Not too long ago I wrote an article on whether any criticism of the pope is allowed or not. I really think that we need to go to the basics on papal infallibility which in my opinion is something that many Catholics and non Catholics are confused about. Many people in other words are not well catechized when it comes to a proper understanding of papal infallibility and that makes it difficult when a pope might say or do something rather strange to a Catholic.
I think a good place to start is with Pope John Paul II. Blessed Pope John Paul II is going to be canonized fairly soon on August twenty-seventh. He was a pope that many people admired for his take on the problems that were facing the world and the Church. While I myself did not grow up with Pope John Paul II, rather I am a Benedict and a Francis child, meaning that those are the two popes which I have grown up with, most people in my family did grow up during his pontificate. He helped fight communism, he talked excessively about solidarity, he challenged the evil killing machine of abortion and what he called The Culture of Death, as well as the Throw Away Culture. He defended priestly celibacy, and he even helped bring about the traditional Latin Mass with his Motu Propio Ecclesia Dei in 1988.
However various Catholics, specifically amongst Traditionalists point to some of his rather negative actions which occurred during his pontificate. One of the fundamental actions which is talked about is Pope John Paul II kissing the Quran, an action which many people use to say rather negative statements of the Pope, many of which are quite uncharitable and some of them are simply plain wrong. This is also true of some other actions such as his approach to ecumenism which various Catholics, specifically traditional minded ones criticize as they usually think it was rather more than necessary or at least they don’t agree with his approach. This includes some of his prayer meetings with pagans. Then there are other actions which did not occur directly from the pontiff, but were rather allowed or not fully prevented by Pope John Paul for example. For example it is claimed that Pope John Pau II did not strongly criticizing Marcial Maciel.
I think it is true that many Catholics might not give the pope the benefit of the doubt, and many other Catholics uncharitably criticize the pope for some of these concerns such as those listed above. However I will not say that they are completely without merit either. Rather I think some of the concerns are rather valid. For example I myself think some of his approaches regarding ecumenism were not the best. I also think it was highly imprudent of His Holiness to kiss the Quran, an action which did in fact cause scandal and confusion. For example various Catholics got the false idea from this act that Islam was in the same level with Catholicism which is clearly not true.
These defects are obviously not to be pointed solely at Pope John Paul II, for every pope has his own. If you read my article posted above you will know that various popes have their own areas in which they could legitimately be criticized. This is not in of itself bad. Our current pontiff Pope Francis certaintly has his own defects. As a matter of fact we all do. Some statements that were made by Pope Francis for example were in fact quite ambiguous. Of course the media tweaks the pope’s words around probably ninety percent of the time which any good Catholic ought to know by now. But it is definitely something he ought to work through just as any one of us ought to work through our own defects and struggles.
I have already written about whether a pope can be criticized, which you can read by clicking here. I stated in that article that a pope can legitimately be criticized if he is given the benefit of the doubt, is done for a love of truth, and is done in the basis of charity. The main purpose of this article is not about whether a pope can be critcized which has already been covered but about what papal infallibility really means.
First of all Papal infallibility was believed by Catholics before Vatican I. But it was not until then that it became a dogma. For that reason let us start by describing what Vatican I had to say about papal infallibility.
Therefore, faithfully adhering to the tradition received from the beginning of the Christian faith, to the glory of God our savior, for the exaltation of the Catholic religion and for the salvation of the Christian people, with the approval of the Sacred Council, we teach and define as a divinely revealed dogma that when the Roman Pontiff speaks EX CATHEDRA, that is, 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, he possesses, by the divine assistance promised to him in blessed Peter, that infallibility which the divine Redeemer willed his Church to enjoy in defining doctrine concerning faith or morals. Therefore, such definitions of the Roman Pontiff are of themselves, and not by the consent of the Church, irreformable.1
Thus this means that the pope is infallible only when he speaks Ex Cathedra. This means that the Pope speaks in behalf of not only a group of Catholics, or nation, but over the whole Church as the Supreme Pontiff, and that he speaks with utmost authority, and defines a dogma within the area of faith and morals. Thus not everything necessarily that comes out of the popes mouth is necessarily infallible. Say the pope speaks about the economy. The pope could also say something regarding faith or morals whether in private, or in writing that is wrong and contains error. Yet this would not be true if the pope happens to be exercising Ex Cathedra since the pope is not speaking humanely anymore but is rather the Holy Spirit speaking through the pope.
This clarifies probably two main misconceptions about papal infallibility. The first one is that the pope is impeccable, meaning that he can’t sin. Any Catholic with good reason will know that this is simply not the case. The pope himself has to go to confession. Even Pope Francis went to confession which you can see for yourself by clicking here. The second misconception as stated above which is clarified is that every action which the pope does is automatically infallible. Rather as you can see, for an action to be infallible it needs to meet three criteria which is named as an Ex Cathedra statement.
Thus there have been popes that have privately fallen into heresy whether by letter or action such as Pope John XXII, or Pope Honorius. This is described in Saint Francis de Sales’ book The Catholic Controversy in chapter fourteen.
Thus we do not say that the Pope cannot err in his private opinions, as did John XXII.; or be altogether a heretic, as perhaps Honorius was. Now when he is explicitly a heretic, he falls ipso facto from his dignity and out of the Church, and the Church must either deprive him, or, as some say, declare him deprived, of his Apostolic See, and must say as S. Peter did: let another take his bishopric. When he errs in his private opinion he must be instructed, advised, convinced; as happened with John XXII., who was so far from dying obstinate or from determining anything during his life concerning his opinion, that he died whilst he was making the examination which is necessary for determining in a matter of, as his successor declared in the Extravagantes which begins Benedictus Deus.
But when he is clothed with the pontifical garments, I mean when he teaches the whole church as shepherd , in general matters of faith and morals, then there is nothing but doctrine and truth.
So not everything the Pope says is canon law or of legal obligation; he must mean to define and to lay down the law for the sheep, and he must keep the due order and form. Thus we say that we must appeal to him not as to a learned man for in this he is ordinarily surpassed by some others; but as to the general head and pastor of the Church; and as such we must honor, follow, and firmly embrace his doctrine, for then he carries on his breast the Urim and Thummim, doctrine and truth. And where his judgment is infallible, but then only when he gives judgment on a matter of faith in questions necessary to the whole Church.
Theologians have said, in a word, that he can err in questions of fact, not in questions of right; that he can err extra cathedram, outside the chair of Peter, that is, as a private individual, by wrings and bad example. But he cannot err when he is in cathedra, that is, when he intends to make an instruction and decree for the guidance of the while Church, when he means to confirm his brethren as supreme pastor, and to conduct them into the pastures of the faith.(The Catholic Controversy chapter XIV)2
Thus to fully summarized the above mentioned things I really like Father John Laux’s explanation which can be found in his book Catholic Apologetics.
1. The infallibility of the Pope, rightly understood, presents no difficulty to anyone who believes that Christ left to His Church an infallible teaching body that solemnly declared at the Vatican council (1870) that the Pope is protected by a special divine guidance against error whenever he decides upon matters of faith or morals and commands the whole Church to accept his decision. The council did not declare that the Pope cannot sin; neither did it declare that he can in no way err; nor that he cannot personally hold erroneous views in matters of faith, but merely that he is infallible, not subject to error, when he decides ex cathedra- that is as Head and Teacher of the whole Church-upon matters of faith and morals.
2. Infallibility does not depend upon the virtue or the learning of the Pope, but on the special assistance of the Holy Ghost, given him according to the promise of Christ, who said to Peter: “I have prayed for thee that thy faith fail not, and thou, being once converted, confirm thy brethren.” (Luke 22:32) Hence in defining the Infallibility of the Successor of St. Peter, the Vatican Council did not introduce a new doctrine, but simply defined-i.e., solemnly declared in precise words- the ordinary and normal mode in which Christ willed and provided that His Church should be kept infallibly in the path of divine truth and saved from the assaults of foes.3
I Hope that this article helps Catholics and non-Catholics alike clear some of the various misconceptions that are attributed to papal infallibility and thus I hope that it helps explain it in a clear manner. Papal Infallibility is thus one of the most challenged concepts that many people new to the faith have, as well as people who are trying to learn what the Catholic faith teaches.
1) Vatican I SESSION 4 : 18 July 1870 – First Dogmatic Constitution on the Church of Christ
2) Saint Francis de Sales (The Catholic Controversy chapter XVI)
3) Fr John Laux (Catholic Apologetics)