Infallible–what a word to strike fear into the hearts of those accustomed to putting their own convictions above everyone else’s! How dare someone suggest that “an old man in Rome” could know better than myself how to live! When I first heard of the “infallibility of the pope,” I cringed at such audacity. To think that some man would say he had the final say on all things here on earth! What arrogance! However, this kind of reaction often comes when we fail to ask basic questions: What is meant by infallibility? How far does it extend? Upon what basis is it claimed?
First, to be infallible does not mean that the Pope is sinless. There are only four humans who were sinless and only two who remained so: Adam and Eve, Jesus and Mary. Adam and Eve disobeyed God and were the first humans to sin. Jesus was without sin because He is the Second Person of the Trinity. Mary was sinless by a one-time-only act of God by which she was preserved from all sin in anticipation of her Son’s sacrifice. (This was done for her because she was to be the mother of God, Jesus Christ.) No pope, from the first, St. Peter, to the present, Pope Francis, has been sinless. They have been and are, most assuredly, fully human and sinners redeemed by grace who still suffer concupiscence, the tendency to sin.
Second, infallibility is not the same thing as omniscience. The pope doesn’t know everything. Not only does he not know everything, he can be wrong about some things the same as anyone else can. Just today I read an article by Fr. Z about Pope Francis being mistaken in his assessment on why the poor are not being fed in the world today (see article here). And he certainly cannot predict the future. Pope Francis had to await the outcome of the World Cup just like every other rabid soccer fan in the world!
Third, the pope’s infallibility doesn’t extend to every area of life.
So, if infallibility doesn’t make him sinless, all-knowing, or an expert in everything, then what is it? Quite simply, the pope is infallible in matters of faith and morals. That’s it. However, considering the extent to which faith and morals affect life here on planet Earth, that’s a lot.
Most of the time the popes do not make infallible declarations on their own. Usually, a pope consults extensively with his bishops and any experts in the field with which he is concerned. However, even with all voices saying, “Yea,” the pope has been known to say, “Nay” and vice versa.
One of the best examples of this is the release of the encyclical Humanae Vitae by Pope Paul VI in 1968. This declaration created shock waves throughout the Western world because everyone thought the Catholic Church’s ban on birth control was going to be lifted just as every other church had since 1930 (no church approved prior to that). Many experts, theologians, and even bishops urged the pope to approve it and he was personally inclined to do so for some time. However, after much prayer and study, when the time came to write the document, what he released was the opposite of what had been expected: The pope reaffirmed what had been long-held, that artificial forms of birth control were immoral means to use in family planning.
The shockwaves and repercussions were huge! Many Catholics simply revolted and used ABC anyway with their priests and bishops supporting their decisions, even suggesting it. In Canada, the bishops came out with their own response of rebellion against this teaching (the Winnipeg Statement). However, when reading the document today, the pope’s warning of consequences is almost eerie. How could any man have predicted what he did so accurately? The following paragraphs are from the document, which is worth reading in its entirety. It’s not long or hard to understand (Humane Vitae). (boldface mine)
17. Responsible men can become more deeply convinced of the truth of the doctrine laid down by the Church on this issue if they reflect on the consequences of methods and plans for artificial birth control. Let them first consider how easily this course of action could open wide the way for marital infidelity and a general lowering of moral standards. Not much experience is needed to be fully aware of human weakness and to understand that human beings—and especially the young, who are so exposed to temptation—need incentives to keep the moral law, and it is an evil thing to make it easy for them to break that law. Another effect that gives cause for alarm is that a man who grows accustomed to the use of contraceptive methods may forget the reverence due to a woman, and, disregarding her physical and emotional equilibrium, reduce her to being a mere instrument for the satisfaction of his own desires, no longer considering her as his partner whom he should surround with care and affection.
Finally, careful consideration should be given to the danger of this power passing into the hands of those public authorities who care little for the precepts of the moral law. Who will blame a government which in its attempt to resolve the problems affecting an entire country resorts to the same measures as are regarded as lawful by married people in the solution of a particular family difficulty? Who will prevent public authorities from favoring those contraceptive methods which they consider more effective? Should they regard this as necessary, they may even impose their use on everyone. It could well happen, therefore, that when people, either individually or in family or social life, experience the inherent difficulties of the divine law and are determined to avoid them, they may give into the hands of public authorities the power to intervene in the most personal and intimate responsibility of husband and wife.
Also, since 1968, science and medicine have advanced dramatically and we now know what we didn’t then: ABC works about a third of the time by preventing implantation, not through preventing conception. Science has now proven that life does, indeed, begin at conception. Divorce rates, marital infidelity, premarital sex, domestic abuse, rape, abortion (necessary for failed contraception), China’s one-child policy, UN requirements that force “family planning” on poor countries needing aid, etc. The list could go on and on. Even the pope himself couldn’t foresee the tragedy that contraception would allow.
So, how could an old man in Rome possibly know this? Because Jesus promised His disciples that they would be led into all truth by the Holy Spirit (John 14:26, 15:26, 16:12-14; Acts 15:28 gives example of proper application of these verses). I’ve already written about Peter being given the Keys to the Kingdom, about the Church being built upon him, about Jesus giving him the authority to “bind and loose.” Jesus gave His Church into the care of Peter by the Sea of Tiberias (John 21:15-19) and that care and authority was passed on to the next pope and the next and so on down through history so that the Church would be able to distinguish the truth amid all the voices claiming their own version of truth.
This is the gift that papal infallibility gives to all of us, especially in a time of such fast technological and scientific advances. The Bible alone will not give us clear answers to questions about artificial contraception, in-vitro fertilization, women’s ordination and many other issues never imagined by our First Century brothers and sisters in Christ. Jesus assured us that He would never leave us nor forsake us, even in 21st Century America.