Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 23 September 2014

Does Pope Francis really represent break from past?

Pope Francis
Pope Francis

The Guardian suggested yesterday that Pope Francis "appears to have renounced papal infallibility".

But what would the Guardian know about infallibility, other than its own sense of certainty when proclaiming in any conflicted situation that the truth lies exactly mid-way between any two extremes?

Papal infallibility doesn't mean that the Pope is always right. If he were, he'd be under siege to divulge who'll come out on top in this weekend's skirmish between Ireland and the All Blacks.

All right. Bad example. The type of thing you'd want the Pope to use the infallibility on would be whether the Haass talks will achieve anything. Okay, another bad example. But you get the picture. The concept of infallibility was neatly defined in the Derry Diocesan Catechism some few decades ago: "It means that the Pope cannot err when he defines a doctrine concerning faith, or morals, to be held by the whole Church."

We'd know the Pope was in "cannot err" mode, because he'd make this plain himself, delivering his pronouncement "ex cathedra", literally "from the chair", ie from the Throne of Jupiter (or "Throne of Peter", as it was relatively recently renamed as part of the spray-painting of Christianity onto venerable pagan beliefs.)

Thus, when John Paul II remarked that the Church had no power to create women priests, because the ban was based on infallible teaching, the consternation of liberals was somewhat assuaged by clarification from the American Jesuit Allen Dulles that the Pope had not been speaking infallibly when he referred to the infallibility of the ban. Theologians? You couldn't be up to them.

There's one aspect of faith that is always a matter of infallibility and that's the canonisation of saints. Otherwise, they would be the possibility of someone being promoted to sainthood and later relegated back to ordinary good person status, then perhaps restored to sainthood a second time, becoming a yo-yo saint, an other-worldly Crystal Palace.

So, popes have to choose saints with care; individuals whose lives were marked by heroic virtue and whose presence in heaven can be confirmed by convincing evidence that they'd persuaded God to perform a miracle, or two – in fact, two – back on earth.

It is equally important that the saintly life should exemplify behaviour that all the faithful ought to follow. Dying for the faith comes squarely into this category. (The idea of martyrs' instant transportation into paradise was later taken up by a tendency within Islam.) Saints are commonly selected to make a particular point at a particular time. The case of the Italian Maria Goretti is, or was, well-known in Ireland. She died in 1902 in circumstances as heroic in secular as in religious terms – killed by an assailant at the age of 11 when she resisted rape. Many thousands of women through the ages have perished in the same horrendous circumstances and have never been considered for sainthood. But, in 1950, Pius XII was conducting a crusade against what he saw as growing licencentiousness in the post-war world. The tragic child from 50 years earlier will have seemed heaven-sent.

Proclaiming her saint before a claimed 300,000 congregation in St Peter's Square, Pius put it up to Catholic youth: "Young people, pleasure of the eyes of Jesus, are you determined to resist any attack on your chastity with the help of grace of God?"

The canonisation fuelled a major drive in Ireland to turn back an already-discernable rising tide of sexual self-sufficiency. Over the next 20 years, thousands of female infants across the land were named after the new saint. Check out any Gorettis you know. You will find they are all between 50 and 60 (which is not to deny – phew – that some could easily pass for 40.) The relevance of rape is brought into focus again by a fierce campaign currently being waged in support of the candidacy of Junipero Serra. The campaign plans to make much of the 300th anniversary of Serra's death next Sunday.

A Catalan Franciscan, in the 17th century he founded one of the first Christian missions among native Americans. His regime was characterised by enslavement, torture, mass murder and rape.

The native American population was eventually virtually exterminated, shot in their hundreds, hunted down with dogs, women of all ages violated, then cast aside for killing. This is how white America was made. The canonisation of Serra would implicitly declare that that's okay now, no need for angst, or agonising, all heroically done for the glory of God.

Whether the evil campaign is now snuffed out, or proceeds towards success, will be a telling measure of whether Francis (left) really represents a break from the past.

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