Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Why Bad Popes Don't Disprove Catholicism

Last week I was sent this meme and wanted to take a moment to share my response (and elaborate on it) here for others who might be presented with this line of attack. It is the old "hey, look this pope did something bad, so Catholicism is false" argument.

The meme basically makes three claims about Leo X. First, he was an immoral man. Second, he sold tickets to heaven to people who committed horrible crimes. Third, he didn’t believe in Christianity, he “let the cat out of the bag” that the whole Jesus thing is made up so for the wordily gain of those running the Church. Let’s look at each in turn, starting with the most damning claim, that the pope didn’t believe in Christianity.

Claim 1 - Pope Leo X Admitted Christianity is Made Up
This is, so the meme claims, “the most infamous and damaging state about Christianity in the history of the Church.” And so it certainly would be, except it was never said by Pope Leo X. I challenged the atheist who sent me the meme to find the original source where this quote originates, to show some evidence that this “most damaging” quote is true. Needless to say he declined to take me up on the challenge. 

The quote first emerges in history not from the mouth of Leo, but from the pen of (you guessed it) an anti-Catholic Protestant writer during the Reformation, John Bale, who, in his anti-Catholic play "The Pageant of the Popes," has the pope-character proclaim, 
"All ages can testifie enough howe profitable that fable of Christe hath ben to us and our companie." 

That’s right, it comes from an anti-Catholic propaganda piece. It would be like reading a movie script on the life of Martin Luther King Jr., written by Ku Klux Klansmen, reading where MLK says he too believes white people make up a superior race, and believing the real MLK said it. 

The quote has been popular in anti-Catholic Protestant (and now I suppose atheist) circles ever since. Which just goes to show that some people will believe just about anything as long as it attacks the Holy Catholic Church. There's no need to fact check sources, no need to see if the claim even makes sense, as long as it assaults Mother Church, some people will swallow anything. 

Claim 2 - Pope Leo X Allowed Evil People to Buy Their Way Into Heaven
It can’t be a surprise to any of my readers that our atheist meme creator misunderstands what an indulgence is and what it does. An indulgence doesn't earn someone "pardon from hell for such sins as murder, polygamy, etc" In fact an indulgence doesn't earn anyone "pardon from hell" for any sin. The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains indulgences nicely,

"An indulgence is a remission before God of the temporal punishment due to sins whose guilt has already been forgiven, which the faithful Christian who is duly disposed gains under certain prescribed conditions through the action of the Church which, as the minister of redemption, dispenses and applies with authority the treasury of the satisfactions of Christ and the saints." (1471)
Indulgences don't get people out of eternal punishment (hell), they merely remove some or all of the temporal punishment due to sins which have already been forgiven. An Indulgence will do a sinner no good for any unforgiven sins. Thus, indulgences merely allow someone who has already received forgiveness (normally through sacramental confession) to begin to "pay off" some or all of the punishment that is still due on their forgiven sins. It is basically a way to begin (and possibly complete) the process of purgation before death. Of course, the indulgence will do no one any good if they die in a state of mortal sin, in that case the sinner is damned - indulgence or no. In other words, indulgences can't get you into Heaven. Which means Leo couldn't have sold them to "pardon" people from "hell". 

Claim 3 - Pope Leo X Was an Immoral Man
The answer to this claim is... so what? Leo X isn't a saint, I know of no one who holds him up as a model of virtue or as a splendid example of a Roman Pontiff (although he did commission some fantastic art for the Church). The meme seems to think the immorality of Pope Leo is something to hold against Catholicism. This seems to be an example of the common confusion between papal infallibility (which the Church teaches) and papal impeccability (which the Church doesn't). Infallibility means the pope, when teaching officially as the pope on faith or morals, can teach without error. This is of no benefit to himself, it is a gift of the Holy Spirit to the Church for the faithful - through the infallibility of the Magisterium of the Church (which the pope can exercise by himself) the faithful can be certain the Church will not teach heresy. Impeccability would mean that the pope cannot sin. We don't believe the latter and Leo X is a good example proving it isn't true. Of course he isn't the best example, I can think of several other popes who outdid Leo - HBO's favorite, Alexander VI; the all-time worst pope Benedict IX, and a few others. That greatest of poets, Dante Alighieri, even puts a couple popes, including the one reigning while he wrote Inferno, in hell.

In the pit of the simonists Dante meets Pope Nicholas III who mistakes the pilgrim for Pope Boniface VIII:

Out of the mouth of each one there protruded
The feet of a transgressor, and the legs
Up to the calf, the rest within remained....

"Master, who is that one who writhes himself,
More than his comrades quivering,"
I said, "and whom a redder flame is sucking?"...

"Whoe'er thou art, that standouts upside down,
O doleful soul, implanted like a stake,"
To say began I, "if thou canst, speak out."...

And he cried out: "Dost thou stand there already,
Dost thou stand there already, Boniface?
By many years the record lied to me....

And truly was I son of the She-Beear,
So eager to advance the cubs, that wealth
Above, and here myself, I pocketed.

Beneath my head the others are dragged down
Who have preceded me in simony,
Flattened along the fissure of the rock.
(Canto XIX)

Popes, it turns out, are sinners in need of a savior just like the rest of us. They too must work out their salvation in fear and trembling and they too will be judged for how they lived their life. Christ promised the Church would not fail, he didn't promise a never ending parade of papal saints. That being said, the few bad popes we hear about here and there (and their "badness" is usually exaggerated) are absolutely overwhelmed by the number of truly holy men who have held the office of Peter. I can think of no other walk of life that has seen such holiness, from martyrs willing to die painful deaths for Christ, to great theologians, mystics, and men of heroic virtue the papacy has produced much more better fruit than it has bitter fruit. Pope Leo X might not have been among the saintly popes, he might even now be roasting in the fires of hell (although I certainly hope not - please join me in praying for the repose of his soul), but that is no stick to beat the Church with. You don't judge a medicine, to paraphrase Frank Sheed, by those who don't take it. And despite his many failings, Leo X never taught error - the one thing Christ promised the pope would never do.

In some ways, I must admit to wondering if the Holy Spirit didn't deliberately raise men like Leo X to the Throne of Peter. In Giovanni Boccaccio's Decameron (an Italian masterpiece written during the reign of a 'bad pope'), we read (in the second tale of the first day) of a Jewish man named Abraham who is friends with a Catholic - Giannotto di Civigni who wishes to convert his friend to the Faith. Abraham is a master of jewish law and a devout man who "had been born in (the Jewish faith), and intended to live in stand die in it." After many failed attempts to bring Abraham around, Giannotto finally begins to prevail upon his friend. Abraham finally tells him,
"Look here, Giannotto, you want me to become a Christian, and I am quite prepared to do so. So much so, that I want first to go to Rome and see him whom you call God's Vicar on earth, to observe the ways and customs of him and his brother Cardinals. And if they seem to me such that... I can come to see that your faith is better than mine... I will do what I have said. But if not, I shall remain a Jew."
Giannotto, who isn't exactly pleased to hear this proposal, thinks,
"I have wasted my labor, which I thought I had employed so well, in the belief that I had converted him. Now, if he goes to the Court of Rome and sees the filthy and rascally life of the clergy, not only will he not turn from a Jew to a Christian, but if he had turned Christian he would inevitably become a Jew again."
Not exactly a ringing endorsement of the Papal Court in Boccaccio's day. Unable to convince Abraham to change his mind and convert without seeing the pope, Giannotto despairs as he watches Abraham leave. Finally, after a long trip from Paris to Rome and back again, Abraham returns and meets his old friend. Upon asking what he thought of the clergy of Rome, Abraham replies,
"It seemed to me that God is very kind to them all. For, if my observation is of any value, I saw there no sanctity, no devotion, no good works or examples of life.... But it seemed to me that lechery, avarice, gluttony,... and worse were so much in grace... that I consider Rome a forge of devilish rather than divine labors. In my opinion your Shepherd... endeavors with all haste... to reduce the Christian religion to nothing and to thrust it our of the world."
Giannotto's greatest fears were founded after all it seemed. The 'bad pope' had proven too much for his friend to bear. Or had it? Abraham continues,
"Now, since I perceive that what they endeavor to achieve (the destruction of Christianity) does not occur, but that your religion continually increases and becomes brighter and more illustrious, I justly am of the opinion that the Holy Spirit is its support and foundation...now...nothing shall prevent me from becoming a Christian. Let us go to a church, and there I will be baptized."
Abraham realized that no human institution could possibly have endured the human weaknesses of the earthly leaders of the Catholic Church, yet the Church has prospered, has flourished, for 20 centuries. Any man-made institution would have long ago collapsed (as, in fact, every other institution from 20 centuries long ago has). The bad popes, in a strange way, prove the truth of Catholicism by proving the Church hasn't been sustained by human genius or greatness, but has grown despite the failings of her leaders. More than that, the bad popes, Leo included, might have sinned, but none of them - not one - ever used his position as pope to teach that those sins he liked were okay. Popes may have, for example, had sex, but none of them taught such behavior, even in a pope, was moral. The bad popes did the one thing Jesus promised all popes would do - never error when teaching faith or morals, although some of them certainly didn't practice what they preached. Jesus warned us about this and told us how to deal with such leadership,
you must be careful to do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach. (Matt 23:3)
Thus we see the meme fails to land a blow against the Holy Faith on any of the three charges it raises against it. One is an outright lie, another a complete misunderstanding, the last actually an argument for the Divine Institution of the Church.

I didn't get emailed the first 10 "know your popes" memes, but for some reason I'm guessing the holy lives of men like St. Gregory the Great, St. Leo the Great, or St. John Paul the Great are not listed among them. Atheists certainly have their fair share of men of less than heroic stature (Joe Stalin, Chairman Mao, Pol Pot, Fidel Castro, etc), but they don't seem to have the equivalent of those Catholics (the saints) who lived such inspiring lives. Maybe the creator of the meme hasn't considered the old idiom, "those who live in glass houses should not throw stones." Reflecting on that (and checking a fact here or there) might result in less mindless memes floating around cyberspace.

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