The Pope is infallible in matters of faith and morals. This is a dogmatic truth which no Catholic can deny and yet remain a Catholic, united to the one true Church. Yet it is evident that Pope Francis erred recently in speaking about an exceptional use of a contraceptive for married couples in order to avert a disease which may cause birth defects in pregnant women. (For the record: the context here was the use only within the marital relationship; outside of marriage, contraception is of no further moral consequence because the act is already sinful.) How we do reconcile papal infallibility with the lately publicized error?
With full cognisance of my inadequacy–nay incompetence–to speak either as a moral theologian or a critic of the vicar of Christ, I write humbly, with a filial love for the pope and a steadfast adherence to the Catholic faith. I have hitherto refrained from speaking or writing about things Pope Francis has said or done, things which have caused wonderment and confusion among many. The reason for this reluctance–besides those reasons already mentioned–is that prudence forbids hasty, knee-jerk reactions, especially when facts are uncertain and there may be the danger of giving scandal by speaking impiously when the utmost certainty and reverence are demanded. In the case of Pope Frances giving approval for married couples to employ a means of avoiding conception which is intrinsically evil (which is to say, evil under any conditions), there’s no doubt that he erred. Two disturbing things may then result: first, the scandal of a pope proposing moral error; second, the consequent questioning of papal infallibility.
Popes have not always been among ostensibly best choices for the office. Even the great Saint Peter’s somewhat mercurial and impulsive nature, would seem to disfavor his suitability over, let’s say, the ever-faithful apostle St. John. Some popes in our long history have been outright immoral men, yet the validity of the papal office established by Christ remains unaffected.
The pontificate of Pope Frances is manifestly unlike those of his immediate predecessors. John Paul II was a noted philosopher and an imposing world figure who restored a measure of stability in the Church after the shaky post-conciliar days. Pope Benedict XVI was a theologian, a teacher of considerable stature, and a repairer of the breech in restoring severed links to our Catholic tradition. Pope Francis’s contribution to the Church is as an embassador of the merciful Christ to the people of our time whose lives have been much scarred by sin, people who have felt hopeless in making their return to God. The Holy Father wants people to know that “the Lord’s mercy endures forever,” and that no one should be without the hope of reconciliation. This is much needed in our day since so many have gone very far from moral rectitude, committing the gravest of crimes with their consciences stinging from a guilt that has brought them to near despair (one of the devil’s greatest devices to secure eternal loss). As a sign of the open disposition of God to reconcile repentant sinners, the pope has made himself very approachable to people, mingling among the crowds, and speaking candidly–even off-handedly to avid and perhaps disingenuous media personnel to entrap him. Speaking off-the-cuff in such ways has not had good results. However one may decry a capricious manner of exercising the petrine ministry, one must recall that the pope is infallible only in his official teaching capacity and not in casual, spontaneous comments. He must speak ‘from the chair’ (ex cathedra), that is, with the intent of engaging his full apostolic authority, proclaiming a teaching to be held by all the faithful. A pope may do this in an ordinary or an extraordinary way, but the binding force of such teaching must be evident by the manner and frequency of his statements on a given subject.
As it is, popes rarely employ this infallible charism of the papal office and, when they do, it is most often not in moral teaching but in matters of faith (as an example of the latter, in the papal definitions of the Immaculate Conception and Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary). Pope St. John Paul did bind Catholics in three areas of moral teaching: the intrinsic evil of abortion, and the same of contraception; and he forever repudiated the alleged capability of women as recipients of Holy Orders (that is, as possible priests).
What then to say of Pope Francis? First of all, he is a true, legitimate successor of Saint Peter and visible head of the Church, the vicar of Christ, whose essential duty is to preserve the deposit of faith, the apostolic inheritance: a conservating not a creative function. One need not like all that a pope does–history providing many, many examples of popes imprudent in their doings. The fact remains that the pope is the Holy Father, and like the father of a human family, deserves the respect of his God-appointed position. Should dads err, or even sin, they do not cease thereby to be fathers, nor lose their claim to respect and love. Similarly (as I’ve said before in sermons), the Church as our mother suffering (note the relational words, ‘father’ and ‘mother’) is no warrant for disowning or abandoning her. Pope and clergy–and Mother Church generally–demand our love and our prayers, now more than ever, even if we cannot as a matter of conscience agree with everything they do. Realize however that there is no alternative Church, nor Pope, nor legitimate hierarchy apart from what we are given.
My constant advice is to remain calm, prudent, prayerful, charitable–and unyieldingly in the orthodox profession of our faith. This is no easy accomplishment: it is a suffering from the conflicting inner tension of a reverent forbearance with the unrelenting imperative of orthodoxy in faith.
We are not living in ordinary times and cannot pretend to live in a time past when a greater observance of God’s moral laws and a more strict observance of the Catholic faith were prevalent. You are obligated to be faithful to Christ and to His Church in this age. God, for reasons of His own, made us to live not in some idyllic past but in this time of crisis and confusion.
Be true and valiant Catholics! Love the pope, practice the faith with exactitude, and join to your prayers the sacrifice of your sorrows and your daily works, so that the glory of Christ may be made manifest in the suffering members of His mystical body. Virgin Mary, Mother of the Church, pray for us!
Parting shots: 1. Our annual St. Joseph dinner will take place after the noon Mass next Sunday: don’t miss it! 2. Married couples should remember to meet in the school classroom today after 9:30 and noon Masses to watch and discuss a fine video presentation on marriage.