Womanist and African-American Theology and Thought

A Pope with Expanded Infallibility
Bernadette Brooten
Kraft-Hiatt Professor of Christian Studies, Brandeis University

On a beautiful spring day in 1972, I met Pope Benedict XVI. We sat facing each other in a seminar on papal infallibility in the medieval university town of Tübingen, Germany: Joseph Ratzinger, who was to become Pope Benedict XVI, and I, a young Catholic theology student. The teacher, Hans Küng, argued that the pope is not infallible, while Joseph Ratzinger, a guest in the seminar, argued that he is. I took upon myself the task of critiquing Prof. Ratzinger’s position on theological grounds—to his face. Papal infallibility is not grounded in Scripture or Church tradition, and it severely limits the pope from undoing past mistakes.

Today, Pope Benedict XVI has opportunities that probably even he didn’t dream of to expand papal infallibility. Indeed, during his time as a Vatican official, Cardinal Ratzinger extended infallibility to include the ban on the ordination of women and the invalidity of Anglican ordinations.

Born in Germany in 1927, Ratzinger was briefly a member of the Hitler Youth and later served as a soldier in World War II, but he deserted and ended the war as an American prisoner of war.

The new pope has always argued that the Church should stand for absolute truth vis-à-vis the state and society. As prefect of the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith--previously known as the Holy Office and before that as the Holy Inquisition--from 1981 to 2005, Cardinal Ratzinger censured and silenced a number of leading theologians, including Charles Curran, who argued for the morality of birth control, and Leonardo Boff, a Latin American liberation theologian.

Ratzinger’s 2000 statement, Dominus Jesus (“Lord Jesus”), raised grave concerns among both Protestants and non-Christians. In it, he defined Protestant churches as “ecclesial communities” that are not “Churches in the proper sense.” He further claimed that, because “followers of other religions…are in a gravely deficient situation,” the Church must “announc[e] the necessity of conversion to Jesus Christ and of adherence to the church through baptism and the other sacraments, in order to participate fully in communion with God.” Jews and followers of other religions have long asked that they not be made the objects of proselytizing.

He has strictly opposed Church acceptance and even civil rights for lesbians, gay men, and bisexuals. In1986, he actually placed the blame for violence against these groups upon calls for increased civil rights: “when civil legislation is introduced to protect behavior to which no one has any conceivable right, neither the church nor society at large should be surprised when other distorted notions and practices gain ground, and irrational and violent reactions increase.”

When the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops suggested in 1987 that condom use might be a “lesser evil” that could save lives in the AIDS crisis, Ratzinger insisted that, even as a lesser evil, people should not use condoms to prevent AIDS.

U.S. Catholics, still shaken by the clergy sexual abuse crisis, will wonder how Pope Benedict XVI will respond to it. In 2002, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, meeting in Dallas, passed a series of norms governing sexual abuse by priests, but later that year, a commission composed of four Vatican and four U.S. bishops, weakened these norms. The revisions included a narrow definition of sexual abuse as “external, objectively grave violations of the Sixth Commandment [i.e., adultery],” defining diocesan review boards of lay people as purely consultative, and limiting the requirement that bishops report allegations of the sexual abuse of minors to the civil authorities.

In Europe and elsewhere, citizens will be looking to see whether the new pope will accept a separation of church and state. He angered many by arguing that Turkey should not be admitted to the European Union, because it is an Islamic society, and that the new European Constitution should have referred to Christianity.

If papal infallibility strikes you as a fine point of encrusted Catholic dogma of interest only within the confines of dark and dank theological circles, consider the public policy implications.

Already, the Roman Catholic prohibition of condoms has led to countless deaths from AIDS. The prohibition on artificial means of birth control has contributed to overpopulation, with resulting poverty and damage to our ecosystems. Cardinal Ratzinger’s advice in 2004 that bishops consider refusing the eucharist to pro-choice Catholic politicians surely swayed some Catholic votes.  

If Pope Benedict XVI were to officially define as infallible any of the above teachings, he would be putting a strait-jacket on every future pope. In fact, that’s one reason that the dogma of papal infallibility is only 135 years old. When a Franciscan came up with the idea in the 13th century, the popes of his time opposed it, because they didn’t want to limit future popes.

But Ratzinger’s theology of an infallible papacy is not the only, or even the most traditional, Catholic theology.

Catholic theology is to take account of the “sense of the faithful” (sensus fidelium), that is, what the people of the church actually believe. No one can deny that numerous faithful Catholics disagree with the Vatican on questions of sexuality, but also on the value of other religions, and on the separation of religion and the state.

Many are now hoping against hope that room will remain in the Church for the best theological insights to become the top priorities: preventing child sexual abuse and not loving relationships between adult women or between adult men, opposing the death penalty rather than reproductive choice, and persuading the one superpower to renounce coercion as a means of defending the truth.