From a post to DAVIDWEBER.NET forums on 8/13/2011

Infallibility of the Grand Vicar

FriarBob wrote:
runsforcelery wrote:

    It's important to remember that while the vicarate was established as a planetary government, it was never intended to be a representative government in any present day, real life sense. That is, all of its members were to be elected internally, as part of a closed system and without any notion of those vicars being responsible to the citizens of the realm from which they were selected. The idea was that they would be representative of their realm only in the sense of being familiar with its strengths, weaknesses, needs, desires, etc., and bring that familiarity with them to the vicarate, but their function was to govern the entire planet (in the name of God and the archangels, of course) not to contend for the interests of "their" realm.


    In the last two or three centuries, the requirement that a vicar come from the realm whose population he "represents" (in the sense described above) has slipped considerably. It isn't quite a violation of the letter of Langhorne's directives, but it's definitely playing fast and loose with the intent of those directives in many ways. In essence, even though someone may technically be a "Siddarmarkian" vicar — that is, hold one of the seats in the vicarate based on Siddarmark's population — he doesn't necessarily have to come from Siddarmark at all. Langhorne never established a "residency requirement" as a qualification for the vicarate; he simply established that the Grand Vicar should solicit advice from the archbishops and senior clergy governing the population generating that seat in the vicarate. There was no specific requirement preventing them from recommending someone from outside their realm.

    First off, thanks for the explanation. However, I'm afraid I have a few questions left.

    I'm primarily wondering how all this jives with Grand Vicar Tomhys' writ On Obedience and Faith that you have mentioned so many times in the books. We know that was dated in 407.

    Based on the dates from OAR, it appears that approximately 65 Safehold years (so, what, ~60 T-years?) passed from the "day of creation" to the destruction of the Alexandria Enclave. I'm going to guess that all the "Year of God" dates are from "creation" not the "triumph of Langhorne". The other way would still work, of course, it's only a swing of 65 S-years, but it makes sense and it would make absolutely no sense to me for them to restart the numbering after such a Pyrrhic victory.

    However, the "archangels" were supposed to live for around 300 T-years, right? And that many of them -- especially the lower-rank ones who would have been sent out on various tasks and thus escaped the Commodore's little megalomaniac-roast -- were roughly Nimue's age (30ish, right?) when assigned to the command staff? So in theory, even after 10 T-years of hyper and more years of terraforming, and 60 more T-years of the early "policy debates", they couldn't have been much over 100, maybe 120 in T-years. So even if, for whatever reason, the last of survivors only lived for another 150 T-years (so, what, maybe 170 S-years?) after the Commodore's little surprise nuking that still puts us at about YOG 225 or so, right?

    So barely 180 S-years later, maybe 200, the vicarate is already corrupt enough to throw away Langhorne's directives on the appointment of the local archbishops? And accept and promulgate the ludicrous notion of "papal infallibility"? Given that these were couched as "necessary change", it sounds like they were changing the previous rules. But perhaps were not those things actually laid down by Langhorne? And if not, why not? If he laid down rules for the appointment of the vicars, and those were supposed to be a planetary religious government, why would he NOT lay down rules for the appointment of the archbishops?

    I mean, I know Adore Bedard was a psychologist and a whack-job, with a disdain for historical scholarship that made her an outright fool and that Shan-Wei appropriately derided, but were she an Langhorne that stupid to not realize the insane danger of allowing any human to claim such power as "papal infallibility"? Even despite the undeniable good that the Catholic Church actually has done (some of the time) through history, most of the evil it has done can be directly traced to their foolish acceptance of that notion. This should have been a clear and obvious part of the historical record -- especially the PSYCHOLOGICAL treatises and histories -- that I find it hard to believe Adore and Eric didn't know the risk here. Even as the outright megalomaniacs we know them to be, surely they had to realize that even if THEY were wise enough to handle absolute power (yeah right), but even if that had been true, still they should have known they would be eventually leaving their empire to an imperfect and lesser successor who would not be so capable! Or is that simply the flaw of megalomaniacs that they can't see that, even if they are otherwise intelligent enough that they should have?

    Now after they do make those changes, the slow slide into corruption, greed, and stupidity all make perfect sense. I'm just a bit surprised that what appears to be the key starting point -- that writ by Tomhys -- came about that quickly.


    You're getting into a degree of historical background I don't really want to give at this point. The short answer ("short" for me, at least) is that, first, the years of the Church of God Awaiting are counted from the suppression of Shan-wei's Revolt. This was regarded as a major victory, not a Pyrrhic victory, because neither Langhorne nor any of the other angels/archangels who fought on his side were actually killed. Remember, the theology of the Church of God Awaiting says simply that the physical bodies of the archangels — created on the same day as the rest of the world, and expected eventually to age and ultimately perish anyway (as all things of the mortal world do) — were destroyed, forcing them to return to the presence of God a little sooner than originally allowed for. The survivors were not above generating posthumous holograms of Langhorne and Bédard to bolster the notion that they had not in fact "died," and did so. At any rate, the years of Safehold are numbered not from the Day of Creation, but rather from the final victory of the forces of Light.

    Second, Nimue Alban was actually quite young compared to the command staff of the expedition. I realize that Nimue herself reflects that many of the original command staff had been almost as young as she was, but the majority of the command staff was not, and for fairly obvious reasons when you think about it.

    The colonists were all very young, for a society with the youth-prolonging technologies available to the Federation, because they needed to be young for the arduous conditions they were going to face and to provide the "breeding stock" needed to get Safehold's population off to a good start. But the command staff was picked for experience, knowledge, etc., and not for youth. The command staff was deliberately kept relatively small, and its median age was somewhere around 65 or 70 years. By the time the struggle against "Shan-wei's Revolt" was over (and, by the way, it took longer to suppress that "revolt" than some people seem to be thinking, even with the strike on Alexandria, in no small part because of certain things that happened that you don't know about among the surviving members of the command staff after Commodore Pei decapitated it), most of the survivors were in the vicinity of 150 years of age or so, which means they could expect to live about another century and a half. (Around another 160 Safeholdian years, getting them to around the Year of God 160, about 60 years earlier than you had calculated, and putting 247 years between that date and On Obedience.)

    The assertion of the Grand Vicar's infallibility as expressed in On Obedience (and, by the way, since the doctrine of infallibility was only promulgated officially by the Catholic Church in 1870, the better part of 2,000 years into its history, I'm not sure I find myself in agreement with your observation that "most of the evil it has done can be directly traced to their foolish acceptance of that notion," but that's a subject for another debate) was thus made around 12 generations after the last of the archangels "returned to the presence of God. That's actually quite a lot of time. Moreover, the assertion of the Grand Vicar's infallibility (which — like the doctrine of papal infallibility — is actually quite restricted) was only one part of what On Obedience set out to accomplish as a response to a significant challenge to the Church and God's Plan as revealed by the Archangel Langhorne.

    In the Roman Catholic Church, papal infallibility applies only to statements of a dogmatic teaching on faith contained in divine revelation (or, as I understand it, at least intimately connected to divine revelation); it does not preserve the pontiff from sin or error in his personal life, in his official life and discharge of his duties outside the dogma being set forth, or even in matters of "fallible doctrine." That is, a pope can make plenty of mistakes and even sin in his administration of the Church, his discharge of his office, his personal life, his decisions where something besides fundamental doctrine is concerned, etc., despite his infallibility as the promulgator of essential doctrine. The same is true in the case of the Grand Vicar, and, in fact, the current doctrine of the Grand Vicar's infallibility developed from an earlier tradition of infallibility, deliberately established by Langhorne when he created the Church.

    The Grand Vicar was established as Langhorne's successor as the head of the Church. (This was deliberately modeled on the Roman Catholic doctrine of apostolic succession.) Consequently, his pronouncements in doctrinal matters were those of the Church itself, ratified by Langhorne, and (as such) infallible. Under the original construction of the doctrine, however, that infallibility represented not the Grand Vicar's autocratic ability to declare whatever doctrine he chose at his own sole discretion, but rather his role speaking ex cathedra in the name of the entire vicarate, which under Church law was (and is) regarded as the corporate repository of God's and Langhorne's authority in the mortal world. Under the original formulation of the doctrine he enjoyed that infallibility only as the spokesman of the vicarate's collective understanding of doctrine based on The Holy Writ and such teachings as might have been added to the canon following the departure of the archangels. (That is, in the case of the Church of God Awaiting, the conflict in the Roman Catholic Church between the authority of the Pope and ecumenical councils had been resolved in favor of the ecumenical councils under Langhorne's original formulation.) In cases of conflict between the Writ and the later portions of the canon, the Writ was to govern. And no later "infallible teaching" could contravene or contradict an earlier infallible teaching. (Which has not prevented some… inventive reinterpretations of "infallible teachings" by later vicarates or Grand Vicars.)

    At the same time, however, the Grand Vicar enjoyed enormous authority. Whereas he was expressly not preserved from sin or error in his personal life and the general discharge of his office (he was mortal, not Langhorne), he was in most respects an autocrat as the Church's chief executive, reflecting the autocratic structure Langhorne had created/adopted for his control of the command staff and, thus, of the early Church. The vicarate's "authority" over the Grand Vicar consisted of the fact that he was chosen by the majority vote of the vicarate and that the vicarate was supposed to have the ultimate authority in the declaration of matters of doctrine and faith. Aside from that, and the fact that Grand Vicars were usually fairly senior members of the vicarate themselves before they were selected (which meant that most Grand Vicarates were relatively short in duration simply because of the Grand Vicar's age when he was selected), the vicarate was little more than a rubber stamp for the Grand Vicar's decisions in the day-to-day and year-to-year administration of the Church.

    Langhorne's death and the decimation (actually, a lot worse than simple decimation) of the original, small command staff had a lot of consequences, including the consequence that what Langhorne and Bédard had originally planned as a gradual transition to mortal control of the Church over the space of as much as 200-plus years was significantly accelerated. The surviving members of the command staff found themselves forced to work through "mortals" much earlier and much more comprehensively than had originally been intended, and as such the vicarate and (especially) the Grand Vicar found themselves inheriting a greater degree of personal power earlier on in the process than Langhorne and Bédard had ever envisioned. Worse (from Langhorne's perspective) it meant that there were no archangels around to help cope with certain later problems as they arose.

    The biggest problem that the Church faced in the first two centuries after the archangels "returned to the presence of God" (that is, in the 250 or so years between the departure of the last archangel and the promulgation of On Obedience) was an enormous expansion in the planetary population. As that population grew and spread out further and further from the original enclaves, additional bishops were required. Under the original provisions of the Church of God Awaiting, Langhorne (or, at least, his successors on the command staff, and I'm not telling you exactly which it was) had always intended for the bishops and archbishops to be selected by the citizens of their bishoprics and archbishoprics. In a previous post I pointed out that the archbishops could be considered provincial or state governors in a theocratic government, and the original thought had been that since these were the prelates who were going to be in closest contact with their flocks, allowing the members of those flocks a voice in their selection would provide at least the rudiments of a genuinely representative government at the local level. (At what you might think of as the "federal level," the vicarate was specifically and deliberately detached from local selection, although the original assumption of the Church was that since the vicars would be selected from the ranks of the episcopate, there would be a sort of secondhand representative element in the creation of the vicarate.) Where this became a problem was that as the population of the planet spread further and further away from Zion and as communication became more and more arthritic, even with the semaphore and messenger wyverns, the archbishoprics began acquiring too much power. (It should also be pointed out that the institution of the office of bishop executor had its origins during this time period as archbishops found themselves spending more and more time traveling back and forth between the more distant archbishoprics and Zion.)

    The Reformist tendencies which are emerging now (as of How Firm A Foundation) have always been at least potentially present within the Church. Put another way, there has always been a tension between the more humanist elements of the Church (frequently, as now, led, ironically, by the Bédardists and their allies) and those more focused on the preservation of doctrine and strict adherence to the Writ, and signs of that tension began to emerge as popularly selected bishops and archbishops began to push the direction of church doctrine at what might be thought of as the "grass roots" level. They weren't all pushing in the same direction, either, and the vicarate of the time faced the Church's first real challenge to its authority and to the overarching authority and absolute primacy of the Writ as understood by the vicarate.

    On Obedience was an effort to deal with the perceived danger of the fragmentation of not simply the vicarate's authority but of Mother Church's authority… which was another way of saying the perceived danger of allowing Shan-wei to reestablish a toehold in the mortal world. Therefore, the vicarate in its collective role as the infallible arbiter of doctrine, fundamentally changed the process by which members of the episcopate were to be selected. At the same time, the current Grand Vicar, an especially able politician (as he had to be to bring about such a basic alteration in the process for elevating bishops), also pushed through a declaration that the Grand Vicar spoke infallibly ex cathedra — that is, specifically when exercising his office as the enunciator of official doctrine — both as the spokesman of the collected vicarate and in his own right when he promulgated doctrine which had been divinely revealed to him in the Writ or by the direct touch of God and the archangels upon his heart. He got it through because of the careful alliances he'd built within the vicarate and because the vicarate had been panicked by what it perceived as an ongoing disintegration of the Church and, hence, of God's plan for Safehold. Panic over the possible emergence of heresy and/or apostacy (and remember that they had the historical experience of an actual war between good and evil in Shan-wei's Revolt) led them into desiring an even more authoritarian, even more ironbound protection of orthodoxy, and the Grand Vicar managed to convince the vicarate of something he actually believed: that expanding his power as Langhorne's successor was, in fact, both directly in line with Langhorne's expressed desires and an additional and necessary safeguard of orthodox doctrine and theology. And since On Obedience had been issued ex cathedra, it became part of the "infallible doctrine" of the Church and, once done, could never subsequently be undone. In essence, it was an overreaction against the dissipation of the Church's central authority which went too far in the other direction. Indeed, the overreaction also paved the way for the eventual absorption of the Order of Jwo-jeng into the Order of Schueler and for the Order of Schueler to gradually supplant the Order of Langhorne as the "senior" order of the Church.

    Although On Obedience made what turned out to be fundamental shifts in the Church's internal dynamic, it's important to understand that it wasn't seen as doing that by the vicars who endorsed it. Yes, they were restricting the "popular voice" in the selection of bishops and archbishops, but even under the new rules, the vicarate and the Grand Vicar were supposed to solicit the views of those the prelates were to govern. Inevitably, that solicitation of local input atrophied fairly rapidly (in a generational sense, at least), but that was not an intended outcome. Moreover, the Church had always been planned as a strictly hierarchical organization with top-down rule and an Inquisition specifically granted the authority to enforce doctrinal conformity by any means necessary. One of the other unintended consequences of On Obedience was that the vicarate's power actually increased, since the counterweight of the "popularly selected" episcopate had been removed. Yet another unintended consequence, however, was that a strong Grand Vicar now had the means to tyrannize even the vicarate in ways which had not previously been possible because of his ability to decree doctrine independently of the vicarate in the case of a fundamental disagreement between it and him. And that, frankly, was a reason why the vicarate began electing weak Grand Vicars. Because the office had become too powerful to be restrained in the hands of a strong Grand Vicar, they had to select for weakness in order to preserve their own authority… and, on more than one occasion, cabals within the vicarate eliminated Grand Vicars who proved stronger than they had expected. In some instances, that was actually an act of semi-legitimate self-defense, since one or two Grand Vicars had inclinations in Clyntahn's direction and there was no provision for the removal of a Grand Vicar except by death. Which, unfortunately, helped to legitimize the use of assassination, and thus made it steadily more acceptable.

    It's important to bear in mind that the consequences I'm describing in the above paragraph didn't happen overnight. In fact, it took several centuries, and it really began to accelerate only in the last couple of hundred years, the period during which the Church has slipped steadily into greater and greater internal corruption. I hope, however, that this gives at least a little better understanding of how the Church originally got to the "tipping point" which provoked On Obedience, not to mention how it reached its current tipping point where the Reformists are concerned.

    Another point which it is also important to emphasize (or perhaps reemphasize) is that the premature destruction of the command staff was completely unexpected when Langhorne and Bédard made their original plans for the creation and the nurturing of the Church of God Awaiting. They anticipated a much, much longer period of direct, "hands-on" control of the Church, and they fully intended to make adjustments during that time as experience indicated modifications were necessary. The conflict they got and the casualties they suffered after the Alexandria strike deep-sixed that part of their plans, and the fact that "repairs" to the original master plan had to be made more or less on the fly by the surviving members of the command crew — not all of whom had shared every aspect of Langhorne's vision — meant there was no one to deal with emerging failure points which might actually have been recognized and compensated for had the anticipated number of "archangels" been available for the anticipated length of time.

    I'm not trying to make excuses for Langhorne or for the fundamental failures/weaknesses/blind spots inherent in his vision. I'm simply saying that his own plans got run over by a Greyhound bus called Pei Kau-yung, and that the factors within the Church leading to its present corruption and decadence got a quicker jump because of circumstances beyond his control.