A major theme of the papacy of Pope Benedict XVI is resistance to the “tyranny of relativism.” Relativism is seen as an attack upon the Infallible Magisterium of the Catholic Church – a modernist attack designed to destroy the Church. This essay will examine the concepts of relativism and infallibility to see if this is really the case.
The doctrine of infallibility has its roots in an almost Protestant bit of proof texting, where St. Peter is given the keys to the kingdom of Heaven, so that what is bound on Earth is bound on Heaven and what is loosed on Earth shall be loosed in Heaven. In other places this gift is given to the entire Church, but because Peter is reputed to have died in Roman, it is claimed he was its bishop and founder (the latter is definitely not the case, else Paul would have greeted him in the letter to the Romans) and has also been interpreted to refer to the forgiveness of sin rather than to the definition of orthodoxy.
In the early Church, the See of Peter was not regarded as infallible. Indeed, he did not stay in one particular place. Like Paul, he moved around before going to Rome, although his journeys are not chronicled in the New Testament canon. The claim of infallibility came later. Indeed, the first bishops were more likely those who presided over the Eucharist in a community that was more a parish than a diocese. It is a wonder the Church survived at all and it is testimony to the promise that Jesus would stay with it (or even her if you prefer) and Hell would not prevail against it.
Papal infallibility was actually first declared as doctrine by the First Vatican Council under Blessed Pope Pius IX. In recent times, the entire teaching Magisterium of the Church, including the actions of the Bishops, are considered infallible as well.
Is this really the case? While it would be glib to simply deny it is possible, I believe it must exist at some level. There are two ways in which it can occur.
The first is that the Pope and the bishops have some sort of cosmic access to truth so that they can never be wrong and that they are so careful in exercising it that nothing they within the context of the Magisterium can ever be reformed or changed, that it is based on natural law. This is the basis for its absolutism – a belief not only in the existence of absolute truth but in a superior grasp of it over and above what is available to the laity. In short, the Church is protected from committing error.
The second possibility concedes the existence of absolute truth, but does not concede the Church’s access to it. Rather than the hierarchy being protected from error, the faithful are protected from any errors in doctrine. They can trust that they will not be held responsible for any errors in the doctrine of the Church.
Such an interpretation is actually consistent with absolutist philosophy, which teaches that while absolute truth exists in the realm of ideas (or if you prefer, in the mind and Word of God), it does not exist in the human world in its purest form. If it did, time would stop because the absolutes would be laid bare. There would no longer be free choice, because all would be instantly attracted to the perfection of God, His Perfect Truth and their Perfect Love (aka, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit). Freedom exists precisely because God is hidden from us, although experiences of grace can make God present to us through the Sacraments of the Church, as well as individual grants of grace when most needed. The Church is still a channel of truth, but cannot claim its perfection since such perfection cannot be experienced in this life.
The essence of infallibility in this context is that it is dependent not on the absolutes but on their interpretation. This is the essence of relativism, which lodges truth in the life of the community and of the individual conscience (which is always seen as king, even in Catholic doctrine). Indeed, the spirit of prophesy, when understood in its ancient sense, is the criticism of the hierarchy by men and women based on the dictates of their consciences and the promptings of the Holy Spirit. While the faithful are protected from sin by following the teaching Magisterium of the Church, those who have been prompted by the Spirit to disagree, even at personal cost, are not allowed to keep silent. The Communion of the Saints is full of dissenters, some of whom were put to death by both the ancient kings of Judea and Israel and later by the Church for speaking in this way – and were later vindicated when their words proved to be from God.
There is no reason to believe that the process of purification in the Church has stopped. Indeed, recent events seem to indicate that there is much work yet to do. In this context, the promise that the Gates of Hell shall not prevail against the Church is not a promise that it will never be challenged, but rather that the Spirit of God will use men and women of conscience to speak the truth to it when it errs, just as Jesus promised when He said that there was more to be revealed through that Spirit.
In the current context, there will always be people like Pope Benedict to correct the errors of those like Cardinal Sodano, who would protect the reputation of the Church in its darkest days rather than bring it into the light. It is the reformers in the Church that fulfill the promise of divine protection, not those who would resist reform. It also means that no doctrine is unreformable, especially those which violate the command to love perfectly, as the Father loves perfectly. How to love perfectly is always a matter to be debated and that debate will shift as we further understand human nature and with it an evolving natural law, which in reality must be understandable by every person who can exercise the capacity for reason and love, not just the chosen few. One need only look to the history of the Church and the lives of the saints to know that this is, in fact, the case.