The following essay was written by a theologian in Rome who specializes in ecclesiology.
The advent of mass media has raised a number of issues with regard to interpreting and evaluating the words of the Roman Pontiffs. This essay will look, very briefly, at two of those issues: papal infallibility (how to determine if a given papal statement is infallible); and how Catholics can respond to non-infallible papal statements.
The teaching on papal infallibility is found primarily in the First Vatican Council’s dogmatic constitution Pastor Aeternus; that teaching is repeated, almost verbatim, by the Vatican II. The Holy Father is infallible in the same way that the Church is infallible when he teaches: as head of the Church, determining an object of faith and morals to be held by the whole Church. This manner of teaching is called ex cathedra, that is, teaching “from the chair.” It’s important not to unduly limit the extent of this teaching. Anytime the Pope definitively decides a question of faith and morals, for the whole Church, he acts infallibly. Examples include not only the teaching on the Immaculate Conception and on the Assumption, but also moral questions such as Pope John Paul II’s condemnation of direct abortion in Evangelium vitae. It also includes, for instance, the canonization of saints (but not beatifications). Infallibility is a charism, a special grace, by which God guarantees that the teaching in question is not in error. It does NOT guarantee that a teaching is expressed in the best way, or that the arguments advanced to support the teaching are necessarily true—that is, a pope might argue from erroneous scientific facts to a dogmatic conclusion. The dogma is true, even if the arguments are later determined to be inaccurate.
The vast majority of a pope’s comments do not share in the charism of infallibility. This can be seen from the purpose of infallibility. The charism is granted to the pope in order to ensure that the pope does not lead the Church astray concerning the revelation granted once for all through Jesus Christ. All Christians are bound to accept, and believe in their hearts, all that the Church teaches. When a pope teaches in a definitive matter, all Christians are obliged to believe what he teaches. This means, though, that the pope must intend to bind Christians in conscience to believe what he is teaching.
Clearly, off the cuff remarks in a newspaper or to a journalist do not meet this criteria. Even direct teaching, such as teaching in a General Audience or even in an Encyclical does not necessarily reach this level. A pope may believe his teaching is correct, may want Catholics (and men and women of good will) to believe something—but this is entirely different from invoking his supreme authority to compel belief. Canon law confirms this point, stating that for a teaching to be infallible, it must be clearly so.
Once again, a distinction must be made. For a pope to clearly intend to make an infallible dogmatic judgment is an objective criteria. An infallible teaching does not become less than infallible because some people make the argument that it is unclear. Paul VI’s teaching on artificial contraception in Humanae vitae, and John Paul II’s teaching on the ordination of women to the priesthood in n.n. are manifestly infallible. The two popes explicitly intend to bind the whole Church to their teaching. That some theologians or others profess to not be certain whether these dogmas are clearly infallible is not sufficient to compromise the infallibility of those teachings.
Now, how can we tell if a statement is an ex cathedra decision? Pastor Aeternus (chapter 4) lays out several criteria. The Pope teaches ex cathedra—that is, infallibly—when, “exercising his office as pastor and teacher of all Christians he defines, by his supreme apostolic authority, a doctrine of faith or morals which must be held by the universal Church.” Vatican II essentially repeats this: the Pope, the Head of the College of Bishops, by virtue of his office, is possessed of the infallibility “with which the Divine Redeemer wished His Church to endowed in defining matters of faith or morals . . . when, as supreme pastor and teacher of all of Christ’s faithful and the one who confirms his brothers in the faith (cf. Lk. 22:32), he proclaims by a definitive act doctrine concerning faith and morals” (Lumen gentium, 25).
With regard to the recent statements of Pope Francis, it is obvious—really obvious—that most of his comments are not infallible definitions. Letters to the editor, interviews with journalists, even daily homilies fail to meet the criteria necessary for a statement to be infallible. Although he may be speaking about faith or morals, he is emphatically not making a solemn definition that the Church must hold this teaching.
Most often, he is speaking in a familiar manner about his own personal feelings. As many people have pointed out, precisely because he is speaking to individuals or to small audience, his remarks often lack the precision of a formal definition. Moreover, he is usually tailoring his remarks to that particular audience. Further, because of his informal manner of speaking, he often leaves out necessary precisions and clarifications that might help clarify his thought.
It should be noted, too, that often he is not making an objective statement about the truth. That is, there are many kinds of statements that do not make truth claims. Questions, for instance, cannot be evaluated as true or false. “It is raining,” makes a claim that can be verified as true or rejected as false; “Is it raining?” does not make a claim one way or another. Pope Francis often uses rhetorical devices that do not make truth claims. Many statements, especially in casual conversation (Pope Francis’ preferred way of speaking) have a minimal truth value. When you say, “It’s a nice day” you’re not making a profound statement. It can be true or false in different ways, depending on the context in which it is said. It might mean the weather is pleasant, or that the speaker is having a good day, or that it’s a nice day for this time of year, or it could be a meaningless platitude. In none of these cases is the speaker making any profound claims about the niceness of that particular day—and he is certainly not obliging his hearers to accept this as the truth.
Still, for all that he is nonetheless the Pope, and in virtue of his role as Vicar of Christ, he is given the graces necessary for his state in life. Of course, we all have the experience of failing to respond to the graces we are given; that one is given graces does not mean that we necessarily respond positively to them. However, because he is the Pope, we must have a certain respect for the man and the office, especially when he is trying to teach us or lead us into good Christian belief and practice. It seems obvious that Pope Francis is sincere in his belief. It is our duty, as good Christians, to be predisposed to think the best of what the Pope says and to be genuinely open to his teaching and docile to his leadership. Pope Francis, though, has himself called on the laity to take a greater role in the Church, and has called on us to challenge him and to make our own contributions to the Church. We can look at the Pope’s words and actions, and, with a spirit of humility and charity, come to the conclusion that they are not particularly helpful—or that they are positively counter-productive, even dangerous. In that case, we might have an obligation to speak out or even resist the Pope. I say might: one does not always have the duty to act, especially when one recognizes that acting would do no good, or that it might even cause greater harm. All of this calls for great prayer and discernment. The spiritual counsels that we must begin with humility and charity; that we must have a great distrust of ourselves and a great confidence in God; that we must begin by looking at and correcting our own faults, are all relevant and necessary. This doesn’t mean we must be perfect before we do anything—else we could never act. As always, we must rely on God to guide and direct us, doing what we can, with God’s grace, to know His will and to do it.