Last week’s New Republic remembered a horrendous event–the 1858 seizure by papal police in Bologna, Italy, of a six-year-old Jewish boy whose nanny had sprinkled him with water behind his parents’ back. The church, which had encouraged the “baptism,” refused to return the boy, and he grew up to become a monk.

The story is told in David I. Kertzer’s book The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara. “Pius IX is known today as one of the most retrograde pontiffs of the century, a petty man cloaking deceit behind piety and self-pity,” wrote reviewer Andre Aciman. “That the papacy declared itself infallible at around this time is a measure of how obstinate and beleaguered was the priest at the helm.”

Aciman’s dismissive reference to the doctrine of infallibility makes it sound like an act of vanity, tyranny, and desperation. Is the characterization fair? Is it sufficient? Or is it contempt by association? Chicago author Robert McClory has just published a book on infallibility, and I asked him what he thought.

Papal infallibility was, in fact, declared in 1870–12 years later–not by the pope but by the world’s bishops at the first Vatican Council, though the bishops were certainly giving Pius IX what he wanted. “It’s easy to look at it as an egomaniacal effort on his part to overwhelm everybody,” McClory reflected. “But in another sense, you can say he was seeing an unstable situation and he was being pushed.” A century of turmoil launched by the French Revolution had overturned the old order in Europe. “People were scared, and a lot of people were urging the pope and church to exercise their old authority. The church was the last vestige of authority in a world where everything was uncertain.”

McClory is a former priest who teaches journalism at Medill and until recently was a Reader staff writer. What drew him to his recondite subject was the Vatican’s 1995 announcement that the ban on the ordination of women must be considered an infallible teaching. “I had this emotional feeling, like a lot of Catholics do, that infallibility settles everything,” McClory said. “That when push comes to shove an infallible doctrine is not arguable, not appealable, not changeable in any way.” Yet McClory’s head told him the Vatican was wrong. The announcement had been made by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the office that guards orthodoxy, whose roots run to the Roman Inquisition. And some theologians were arguing that the CDF had abused the doctrine of infallibility, which perhaps had worn out its welcome. Obviously there was much here to understand that McClory didn’t, and he set out to educate himself.

McClory’s Power and the Papacy looks back to the 13th century, when Pope Nicholas III issued a bull, Exiit, urging the world to embrace the ascetic values of Francis of Assisi. But the Franciscan theologian Pietro Olivi couldn’t rest easy. A seer had predicted that a “pseudopope” would make an appearance and plot against Franciscanism. To preempt this Antichrist, Olivi argued that when a pope such as Nicholas III spoke definitively on a “matter of faith or morals,” he spoke infallibly as “Christ’s vicar.”

Olivi meant to tie the hands of any future pope scheming to overturn Exiit. But 14th-century pope John XXII renounced Exiit anyway and dismissed Olivi as a crackpot.

Coined to curb papal authority, infallibility became doctrine 600 years later to strengthen the pope’s hand. There must be a lesson in that on power’s adaptability. The New York Times lamented the Vatican Council’s “denial of the principles upon which the liberties of all the free nations of the world are founded,” and even some bishops shuddered. But McClory writes that millions of American Catholics were delighted. “These were the immigrants from Ireland and Germany and Austria…who almost daily encountered some vestiges of anti-Catholic bigotry. For them, this bold doctrine represented a kind of in-your-face rebuke by the Church–their Church–to the smug movers and shakers of the secular world.”

It’s not necessary to share their enthusiasm to acknowledge the appeal of immutable doctrine. People need absolutes from somewhere to frame their conduct, and religion’s an obvious source. In the courtroom, if justice inhabits this realm, each circumstance must be separately assessed and each punishment tailored to fit the crime. But sin is sin, whatever the circumstances that drove one to it. Perhaps, I said to McClory, there’s an ironic correlation between the relativism of our pulpits and the thirst for absolutism in our laws.

“Absolutism does not belong in laws,” he replied, “but it doesn’t belong in church laws either. You can be an absolutist, but you can’t be that way when you don’t have certainty. People like things to be black and white in some areas of life. They say, ‘At least with the church there’s not that degree of relativity.’ But there is relativity. God is a mystery. The church is a mystery. Jesus is a mystery. We can act as if we have an absolute grasp on things, but human language changes, our understanding of truth changes–and you can’t attach complete absolutism to anything human.”

Several years before Vatican I, Pius IX took infallibility, as it were, out for a test drive. He issued the bull Ineffabilis Deus, asserting the ancient notion of the Immaculate Conception and warning anyone who “shall dare to think–which God forbid–otherwise…that he certainly has abandoned the divine and Catholic faith.” It didn’t matter beans to most Catholics how the Virgin Mary had been conceived, and the bull sailed smoothly into dogma.

The ordination of women is different. It’s so vexing an issue that Power and the Papacy suggests an infallible ban on women priests is today theologically impossible. For McClory writes that according to doctrine, infallibility is limited by consensus and history. A pope can state infallibly only what the church has decided–and the fierce controversy over ordaining women shows that the church has decided nothing. (Contraception’s another contemporary issue that defies an infallible pronouncement.)

“A lot of Catholics think it’s a magical power the pope has,” McClory said. “But it’s not the pope. It’s not the bishops. It’s the church that’s infallible, basically. The pope is infallible if he’s teaching what the church believes.”

McClory asked me to turn to page 218. Here was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, John Paul II’s prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and emblem of Catholic conservatism, weighing in: “Where there is neither consensus on the part of the universal Church nor clear testimony in the sources, no binding decision is possible. If such a decision were formally made, it would lack the necessary conditions and the question of the decision’s legitimacy would have to be examined.”

McClory said, “I was stunned when I read it originally.” After all, it had been Ratzinger’s CDF that declared it “infallibly” true that women could not be ordained.

McClory’s thoughts turned to the present pope. “Somebody said that if you read his theology, it’s fine. He understands authority in the limited way theologians understand authority. But if you read his encyclicals, he exercises authority in an autocratic way.”

Maybe he wants to see what he can get away with, I said.

“A lot of people want to do that,” McClory observed. “We go back to Lord Acton. The theologians talk about creeping infallibility. It’s a very limited concept, but it’s like crabgrass. It gradually takes over the lawn.”

It was Lord Acton, of course, who observed in an 1887 letter to a bishop that “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” It turns out that he was speaking of the papacy, and that during Vatican I he’d channeled information leaked to him from inside the council to Europe’s most eminent critic of infallibility, whose pseudonymous accounts soon showed up in the press. Pius IX released several bishops from their vows of confidentiality and ordered them to investigate. The inside source was never found.

“My book is kind of a popularization,” McClory acknowledged, “so scholars will say it’s superficial. Most books on infallibility are unintelligible. There are huge footnotes and distinctions upon distinctions.”

I once won an argument with a Catholic relative who presumed the Immaculate Conception was Christ’s. And after years as a priest, McClory had to write a book on papal infallibility to figure it out. But it occurred to me while reading Power and the Papacy that if Catholics’ grasp of doctrine is sometimes shaky, that isn’t due to superiors conniving to keep the flock floundering in the dark. A lot of the doctrine is simply too marginal to faith for anyone to care about.

And when it changes, it changes. The church, McClory observed, is far more adept than the U.S. Supreme Court at breaking with the past. The court ties itself in knots trying to honor precedent while actually refuting it. As for the church, McClory told me, “We have a history of saying, ‘That’s misunderstood.’ They say, ‘It’s a different era and needs a new clarification.'”

A Reporter’s Concealed Weapon

An intriguing letter arrived on my desk. “Undercover Reporting Returns to the Tribune,” it began. “I am sure that you will not read that headline in the Chicago Tribune, but given all the comments and writings of former publisher Mr. Jack Fuller on the subject of undercover reporting and ethics, the recent story of Tribune reporters buying guns (12/29) on the Internet as they pretend to be someone else (certainly not reporters) is very interesting.

“Has the new publisher reversed Mr. Fuller?”

I called Melvin Claxton, who wrote the Tribune’s series, “Fire Sale: America’s Unchecked Gun Market,” with William Gaines. I asked Claxton about his undercover tactics.

“The gun was bought by a reporter using his correct name and address,” Claxton replied. As for employment, he wasn’t asked and didn’t tell. “We would have been very open about it had it come up. But we’d have had to introduce that element, volunteer the information. It was never an issue. We basically had nothing to hide. This was not an undercover operation.”

Should the reporter have introduced that element? To see what Fuller, who can be a little persnickety about journalism’s p’s and q’s, had written on the subject, I consulted scripture, his News Values: Ideas for an Information Age. I turned to part one, “The Fundamental Disciplines,” chapter two, “Deception and Other Confidence Games,” and then to the section, “Undercover Tactics.”

“Why should newspapers shy away from impersonation and undercover practices?” Fuller had written. “First, because in most cases there are other ways to get the information: deception is just a shortcut. Second, because it creates an environment that tolerates lying, which is highly dangerous for a journalistic enterprise. And third, because a newspaper’s strongest bond with its audience is the simple truth.”

But is reticence deception? Fuller made himself clear. “I do not believe that the journalistic obligation of truth-telling requires reporters to wear their press passes on their chests,” he wrote. “Newspaper reporters do not need to give Miranda warnings. Only if they have some reason to reveal their identities (on a job application, under questioning by authorities, or even perhaps when asked by another person) does the requirement of candor come in.”

I question some of Fuller’s strictures, which would have ruled out some of the Tribune’s noblest investigations. But they aren’t as extreme as the letter writer seemed to think. A change of doctrine wasn’t required before a reporter could buy a gun.

News Bites

“ComEd’s friends get rate break,” screamed the page-one Sun-Times headline on January 4. “The first beneficiaries of a new utility law pushed by Commonwealth Edison are members of the only business group that aggressively backed the utility giant’s lobbying efforts in Springfield,” the story began. Conditioned to expect most big news to be bad news, the unsophisticated reader presumed he was reading an expose of shameless favoritism, of powerful political allies belonging to the Illinois Retail Merchants Association paid off while the little guy continues to stagger under utility rates “that are among the nation’s highest.”

No way. Apparently the story made page one as an inspiring example of how so much is right with the world. The Sun-Times editorial page set us straight two days later. Hailing the rate break as “a reward for hard work done for a good cause,” the January 6 editorial pledged that “instead of wearing everyone out with the kind of predictable, anti-business carping you expect from some corners, we will save our criticism of ComEd for when it is really warranted.”

The Sun-Times had the decency to acknowledge that it belongs to the merchants’ association. Therefore it stands to benefit from ComEd’s action.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Robert McClory photo by Lloyd DeGrane.