Papal Errors

In 1986, Pope John Paul II arranged a World Day of Peace in Assisi to which he invited 160 religious leaders, including Jews, Buddhists, Sikhs, Hindus, Jains, Zoroastrians, and members of African traditional religions. Some Catholics were scandalized. Subsequently, John Paul would publish the encyclicals Centesimus Annus (1991); Veritatis Splendor (1993); Evangelium Vitae (1995); and Fides et Ratio (1998). Question: If a Catholic was outraged by the prayer meeting in Assisi, is he or she still called upon to offer to the teachings of these encyclicals the “religious submission of intellect and will”?

In 1929, Pope Pius XI signed the Lateran Treaty with the Fascist government of Benito Mussolini, which recognized the Vatican as an independent state and accorded the Church financial support from Mussolini’s government. There were many at the time – and ever since – who have been highly critical of this both because it was a pact made with the Fascists and because Pius had ceded the pope’s traditional authority over “the Papal States.” Are Catholics who believe Pius’s decision was a huge mistake not bound by the teachings of Quadragesimo anno, Quas primas, or Divini Redemptoris?

In 1633, Pope Urban VIII steadfastly refused the judgment of members of his own inquisition tribunal that Galileo should be pardoned for the “error” of publishing his Dialogue on the Two Chief World Systems. Urban, who had earlier been a defender and patron of Galileo, seems to have been offended because Galileo had put one of the pope’s own arguments into the mouth of his character “Simplicio” (the Simpleton). The pope’s decision to put Galileo under house arrest has become notorious. Does this one decision render everything else he taught on faith and morals worthless?

Some distinctions are in order. The Church holds that popes can, in certain instances, when they explicitly intend to do so, teach infallibly in matters of faith and morals. In the entire history of the Church, there are perhaps eight proclamations that meet the stringent requirements for an infallible pronouncement. Most papal teachings are authoritative, but not infallible, calling not for an “assent of faith,” as do infallible teachings, but “the religious submission of intellect and will.”

Is it ever licit for a faithful Catholic to disagree with an authoritative, non-infallible teaching of a pope? Yes. If a person has inquired diligently into the teaching in question, and if after serious prayer and reflection, feels that fraternal correction is in order, then one may express this disagreement publicly as long as: (A) one’s reasons are serious and well-founded; (B) one’s dissent does not question or impugn the teaching authority of the Church; and (C) the nature of the dissent is not such as to give rise to scandal.

I’ve often thought that these would serve as good rules-of-thumb for disagreeing with almost anybody. You should have good reasons for your position; you should strive not to impugn the integrity or good intentions of your interlocutor; and you should argue in such a way as not to give scandal. One rarely wins over others (including bystanders) by brow-beating them; you usually succeed only in making your side look bad.

Galileo (and Urban VIII) by Edmond van Hoven, c. 1885 [‪Groeningemuseum, Bruges]
Galileo (and Urban VIII) by Edmond van Hoven, c. 1885 [‪Groeningemuseum, Bruges]

So much for papal teaching.

What about papal actions? Along with the gift of infallibility, do popes have the gift of impeccability (from the Latin peccatum, meaning “sin”), a special charism guaranteeing they never make mistakes?

The Church has never made this claim. Quite the contrary, those who have been the staunchest defenders of infallibility have always distinguished it from impeccability precisely because (A) it’s clear that any number of popes have committed grievous sins, and (B) it’s a matter of faith that every pope is a sinner, just like the rest of us, in need of God’s saving grace won by the death and resurrection of Christ. We don’t worship the man; we respect the office; we have faith in Christ’s promise to be with His Church until the end of the age and to send His Holy Spirit to guide and protect her.

Years ago someone told me that John Paul II didn’t give communion in the hand, which showed that John Paul II was condemning the practice. I suggested that if the pope wanted to communicate this message, he had plenty of official channels to do so. There is a species of papal idolatry that is, in the long run, not helpful. I wonder what my friend would say now. If he is still mistaking the pope’s personal actions for official papal teaching, he’s probably confused – and angry.

Watching a pope’s every action for its political significance is the sort of foolishness that caused certain people to condemn Christ for eating with (“yucking it up with”) prostitutes and tax collectors. Such actions were said to “cause scandal,” “sow confusion,” and “show support for the Church’s enemies.” Maybe; maybe not. “Time will tell where wisdom lies.”

Some popes have made major mistakes. But every pope makes some mistakes; they’re only human after all. If you want perfection and sinlessness, you’re looking for a church that doesn’t exist, an empty promise from the Father of Lies, not the one established by Christ.

Being confused or disappointed with a pope is a common enough state of affairs in Church history. But Catholics who imagine that they have the authority to set the canonical standard by which the teaching of this or any papacy can be judged are simply showing (A) that they have really been Protestants all along, and (B) that their view of authority is the one that characterizes too much of modern American politics: authority’s job is to do what I say and to crush my opponents.

The Church hasn’t always been well served by her popes. But then again, she has always been much worse off when she has given-in to the self-righteous voices of the mob – especially when they’re shouting “Crucify him.”

Randall B. Smith is a Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas. His latest book is From Here to Eternity: Reflections on Death, Immortality, and the Resurrection of the Body.