Catholicism, Christianity, Pope Francis, Synod of Bishops, The Catholic Church

Pope Francis: Infallibility Doesn’t Make Him Right

CNS PHOTO BY PAUL HARING

When the Bishops returned from the Synod it was clear that rather than building consensus the meeting revealed deep divisions among them on some issues of Catholic social teaching.  Cardinal Burke took the extraordinary step of questioning the leadership of Pope Francis and called the Church a “rudderless ship” under him.  Needless to say the secular media is ga-ga over the idea that “conservative” bishops are finally getting their just deserts for their medieval treatment of “progressive” clergy over the last 30+ years under the tyrannical leadership of the last two “traditionalist” Popes.  Cardinal Burke was subsequently removed from his influential position and transferred to a largely ceremonial one.

Ominous media headlines speak of rebellion and “schism”.  Most of these articles mention that their author is “former Catholic”.  No doubt in an attempt to shore up their credibility on the inner workings of the Catholic Church.  Invariably, the authors say they, ‘love the Church but were forced to leave because of her heartless and inflexible rules’.  Of course, the author is itching to come back as soon as the reforms of Francis are put in place and the Church joins the 21st century.

But is the fighting between factions of Bishops something new?  Is it something unusual? 

Hardly.

In Matthew 18, Jesus said, “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” Mt 18:15-18

So here, Jesus has the Apostles collected together and he is teaching them how they will solve problems that arise in the Church.  Jesus says, “if your brother sins against you”.  The most fundamental meaning of the word “sin” is to go against the will of God.  So when He says, “if your brother sins against you”, He is saying if your brother doesn’t do your collective will – the will of the Church – this is how you handle it.

And what is the method established by Jesus to decide weighty issues?  He says, “go tell it to the Church”!  In other words, get everyone together and have a big meeting and what the meeting decides then that is the rule.  We see this lived out in Acts 15, when a dispute arises as to whether new converts to Christianity must also comply with the Jewish law and be circumcised.  Paul and Barnabas cannot solve the issue so they bring the matter to the Apostles assembled together in Jerusalem.  Think about it, Paul was clearly a man a strong opinions and he had no hesitation sharing them.  He commanded respect and yet he could not get the pro-circumcision faction to back down.  So he walked to Jerusalem and “told it to the Church”.  This must have been a raucous meeting indeed.  Just imagine the speech Paul gave.  And the Church decided the issue. 

So this process of meeting to settle theological disputes is instituted by Jesus and has been with the Church from the beginning.  How sublime of God, to use man’s own fallen nature as the very mechanism to bring truth to the Church.  People, even Bishops, come to meetings ready to defend their positions.  They think, “I’m right and let me tell you why!”. 

Not only have these meetings and debates been with us from the beginning but so has open criticism of the Pope.  It was Paul who called out Peter for refusing to eat with the gentiles in Galatians:

When Peter came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he was clearly in the wrong. Before certain men came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But when they arrived, he began to draw back and separate himself from the Gentiles because he was afraid of those who belonged to the circumcision group. Gal 2:11-13

Again, nothing new here.

But what really gets the secular media going is their perception of hypocrisy.  It’s like blood in the water for the sharks.  By their thinking, if the Pope is infallible and Francis says “X” then he is right and the Bishops opposing him are no better than toddlers throwing fits.

But infallibility doesn’t mean the Pope is right, it just means that he can’t be wrong.  There’s a difference.

First, notice what Jesus says when he gives the Church the power to decide disputes, “Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”  What would happen if the Church bound an error on earth?  By Jesus’ own rules that error would be bound in heaven.  However, we know heaven is perfect and there cannot be error in heaven.  Therefore, the Pope and the Church must be protected from binding error on earth.  Jesus’ statement necessarily includes a promise that the Church will not teach error.

What does the Church itself say about this gift of infallibility?  Well, it says that the Pope will be protected from teaching error, “When, in the exercise of his office as shepherd and teacher of all Christians, in virtue of his supreme apostolic authority, he defines a doctrine concerning faith or morals to be held by the whole Church.” Translation: when the Pope intentionally teaches a doctrine of faith or morals to the whole Church that teaching will be protected from error, it will not be wrong.  But notice, that doesn’t mean that every idea or theory or thought that issues from the mouth of the Pope is automatically right.  Ask the Pope who is going to win the next World Series and his GUESS will be as good as yours.  That’s just as true for the Pope thinking out loud about the possibilities of change.  However, if the Pope intentionally and publicly proclaims a doctrine of faith or morality to everyone, then he will be protected from error.

And on all these social issues the Church is discussing, Pope Francis hasn’t done that yet. Talking about how things might change is not the same as actually changing things. 

In fact, all Pope Francis did was call for the Church to discuss these issues and guess what … we’re debating the heck out of them. Pope Francis has suggested some of the things that he would like to see.  He has said that he wants to see a more forgiving, more merciful and more welcoming Church.  Who could argue that he’s not absolutely right about that?  But that doesn’t mean that he or the other reformers are right about how the Church can or should achieve those goals.  As discussed above, when the Church argued about the circumcision of converts that was one group of Catholics arguing with another group of Catholics.  One group lost and one group turned out to be right and won.  And look what the Bible says of the decision that was reached, “For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay on you no greater burden than these requirements…” Act 15:28.  So the decision of the council was not just a human decision but it was a decision that seemed good to the Holy Spirit, it seemed good to God. 

The debate on the family will continue and in 2015 the Bishops will meet again to debate some more and maybe decide something.  And if they come to a conclusion at that time, the Pope might choose to teach it to the entire Church and if he does we will know that it is right because at that point he will be protected from being wrong.


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1 thought on “Pope Francis: Infallibility Doesn’t Make Him Right”

  1. One correction. Progressives constantly say that conservatives have been in charge of the church for the last 30 years. This is true, but only at the Papal level. In fact, at the diocese level, progressives have been in charge until the last ten years or so. JP II appointed many progressive bishops,and they ruled over their flocks with an iron progressive hand, eliminating to sidetracking much of what Orthodox Catholicism was about. It has only been in the last ten years or so that a consistently orthodox Catholic episcopacy has been in place. So the progressives have “suffered” only for the last ten years or so.

    If conservatives had been in charge over the last 30 years, then it would not have been necessry for Benedict to issue Summorum Pontificum to force local bishops to allow the things that Vatican II called for.

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