Praised be Jesus Christ, and Mary, His Most Holy Mother! One of the most misunderstood doctrines (teachings) of the Church is that of Papal Infallibility (meaning “without error”). Up until about 50 years ago, most people never read or heard what the Holy Father had to say except for every so often when the Successor to St. Peter might have had something of importance to communicate to Catholics or to all the world. Assuredly, throughout the 19 plus centuries of Christianity there were popes who reigned for any number of years who never made a single theological or pastoral pronouncement of gravity that was recorded. What they had to say never went much further than those who physically heard them speak. Today’s experience in the second decade of the 21st Century is a much different story.
In these days of instantaneous global media communication, one might be led to erroneously believe that everything and anything the Pope says is of infallible weight. In reality, papal infallibility (the extraordinary magisterium) exists within a very narrow scope and is rarely employed; the last time was by Pope Pius XII in 1950. When a doctrine is declared infallible it is never some “new” teaching being declared, but rather to the contrary, something that has to do with the development of a doctrine which the Church has always believed and celebrated at the very least “in seed form;” like those of our Blessed Mother’s Immaculate Conception (1854) and also her Assumption into Heaven (1950), which the Church had believed and celebrated for many centuries. To use a classic example, the pope cannot declare a white sheet of paper to be black. Such a ridiculous statement would have nothing to do with faith or morals, and if the pope did say such a thing, we should rightly say that he is out of his mind!
The First Vatican Ecumenical Council (December 8, 1869 – October 20, 1870) has defined as "a divinely revealed dogma" that "the Roman Pontiff, when he speaks ex cathedra (“from the chair” [of Peter]) — that is, when in the exercise of his office as pastor and teacher of all Christians he defines, by virtue of his supreme Apostolic authority, a doctrine of faith or morals to be held by the whole Church — is, by reason of the Divine assistance promised to him in blessed Peter, possessed of that infallibility with which the Divine Redeemer wished His Church to be endowed in defining doctrines of faith and morals; and consequently that such definitions of the Roman Pontiff are irreformable (cannot be changed) of their own nature and not by reason of the Church's consent." For the correct understanding of this definition it is to be noted that:
· What is claimed for the pope is infallibility merely, not impeccability (that he is without sin) or inspiration (like the guidance of the Holy Spirit communicated to the human authors of Sacred Scripture.)
· The infallibility claimed for the pope is the same in its nature, scope, and extent as that which the Church as a whole possesses; his ex cathedra teaching does not have to be ratified by the Church's in order to be infallible.
· Infallibility is not attributed to every doctrinal act of the pope, but only to his ex cathedra teaching; and the conditions required for ex cathedra teaching are mentioned in the Vatican decree:
The pontiff must teach in his public and official capacity as pastor and doctor of all Christians, not merely in his private capacity as a theologian, preacher or allocutionist, nor in his capacity as a temporal prince or as a mere ordinary (chief bishop) of the Diocese of Rome. It must be clear that he speaks as spiritual head of the Church universal.
Then it is only when, in this capacity, he teaches some doctrine of faith or morals that he is infallible.
Further it must be sufficiently evident that he intends to teach with all the fullness and finality of his supreme Apostolic authority; in other words that he wishes to determine some point of doctrine in an absolutely final and irrevocable way, or to define it in the technical sense. These are well-recognized formulas by means of which the defining intention may be manifested.
Finally for an ex cathedra decision it must be clear that the pope intends to bind the whole Church. To demand internal assent from all the faithful to his teaching under pain of incurring spiritual shipwreck (naufragium fidei) according to the expression used by Pius IX in defining the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin. Theoretically, this intention might be made sufficiently clear in a papal decision which is addressed only to a particular Church; but in present day conditions, when it is so easy to communicate with the most distant parts of the earth and to secure a literally universal promulgation of papal acts, the presumption is that unless the pope formally addresses the whole Church in the recognized official way, he does not intend his doctrinal teaching to be held by all the faithful as ex cathedra and infallible.
It should be observed in conclusion that papal infallibility is a personal and incommunicable charisma, which is not shared by any pontifical tribunal. It was promised directly to Peter, and to each of Peter's successors in the primacy, but not as a prerogative the exercise of which that could be delegated to others. Hence doctrinal decisions or instructions issued by the Roman congregations, even when approved by the pope in the ordinary way, have no claim to be considered infallible. To be infallible they must be issued by the pope himself in his own name according to the conditions already mentioned as requisite for ex cathedra teaching.
Ss. Peter and Paul, pray for us!
St. Philip Neri: Well! When shall we have a mind to begin to do good?
St. Josémaria Escrivá: Yes, in so many ways you are a zero; but, never forget that to the left of all those zeroes Fr stands the One who is Christ Himself; with Him how great can you be!
Pope Francis: The Evil One never takes a vacation!
Benedicat Virgo Maria!
In Jesus and Mary,
Monsignor James F. Pereda