Journalists often use the spelling “lede” to distinguish the first sentence of a story from other connotations of “lead.” The 2006 Lede Us Not Into Confusion Prize goes to Malcolm Moore of London’s Daily Telegraph who, in a November 22 dispatch from Rome, managed to pack an awful lot of confusion into a single sentence:
The Pope has shocked theologians and opened a chink in the theory of papal infallibility by saying that people should feel free to disagree with what he has written in his latest book, a meditation on Jesus Christ.
Really? The Pope said that?
Of course he did, and you’ll only be surprised if you’re as clueless as Mr. Moore seems to be about the Catholic Church’s understanding of the infallibility exercised under certain circumstances by the Bishop of Rome.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church discusses infallibility after reminding us of a theological first principle: the Church’s teaching authority is an expression of the fact that God, having gathered a people to himself in Christ, wishes to preserve that people in the truth. The Church’s teaching authority exists, not for its own sake and not by its own devices, but to guarantee that each generation has the possibility of professing the truth of Catholic faith without error. Why is that important? Because if, as the Lord taught, the truth is what makes us free [John 8.32], then the Church’s teaching authority is the guarantor of authentic Christian and human liberation.
This service of witness-to-the-truth is exercised by the Church’s pastoral authorities in matters of faith and morals, and in several ways, of which an infallible declaration is but one. Here is the Catechism, quoting the Second Vatican Council, on the “reach” of infallibility:
“The Roman Pontiff, head of the college of bishops, enjoys this infallibility in virtue of his office, when, as supreme pastor and teacher of all the faithful…he proclaims by a definitive act a doctrine pertaining to faith and morals…The infallibility promised to the Church is also present in the body of bishops when, together with Peter’s successor, they exercise the supreme Magisterium,” above all in an Ecumenical Council [Catechism 891].
So Mr. Moore and the nervous “theologians” he cites can relax. What Pope Benedict himself terms “the expression of my personal research” doesn’t come within a country mile of being a “definitive act” proclaiming “a doctrine pertaining to faith and morals.” Benedict XVI’s forthcoming book is his book, period; it doesn’t engage his supreme teaching authority as universal pastor of the Church.
What this tempest in a British teapot does suggest is that Vatican I’s definition of papal infallibility, which was intended to settle the question of the pope’s authority in (and for) an age of radical skepticism, has had almost precisely the opposite effect. The Church believes that it is preserved in the truth by the Holy Spirit, and that this abiding-in-truth is, under very rare and clearly defined circumstances, manifest in an exercise of the charism of infallibility by a pope or an ecumenical council. Yet the doctrine of infallibility has somehow come to mean, to some, that everything not infallibly defined is up-for-grabs in the Church, which is clearly not the case – and certainly not what Vatican I intended.
The doctrine of infallibility has also been misconstrued as a claim to omniscience in all matters, which it also clearly is not. Misunderstandings about infallibility intersect as well with confusions about the nature of Catholic doctrine – thus another recent British headline announced that the Church would soon change its “position” on condom use as a means of AIDS-prevention, as if this were akin to the Blair government changing its “position” on hydrocarbon emissions. Similar confusions are in play when the Church’s settled teaching on abortion, embryo-destructive stem cell research, euthanasia, or the nature of marriage is described as the Catholic or Vatican “position.”
When the issue at hand is one of either Catholic doctrine or settled Catholic moral teaching, the lede is a matter of truth, not of anyone’s “position” – and getting the lede right is important.
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.