Does the Catholic Church today view Catholic authority as infallible? If it does, how can you justify evil acts by Popes? What about the Crusades and the Spanish Inquisition?
Well, first of all, infallibility doesn’t mean “never sinning.” It means “protection from error when speaking authoritatively.” Jesus did not promise that the leaders of the Church would never sin. Instead, He promised that the Spirit would guide them into all truth – and that’s a different thing.
As for the Crusades and the Inquisitions, there are several things to keep in mind here. First, these matters must be examined with as much genuine scholarship as possible. Some people put the death toll up to the millions when that many people weren’t even alive then! There are also many historical accounts that are agenda-driven and intended to disparage the Church. So, before anyone can truly assess what happened, he or she must get down to the actual facts of the matter.
Secondly, the mindset of all Christendom during this time was truly unique. Truth was not treated so cavalierly then as it is today. Riots took place when heresy was proclaimed! Conversely, the entire town of Ephesus erupted with celebration when the Council that was held there maintained that Mary was “Mother of God.” Nowadays, we can’t imagine responding to truth in that way, but that’s how vital it was to Christians who lived before the Enlightenment.
Thirdly, there was not the severe separation of Church and State back then that one finds today. When the two were interconnected, an act of heresy was an act against the welfare of the state. Today, we execute murderers and rapists for this reason. Back then, heresy and revolt against Church leaders was just as serious.
Fourthly, it is unfair to paint these events as unique to the Catholic Church. In the 16th century, Protestant England severely persecuted Catholics. Similarly, the Puritan witch hunts in New England were obviously out of control. Basically, no Christian denomination is immune from the coercion and undue zeal for the truth that is mistakenly presented as a singularly Catholic trait.
Fifthly, no one denies that abuses took place during the Crusades and the Inquisitions. As a Catholic, that’s just something we have to accept. But, none of these crimes were truly imbued by Catholic teaching. Instead, they were motivated by sin, or by the distortion and abuse of Catholic principles. Have there been sinners in the Church? Yes. There are sinners in every church, and very evil ones in fact. But Catholic doctrine has always remained undefiled, and any Catholic who acts contrary to this doctrine cannot be said to be a true representative of Her.
Finally, I must know: When are Christians going to forgive each other for the faults of the past? How many times must we apologize for the genuine abuses of the Church? The vast majority of popes and bishops throughout history have been good and holy men of God. It is unfair to discredit them, or the gift of infallibility that is unique to their office, based on the sins of a few.
Peace of Christ to you,
Nicholas Hardesty, WIMM Board Member
Director of Religious Education, Blessed Mother Catholic Church
Feel free to email your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org