It was, I fear, a rough day at the office for Josh Clark and Chuck Bryant, the hosts of the popular Interwebz podcast “Stuff You Should Know.” For they released a podcast called “How the Papacy Works,” but they riddled it with a lot of errors that need correcting. I should note: Josh and Chuck were not malicious in their errors; I think it’s more the peril of tackling a tricky subject with which both may have been unfamiliar. So in the spirit of helping them out, let me list a few things (some major, some nitpicky) that need a bit of clarification or correction.
I may make errors of my own here, as I’m not a theologian; please bring them to my attention (with citations) and I’ll fix them.
This is ordered by the rough time a statement was made in the podcast.
1:58: Josh refers to the former pope as “Benedict II.” He was, of course, the XVIth. He will make the same mistake later in the episode, but I think both are misspeaks.
5:12: Josh refers to Benedict as the second pope to retire (presumably meaning “resign”). How many actually have resigned appears to be a matter of interpretation, but two is wrong. This article says three others have voluntarily resigned (not counting those who were, uh, forced out), making Benedict fourth. Wikipedia says that as many as 10 (including Benedict) are possible, counting those who were forced out and including as possibilities a few for which records are unclear or incomplete. CBS, looking through the Catholic Encyclopedia, came up with nine, including Benedict.
7:15: The guys talk about how the nonspecific “they” are trying to push the conclave forward a bit. But the only one who can change the rules (and he did, albeit likely after this podcast was recorded) is the current pope, as far as I can tell.
7:50: Chuck speculates about the possibility of the first African pope (CLARIFICATION: he is talking about others talking about this, rather than stating a fact as he knows it). He means “in recent memory,” as there were three African popes prior — just 1,500+ years ago.
8:10: Josh misspeaks that Benedict “elected” a certain number of bishops to cardinal; he means “elevated.”
8:50: Chuck throws out 1,000 years as the possible length of time since we had a non-European pope. According to the NYT, it’s not quite 1,300 years. I won’t count this one as an error, though, because they acknowledged they didn’t know the exact number.
(As far as I can tell, they correctly got a section on how the Church views Matthew 16:18 and its relation to the papacy.)
13:06: Josh says that “a bunch of bishops got together” to create Vatican I. This needs some clarification. According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, Pope Pius IX (who has since been beatified) called for the council in 1867 but had been considering it for a while before that. Bishops cannot call councils, only popes. And the council opened in 1869, not 1870, though it closed in 1870.
13:18: The guys discuss papal infallibility but don’t quite get it right. As a tweet to them noted, the bishops didn’t technically “decide” on papal infallibility at Vatican I. (This is a little bit of inside baseball, so bear with me.) More specifically, what happened is that this teaching, which was around in some form for a while (for example, the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception predated this), was made superofficial. Also, it would have helped to note (though they’ve very close on this) to note that infallibility is used only in very, very specific circumstances, and so a pope writing on certain things dealing with faith and morals may not necessarily be writing infallibly. This is a tough nut to crack, so here’s Catholic Answers’ take on the subject.
17:23: The guys couldn’t remember what the skullcap the pope wears is called.
Chuck Josh joked that it was a “yarmulke”; it’s called a zucchetto.
17:55: The three caskets are a little out of order. The guys said “cypress, elm, and then lead,” but the last two should be reversed. Incidentally, John Paul II didn’t have a lead coffin (he substituted zinc), nor did he use elm (he substituted walnut). But Josh and Chuck have the traditional materials correct, just in the wrong order.
21:45: Josh talks about a simple majority being sufficient for pope after several days of not having selected a new pope. According to CNN, that was true for JPII’s replacement, but Benedict changed it back in 2007, and there’s no evidence of the simple majority in the USCCB’s account of selecting a new pope. (To make things more fun, this has constantly been changed by prior popes.) For more on the whole process, check with the Library of Congress.
And that’s that. But let’s not be too hard on Josh and Chuck. As a practicing Catholic and non-practicing journalist formerly of a major metro newspaper, I know firsthand how tricky religion reporting and editing can be. Not only are some of the beliefs and practices tough to understand, but those who know this stuff get superannoyed when laymen get it wrong. They didn’t do so great this time out, but they’re smart enough to improve for the next time they tackle a religious subject.
UPDATE: At least one of the “SYSK” guys has read this post and tweeted to me. Thanks, guys. I’ve made a couple corrections above. Any questions or confusion, let me know and I’ll update this post accordingly.