By Bob Sullivan
Some of us have come to believe that our priests, bishops, or even the pope, are more perfect and divinely protected from error than is actually the case.
We will all benefit if we accept the fact that the clergy are, first and foremost, human beings just like the rest of us. Ordination is not the same as canonization and being elevated to high levels within the Church is no sign that the person is a holy or competent person. Over the centuries, we have had a number of popes who have fallen well short of demonstrating lives of virtue and holiness. Some of the popes have been absolute scoundrels, but while many have been examples of immorality, indecision, and/or incompetence, none has ever taught error as a matter of Church doctrine.
In light of some of the decisions being made in the Vatican, this is a good time to refresh our knowledge on the teaching of papal infallibility, so we know what it means and what it does not mean.
First, papal infallibility does not mean that the pope cannot teach error. Papal infallibility is much narrower than that. Nor does it mean that the pope is incapable of committing a sin. Nor does it mean that the pope is ultra-holy.
According to Canon 749.1, the pope teaches infallibly when he proclaims, by a definitive act, a doctrine to be held concerning faith or morals.
Therefore, it has to be a doctrine concerning faith or morals and it has to be proclaimed by a definitive act. This means it has to be final, decisive, or an absolute teaching which is to be held by the entire Church.
We know when this is being done due to two criteria. First, the pope speaks ex cathedra which means “from the throne.” Secondly, we see very clear language, indicating that it is a teaching which is final, and which is to be held as true by every Catholic.
This has taken place twice in the history of the Church. The first was in 1854 when it was declared that Mary was immaculately conceived.
In that declaration, Pope Pius IX wrote: “We declare, pronounce, and define that the doctrine… to be believed firmly and constantly by all the faithful.”
The second occasion was in 1950, when Pope Pius XII announced the assumption of Mary, “… by the authority of our Lord Jesus Christ… we pronounce, declare, and define it to be a divinely revealed dogma…
Hence if anyone, which God forbid, should dare willfully to deny or call into doubt that which we have defined, let him know that he has fallen away completely from the divine and Catholic faith.”
As you can see, this is very strong and clear language. No reasonable Catholic could read these statements and come away wondering if it was a teaching they really needed to accept as true.
As part of this process, there is an immense amount of study and prayer involved as well. Historians, theologians, Bible scholars, and many other experts are consulted in order to be certain that the teachings are not only consistent with scripture and tradition, but that the faithful have widely accepted the teachings at true over the centuries. With both the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption, we see that the teachings are not novel or arbitrary, but that they are consistent with Scripture and longstanding tradition in the Church.
We can apply this to some of the things now happening in the Church. Is it possible that Pope Francis could make mistakes in appointing certain bishops and cardinals and by bringing certain people in as close advisors? Certainly. These are administrative matters, not matters of faith or morals. Additionally, these are not done with any claim of infallibility.
Could Pope Francis err in ignoring or disregarding immoral behavior of certain cardinals, bishops, and priests? Again, yes. Even though these are matters of morals, Pope Francis has not and cannot make definitive declarations about matters which are not doctrines of the Church. When he makes statements and decisions regarding men like Archbishop Theodore McCarrick, Father Mauro Inzoli, or Bishop Juan Barros Madrid, he is simply speaking as a fallible human being, fully subject to the potential to make mistakes, and it is evident he did make mistakes in these instances, as well as many others.
In light of the current scandal, which reaches all the way from the parish level to the Holy See, potentially implicating Pope Francis himself, a faithful Catholic could find himself or herself wondering just how the pope could have aligned himself with people who appear bent on evil, and how he could apparently place so much trust in people who evidently have little or no regard for fundamental teachings of celibacy and chastity.
The fact is, if things are as they appear, these are all instances of failure of personal judgment, which have nothing to do with the charism of papal infallibility.
If you are unhappy with the way things are unfolding in the Church—and how can you not be?—prayer is more essential than ever before.
Above all, we must pray for the victims. However, as Christians, we must pray for the repentance and purgation of the perpetrators as well. We must also pray for the accusers, the accused and pray for the faithful priests and bishops who need to be part of the solution to all of this, so there are no future victims.
Don’t forget to pray for Pope Francis. In doing so, you are not praying that he persists in making poor decisions, but that he is open to the guidance of the Holy Spirit and that his humble and faithful actions and decisions help heal the body of Christ.