Reams have been written about the notions of truth and ideology, the latter word being extremely ambiguous and difficult to define with any accuracy. Many of us grew up in the latter half of the twentieth century, only a few years after the demise of Hitler and Stalin. The absolute nature of authority could only be subordinated to the use of critical reason. The tragedy of Germany could have been avoided had this highly cultured people been more critical of the lie that was constructed on Hitler’s conspiracy theory concerning the Jewish people and their purported role in the outcome of World War I in 1918. The whole tragedy hinged on a notion of infallibility of the one with authority: Der Führer hat immer Recht, Il Duce ha sempre raggione, Russian clocks are always right, and so forth. We are reminded of the absurd episode in 1870 when Pope Pius IX notoriously exclaimed “Tradizione! La tradizione son’ io!” in response to objections made by Cardinal Filippo Maria Guidi of Bologna. The idea in the Pope’s mind was perhaps inspired by Louis XIV as he in his turn affirmed L’Etat c’est moi. The idea returns again and again, even in a Don Camillo film in which the Communist major Peppone answers an objection by saying that the only authority he knew was the People, and he was the People. Surely, this was written as a satire to this constant claim to absolute authority.
It is in this context that I have readily read Döllinger’s famous book on the Pope and the Council and the English translation of August Bernard Hasler’s Wie der Papst unfelbar wurde (how the Pope became infallible). One of the greatest intuitions of the Modernists was historical criticism, using our reason in matters requiring such.
In the Roman Catholic Church, the ideology of infallibilism rears its ugly head from time to time. This morning, I found Fr Hunwicke’s article The pope and the Spirit. He as a Roman Catholic priest has to be careful what he says and is bound to assenting to the definition of Vatican I in the way Newman worked it out. We Anglicans are free to affirm that papal infallibility is abject nonsense and discredits the very notion of faith if allowed to stand. After the brief ray of light from 2005 until 2013, a period that paralleled the pontificate of Benedict XIV in the eighteenth century, we are back to the nonsense of the cult of the Pope, at least in the minds of some.
Looking at Fr Hunwicke’s article and his reference to one Monsignor Pinto, I would imagine that such buffoons are in the minority, even in the Roman Curia. Many simpler people can be brought to believe in the mumbo-jumbo of Wiccan witchcraft and in the most irrational. The cult of the Pope is a very real drift in popular religion leading to absurdity and the caricature of itself. Infallibilism is a perfect apologia for atheists and most people who have concluded that it was all nonsense. Evelyn Waugh perfectly portrayed it in Brideshead Revisited and the contrast between Charles Ryder, Rex Mottram and Brideshead who was the sanctimonious git who had tried his vocation with the Jesuits.
The rational defence of faith is called apologetics, establishing the credibility of a proposition. Such a discipline is largely exhausted, and Modernism in the 1890’s and 1900’s was designed to try to clean up apologetics through the use of historical criticism and contemporary scientific knowledge. Both historical criticism and scientific knowledge has progressed since then. Faith and mystical experience are above such empirical criteria, but not the notion of the leader being infallible. It is always the drama of mysteries being beyond and not against reason. It is an insult to be asked to believe in something that is absurd and patently wrong.
We have certainly arrived at a historical watershed at which the whole notion of Church and faith will be rejected or understood in a way that can resist the criticism of materialism and religious fanaticism. Where is it all going to go? Good question…