When does the Pope teach infallibly?


By Father Brian Morris

You may have heard in the news recently about Catholic theologians offering a “filial correction” about Pope Francis’ document “Amoris Laetitia.” It has brought up many questions about the teaching office of our Holy Father and how do we know when He is using his office to teach something infallibly, that is, guaranteed to be without error by the promise of the Holy Spirit. It brings back memories of a few years ago when the Holy Father was giving press conferences from his plane about things like contraception, Donald Trump and his famous “Who am I to judge” statement back in 2013. Some have jokingly said that we should move the Papal cathedra (chair) from the Basilica of St. John Lateran in Rome to seat A3 on “Shepherd One,” the call sign for his plane. But it brings up a serious issue for us as Catholics. How do we know when the Pope is speaking as part of his infallible teaching office?

A famous theologian once quipped: “Once a serious philosopher announced, ‘If the pope said that ‘2 + 2 = 5’, I’d believe him.’” Another philosopher, even more distinguished, gave the proper, Catholic answer to this over-the-top ultramontanism: “If the pope said, ‘2 + 2 = 5,’ I would say, publicly, ‘Perhaps I have misunderstood His Holiness’s meaning.’ Privately, I would pray for his sanity.” It is important to start out by saying that papal infallibility does not mean that everything that comes out of the Pope’s mouth is free from error.

Infallibility means that when something is taught by the Pope or the Church as a whole, under this seal, it is to be held as divinely revealed and protected from error by the Holy Spirit. Therefore, such teachings are definitive and irrevocable. The last time a Pope made an infallible statement on his own was in 1950 when Pope Pius XII declared in his Apostolic Constitution, “Munificentissimus Deus,” that the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary was an official dogma of the Church. And the last one before that was almost 100 years earlier in 1854 when Pope Pius IX declared in “Ineffabilis Deus” that the Blessed Mother was immaculately conceived. The exception to that statement is that canonizations are also considered infallible.

There are many pieces of evidence for this in the Gospels. We can point to the first instance of papal infallibility in the Gospel of Matthew (16:13-20) when Peter says to Jesus, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Jesus replies that it was not of Peter’s own abilities that he says this, but from the Father. After this, Jesus calls Peter the rock on which He will build His Church and hands him the keys to the kingdom of Heaven. This event is seen as so important that it is repeated in all four Gospels (Mk 8:27-30, Lk 9:18-20 and Jn 6:66-71). Also, in the Gospel of John, Jesus promises to send down the Paraclete, the Holy Spirit, to guide the Apostles in Truth (Jn 14:26 and 16:12-14).

The Pope, as a successor of Peter, is given this protection from error. This protection is limited to subject matters that pertain to faith and morals. So, don’t be taking stock tips from Pope Francis or Pope Benedict as divinely inspired. If you want some good stock tips, I know a good broker! This protection is also limited in how he is teaching. As the Vatican I document, “Pastor Aeternus” spells out, the Holy Father must intend to speak infallibly as head of the Church. He must use language that indicates very clearly that what he is saying, he intends it to be held by all Catholics as a matter of faith. We refer to this as the Pope speaking “ex-cathedra,” which means “from the chair” since the chair is a traditional symbol of teaching authority. However, this is incredibly rare. Trust me, if Pope Francis ever actually intends to speak infallibly, we will know it. The red carpets will be rolled out; banners will be hung and trumpets will blare throughout Rome. He certainly would not make an infallible statement in a press conference with reporters who will easily reshape his words for their own agenda. For now, when the Pope speaks, we as Catholics are called to regard his words with the respect that comes from the office he holds and the limitations of his human intellect. Pope St. John XXIII, known for his sense of humor, once said: “I am only infallible if I speak infallibly but I shall never do that, so I am not infallible.”

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