Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Infallibility, However Much It Hurts

One of the comments to this piece of Fr. Z's about Francis Cardinal Stafford stepping down as Major Penitentiary of the Apostolic Penitentiary (not the Big House) led me to read The Year of the Peirasmòs - 1968 by Cardinal Stafford. It was published on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of Humanae Vitae, and deals with the howls of dissent from within the Church that greeted Pope Paul VI's encyclical in 1968.

Cardinal Stafford describes his experiences in 1968 as a priest who, having seen through his ministry "the bitter fruits of the estrangement of men and women," and of the separation of the unitive and procreative aspects of sexuality, dissented from the dissenters. "The summer of 1968," he recalls, "is a record of God’s hottest hour. The memories are not forgotten; they are painful. They remain vivid like a tornado in the plains of Colorado. They inhabit the whirlwind where God’s wrath dwells. In 1968 something terrible happened in the Church. Within the ministerial priesthood ruptures developed everywhere among friends which never healed. And the wounds continue to affect the whole Church. The dissent, together with the leaders’ manipulation of the anger they fomented, became a supreme test. It changed fundamental relationships within the Church. It was a Πειρασμός [peirasmòs, in Greek, "trial," "test," "temptation"] for many.

As I read, I was struck by a few lines (emphasis added):
...the Papal Commission sent its recommendations to the Pope. The majority advised that the Church’s teaching on contraception be changed in light of new circumstances. Cardinal Shehan [archbishop of Baltimore] was part of that majority. Even before the encyclical had been signed and issued, his vote had been made public although not on his initiative.

As we know, the Pope decided otherwise.
This is not the first I had heard of the findings of the papal commission, but it is the first time I have received this fact with such force. Here is a striking proof that the Church is not purely a human invention, and that therefore her visible head on earth cannot err in matters of faith and morals. If she were, then no doubt the Pope would have bowed to the papal commission's recommendations, and swung into line with increasingly vocal and strident public opinion on the subject of birth control. But instead, he stuck to the Truth, in spite of the cost -- and the cost was indeed appalling, as Cardinal Stafford describes.

Yet the harm done was not the product of the Pope's teaching, but of the actions of those who refused to listen to him. Cardinal Stafford describes the ruptures within the clergy resulting from the preference on the part of many for their own opinions over the teachings of the Magisterium. And today we are reaping the bitter fruits of the Sexual Revolution: abortion raised to the level of a constitutionally guaranteed right; burgeoning illegitimacy; the tidal wave of crime and other social pathologies stemming from fatherless families; the appalling degradation of women; the destruction of marriage as an institution that protects children.

Nevertheless, the loss is not total, thanks to a Pope who -- despite his faults and mistakes -- stood by the Truth, so that his prodigal sons and daughters would at least have a beacon to light their way back home once they came to their senses. The moment of Humanae Vitae's publication ranks with Clement VII's decision not to grant Henry VIII his hard-fought-for divorce from Catherine of Aragon, even though so many prominent persons were in favor of it, and even though he knew it would be the excuse for England to enter into schism. Moments like these prove that the Holy Spirit guides the Church, and that however close to the edge of the abyss He may allow her to go, He will never let her fall in.

This is the reason the Pope is infallible on questions of faith and morals: not for his own personal aggrandizement in the eyes of the world (of which Paul VI enjoyed precisely none on this occasion), but so that Faith and Truth may be preserved inviolate.

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