Carl Benjamin, aka Sargon of Akkad, tweeted me to ask if there have ever been any Popes who were mad. I will call him Carl here because his name is public, and we’ve chatted before, and it feels more intimate and less ostentatious. So:
Carl: To be honest I don’t have a comprehensive history in front of me nor in my head but there were certainly multiple terrible men in the papacy in its 2000 year history and doubtless there will be more in the next 2000 years. Men do go mad and Popes are, after all, men.
Has a madman ever sat on the English throne? Was he any less King? How do you think Richard III got away with killing those two Princes with no on-record witnesses by the way? If Queen Liz grabs one of the Royal Guard’s guns and starts wildly shooting while screaming that she declares war on Sweden, is she any less the Queen? Does everyone in England have to start knifing any Swedish tourists they spot? (Well do it anyhow, no one likes the Swedes.)
Yes, there have been men in the Papacy who should never have been there. Welcome to large institutions involving humans.
We orthodox Christians have this theological idea that all human beings are broken, and few achieve Sainthood in this life. And you might have noticed by now that not all Popes or Patriarchs or whatever are recognized as Saints, let alone your average Bishop or Priest. Hey guess what, if you look around, you’ll find out there have been priests who’ve murdered, raped, embezzled, got caught screwing a boyfriend or girlfriend, got involved in dodgy politics or organized crime, and other things that any other human being might fall prey to.
There’s this thing we Christians call “temptation.” You might want to look up what we think it does to people. There’s some ancient wisdom there. “All fall short” is another phrase you might look into. Our priests are human you know. We try our best to love them because most of them have sacrificed a lot for us, and been subjected to a lot of hate on our behalf. The priesthood is also a position of complete submission, you know. I’m amazed more people can’t see that.
Anyway, this is all easily verified with authoritative Church sources: the Popes are “infallible” on spiritual matters only. Furthermore, he’s very tightly bound: he may not contradict the body of Bishops called the Magisterium, and he may not contradict the Deposit of the Faith, which includes the Catholic understanding of the Bible. He may also not contradict previous Popes. If he does any of that, he’s in error and has possibly excommunicated himself and probably requires us to figure out how to talk him back into his senses or get a new Pope.
Oh and on top of all those conditions above? He must state clearly that he is speaking on the authority of the Roman Papacy, i.e. “Ex Cathedra” (look it up) and not simply giving an informal opinion.
In other words, from a certain perspective, that doctrine of infallibility is more a burden than anything. He’s got assistants who have to run around after every public utterance assuring reporters that whatever just came out his mouth was not some new Official Doctrine. The Pope has to constantly measure his every word for fear that some dolt will take every stray remark as an announcement of a new policy. Like recently, when it was hailed as a “radical shift” that Francis said “who am I to judge?” on the question of a gay priest. No that wasn’t a shift at all, that’s Catholic 101. If you’re you’re in the habit of judging other individual person’s sins, you’re Catholicking wrong.
So it’s hard to know what to say to weirdo Atheists and Protestants who seem to think, “the Pope just said his farts smell like roses, so Catholics must believe that now.” (I mean, I guess he wouldn’t lie, but do I have to note it in my Catechism? I don’t think so.)
If the Pope remarks tomorrow that Pi=3.2, I assure you I won’t be believing it, OK?
By the way, if you look at the Eastern or Oriental or Assyrian Orthodox, the answer here would be the same for all practical purposes for their Bishops, Archbishops, and Patriarchs. While they have no clear doctrine of infallibility for any of their particular Patriarchs, the issue does come up: if the Patriarch of Romania declared something dogmatically true, everybody would have a really long pause at least. So that’s why those guys are also careful what they say, so no one mistakes their every word for Authoritative Church Teaching. If the Patriarch of Constantinople (did you know he still exists by the way?) says “I hate thunderstorms, they are terrible” all Orthodox are not required to curse rainstorms, and storm-chasers may continue their hobby.
I must say that as a fellow student of history, I am stunned by how young people such as yourself are not at all educated on the complexities and subtleties of these things, as they’re not really all that complicated or hard to understand. The truth is, the history of the Church is, in a very real way, the history of Western Europe. So even if you remain a committed atheist, I suggest that you lose whatever ancient Anglican prejudices you have, and let me give you some historical reading that might make even an English atheist say, “Well all right, I might have some respect that Catholic Church after all, for both its history and the good works it still does, even if I don’t see any sense in this God business or agree with them on everything. They aren’t just primitive savages, and they do represent some pretty functional values even if I don’t share all of them.”
I think it’s time you atheists took a critical look at yourselves, applying some of that skepticism you’re so proud of to yourselves. Also maybe search yourselves, and re-examine whatever ancient prejudices you inherited or whatever old grudge you have against some religious persons who abused you. Reducing ancient Christianity to crayons and coloring books just makes you look shallow at best.
Because the truth is? Looks like you atheists are removing yourselves from the gene pool, for the most part. I think we’ve reached Peak Atheism, as people like me and things like the anatheism movement become more numerous. I hear regularly from former atheists, or people who are only pretending to be atheists, nowadays. Atheism makes no coherent logical sense to many of us. You may disagree, but we’ve as much right to think you daft as you think us. Either way, we might have ideas and insights we can exchange that are still profitable.
Like it or not, the religious will not go away in your lifetime. Or ever. Increased atheism has just brought on increased secular cults, which have grown like weeds since the New Atheist craze of the early 2000s. Now we have a wave of kids educated on shallow atheist and nonreligious leaders for most of their religious education, and it doesn’t look that’s given us the promised “more enlightened” society to me.
Isn’t it time the so-called “Rationalist” community consider the empirically obvious? If the religious are with us forever, shouldn’t we learn how to talk to the religious as something other than retarded children, scientific specimens, or a problem to be eliminated? Might we even identify religious people with whom we have substantial common ground?
By the way, did you know that Queen Elizabeth II’s reign has seen one of history’s most significant changes? Some within The Church of England are now openly in communion with Rome. Biggest shift since Henry VIII. Don’t you at least find that fascinating?
PS: I’m writing a book on all this. Want to talk about it? Looks like Professor Eve Keneinan and I will be working together on another book, too. Would love to tell you about it.
*-Edited after publication to fix some grammatical issues and clarify points. It’s my blog and I can do what I want. These are all draft chapters for the book anyway.