Pope Francis: A Perspective on his Infallibility

Until the First Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution, Pastor Aeternus (1870), papal infallibility had never been formally defined by the Church:

[W]hen 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.

A rather strong malediction follows the above decree:

So then, should anyone, which God forbid, have the temerity to reject this definition of ours: let him be anathema.

A closer look at some of Pope Francis’ teachings in light of the Council’s definition is an interesting exercise. A brief look at four of them reveal a curious pattern.

First is the question of the footnote in Amoris Laetitia which opens a pathway to the Sacraments for divorced and remarried couples who are sexually active and who have not had their previous marriage annulled (see here). This has been referred to as magisterial instruction. But in this case I’m not sure that the Pope exercised his office “as shepherd and teacher of all Christians.”

It appears to simply be pastoral advice directed to priests and their bishops. One diocese might formally permit the practice of allowing these couples to receive communion (San Diego), and another might formally prevent the practice (Archdiocese of Philadelphia). The Vatican has not intervened in the case of the latter. The real problem for these couples is that their marriages are invalid. Since the Pope didn’t address that, it’s difficult to apply the word infallible to a pastoral matter left to the discretion of a priest or bishop.

Another example would be the Pope’s preferred translation of the “Our Father”, changing “Lead us not into temptation” to “Do not abandon us to temptation”, which he considers a better rendering of the original Greek. The problem is that anyone who knows biblical Greek knows that this is an untenable translation (see here). The Italian and French bishop’s conferences have adopted the new translation, the American bishops haven’t and apparently don’t intend to. The Pope was not addressing the universal church as supreme teacher but expressing an opinion to which infallibility would not apply.

In the case of the recent Amazon synod and the question of ordaining married men of high regard, the issue is a regional one; the Pope is not addressing all Christians. If he formally authorizes the practice, I don’t believe it would qualify as EX CATHEDRA according to the conditions of the Council.

Finally, the Papal order to update the Church’s teaching on the death penalty in the official Catechism, referring to it as always “inadmissible”, could be taken as EX CATHEDRA except that the Catechism is only a textbook, a manual which disseminates and explains revealed truths, but not revelation itself. It helps the layperson understand the dogmas of the Church, its canons, papal documents, council decrees, and Holy Scripture, the sources that actually constitute Divine Revelation.

In these examples a pattern emerges, the avoidance by the Pope of any effort to introduce novel teachings into the Church from the Seat of Peter. Pope Francis prefers the back and side doors of the Church to incorporate his radical ideas into its magisterium. But this is ordinary, not extraordinary magisterium (professor Ed Feser explains the difference here).

The inspiration of the Holy Spirit in regard to the Seat of Peter has two sides: to help the pope in his affirmation of truth, and to prevent him from teaching error. Whether or not Francis is purposely avoiding instructing the Church from the Seat of Peter, or is being prevented from doing so is an interesting question.

But the upshot of all this is that the above examples of the ordinary magisterial teaching of our current pope can be quickly abrogated by order of a future pope.


Amoris Laetitia and the ‘Humpty Dumpty Effect’

In E.D. Hirsch’s Validity in Interpretation, a classic on the subject of literary hermeneutics, professor Hirsch argues that the goal of interpretation is to understand what an author intended, a concept that had been abandoned by many authors and critics. One common error which he labeled the “Humpty Dumpty effect” struck me as evident in the general response to the Pope’s Apostolic Exhortation. This particular fallacy was illustrated in the following lines from Alice in Wonderland:

“The question is,”, said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master — that’s all.”

Humpty wants to make words mean what he’d like them to mean. T.S. Eliot, for example, had no problem with interpreters determining meaning in his poems that had no connection with what the poet may have been thinking when he wrote them. Continue reading “Amoris Laetitia and the ‘Humpty Dumpty Effect’”

A Pastoral Revolution?

medieval-confessionIn the Middle Ages confession could be an unpleasant experience; penances were severe and could last years. Priests had been taught that if a penance accorded was not in proportion to the gravity of the sin, a portion of the temporal punishment would be transferred to the priest. But around the middle of the twelfth-century priests were encouraged to develop a gentler approach to confession.

French scholar Pierre Payer, an expert on the penitential literature of the period,  called it a “pastoral revolution”, where the focus of preaching and the confessional was to educate and counsel rather than admonish and punish. Confession would become, according to Payer, “…one of the most intimate of human relationships that was institutionalized in the Christian Church”.*

Another “pastoral revolution” may be taking place in the Church with the implementation of the Apostolic Exhortation Amoris Laetitia, in which Pope Francis introduces a new development in pastoral discernment:

“[Seminarians and future priests] need to truly understand this: in life not everything is black and white, white and black. No! In life shades of gray predominate. We must then teach how to discern within this gray.” (link)

Continue reading “A Pastoral Revolution?”