The “most disturbing image” gag in Wiley Miller’s Non Sequitur comic depends on a fairly common misunderstanding of Catholic belief. The important word in that sentence is misunderstanding. Papal infallibility doesn’t mean that.

I’m none too pleased that Catholic beliefs are misunderstood by non-Catholics: and by some Catholics. But I can’t fault a cartoonist for poking fun at cultural quirks I see as silly. Not reasonably.

Besides, strips featuring the Church of Danae’s “so-called holy scriptures” have given me pretty good illustrations of what I don’t believe. (March 31, 2017)

The Magisterium

A few of the world’s Catholics may believe that a pope is infallible about everything: that popes can’t ever make mistakes.

Like I said, some of us don’t know or remember what we’ve been taught.

Infallibility isn’t limited to popes. It’s a characteristic of the Church. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 889)

I could stop right there, but that’d be a bad idea.

We’re also told that not everything the Magisterium does is infallible. Although when the Magisterium clarifies some aspect of our faith, I’m obliged to take it seriously. (Catechism, 892)

“Magisterium” isn’t a fancy word for “Pope.” It’s the position of authority held by the Church. The Magisterium’s job is explaining the Bible and Tradition — capital “T.” (Catechism, 85, 890, 2033)

I take Tradition very seriously. I must, if I’m going to be a Catholic. That’s not even close to trying to live as if 1954 never happened. (June 18, 2017; June 4, 2017)

Where was I? Comics, infallibility, the Magisterium. Right.

Terms and Conditions

Infallibility is strictly limited to a particular sort of formal declaration.

It applies when the Pope, acting as the Pope, officially declares a doctrine of faith or morals “by definitive act.” (Code of Canon Law, Book III, 749 §1)

“Morals” in this case isn’t limited to the zipper issues you see in tabloids. It’s pretty much the same as “ethics.”

The College of Bishops can do the same sort of thing, with similar requirements.

When they declare a “doctrine of faith or morals is to be held definitively,” it’s infallible. (Code of Canon Law, Book III, 749 §2)

That happens when they exercise the Magisterium in an ecumenical council, working with the Pope. After that, the doctrine applies to everyone in the Church. All those conditions must be obviously met. (Code of Canon Law, Book III, 749 §2, 749 §3)

The idea of papal infallibility is old, even by Catholic standards. As a dogma it’s a fairly recent development. The First Vatican Council defined it in “Pastor Aeternus,” issued July 18, 1870. Predictably, some folks didn’t like it.1

I had an interesting discussion with a Catholic who seemed convinced that the Church hadn’t been really “Catholic” since the Council of Trent.

He had a firm grasp of some historical details. That, I appreciate. His assumption that we went wrong around the time Elizabeth Tudor got sprung from the Tower of London? I am quite sure he was mistaken.

My guess is that a few Catholics will have similar attitudes about post-1870 developments during the mid-25th century.

I get the impression that ‘the Pope isn’t Catholic’ folks are also upset each time they hear that Canon Law has changed.

I’m not, but that’s no great virtue.

Long before I became a Catholic, I knew that ad hoc rules aren’t the same as unchanging ethical principles.

I don’t expect rules that worked in the 1st or 11th centuries to be practical in the 21st or 41st. (July 14, 2017; February 5, 2017; June 4, 2017)

Judging from the nitpicking I occasionally see, some folks won’t think the conditions for infallibility are met unless the Pope starts agreeing with them.

“Divine Assistance”

Rules like the Code of Canon Law are important, and serve to define how the Catholic Church works.

But I don’t think any set of rules could keep humans from mismanaging an organization into oblivion, given time.

We’ve had two millennia, and ample opportunities, to do just that.

But the Church has endured major social, political, and economic upheavals — including the Roman Empire’s dissolution and Renaissance.

Human institutions don’t do that.

After two millennia of wildly improbable survival, I’m inclined to believe what the Church says about what keeps us going.

We’ve had help. (June 4, 2017)

“Divine assistance” is what holds up the Church. It’s also what makes papal infallibility work. (Catechism, 888892)

That’s an extreme claim. But it explains how the Church survived Popes like Benedict IX. I’ll get back to him.

The terms we use to describe this assistance have changed over the millennia. But we’ve known we wouldn’t be on our own ever since our Lord left. Before, actually. (Matthew 28:1820; John 14:1518)

Reasoned Obedience

The notion that we blindly do whatever the Pope says may be a root of papaphobia. It’s a real word.

I probably wouldn’t have become a Catholic if it meant unthinking conformity. Happily, that’s not required: or recommended.

Obedience to legitimate authority, including the Pope’s, is part of my faith.

Turning my brain off isn’t. (Catechism, 1778, 1951, 2217)

Faith and reason should get along. (Catechism, 35, 154159)

The Catholic version of faith is a willing and reasoned obedience to God’s will. (Catechism, 143152)

Our number one role model for this obedience is Mary. (Catechism, 148149)

She was obedient, and asked a reasonable question. Zachariah, not so much. And that’s yet another topic. (December 18, 2016)

I’ll grant that much of the Catechism’s discussion of obedience and using our brains deals with everyday examples: like children and parents, citizens and secular authorities.

My guess is that for most Catholics, those are generally the situations where we have to think about whether rules make sense.

Between living in an era that’s far from serene, and growing up as a non-Catholic in a very non-Catholic culture, I’ve had to think about what Popes say pretty often.

But when I hear or read that the Pope said something that doesn’t make obvious sense, my first impulse is not to assume I’m right and the Pope must be wrong.

Instead, I start learning what the Pope actually said and how it relates to faith and my life. And that’s yet again another topic.

Perfect Popes? No Such Thing

Some Popes are recognized Saints, including two in the 20th century. Some were pretty much the opposite.

My favorite ‘poster child’ for appalling Papal role models is Benedict IX.

Nothing wrong with the name “Benedict,” by the way. The first Pope Benedict lived about a half-millennium before number nine. We’re up to Benedict XVI now.

We don’t know much about Benedict I. Being Pope after Theodoric’s successors lost the Gothic War may explain that.

The Goths and their Ostrogothic Kingdom had been maintaining a semblance of order in Italy and lands east of the Adriatic. Italy was a mess after the war. The other side didn’t exactly win, either. Those were interesting times. (April 28, 2017)

Anyway, Benedict IX was pope three times between October 1032 and July 1048. He was kicked out twice, and sold the papacy once. Maybe.

The sale isn’t well-documented, for obvious reasons. Even during the worst of our rough patches, and we’ve had some doozies, I don’t think anybody would want a receipt for that.

About 28 years and a half-dozen Popes after Benedict IX, we got Pope Gregory VII and the Gregorian Reform.2

My guess is that the Gregorian Reform upset some folks as much as Vatican II did. Does.

Living in an era of good and occasionally-Saintly popes helped me take the Church seriously. But I didn’t join because I liked the good popes.

Oddly enough, it was the monumentally bad Popes who helped convince me that our “divine assistance” was real. That wasn’t my only reason for conversion.

I decided to become a Catholic, grudgingly, after finding the Church’s logic impeccable: and learning who held the authority our Lord gave Peter. At that point, I had a choice: but only one viable option.

It’s like Simon Peter said in John 6:68: “to whom shall we go?”

Part of my take on authority, obedience, and building a civilization of love:

1 Councils, rules, and a few documents:

2 A few successors to Peter, and a little history:

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About Brian H. Gill

I was born in 1951. I'm a husband, father and grandfather. One of the kids graduated from college in December, 2008, and is helping her husband run businesses and raise my granddaughter; another is a cartoonist and artist; #3 daughter is a writer; my son is developing a digital game with #3 and #1 daughters. I'm also a writer and artist.
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3 Responses to Infallibility?

  1. Pingback: Infallibility?

  2. irishbrigid says:

    Missing word: “The terms we use describe this assistance”

    Another missing word: “The Goths and their Ostrogothic Kingdom been maintaining a semblance of order”

    The Friendly Neighborhood Proofreader

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