The advent of the 24/7 news cycle has led to an explosion of opinion in which politicians, former politicians, opinion leaders and other celebrities prevail. There is simply not enough hard news to fill the allocated hours on talk radio or such television outlets as Sky News and ABC News 24.
Most people can talk with some authority about contemporary politics. However, this is not the case with some other subjects, which require a degree of expertise if a commentator is to make sense. Yet, this constraint does not necessarily bother panellists on such shows as Paul Murray Live (Sky News) or The Drum (News 24). It is often a case of – have panel chair, will comment.
The resignation of Pope Benedict XVI is a case in point. This took the international media by surprise. Yet this should not have been the case. In fact, the Pope had raised this very matter in his conversation with Peter Seewald, which was published under the title Light of the World (2010). It was known that Benedict XVI had prayed at the tomb of Pope Celestine V, who had resigned as pontiff in 1294. I referred to Seewald's book in this column shortly after it was published.
The Pope's resignation led to considerable comment, some of it ill-informed and much of it ideologically driven. Let's start with the invincible ignorance. As anyone who has an awareness of Christian theology understands, the doctrine of papal infallibility does not mean that the Pope is always right, still less divine.
The dogma of papal infallibility was defined by the First Vatican Council in 1870 and reaffirmed by the Second Vatican Council half a century ago. It means that the Pope cannot commit error when speaking as the Vicar of Christ on earth on specific matters of faith and morals. There are few pronouncements where the pontiff invokes his infallibility and Benedict XVI did not do so.
This concept led to enormous confusion in the media. On Paul Murray Live last Thursday, business journalist Janine Perrett supported the Pope's decision to retire but raised the question: ''Is he still infallible if he admits he's got health problems?'' The consensus of the panel was that the Pope had acknowledged his fallibility. This is complete nonsense.
In The Sun-Herald last weekend, Peter FitzSimons quoted with approval a mocking question from a reader who commented: ''When a man is elected Pope, according to Catholics, he becomes infallible, so what happens when he resigns? Does he lose his infallibility?'' The fact is that there can only be one Pope and he only claims infallibility on rare occasions – the last such occurrence took place in 1950.
On The Drum's panel last Tuesday, FitzSimons (who declares himself an atheist) claimed that the doctrine of infallibility means ''the Pope can do no wrong''. Not so. On the same night on the Sky News Showdown program, Peter van Onselen moved into invincible ignorance territory, suggesting the Pope is ''God on earth, virtually''.
Van Onselen (who declared that he is not religious) was corrected by Liberal Party frontbencher Christopher Pyne, who pointed out that Benedict XVI was regarded by Catholics as God's representative on earth. That's different. Commentators on Catholicism should understand that, according to Catholic teaching, the Pope is affected by the fall and, consequently, is a potential sinner. He's not divine.
Later in the program, Julian Morrow, one of Australia's foremost sneering secularists, joined with van Onselen and Murray in mockingly suggesting that the Pope had made a mistake. No one had any idea what they were talking about.
Similar ignorance was evident on Q&A in October 2010 when Geoffrey Robertson, QC, the author of The Case of The Pope (2010), asserted that ''the Catholic Church avoids prosecution [in sexual abuse cases] because it deals with these matter under canon law''. In fact, the church's canon law has no remit within such secular nations as Australia. None whatsoever.
It came as no surprise when there was all but a chorus of comment on the ABC (these days, a conservative-free zone) calling for the new pontiff to embrace same-sex marriage, female ordination and the like. This overlooks the fact that the Catholic Church is a conservative institution and is based on voluntary membership.
On 702 ABC Sydney, Linda Mottram suggested the Catholic Church would be a better place if it embraced a liberal agenda. She also accused Benedict XVI of being ''divisive'' because, as Pope, he upheld traditional teaching. This overlooks the fact that he is the Bishop of Rome, not the head of the Rationalist Society. Moreover, members of the Anglican, Jewish and Orthodox faiths do not regard Benedict XVI as being divisive. Quite the contrary. When it comes to comment, silence is preferable to ignorance.
Gerard Henderson is the executive director of the Sydney Institute.