Pope Francis has won many fans among broad sections of the international media but there is one novel aspect of his papacy that has received less coverage. Francis is very keen on all of the most superstitious aspects of Catholicism. While most commentators in developed countries would smirk at ideas like demonic possession and guardian angels, Pope Francis has breathed new life into such dogma. This is no doubt related to the popularity of these idea in South America, Asia and sub-Saharan Africa (the centre of gravity within the Roman Catholic Church has increasingly been moving towards these geographies).
In 2014, Pope Francis provided official Vatican recognition for the first time to the International Association of Exorcists. Later in the same year, he also discussed his belief in guardian angels and admonished us to listen to the advice of these celestial messengers. More recently in 2015, with some fanfare, Francis opened holy doors in the Vatican. The faithful are told that by walking through these special doors, they may we awarded an indulgence to win early release from the fires of purgatory.
One obvious question that this raises, relates to how any Pope could possibly come to know that Yahweh releases people from purgatory early, because someone walks through a special door. There is no mention of this in scripture. No archangel visited the Pope to reveal this divine loophole. It appears that what happened was, some dude just made it up … and given that we are discussing the Roman Catholic Church here, we can be sure that it was a dude. Like Charlie Croker’s famous last line at the end of The Italian Job, it seems that a medieval Pope just spontaneously said, “Hang on a minute lads, I’ve got a great idea”.
Of course, there is no shortage of Roman Catholic doctrine that has no basis in scripture or revelation. For example, the immaculate conception wasn’t defined until 1854 and papal infallibility didn’t become part of Church teaching until 1869. The first time that these ideas were proposed must have been a fun meeting. I think we can picture a clerical equivalent of Shark Tank (the TV show that is called Dragon’s Den outside the USA). I can imagine the Pope carefully donning his finest millinery before offering a series of crazy ideas to a panel of bishops, until one piques their interest and becomes doctrine for the faithful.
The doctrine of papal infallibility remains part of Catholicism today, as described in Catechism 890 and 891.
Christ endowed the Church’s shepherds with the charism of infallibility in matters of faith and morals. The exercise of this charism takes several forms: “The Roman Pontiff, head of the college of bishops, enjoys this infallibility in virtue of his office, when, as supreme pastor and teacher of all the faithful – who confirms his brethren in the faith he proclaims by a definitive act a doctrine pertaining to faith or morals …
So only when the Pope is speaking ex cathedra (with the full authority of his office) does he then claim to be the only infallible human on earth. Personally, I’d have more confidence in Charlie Croker.
National Committee, Atheist Ireland
Secretary, Atheist Alliance International