The Humanevangelist: Conservative Catholics Wonder, Who Will Rid Us of this Turbulent Pope?

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The charming thing about the conservative sense of fairness is its flexibility. For conservative Catholics, the pope is the absolute and infallible head of their church … so long as what he says squares with their “natural” morality.

It was fine by them when John Paul II unleashed “God’s Rottweiler” on, as scholar John Caiazza enumerated in a First Principles piece, “various cadres of the Left, including feminists, pacifists, liturgical experts, anarchic radicals, and advocates of welfare expansion.” When the Rottweiler became Pope Benedict XVI and persecuted American nuns for helping the poor rather than protesting abortion, they continued to applaud. The poor Rottweiler exhausted himself chasing nuns and barking at condoms, so they excused him for not treeing the bishops who had conspired to shield child-molesting priests.

But let a new pope convene a synod that talks of welcoming gays and strays, and the very gates of hell come off their hinges. Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia, who didn’t attend, nevertheless spied the Devil’s handiwork in the synod from afar. Worse yet, according to Bishop Thomas Tobin of Providence, the Snyod was “Protestant” in character. Yowzah!

Those, however, are mere sneers. For a more thoughtful response to the synod, we turn to conservative Catholic and New York Times columnist Ross Douthat. In a recent  Sunday column titled “The Pope and the Precipice” he explains how the doctrine of infallibility means that Pope Francis is stuck with his predecessors’ proclamations, because to overturn even one would mean that none of the popes, Francis included, is infallible after all. Fair enough, and a neat bit of logical exposition.

Which is why Douthat’s conclusion is all the more shocking. “Conservative Catholics,” he writes, “can certainly persist in the belief that God protects the church from self-contradiction. But they might want to consider the possibility that they have a role to play, and that this pope may be preserved from error only if the church itself resists him.”

This is breathtaking. What Douthat bares in his conclusion is the kind of toxic idealism that underlies most of the world’s religious and political violence. It springs from logic of the neuron bomb: “God is perfect. Whatever God wants me to do therefore must be right. God wants me to defeat His enemies. Therefore, whatever I can do to defeat God’s enemies must be right.”

Thinking like this leads to inquisitions, assassinations, suicide bombings, and so on. I’m not suggesting that Douthat had any such thing in mind, but I do question how a magna cum laude graduate of Harvard could fail to see the implications in his coy call to action.

Then again, whoever accepts the notion that God is perfect has already demonstrated a logical failure. Traditional Christian theism holds that God is supremely and infinitely perfect in every conceivable virtue—all-knowing, all-powerful, and all-benevolent.

We are living proof that no such entity exists. Not, as is frequently claimed, because God gave us free will and then somehow magically switched off his all-knowingness so that he was surprised when we let him down. No, simply by existing we refute traditional theism.

Consider a supremely perfect God before creation. If in the next moment God creates something, it must be either perfect or imperfect. If what he creates is perfect, then God must have been less-than-supremely and infinitely perfect the moment before, because now more perfection exists. If what he creates is imperfect, then God has lessened the perfection in existence and thereby proven himself imperfect. What’s sauce for infallibility cooks the goose of perfection.

The point is not to refute all god-beliefs, but to discredit toxic idealism. Perfection is an abstract ideal. There is no reason to believe in its existence, much less to believe that anyone can tap into it for policy purposes here on earth. Secular versions of toxic idealism, like Hitler’s dream of a thousand-year Reich, or Marx’s fantasy of a utopian proletariat dictatorship, led to colossal horrors. But at the very least they were self-refuting.

Religion always puts the test of its validity off into the future. We cannot wait for heaven on earth. We have to make decisions now about how best to live with one another. To uncritically believe that “God commands x” or that “God wants me to do y” is to surrender moral responsibility. Talk about a way to throw open the gates of hell.