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Coping with Papal Infallibility

It may very well be that many Catholics today are victims of the doctrine of papal infallibility. Please do not get me wrong: the Church has declared it so I believe it; there should be no question of a Catholic Priest believing all that the Church actually does say (and I do mean no question ever, at all, in any way).

I say it that way intentionally. People are "victims" of the doctrine because it is hard to understand and can easily be misleading if someone does not have a broad understanding of Church teaching on the Magisterium. For example, many people (both Catholic and not) think that Papal infallibility means that everything the Pope says is absolutely authoritative (Pope: "I'll have my coffee black"; reporters: "All Catholics must now drink their coffee black"). Interestingly, there were many who objected to the declaration of Papal infallibility back in the 19th century; not because they disagreed with it, but rather because they were concerned that it would be taken wrongly (St. John Henry Newman appears to have had this opinion).

The idea that the Pope is always wonderful and never does anything wrong is called "ultramontanism" (from the words that mean "on the highest mountain"). This error can lead people to thinking that every comment on an airplane is instantly dogma (just look at secular media and you will see that is how they see it). Sadly, many Catholics (even traditional ones) fall into this. They become totally depressed every time they read that the Pope said or did something that they disagree with. And they are depressed, not because they are concerned about their own error, but because they are sure if they disagree with the Pope that he is definitely the one in error.

Yes, the Pope has a special grace to lead the people of God throughout the world (he does not have a guarantee that he will always use that grace rightly, but he still has the grace). One thing that Vatican I told us is that it is unhealthy to hang on every word of the Pope assuming that they are all perfect. When it declared that only his words spoken "ex cathedra" are perfect and infallible, it was not an expansion of his authority, but a limitation on it. Yet--as many back then said--this can be taken in the wrong way (trust me, Protestants and Eastern Orthodox take it in the wrong way all the time).

The greatest danger is not necessarily people thinking every word of the Pope is perfect, but rather the consequences of that idea. Those who have this errant view of the papacy respond with horror whenever someone expresses that they do not see eye to eye with the Pope on an issue ("if you don't eat your pizza the way the Pope does, you're a heretic!"). Yes, we should seek, always, to be obedient to all that our Holy Father says (in accord with the unchanging dogmatic truths of the faith, of course!), but to say that one has a different opinion on a certain non-dogmatic issue, is not grounds for excommunication--it is grounds for humility (both on the part of the speaker and the listener).


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