07/14/2010 01:59 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

What Happens When You Call a Professor Infallible? Lessons from Pope Benedict XVI

The best joke I ever made up was when I told someone at the gym where I work out, who had challenged my opinion about the New York Yankees versus the New York Mets, "Don't try to argue with me. I'm a professor -- I'm always right!" Unfortunately, he didn't laugh; he snapped a towel at me.

When you elect a highly accomplished scholar and intellectual to a position that bestows the status of infallibility, you are buying trouble. A scholar doesn't need to be told he is infallible. He knows. That is what he is paid to be. A scholar's calling values integrity, rationality, and forthrightness.

The first five years of the papacy of Cardinal Ratzinger have revealed these traits along with abundant humility and kindness and love. But the world will take some time to get used to its scholar-pope, who speaks forthrightly about fundamental issues and lets the chips fall where they may.

The Muslims learned that fact in Regensburg, when the Pope in a profound lecture called into question the contribution of Islam to civilization.

The Anglicans learned that fact when the Pope in a gesture of honesty invited the Anglican priesthood to join the Church.

The Jews learned that fact when the Pope reverted to a liturgy that called into question the faith of Judaism.

In all three cases the breach was restored, cooler heads prevailed. So Islam was pacified, the Anglicans and the Jews conciliated. But the scholar-pope had told the truth as Catholic Christianity at heart sees it: Islam cannot compete with Christianity for moral insight, the Anglicans will be welcome home, and the Jews would be better off in the Church. Pope Benedict spoke like a scholar and pronounced Christian truth as the infallible Bishop of Rome pronounced it. A scholar could do no less.

The current issue that troubles the peace is Cardinal Ratzinger's prior disposition of the case of a priest guilty of sexually abusing children. Christian charity called for forgiveness of the priest, a broken dying penitent. Justice demanded excommunication. Cardinal Ratzinger withheld the rites of humiliation that formed the just penalty. The man died in the bosom of the Church. Benedict VI showed the meaning of repentance and Christian love.

When I met the Pope in Rome last January, I asked him what he planned to do when the second volume of his Jesus of Nazareth was done, in about half a year. With a sad smile he said, "Nothing more, this is my last book. I have other things to do." A scholar who ceases to write books does not long outlive his last title. He did not have to add, "After all, I'm the Pope." But the scholar in me whispered, "At what cost!"

What the world has learned in five years about a scholar-pope is the price that the academy pays for truth-telling and integrity. Infallibility exacts costs. People prefer conciliatory politicians over contentious critics. Those are the lessons taught by the generic scholar-popes. The Holy Father, as the Catholics call him, is a lovely, loving man; the world benefits from his truth-telling.

What I learn from this particular scholar-pope is something more. The world has a heavy stake in the proven integrity of this man and in his power to speak truth to all humanity. So the Muslims, the Anglicans, and we Jews too have to prepare for scholarly debates about reason and shared rationality and meet head-on the conflicts that await over who is right and who is wrong, and what Scripture and tradition demand of us all.