If I were Pope — not that I’m seeking the office, or being
considered for it — I’d keep a slogan on my desk: “You’re
infallible. Don’t blow it.”
Most people, including Catholics, completely misunderstand the principle
of papal infallibility. They think of it as a sort of magical privilege
or power of the Pope, something like omnipotence or omniscience. It
isn’t that sort of thing at all.
Infallibility is not a guarantee of papal wisdom. It’s a guarantee
of protection against papal follies and foibles. It means that however
flawed the Pope’s personal judgment or behavior may be, we can
trust that it won’t permanently mislead ordinary believers in
essential matters of faith and morals. Since God expects us to accept
the Church’s authority, he assures us that that authority won’t
draw us into error. It means that even if I were Pope, the Church would
So faithful Catholics are entitled to wonder whether Pope John Paul
II’s recent “apology” for the historical sins of
the Church was really a wise idea. The ceremony alluded, in very general
terms, to Catholics’ violence against, and intolerance toward,
people outside the Church, specifically including “the people
His Holiness made two basic distinctions: he was speaking of sins
pertaining to the human part of the Church — her “sons
and daughters” — which don’t touch the divine essence
of the Church as the Mystical Body of Christ; and he was asking forgiveness
of God, not of non-Catholics.
The reaction showed that these distinctions didn’t register
with most people. Non-Catholics (including plenty of nominal Catholics,
many theologians among them) don’t distinguish between the human
and divine aspects of the Catholic Church, because they regard the
Church as a purely human institution; after all, if they believed the
Church was of divine origin they would be Catholics.
And though the expression of penitence was addressed to God, the usual
suspects assumed it was addressed to them and predictably pronounced
it inadequate. Every rabbi quoted in the media complained that the
Pope hadn’t specifically mentioned the Holocaust and the “silence” of
Pope Pius XII during World War II.
An editorial in the New York Times lamented the Pope’s “continued
opposition to” abortion, contraception, and the ordination of
women, adding this priceless observation: “Regrettably, he made
no mention of discrimination against homosexuals.” In other words,
the Pope failed to repudiate Catholicism. God may forgive this, but
the Times isn’t about to. (This is the newspaper that has never
apologized for publishing the lies of its star reporter Walter Duranty,
who in the early 1930s denied that the Soviet Union was systematically
starving millions of Ukrainians.)
There is no bigotry quite like the blank-eyed liberal bigotry that
demands that the Pope reach liberal conclusions from Catholic premises.
The Pope’s “continued opposition” to abortion, et
cetera, is not just the stubborn attitude of one old priest; it derives
from the most fundamental teachings and principles of Catholicism itself,
which differ in certain respects from the editorial positions of the
Once more we are reminded of the “lesson of Munich”: an
act of goodwill may satisfy reasonable people, but it won’t appease
But what, one must ask, did the Holy Father expect? His list of sins
and transgressions was indeed incomplete, from a Catholic point of
view; it seems to have been composed with an eye to what modern liberalism
regards as evil. In short, it has a fatal whiff of trendiness about
It’s easy to condemn sins of excessive zeal in the past, to
which few are now tempted. But what might Catholics of the past (or
the future) condemn in the Church today?
They certainly wouldn’t accuse us of excessive zeal. They might
be shocked by our lukewarmness, our cowardice masquerading as tolerance,
our laxity, our willingness to countenance heresy, sacrilege, blasphemy,
and immorality within the Church itself, our eagerness to ingratiate
ourselves with the secular world — of which the papal statement
itself is a symptom.
Nearly a century ago, the French Catholic poet Charles Peguy remarked: “We
will never know how many acts of cowardice have been motivated by the
fear of appearing not sufficiently progressive.” Amen.
Copyright © 2011 by the Fitzgerald
Griffin Foundation. All rights reserved. This column was published originally
by Griffin Internet Syndicate on March 14, 2000.
Joe Sobran was an author and a syndicated columnist. See bio
and archives of some of his columns.
Watch Sobran's last TV appearance on YouTube.
Learn how to get a tape of his last speech
during the FGF Tribute to Joe Sobran in December 2009.
To subscribe to or renew the FGF E-Package, or support the writings of Joe
Sobran, please send a tax-deductible donation to the:
Fitzgerald Griffin Foundation
P.O. Box 1383
or subscribe online.