Roman Catholics and Protestants don’t get along so well. Personally, the whole fight bores me, but there it is. Point being, the following is not meant to be a jab at Papists as such, but just a think I had over the weekend.
On a friend’s blog, a person commented (in the context of a discussion of theological epistemology) “I’d rather [let the Pope interpret for me] than be my own pope (paraphrased so I don’t have to bore you with a verbatim exposition of the context.).” Now, I expect (and sincerely hope) that there is more to the doctrine of the infallibility of the magistracy than that, but based upon that expression, I’d like to point out what seems to my limited understanding to be a fundamental flaw in this doctrine.
It’s a simple matter of logic, mostly. Circular arguments reveal two things: either ignorance and laziness, or the god of the arguer. Assuming this to be true (and we’ll drop the laziness accusation for the time being), the Christian who wishes to declare that the Pope (or the Church magistracy in general) is infallible in matters of interpretation, doctrine, and praxis, faces an unpleasant conundrum. Either…
1. The Pope is God (or the Church magistracy collectively). Given that the Pope and the rest of the magistracy are men, this is simple idolatry (and has worked as a fine Protestant straw man for, oh, ever). No Roman Christian I know would want to say that. However, saying that the Pope or magistracy are the “voice of God” or something of that nature, while it may alleviate the problem somewhat, begs the question: “Says who?” If your answer is “the Pope”, then you are right back where you started. If you point to Scripture, you face an alternate problem.
2. Using Scriptural exegesis to defend the infallibility of the magistracy is self-defeating. Who interpreted that Scripture in order to prove that point? That’d be you, pilgrim.
If the Pope is infallible in his Scriptural interpretation “just because”, then he is your God. I understand the desire to have a simple, definitive answer to questions of exegetical accuracy and authority, but naming some guy (however eminent) as the infallible interpreter only moves the problem to a different location (off of yourself and onto a bishop), much like some evolutionists who answer the question “So, where did the primordial ooze come from?” with “From outer-space, sucka.”.
Claiming complete personal exegetical autonomy (as some radical protestants do) is just the flip-side of the idea of Papal infallibility: Both are intellectually lazy and morally arrogant, desiring a simple answer with no gray areas, and having the foolishness to actually think that the world that God has made is really simple enough for us to delineate it out to the last detail.
As usual, it seems that the answer lies in the communal gray area between an egalitarian chaos and a top-down absolutism: You know, that place that requires us to play well with others.