Vatican Corner 09-06-2020

Papal infallibility is generally misunderstood. It doesn’t mean that the pope cannot sin or make mistakes and his routine papal teaching is not thought to be infallible. It is instead when he defines a doctrine concerning faith and morals that is to be held by the whole Church. The recent theological understanding is that the pope exercises infallibility not as an individual but as the leader of the bishops and the Church. The bishops share infallibility with the pope when they are in unity with him and teach a doctrine as true. Jesus himself, promised the apostles and their successors the bishops to have the authority to give authentic interpretation of the Word of God when he said: “He who hears you hears me” (Luke 10:16). Also the common idea that papal infallibility has been used only twice is not true. Many think that the first time it was used was when Pope Pius IX defined the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin in 1854. The second time they believe was when Pope Pius XIII defined the dogma of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin in 1950. However, papal infallibility had been used many times even before it was defined in 1870 by the First Vatican Council. It continues to be widely used because every canonization of a saint is the use of infallibility. When the pope states “we declare and define that Blessed N. is a saint, this is using the doctrine of infallibility. The use of the verb “define” has become the trigger word for papal infallible statements. Theologians today believe that papal teachings without invoking infallibility are at least theoretically subject to change in some future time. The condemnation of mechanical and chemical birth control; the insistence on celibacy for priests; pronouncements against artificial means of contraception; the barrier against women in the priesthood; the allowance of some divorced and remarried Catholics to receive Communion; these are all strong papal teachings, and should be taken seriously by Catholics, but they do not fall within the doctrine of Infallibility. Pope Francis’ style as Pope is just the opposite of presenting an infallible façade. He admits mistakes, confesses ignorance, and acknowledges that he may have left himself open to misinterpretation. Some critics of Francis believe that he has contradicted many of the teachings of his predecessors and should be deposed like they used to do in the 13th century. His supporters, however might ask those same critics if their motives are based in religion or based in politics?