The Pope has now apologized for his remarks on Islam. Most voices seem content.
Obviously, the reason that this controversy ballooned so quickly is that it was the Pope who said something about Islam. Sean Hannity and Ann Coulter can go on TV every day and say something careless or stupid about Islam, and no one bats an eye. No one has ever really suggested that they were infallible in any sense. They’re not really fatwa-worthy, when you think about it. When the Pope says something, though, he claims title to speaking on behalf of an entire faith.
OK, then, what about that “infallibility” thing?
Papal infallibility is one of the most widely misunderstood aspects of Catholic doctrine. It is not what a lot of non-Catholics seem to think it is — a license to be wrong for and on behalf of millions of Catholics around the world. In fact, it does not apply to everything the Pope says. For example, suppose the Pope is sitting in your living room one evening, and he looks across the room and asks you if you could pour him a glass from that jug of wine sitting over there; and suppose the “jug of wine” is actually a vase, and there’s no wine in it. If you’re a Catholic, you don’t have to pour him a glass of rancid flower water and pretend he’s right. In fact, I think you would still be within your rights as a Catholic if you politely gave the Pope the name of your optometrist, and then went into the kitchen to find him some wine. But I’m not a theologian or an eye care professional, so don’t quote me on the latter point.
According to official doctrine, the Pope is only infallible when he is reiterating already-established dogma of the Church, or when he is exercising Solemn Magisterium ex cathedra — making official statements from the throne of St. Peter which meet certain established conditions, one of which being that it cannot contradict previous dogma. The last instance which scholars agree upon as being a clear invocation of papal infallibility occurred in 1950, when Pope Pius XII defined the dogma of the Assumption of Mary. After that, there has been no clear use of it by any Pope.
So, even under Catholic dogma, a Pope is capable of making a mistake.
Before he ascended to the Holy See, Pope Benedict XVI was known as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, and in that guise, had received the nickname of “God’s rotweiler.” He had served as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith and dean of the College of Cardinals. It often takes awhile for a Chief Operating Officer — a position often occupied by rotweilers, though not necessarily “God’s rotweilers” — to grow into the role of Chief Executive Officer. Was the speech at Regensburg a CEO’s speech or a COO’s speech? Pretty clearly it was the latter — it was Joseph Ratzinger, God’s rotweiler, speaking within the comfortable confines of the lab of academia. But a Pope’s words are not so academic. Even if the drift of his message was as correct as anything a Pope can say — that faith and reason are bound together inextricably, and in that bond there is no possibility of a religious use for violence, no matter the religion — the world’s got a hair trigger temper at the moment, and it takes a CEO’s diplomacy to navigate it. If you want to call this an exercise of political correctness, you may if you wish — but the best CEOs know that it is not enough to be right 100% of the time — the market can still kill you if you say the right thing in the wrong way. That is the inevitable consequence of people and ideas banging up against each other in a competitive marketplace. Undoubtedly, in making his apology, the Pope carries this realization, too.