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Papal Inerrancy For All but Francis | Righting America

by Sean Martin

Sean Martin is a fifth-year theology doctoral student at the University of Dayton writing on Catholic fundamentalism and Scott Hahn. Sean and his wife, Beth, currently live in Cincinnati with their infant daughter, Gwen. Sean has an MA in philosophy from Georgia State University and an MA in theology from the University of Dayton. Currently, Sean writes, reads, teaches, and parents.

One of the more interesting aspects of transitioning (over the course of 20 years) from a fundamentalist Protestant to a somewhat liberal Catholic has been recognizing the different ways in which my fundamentalist past has begun showing up in my Catholic present. I recently was given an article that begun to articulate a particular hunch that I have been having concerning this very phenomenon in the form of what the author termed “Papal Fundamentalism.”

Photo of Pope Francis sitting on the papal chair in front of a microphone with his left hand held up to bless.

General Audience with Pope Francis by Catholic Church (England and Wales)

I cannot even begin to count the number of times in my youth and early adulthood that I referred to the Bible as the “inerrant” word of God. I was taught, and so I believed, that in this world of postmodern, relativistic thought, there was a singular source of objective truth that could be accessed by anyone willing to look. The Bible was more than just without any mistakes, a statement concerning the collection of every independent claim from scripture separately. It was inerrant, a claim concerning the status of scripture as a whole. Such a position raised the status of scripture nearing something like an equivalency with God. In fact, my sister-in-law (Jennifer Martin of Notre Dame) talks about a hymn she used to sing in her fundamentalist church growing up, the first line of which was, “Holy Bible, book divine.” It was comforting in a world that always seemed to cast every moral issue in shades of grey to have the complete, unblemished truth that I could carry around with me.

Like all of you, the past several months have been a tumultuous and difficult time for me in the wake of a wave of new accusations of sexual abuse by religious leaders. Along with the horrific accounts of systematic sexual abuse by Catholic priests in Pennsylvania, we also had the stories of Paige Patterson, President of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, and Bill Hybels, lead pastor of mega-Church Willow Creek. While there have been countless fantastic responses to the sexual abuse crisis in the Catholic Church and within Christianity at large, an overlooked consequence (granted, much less important than the suffering of abuse victims and the break of trust) is that the local church and the pastor, that which functioned as the moral and spiritual ground for the faithful, have been ripped away from them. As the Catholic Church has become more and more deeply mired in scandal and abuse, the Catholic laity have begun to find themselves adrift.

For many among the faithful, there was a phenomenon taking place within the Church that could provide direction in response to precisely such a problem. Adam Laats, of I Love You but You’re Going to Hell, in his post “Papal Fundamentalism,” briefly discusses the fairly recent trend of young, highly educated evangelicals converting to Catholicism. What these Catholic converts bring with them from Evangelicalism, as Jason Hentschel noted in his post “Might Makes Right,” seems to have been a predisposition for certainty, simplicity, and accessibility. Part of entering the Catholic communion, however, is a certain subordinating of scripture to the Tradition. That is, if one is looking for the firm foundation inerrancy is supposed to provide, they would need to look outside of the Bible.

For Catholics, the canon of scripture was set (and eventually closed) by the authority of the Apostles safeguarded in the tradition by the hierarchy in the form of Apostolic Succession. Instead of appealing to “book, chapter, and verse” from the Bible to settle moral, social, or political debate and confusion, it is the Tradition, specifically that which has been officially promulgated, that can provide for the Catholic what the Bible cannot. And, once we begin looking, we find that the discussions and argumentation of many conservative Catholics oftentimes treat the encyclical tradition (and a few documents from outside of that tradition like “Theology of the Body”) in a similar manner as that of Protestant Fundamentalists regarding the Bible.

A word from Humana Vitae is seen just as final in a debate concerning homosexuality in conservative Catholic circles as a reference from Leviticus is among evangelicals. Theology of the Body, incidentally not an officially promulgated document of the Church, is regarded just as complete and accessible among certain Catholics as the (alleged) straightforwardness of the Genesis creation account is assumed by Protestant fundamentalists. The Catholic Tradition, represented most definitively in papal documents, functions as the unassailable bulwark that an inerrant Bible is for conservative Protestantism.

There are, of course, some glaring exceptions. Somehow Rerum Novarum’s caution against the abuses of capitalism, for instance, rarely makes an appearance in the discussions of the moral stance of the Church among Catholics of this particular stripe. While there are a host of inconvenient aspects of this inerrant encyclical tradition, what is more striking is that papal fundamentalism seems to refer to the entirety of the papal tradition with the exception of Francis. Conservative American Catholics responded to Laudato Si with rejection and derision. He has been described as a liberal pope advancing a liberal agenda and, therefore, unworthy of Catholic trust. This rejection of Francis has become increasingly clear in the wake of the McCarrick scandal and the Vigano letter. John Paul II and Benedict XVI are protected at all costs (despite the fact that the overwhelming majority of priest abuse and cover-up took place during their tenures), yet Francis is further cast as a power-hungry despot.

Fundamentalism plays the same game no matter where it appears. You take what you want and shield it behind inerrancy and simplicity, rejecting anything and everything that is inconvenient. Francis, by all reasonable accounts, a man who cares about the poor and marginalized, in offering “…who am I to judge?” and an argument for the proper care and nurture of Creation, is just a bridge too far.

The Church and the Bible are quite simply too complex to be regarded as simple, too dynamic to be seen as entirely consistent, and too controversial for any Catholic to rest with comfortably. That is, the Tradition is complicated, constantly evolving, oftentimes troubling, and yet good. It is the home of both Francis and Benedict. Of Dei Verbum and Laudato Si. Of conservatives and liberals alike. And, in that very nature, Tradition rebuffs fundamentalism at every turn.