Return of the Prodigal Son by Pompeo Batoni - 1773

Evolution for the Catholic Student

Order 'Evolution for the Catholic Student' - Click on the image above

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

What is Papal Infallibility?

What is Papal Infallibility?
Note: I have tried to faithfully present Catholic teaching on this issue.  If something sounds suspect, please look it up in an authoritative Catholic source, and please let me know of my mistake if I have made one.
          One of the most misunderstood doctrines in the Church, among Catholics and non-Catholics alike, is that of papal infallibility.  Some people mistake infallibility for impeccability, meaning that they think Catholics believe the pope is perfect, without sin (we do not).  Some people think Catholics look to the pope to make every decision for them and that we believe that everything he says comes directly from God, with the weight of Scripture (we do not).  Archbishop Fulton Sheen told the story of a person who claimed that Catholics believe the pope is inflammable (which I suppose we do, but it has nothing to do with this doctrine).
          So it seems rather important, if we are going to clear up misunderstandings among non-Catholics, and if we are going to understand our Faith ourselves, that we be clear on what the Church does and does not teach regarding papal infallibility.
          First, we have to recognize the importance of governance and authority in the Church.  With all the wonderful things our Protestant brethren have, one thing they lack is unity of doctrine.  There are thousands of Protestant denominations precisely because there is no authority that can define doctrine; there is only the Scripture, which experience shows us can lend itself to various interpretations, without a teaching Church.
          There is also, among Protestants, no visible principle of unity on the Earth, making impossible Jesus’s prayer at the Last Supper “that they all be one” (Jn. 17:11).  There’s a wealth of Scripture that demonstrates the establishment of a hierarchical, authoritative Church, united with Peter, but the point of this article is not a defense of the doctrine of Papal Infallibility, but rather its explanation.
          The first thing to be understood is that papal infallibility is a negative charism, not a positive one.  What that means is that it prevents the pope from teaching error (in certain circumstances – more on that later); it does not ensure that he will always teach things completely or in the most effective possible way.  This is a crucial distinction.  We see over the centuries a deepening understanding of the Mysteries of Christ, but nowhere can we find a direct contradiction in the 2,000-year teaching of the Church.
          There are usually three popes (of the 266) that opponents like to cite to disprove papal infallibility, but none of them do so when the charism is properly understood.  The most common is the case of Pope Honorius, who failed to effectively condemn the Monothelitist heresy in the seventh century.
          Remember, though, that papal infallibility is like a fence that keeps the pope from venturing into error, it is not a springboard that propels him to heights of wisdom.  It does not guarantee that the pope will do something that it seems he ought to do; it guarantees that he will not do something, namely promulgate error.
          The next thing to understand is when the charism is effective.  The pope is only infallible when he teaches the whole Church, ex cathedra, on matters of faith and morals.  Therefore, he is never infallible when discussing business, sports, or politics (unless they directly pertain to faith and morals).  He is never infallible in personal correspondence or personal reflections.  (This is probably why Pope John Paul II wanted his personal notes and journals destroyed upon his death.  He knew they could potentially contain error, yet many Catholics would probably not understand that.  Pope Honorius’s questionable statements were in private letters, also not protected by infallibility.)  The pope must be officially teaching the whole Church regarding faith or morals. 
          Why is this so important?  Do we not need to know what is true, what to believe?  Jesus gave Peter and his successors the Keys to the Kingdom of Heaven, and this special charism, so we would have a sure answer to the disputes that would arise over the centuries over the meaning of Scripture and Tradition.
          With the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI and the election of Pope Francis, there have been other (silly) questions: Are two men infallible at the same time?  Who will Catholics trust?
          Papal infallibility is a charism tied to the office of the papacy, not to a man.  Therefore, it has nothing to do with Pope Emeritus Benedict anymore.
          One other area must be spoken about: disciplinary matters about which the pope is not infallible.  The pope does govern the Church (Christ, of course, is the Head; the pope is His vicar on Earth).  Jesus told Peter, “What you bind on Earth will be bound in Heaven” (Mt. 16:18). 
          There are disciplinary laws which we are bound in obedience to follow, though they not be matters of faith and morals, have nothing to do with infallibility, and may potentially be changed.
          An example is the celibate clergy in the Roman rite.  This is a discipline of the Church.  It is not a dogma, and certainly is not an issue that has anything to do with infallibility.  As a disciplinary matter, it could potentially be changed.  However, because it is currently in force, the clergy have made a promise to obey it.  Therefore, it would be sinful for them to disobey without permission.
          It is very much like a parent with a child.  If a child willfully refuses to make his bed, for example, after being instructed to do so by a parent, he sins; not because an unmade bed is objectively evil, not because making one’s bed is a universal or infallible law, but because he has willfully disobeyed a legitimate authority.
          Catholics occasionally try to see if a pronouncement is infallible as a way of finding a loophole.  Regardless of infallibility, there is no loophole.  Obedience is one of the highest virtues.  This means obedience to Christ, and by extension, to His Church.
          It should be noted that I am speaking here of the disciplines and laws of the Church.  If an individual priest, or even the pope, told an individual to do something that was objectively sinful, there would be no obligation to obey – in fact, there would be an obligation to disobey.