While this is not of direct concern for Episcopalians and other non-Roman Catholics, Pope Benedict's recent comments on Islam have caused many to wonder how an infallible person can take back something he said, or even quoted. This is not actually a concern, and no matter what you think of the Roman Catholic doctrine of papal infallibility, one can see that the present problems for the papacy do not conflict with that doctrine.
Specifically, in the context of a university lecture, Benedict XVI quoted a 14th century Byzantine Emperor who said
Show me just what Muhammad brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.
Does this quoted statement now become settled doctrine? By no means.
The idea that the Pope can make infallible statements did not get settled as policy for the Roman Catholic Church until 1870. That year the First Vatican Council ruled that when the Pope speaks "ex cathedra" on matters of doctrine that those statements are guided by the Holy Spirit and will not err. "Ex cathedra" means from the chair and it is used to refer to the Pope issuing a papal bull of decree in his role as successor to Saint Peter. The idea being that when Bishops are divided on an issue, the Pope can be trusted to settle matters of doctrine due to his unique role in leading the church catholic. The Pope's opinions on the weather or the Chicago Cubs chances at winning the series are not covered by the doctrine.
Only one such papal bull has been issued and that was Pope Pius XII's 1950 statement on the Assumption of Mary into heaven. Based not on scripture, but on traditional Roman Catholic teaching, this is the only statement any Pope has ever made claiming the infallibility of St. Peter's Office. Some have said that John Paul II strongly considered a similar statement on the ordination of women, but he did not do so and that is conjecture or rumor. The present Pope is considered unlikely to make any such "ex cathedra" statements.
So there is no problem with Pope Benedict taking back his words.
Over at Yahoo News
, they say that it is actually Christians who were most criticized by Benedict in his lecture,
Actually, the pope's talk was mainly directed against the West. He criticized modernist thinking that relegates religion to a "subculture" (a point on which many Muslims might agree), arguing that such thinking erroneously concludes that faith and reason can't coexist.
So where should all this head? The Rev. Dr. Martin Marty recently wrote,
Rather than point to the "evil and inhuman" nature of Islam's, Judaism's, Christianity's, Hinduism's, Buddhism's and other holy wars, the pope will serve better if he can still find dialogue partners in search of the good and human.
I think there are signs that the current occupant of the chair of Saint Peter does desire some sort of dialogue with those who wish to reclaim what is the best and brightest of their own faith tradition.
All religions have blood on their hands when we look through history. And even in looking to or own day, we are not without our guilt. Rather than looking to convert one another by the sword, we would do better to try to outdo one another in love and thereby win others over by Jesus' command to "love one another." That is one statement that all Christians agree is infallible, even if we don't always live up to it.
In the archives is the religion column Become a Christian Extremist
The Rev. Frank Logue, Pastor + King of Peace Episcopal Church