pope whose words are fallible is now on the table, that'll just have to be thrown into the mix for conservatives to deal with in the future

Of more impact in this temporal world, though, is how this relates on the ground to the rest of society. Faith and personal belief are the important and necessary cornerstone of all religion. But if Vatican officials themselves can dismiss some of what the pope says and "resist" his word, how shaky is the soapbox of those infallible everyday humans who attempt to impose their total, inviolate belief on others? When the pope himself can be challenged by no less than the Vatican, where does that leave the Kim Davises of the world or opponents of Planned Parenthood or Hobby Lobby belligerents or War on Christmas fighting defendants who refuse to question themselves, unwilling to accept in their far-more earthbound ways than a pope that they as imperfect humans might have interpreted their understandable and very personal beliefs in a way that impacts others unfairly and should be resisted?

As Jon Stewart has pointed out to those demanding their religious freedom in all corners of secular life, You're confusing not getting everything you want with a war on your religion. Faith and personal belief are important. But they're...personal. And as humans, we're all flawed. Including, some in the Vatican remind us, the pope. So, occasionally being more flexible when dealing with others should be seen as A Good Thing.

And Mr. Stewart's admonition also seems to hold merit for those "some" in the Vatican who after ages of having things pretty much their own infallible way now have a Holy Father, the Vicar of Christ leading them -- one the Cardinals themselves elected -- holding some different views on ministering to the needs of others, and it has brought forth "alarm" and a "conservative backlash" and "resistance" against a Supreme Pontiff heretofore presented as infallible. You're confusing not getting everything you want with a war on your religion.

Yes, disagreements can be a problematic thing when you don't get your way, and most especially when you're used to getting it, and when your mindset generally insists on it. Inflexibility is not limited to conservatives, of course, anyone can be inflexible. But it is more native to a philosophy that is rooted in holding on to the foundations and traditions of the past, rather than a doctrine centered on growing into the future. We see it with conservatives in government who bluntly call the concept of compromise a bad thing, and if we don't get what we want we will sue and shut down the government. So, it is not surprising to see it within conservatives of the Vatican, as well. It's all one.

But still, important as these issues are to all sides in the Vatican -- and they are understandably important -- for any members of the VATICAN to make the case that the POPE'S INFALLIBLE authority is not actually absolute is taking the concept of petulance when not getting your own way to a whole new, ethereally-higher level.

But there's a bright cloud in all of this.

As the Rev. Timothy Radcliffe, a liberal British priest who was appointed to a position in the Vatican explained, "At least we aren't poisoning each other's chalices anymore."


To read more from Robert J. Elisberg about this or many other matters both large and tidbit small, see Elisberg Industries.