Papal Fallibility


Published March 18, 2009, issue of March 27, 2009.
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Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was not universally welcomed when he became Pope Benedict XVI in 2005. Four years into his reign, the doubters’ fears are becoming steadily more understandable. The papacy does not lie easily on his shoulders. He is a scholar trying to be an inspirational leader, an ideologue trying to be a healer, a staunch conservative trying to guide a reformed, post-Vatican II church.

Still, for all his seeming weaknesses, this pope has one overriding redeeming quality: He can see when he’s been off base, and he knows how to apologize. That’s more unusual than it seems. Catholic doctrine deems popes infallible. The idea of a papal apology sounds almost like a contradiction.

The last pope, John Paul II, made an art out of apologizing, but he was apologizing on a grand scale for past misdeeds of Christendom: oppressing indigenous peoples, degrading women, persecuting Jews. Benedict’s apologies, by contrast, are for his own fumbles. In 2006 he declared himself “deeply sorry” for any offense taken by Muslims from a speech in which he spoke — or at least sounded like he was speaking — of Islam as a violent religion. Now, on March 11, he apologized for the bungled way in which he revoked the excommunications of four renegade clerics without bothering to learn that one of the four, Richard Williamson, was an open Holocaust denier. Letting the denier slip through undetected was an “unforeseen mishap,” the pope said.

The incident unleashed an “avalanche of protests,” leading to “a discussion more heated than any we have seen for a long time,” the pope said in his statement. For that reason, his apology was not just appropriate but necessary. What he lacks in tact, it seems, he makes up in humility.

It would be nice to think that this clears the air between Benedict and the Jewish community. But the relationship is troubled in more ways than one.

Under John Paul II, the Vatican acknowledged that Judaism is a living religion and that the Divine covenant with the Jewish people was recognized as still valid. Benedict’s gaffes suggest that he’s having trouble absorbing that message, however much he affirms it in public. It was he who drafted a paper in 2000, while he was still top church theologian under John Paul II, declaring that the Catholic Church was still the only path to redemption — as though nothing had happened in the past 40 years. More recently, as pope, he revived a Good Friday prayer that calls straight out for the conversion of Jews and was part of the Latin Mass.

Let’s be clear: It’s not for us to tell the Catholic Church what to believe. We’re concerned with what it does. For centuries on end the Catholic call to convert the Jews resulted in unfathomable acts of anti-Jewish violence and persecution. Vatican II was supposed to put an end to all that. Rolling back the reform, even a little, can only be a source of alarm.

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