When Popes Make Mistakes
I shan’t be blogging for the next fortnight or so: I shall be in Gardone on Lake Garda attending a symposium organised by the Roman Forum on “Forbidden Topics: A Free and Rational Catholic Challenge to the Frightened Modern Mind”. I am hoping it will give me some ideas for future blog posts.
In the meantime, if you are still puzzling over the papal encyclical Laudato Sii, you may find this sermon by Fr George Rutler as helpful as I did. Fr Rutler is parish priest of St Michael’s in New York, and—like so many other purveyors of good Catholic sense—a former Anglican.
A museum curator showed me a contemporary copy of the papal bull Inter Caetera by which Pope Alexander VI divided the world between Spain and Portugal with a meridian. While not without effect, it was generally ignored. John Henry Newman’s letter to the Duke of Norfolk lists popes who were mistaken in certain policies: St. Victor, Liberius, Gregory XIII, Paul IV, Sixtus V, and St. Peter himself when St. Paul ‘withstood’ him.
Pope Urban VIII and his advisers, in the misunderstood Galileo case, inadequately distinguished the duties of prophecy and politics, and of theological and physical science. St. John Paul II said that ‘this led them unduly to transpose into the realm of the doctrine of the faith, a question which in fact pertained to scientific investigation.’ Father Stanley Jaki, a physicist, cautioned me against using the ‘Big Bang’ as theological evidence for creation. On a loftier level, the physicist Father Georges Lemaître likewise restrained Pope Pius XII from conflating the parallel accounts of the universe.
Father Lemaître pioneered the ‘First Atomic Moment’—contradicting the prevailing thesis of a cosmological constant, or ‘static infinite’ universe. Sir Fred Hoyle mocked it as the ‘Big Bang’ but the term now has lost its condescension. Lemaître told the pope: ‘As far as I can see, such a theory remains entirely outside any metaphysical or religious question . . . It is consonant with Isaiah speaking of the hidden God, hidden even in the beginning of the universe.’ It was like the counsel of Cardinal Baronius: the Scriptures teach us how to go to heaven, not how the heavens go.
Pope Francis’ encyclical on the ecology of the earth is adventurously laden with promise and peril. It can raise consciousness of humans as stewards of creation. To prevent the disdain of more informed scientists generations from now, however, papal teaching must be safeguarded from attempts to exploit it as an endorsement of one scientific theory over another concerning anthropogenic causes of climate change. It is not incumbent upon a Catholic to believe, like Rex Mottram in Brideshead Revisited, that a pope can predict the weather. As a layman in these matters, all I know about climate change is that I have to pay for heating a very big church with an unpredictable apparatus. This is God’s house, but He sends me the utility bills.
The first pope, from his fishing days, had enough hydrometeorology to know that he could not walk on water. Then the eternal Logos told him to do it, and he did, until he mixed up the sciences of heaven and earth and began to sink. As vicars of that Logos, popes speak infallibly only on faith and morals. They also have the prophetic duty to correct anyone who, for the propagation of their particular interests, imputes virtual infallibility to papal commentary on physical science while ignoring genuinely infallible teaching on contraception, abortion and marriage and the mysteries of the Lord of the Universe.