Church authority, infallability and Pope Francis.

We have made several posts responding to items in the news regarding Pope Francis and several of his statements that have been ambiguous and thus controversial. As we have noted some of the controversy seems to stem from the desire of those who seek to “fundamentally change” the Church and create a story line that this is the will of the Pope, and the current of history. Indeed left wing movements for centuries have always sought to create an aura of historical inevitability. “Resistance is futile” “Assimilate or die” says the Borg.  

This approach is aided by widespread ignorance of what the Catholic Church teaches regarding Papal authority and “infallibility”. We see commentators often lined up on opposite incorrect poles. Some seem to think every utterance and decision of the Pope or the Bishops is authoritative and must be believed, while others reject the teaching magisterium entirely and feel free to create their own unique religion, where they serve as their own personal Pope. This was ultimately what led to the Protestant Reformation and over time to the lapse of religion into a subjective preference but with no real “truth” claims.

We would like to try and clear this up.

The Catholic Church teaches something very distinctive about itself. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church puts it:

77      “In order that the full and living Gospel might always be preserved in the Church the apostles left bishops as their successors. They gave them ‘their own position of teaching authority.’”Indeed, “the apostolic preaching, which is expressed in a special way in the inspired books, was to be preserved in a continuous line of succession until the end of time.”  This living transmission, accomplished in the Holy Spirit, is called Tradition, since it is distinct from Sacred Scripture, though closely connected to it. Through Tradition, “the Church, in her doctrine, life, and worship perpetuates and transmits to every generation all that she herself is, all that she believes. 


The task of giving an authentic interpretation of the Word of God, whether in its written form or in the form of Tradition, has been entrusted to the living, teaching office of the Church alone. Its authority in this matter is exercised in the name of Jesus Christ.”This means that the task of interpretation has been entrusted to the bishops in communion with the successor of Peter, the Bishop of Rome

Unfortunately the Catechism is written in rather turgid prose, but the point is that Jesus commissioned the apostles, and in particular Peter to preach the Gospel.  They have passed their authority on to the Bishops and in particular Peter’s successor the Pope.  In order to safeguard the reliability of this teaching, thereby making sure that Christ can still communicate with us through his Church, The apostles and their successors, ( The Pope and the Bishops in union with him)  are endowed with a teaching authority and assured they will not teach error. As Christ said “he who hears you hears me”. (Luke 10:16)

The need for such a teaching authority is clear, because very early in the Christian community there were disputes about what it meant to be a Christian and what God expected of us. An early example would be whether gentiles who converted to Christianity would be required to obey the Jewish Law. Ultimately it was decided at the council of Jerusalem that adherence to ritual Jewish law would not be required of gentile converts.  You can read about this very first church council here.   We have throughout history, disputes about moral issues (Does being a Christian mean one should be a pacifist? Can a Christian get divorced and remarried?) There are questions about the nature of God himself. (Is Christ God or just “like” God?  Is the Eucharist a symbol or something more than that?)  Finally the determination of what ancient writings were “inspired” and should be included in the canon of scripture (that is what should be in the Bible) also required a teaching authority to adjudicate.  In the absence of such an authority there are endless disputes and no hope at arriving a certitude (Easily demonstrated with a quick look at the number of Protestant Christian Churches and their cousins with an even more tenuous connection to traditional Christian thought, the Mormons and the Jehovah’s witnesses.. )  It would seem logical that if God wished to make sure his revelation was preserved beyond the first century a teaching authority protected from error would certainly be needed. 

It is not our concern to prove the accuracy of this teaching at this point, although as we mentioned the need for such a teaching authority appears fairly obvious. What we merely wish to state at this point, it is what the Church teaches about herself. If you reject the idea of a teaching authority, you may be a really nice person, but you are not a Catholic.

Still it should also be obvious that there are limits to this authority. It should be clear that the teaching authority is limited to those things necessary for salvation. It would apply to the teaching regarding faith and morals but would not apply to other things. The Bishops and the Pope have no particular teaching authority about technical matters. They are not experts in astrophysics, mathematical group theory, cardiac surgery, auto mechanics, Fantasy football or any other secular pursuit, at least not as Bishops. Their opinions carry the same weight in these areas as the arguments put forward to support them. So if a Bishop or even the Pope opines on things requiring technical expertise, like say what the minimum wage should be, they do not do so infallibly, and may not even do so knowledgeably. Of course moral principals that touch on such things, such as the need to pay a just wage would be fair game for the Pope and Bishops. It should also be noted that the Bishops have authority only when teaching in union with the Pope, a Bishop or a group of Bishops not in union with the Pope have no authority. It is quite possible for whole countries full of Bishops to be wrong. The Canadian Bishops were wrong when they rejected Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Humane Vitae, in the famous Winnipeg statement, as were the English Bishops who almost uniformly sided with Henry VIII when he broke from the Catholic Church during the Reformation.  If you think this implies that Bishops conferences (like the USCCB) can be erroneous and even heretical you are correct.

Finally the teaching authority does not mean that even those practical decisions the Pope makes are wise.  For example the Pope may make decisions about what to preach about, who to discipline for violations of Canon law, what to do about the Vatican bank and so on and so forth. These decisions may be wise or foolish; they are not protected infallibly from error. We pray that the Holy Spirit guide the Pope, but, Popes still make mistakes.  A clear example of that would be events during the papacy of Blessed John Paul II. John Paul II will likely be remembered as a historically great Pope, helping to end the tyranny of Eastern European communism and leaving behind a large body of theologically deep teaching, multiple new Saints and devotions and indeed being ultimately raised to Sainthood.  Still even his pontificate was marked by what can only described as foolish blunders, like prematurely closing the case against the gravely immoral founder of the Legionnaires of Christ Fr. Marcial Marciel , itself probably part of the larger problem of not being able to see the corruption within the Church that lead to the abuse crisis. So Popes can make terrible decisions. (Although in terms of decrees of Canon law, the legal decisions are binding on Catholics.)

So with that in mind, as the limits we can understand the actual authority the Pope and Bishops possess:

  1. The Pope teaches infallibly when he makes a formal statement in which he makes clear he intends to bind the entire church and is using his authority as Vicar of Christ to do so. These are ex cathedra statements, and are relatively rare. We can recognize them by the nature of the communication, (it is a formal statement not an off the cuff interview), and is worded in such a manner that the intent to settle an issue is clear. This is called the Extraordinary Magisterium of the Church.
  2. The Bishops when united with the Pope teach infallibly, this occurs most clearly in an ecumenical council, like Trent or Vatican I and II, in which the council statements are endorsed by the Pope, demonstrating they Bishops are teaching in union with the Pope, this too is an example of the Extraordinary Magisterium.


The Extraordinary Magisterium is called extraordinary because, well it’s not ordinary, that is common. There have only been 21 Ecumenical councils in the last 2000 years for example.

3 . Much more commonly observed is what is called the ordinary magisterium of the Church. This too is infallible, that is the teachings of the Church that have been endorsed by multiple Popes and Bishops in Union with the Popes over time. This includes the body of encyclicals, the teachings of the Saints recognized by the Popes, and the entire corpus of accepted teaching in faith and morals, the catechism of the Catholic Church, the Baltimore Catechism etc.  The teaching of the ordinary magisterium is also infallible, although there may be some debate on the implications of some teachings which are not clearly defined. It should be realized even in infallible teaching arguments in support of the teaching may be flawed.  So it is infallibly taught that contraception is sinful, but the reasons it is sinful as outlined in a particular teaching may be poorly articulated.


Now it should be obvious that if a teaching is infallible it cannot be later revoked, it can be better understood, or additional implications can be drawn from the teaching over time, but it cannot be reversed.  This means when two sources appear to conflict the theological challenge is to see how the tension can be resolved. This process often involves thinking about what a particular teaching was really saying, what truth or problem was being addressed, and so forth. At this point suffice it to say that a Pope cannot simply say “I am going to change the teaching on contraception.” or start officiating at ceremonies in which men marry men, or (to be fair to both sides in the culture wars), tomorrow say Ayn Rand’s objectivism is a sound moral philosophy. It is in a way proof of the Church’ claims to infallibility, that in spite of some men of suspect moral caliber holding the Papacy, no Pope has ever tried to undue the teaching of the Church in 2000 years. Name another institution that has remained this consistent in its fundamental beliefs even when run by less than stellar leaders at times?

So how are we to interpret Pope Francis or some future Pope Francis III?

Well there are a couple of rules:

It is impossible for the Pope to reverse any well established teaching on faith and morals. The Pope can revise elements of Canon Law (So specific elements of Canon law are merely disciplinary such as the rules regarding Fast and Abstinence during lent, and similar items can be changed.)  The Pope cannot revoke the previously defined corpus of ordinary teaching because it is infallible. The hopes of liberals in the Church, matched by fears among conservatives that Pope Francis can change Church teaching in substantial ways are therefore unfounded.  

The Pope might very well say and do things we disagree with. It has been particularly difficult observing many people of good will playing into the hands of the heterodox by constantly hyperventilating and trying to explain away the Pope every time he makes a statement that appears to conflict with prior Church teaching. Often these “statements” are really not in conflict at all, although their emphasis and style may be suboptimal from a conservative point of view. Nonetheless Conservative panic gives credence to the left’s narrative that the Pope is about to repeal the ten commandments. It is better to calmly affirm, that ultimately the Pope would want to be seen as consistent with his predecessors, and is unlikely to disagree in substance with their teaching. In fact the infallibility of the ordinary magisterium guarantees that the Pope can not reverse teachings. While he may choose to have different areas of emphasis, such opinions are not infallible. The Pope may later change his mind, about areas of strategy and emphasis. Indeed events may mandate this.

In the meantime we are perfectly free to make the case against the culture rot as we see it.  In fact the Pope is Pope of the planet, the situation in our particular country may need to address different priorities. In the United States we are a decadent rich people whose social collapse involves sexual libertinism, greed and radical autonomy culminating in what John Paul II characterized as the culture of death and demonstrated by our culture of death sacrament: abortion on demand.  In a place like Iraq or Syria for Christians in the Middle East abortion is probably less of an issue (it being seen as sinful in Islamic countries) in such places radical Islam and religious freedom are the main concerns. When the Pope speaks we need to keep in mind he is addressing lots of different places. 

In all of this remember what the game plan of the enemies of the Church consists of.  It is well described in William Peter Blatty’s novel the Exorcist. In the book there is a scene in which an older experienced priest is discussing the impending attempt to perform an exorcism on the possessed child, Regan O’Neil. The older priests warns his younger priest colleague (Fr Karras, in the novel) that:

The Devil is a liar, he will lie, but he will also mix lies with the truth to attack us”

The enemies of the Church will do the same, and they will do this using the Popes statements. We need to be aware of this, being aware of the game plan will help us respond effectively.

OK long post, but needed saying.. Let’s pray to Our Lady for the Wisdom in these difficult times.l

tumblr_md3khpP2ix1qluawko1_500  Hail Mary full of grace, the Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of they womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen.


2 comments for “Church authority, infallability and Pope Francis.

  1. cda
    September 29, 2013 at 4:03 am

    Minor quibble with #2: Vatican II, unlike Trent and Vatican I, is not infallible by extraordinary magisterium.

    The theological note on the council, later affirmed by Pope Paul VI in general audience (in the quote below), denied that Vatican II employed extraordinary magisterium:

    “There are those who ask what authority, what theological qualification the Council intended to give to its teachings, knowing that it avoided issuing solemn dogmatic definitions engaging the infallibility of the ecclesiastical Magisterium. The answer is known by whoever remembers the conciliar declaration of March 6, 1964, repeated on November 16, 1964: given the Council’s pastoral character, it avoided pronouncing, in an extraordinary manner, dogmas endowed with the note of infallibility.” (Paul VI, General Audience, 12 January 1966 quoted in Jeff Mirus, “Pope Paul VI on Vatican II” 4 November 2011 @; Italian @

    Even Dr. Jeff Mirus, a defender of Vatican II, has to admit, “To the best of my knowledge, no theologian or commentator has ever claimed that it did [i.e. that Vatican II exercised extraordinary magisterium].” (ibid.)

    That leaves ordinary and universal magisterium, which, as Dr. DePietro rightly points out, requires unanimity “over time”, such that something taught consistently “cannot be later revoked”. Consequently, those statements of Vatican II at variance with the preceding tradition might not even have the infallibility of ordinary and universal magisterium.

    What makes the documents of Vatican II so hard to judge is that “if they razed harder sayings in some place, they [i.e. the harder sayings] are more evenly set forth, or even are found set aright, in another place [alicubi durius dicta exciderint, ea locis aliis planius explicata, aut etiam correcta reperiantur]”. (Pius VI, Auctorem Fidei, Bull condemning the Synod of Pistoia; my translation from pp9-10)

    • Michael DePietro
      September 29, 2013 at 5:09 pm

      Thanks for your comments. You make several good points. I would agree that Vatican II is different that prior councils such as Trent or even Vatican II when formal doctrines were defined, and that Vatican II would be more of an exercise of the ordinary magisterium. I would also agree that much of Vatican II is written in a style which is often ambiguous and almost always turgid. I still think there are teachings which would be part of the ordinary magisterium and since the Bishops and Popes were teaching in union, are infallible. One of these is that abortion is an “unspeakable crime”. In terms of things the council was particularly focused on, I would say the Declaration on religious liberty ( Dignatatis Humanae) which stated that the state should not hinder freedom of conscience within due limits) would be one such teaching of the ordinary magisterium. You are right that all of what the council said needs to be understood in terms of what went before. In terms of the statement on religious freedom, however this is consistent with prior teachings ,for example as Aquinas said in the Summa:

      “Human government is derived from the Divine government, and should imitate it. Now although God is all-powerful and supremely good, nevertheless He allows certain evils to take place in the universe, which He might prevent, lest, without them, greater goods might be forfeited, or greater evils ensue. Accordingly in human government also, those who are in authority, rightly tolerate certain evils, lest certain goods be lost, or certain greater evils be incurred”:

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