In a recent posting at his Christian Catholicism blog, Jerry Slevin points readers to William McDonough's Commonweal essay about Pope Benedict XVI and the issue of divorce entitled "Right the First Time." As Jerry notes, McDonough reports that Benedict is in the process of issuing his opera omnia. Nine volumes of his theological work have now been published.
The latest volume has a 1972 essay on the indissolubility of marriage, written when the then Joseph Ratzinger was a theology professor in Regensburg. The 1972 essay "had proposed that divorced and civilly remarried Catholics be allowed to return to Communion in some circumstances" (I'm quoting Professor McDonough here). As Professor McDonough notes,
In an important change, that proposal is conspicuously missing from the newly rewritten conclusion.
And so, as Jerry Slevin rightly concludes, what the emeritus pope is effectively doing with his revised essay, which is being published at a moment when the pastors of the Catholic church are now debating the question of pastoral reception of divorced and remarried Catholics and when there is strong support among the German bishopsfor pastoral leniency for such Catholics, is to put into play for Pope Francis the issue of the pastoral treatment of divorced and remarried Catholics.
Francis has been seen by many Catholics as advocating a more merciful, pastoral, church-as-field-hospital-for-the-wounded approach to this group of Catholics. As Jerry suggests, Benedict's yawing in the opposite direction raises the question, Which of our two popes is infallible?
In a follow-up posting about this issue, Jerry explains precisely how the "myth of personal infallibility" plays into the discussion of this issue and the issues of contraception and homosexuality, as magisterial teaching addresses these issues:
The single most pernicious ideological obstacle a billion Catholics face, in my view, is modern popes' unrelenting drive to protect their self interested myth of personal infallibility. This myth overwhelms all contrary historical and scientific evidence and even human decency on so many issues and unnecessarily harms millions of women, children, couples, gay folks, divorced and remarried, et al. . . .
Of course, papal infallibility is a "power myth" mainly invented by Pope IX in 1870 in the face of loss of his kingdom, the Papal States, to Italian nationalists under Garibaldi. Subsequent popes have maximized the myth to enhance their power. Will Pope Francis reverse directions?
This sounds right to me. Though no pope has ever been willing to proclaim that magisterial teaching on the issue of contraception, of how the divorced and remarried are to be dealt with pastorally, or on homosexuality is infallible teaching, for all intents and purposes, a large number of lay Catholics understand magisterial teaching about these issues to have been infallibly declared. And so the bind facing Paul VI when his advisory commission on birth control strongly counseled him to reverse official Catholic teaching on artificial contraception was that he (rightly) saw that such a reversal would undermine what people think of the papacy.
It would undermine the myth of infallibility, of the quasi-infallibility of every statement a pope makes — a myth on which both Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI freely capitalized as they silenced one theologian after another for dissenting about these issues and the issue of women's ordination. And now, as Jerry points out, the emeritus pope is putting Francis himself in a bind: if he carries through on his presumed intent to make the church more pastorally accountable, especially vis-a-vis divorced and remarried Catholics, he'll appear to be undermining the myth of infallibility in the case of the emeritus pope.
What Francis chooses to do with this bind will have long-lasting, radical ramifications for the future of the church and its viability in the 21st century.