What if the Pope is Wrong?

Artistic Impression of the Chair of St. Peter in the Vatican
Bronze Sculpture by Gian Lorenzo Bernini, AD 1546 - 1653

There is a lot in the news lately about public corrections of Pope Francis over an Apostolic Exhortation he issued on March 19, 2016 entitled Amoris Laetitia (Latin: "The Joy of Love"). While the overall message of his exhortation is really quite good, it does contain what many in the Church are calling some "serious errors." Basically, without getting into too much technical detail, the document appears to postulate that it's okay (in some cases) for divorced and remarried Catholics to receive the Sacrament of the Eucharist (or Holy Communion) even when they do not obtain from the Church a declaration of nullity of their previous marriage.

Most recently on September 23, 2017, a large group of over 60 Catholic scholars and clergy issued a public correction of the pope which made headlines around the world. It appears that it's an open document, which means that more can sign on to it if they choose. This particular correction is well-written, scholarly, charitable and fair toward Pope Francis. The core of the document is the identification of seven key heresies the signers assert Pope Francis may have promoted...
By words, deeds, and omissions, and by passages of the document 'Amoris laetitia,' Your Holiness has upheld, directly or indirectly, and, with what degree of awareness we do not seek to judge, both by public office and by private act propagated in the Church the following false and heretical propositions: 
1. "A justified person has not the strength with God’s grace to carry out the objective demands of the divine law, as though any of the commandments of God are impossible for the justified; or as meaning that God’s grace, when it produces justification in an individual, does not invariably and of its nature produce conversion from all serious sin, or is not sufficient for conversion from all serious sin." 
2. "Christians who have obtained a civil divorce from the spouse to whom they are validly married and have contracted a civil marriage with some other person during the lifetime of their spouse, who live 'more uxorio' with their civil partner, and who choose to remain in this state with full knowledge of the nature of their act and full consent of the will to that act, are not necessarily in a state of mortal sin, and can receive sanctifying grace and grow in charity." 
3. "A Christian believer can have full knowledge of a divine law and voluntarily choose to break it in a serious matter, but not be in a state of mortal sin as a result of this action." 
4. "A person is able, while he obeys a divine prohibition, to sin against God by that very act of obedience." 
5. "Conscience can truly and rightly judge that sexual acts between persons who have contracted a civil marriage with each other, although one or both of them is sacramentally married to another person, can sometimes be morally right or requested or even commanded by God." 
6. "Moral principles and moral truths contained in divine revelation and in the natural law do not include negative prohibitions that absolutely forbid particular kinds of action, inasmuch as these are always gravely unlawful on account of their object." 
7. "Our Lord Jesus Christ wills that the Church abandon her perennial discipline of refusing the Eucharist to the divorced and remarried and of refusing absolution to the divorced and remarried who do not express contrition for their state of life and a firm purpose of amendment with regard to it."
Wow! That's quite a list! But not necessarily an unwarranted one. I'm clearly not as bright as some of these folks, but I can tell when something is amiss, and I think it's fair to say something has been amiss at the Vatican for a while. I don't pretend to know what the Pope is thinking. Nor do I pretend to know what he's trying to do. Quite frankly, Pope Francis has confused me since almost the beginning of his papacy. Early on I tried to defend his teachings, later I was annoyed by some of them. These days I simply don't pay much attention to him anymore. I would love to have some kind of deep insight that would help me understand him, but sadly I do not. Now, please don't misunderstand. I want his papacy to be successful, but the problem for me is, I don't understand what "success" means for him. But that's enough of that.

Before I go on, let me explain my intentions here. I am NOT an enemy of this pope. I support Pope Francis as my pope, and I want him to be the pope God intends him to be. Yes, he is the pope. I don't doubt that. I have no reason to. I am hoping that something very good and positive can come out of these public corrections. I believe they can. I want to publicly state myself that I pray for Pope Francis regularly, asking God that Pope Francis will listen neither to his advisers nor his critics, but rather the Holy Spirit alone. I don't know how to pray for him any other way. So that's where I stand on this.

Now, to break this down...

First things first, the above public correction IS NOT the correction we've been waiting for from the dubia cardinals led by Cardinal Raymond Burke. That is coming later, but Cardinal Burke has assured us that it's publication is imminent. Whatever "splash" in the worldwide media this September 23 correction made, it will be dwarfed in comparison when the dubia cardinals make their public correction at a later date. That one, whenever it comes, will be signed by multiple bishops and high-ranking prelates in the Catholic Church.

Second, this current public correction is not authoritative, and does not carry the signatures of "top brass" in the Catholic Church. Rather, it is a correction that is coming from a large group of dignified clergy and laity who have a scholarly understanding of these things. While we should not take it with authority, we should take it seriously, because it is serious, and it reflects (in a scholarly and dignified way) the level of tension that's going on under the surface in the Catholic Church right now. I believe they're letting more people sign the correction. It will be interesting to see who puts their names to it in the future. For now, however, think of this particular correction as the proverbial "shot across the bow of the ship." It's a warning. Something much bigger is coming soon if the ship doesn't correct its course.

Third, we have no authority to accuse the pope of heresy. As you can see by the document quoted above, others were careful to state that heresy is being promoted in the document itself, and by the pope's action or inaction, whether the pope realises it or not. It stops short of actually calling him a heretic, and we should too. Rather, we should at this point cease all rhetoric and pray for the pope, asking God that he might listen to the Holy Spirit, rather than his advisers or his critics. If he will just listen to the Holy Spirit, and submit to the Holy Spirit's will, then we can be assured he will do the right thing in response to this.

A public correction of the pope has not been issued in 800 years, so this is a very big deal. It should be carried by the press, because it really is news, and I'm happy that some have done so. My comments about this particular case with Pope Francis end here.

Now to switch gears a bit...

While looking for a teaching opportunity in all of this, I see a really big one. This one will be of particular interest both to Catholics and to non-Catholics alike. It has to do with the pope, and what his real authority entails.

A lot of people, including a lot of Catholics, have a very distorted understanding of the papacy. They tend to think of it as something far more than what it really is. In the past, this type of papal following has been called neo-ultramontanism, but I prefer the term hyper-papalism because it seems easier to understand just by glancing at it. Basically, hyper-papalism is the false notion that the pope is some sort of prophetic oracle who has a private channel with God. Those who subscribe to this notion assume everything he says is always right ("without error" or infallible), no matter what, and it is disobedience to challenge him in any way. The Catholic dogma of "papal infallibility" is often misunderstood to mean this. Many Protestant Fundamentalists falsely accuse the Catholic Church of teaching this. Sadly, their false claims are not totally unwarranted. A whole lot of Catholics do subscribe to this error, believing that just about anything that falls from the lips of a pope is the infallible word of God. Hyper-papalism is a heresy. It is not Catholic. Rather, it is some form of popular cult that is often bolstered by the media and others who misrepresent the Catholic Church.

Hyper-papalism leads to another error called sedevacantism (Latin: "vacant chair") which is caused when hyper-papalists realise the pope has made an error. Once they realise the pope has erred on an official teaching of some sort, they go into faith-crisis mode. This can even lead to elaborate conspiracy theories. Since they assume that no true pope could ever commit a heresy (i.e. hyper-papalism), and the pope appears to have committed one, then the only logical conclusion is to assume that he's not really the pope after all. Thus they believe the Chair of Peter is vacant -- Sede vacante -- or the "vacant chair" of Peter. Sedevacantism is the logical conclusion of hyper-papalism, assuming you're smart enough to figure out where the pope made a doctrinal error. The problem with sedevacantism is that it's an error built on an error -- a heresy built on a heresy. The sedevacantist is really nothing more than a disappointed and discouraged hyper-papalist. It only makes logical sense really. The sedevacantist is only following the logic through to its final conclusion. If the pope really is supposed to be some sort of prophetic oracle who has a private channel with God, then it only makes logical sense that any pope who commits known heresy must not be the pope at all. The frightening thing about sedevacantism is that even though they are small in number now, a great number of hyper-papalists (making up a large number of Catholics today) are actually future sedevacantists in the making, should the pope ever disappoint them enough with a teaching most of them view to be heresy (even if it's not really heresy). Allowing the heresy of hyper-papalism to fester today, only sets us up for more sedevacantism tomorrow, which could in turn become quite a large problem under the right conditions.

So with that in mind, it might be beneficial to us if we actually know what the Catholic Church really does teach about the papacy. We shouldn't rely on popular myths and public opinion, often promoted by the entertainment industry and the mainstream media. We should rather know what the Church actually teaches.

So let's look at what the Catholic dogma of papal infallibility actually says. From the First Vatican Council (AD 1869 - 1870)...
Therefore, faithfully adhering to the tradition received from the beginning of the Christian faith, to the glory of God our saviour, 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. 
So then, should anyone, which God forbid, have the temerity to reject this definition of ours: let him be anathema. 
-- Vatican I, Session 4, Chapter 4, Paragraph 9
The Original Chair of St. Peter
Housed at the Vatican
So from the actual text that defines papal infallibility, we can see here that the divine gift of papal infallibility is actually highly restrictive. It only applies: "when the Roman Pontiff speaks ex cathedra." The term ex cathedra is Latin and means "from the chair." By that is meant from the Chair of St. Peter. Now when they say ex cathedra, they don't mean from a literal chair in a literal place. (There is an actual chair that St. Peter originally used, but that's not what they're talking about.) What they're talking about, rather, is this. When the pope invokes his particular office as the Successor of St. Peter, declaring a particular teaching infallible, then that particular teaching is infallible. Surprisingly however, this almost never happens. While it probably happened a lot in ancient times, when the faith was new and still being defined, it's actually quite rare in modern times. In fact, it's only happened twice in the last 100 years.

The first time was in 1950, when Pope Pius XII issued the Apostolic Constitution Munificentissimus Deus (Latin: "The most bountiful God"), declaring ex cathedra the dogma of the Assumption of Mary to heaven at the end of her earthly life. The teaching had been around since the times of the early Church, but some disputes had arisen in recent years, to which Pope Pius XII needed to put to rest. He did so by declaring the ancient teaching infallible, invoking his office as the successor of St. Peter, ex cathedra, making it a dogma in the Church. This means it is beyond dispute, and any attempt to dispute it makes one a heretic and a Catholic in bad standing with the Church. The second time this happened was in 1994 when Pope St. John Paul II issued the ecclesiastical letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis (Latin: "Priestly Ordination") in which he invoked his office as the successor of St. Peter to infallibly declare that the Catholic Church (including the pope himself) has always taught that it has no authority whatsoever to ordain women to the priesthood. So again, this is now a dogma of the Catholic Church, which means that disputing it is impossible without being considered a heretic and a Catholic in bad standing with the Church.

That's it folks. Those are the only two times the grace of papal infallibility has been used in the last 100 years. Every other statement popes have made, besides these two, are potentially fallible, which means that error is possible. Such errors may be unlikely and highly improbable, but we must admit to their possibility.

Now to be fair, this does include some proverbial "sacred cows" of traditional Catholics, including Humanae Vitae (Latin: "Of Human Life"), which was the papal encyclical written by Pope Paul VI in 1968 that condemned artificial contraception. While many Catholics do take this teaching as infallible, the truth of the matter is that it is not. It may possibly be infallible, but we don't know that, because ex cathedra was never attached to it. What we can say is that this is the traditional teaching of the Church going back centuries, and that the Church has never taught otherwise. However, at this time, we cannot say it's infallible because it's never been declared by any pope ex cathedra. So to my traditional Catholic friends, I'm sorry. This may seem like a betrayal, but it's not, because of what I'm about to say next...

Liberal Catholics love to point out that the 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae is not infallible, and I must confess that they are right. At the same time however, these same Liberal Catholics will point to Pope Francis' papal encyclicals and exhortations as if they were infallible, when in fact, they are not. They can contain error, just like Humanae Vitae can, and that means such errors could even amount to heresies in some cases, especially when they contradict the historic teachings of the Church. That is exactly what these public corrections of Francis' exhortation Amoris Laetitia claim. The document appears to contain teachings the directly contradict the historic teachings of the Church. So we are now in the corrective phase of this document. We'll see how this turns out in the months and years ahead.

The point I'm trying to make here is to remind all of us that the pope is just a man. He is a special man to be sure. He is given special gifts of authority that none of us are given. He even has a special gift of infallibility which he can use, on rare occasions, even though most popes have not. If he's not using his grace of infallibility (ex cathedra), and it appears that something he has taught is an obvious error, defying the historic teaching of the Church, then it is the duty of the clergy and the faithful to stand up to him on that. Such appears to be the case now with these public corrections of the alleged heresies in Amoris Laetitia, but I'll let history be the judge of that. The only thing I'll say in regards to that is a little "see, I told ya so" in reference to my blogging meltdown in October of 2014 here, here and again my reflection in March of 2015 here. I stand vindicated. History is my judge on this one. If I was overreacting, I'll let future generations decide that. Personally, I think I was right all along. I had more than good cause to be concerned. I had some clergy jump all over my case regarding these blogs. To which I must say, my early alarms were mild and sedate compared to what's happening out there right now.

The lesson in all of this is to not give the pope more than what God has given him. God has made him the supreme pastor of the universal Church, and he has authority. We should listen to him as a pastor with authority. We may not always agree with him 100%, but we should give him the respect that is due a pastor with authority, and seriously listen to what he has to say. He is also the supreme administrator of the Church. That means when the pope appoints a bishop, that bishop is appointed. It's rebellious and very unCatholic, as well as unChristian, to reject a bishop the pope has appointed for a diocese. I suppose one could protest, but the protest must be civil and docile. It should never amount to rebellion. Finally, he is the Vicar of Christ, which means that when he speaks ex cathedra, the matter is settled once and for all, and we must stop disputing it. These are the gifts that God has given to the pope. We should acknowledge them and respect them, but at the same time, give him no more than what God has. The pope is not some sort of prophetic oracle who has a private channel with God. He can error on personal matters. He can error on public matters. It is even possible for him to error on ecclesial and doctrinal matters. Furthermore, he can be corrupt, and he can be petty, and sometimes he can even be cruel and unfair. (Lord knows some popes have been. Consider the Borgia popes!) He is, after all, just a man. It's important for Catholics to understand these things, and its even more important for Catholics to understand when they can, and cannot, dispute the pope.

This is why we should never look to the pope, or any one bishop for that matter, as the final arbitrator of our Catholic Christian faith. We have the Catechism and we have the Bible. Together with the Magisterium of the Church, these tools are more than enough for any lay Catholic to not only learn the faith, but be familiar enough with it to resist all heresies. I cannot stress enough the importance of good liturgy as well, which acts as a kind of "practical catechises" for our daily lives. Good liturgy begets sound doctrine, and both together beget solid Catholics. So I encourage my readers to dig into the official teachings of the Church. The only tools you need are the following...
  1. The Holy Bible
  2. The Catechism
  3. Access to Good Catholic Liturgy (suggestions are here and here, but these should not be considered the only possibilities)
  4. A Rosary -- because every good Catholic must be grounded in prayer.
This problem of papal corrections will eventually pass. Pope Francis may do something to defuse the issue entirely, or it is possible the corrections will be made and the Church will simply go on anyway regardless, albeit with a pastorally crippled pope. Either way, none of this need affect you personally, so long as you know how to educate yourselves in the faith and you know what the limitations of the papacy are. If and when the pope is wrong, he's just wrong. There is no need to have a religious meltdown. There is also no need to declare one's self a sedevacantist over it either. A pope can be wrong and still remain pope. We must jettison the hyper-papalist point of view from our minds entirely. 

Rather, we should simply make sure we are educated ourselves, then pray for the pope, as we're supposed to do anyway. We should not "align" ourselves either for or against the pope. Rather, we should simply pray that God's will be done, all the while making sure we understand what God's will is for our own lives by practising and studying the Catholic faith. This is a proper Catholic perspective, in my own estimation, neither giving the pope too much nor too little respect. We should give him only what God expects of us, no more and no less. If we do these things, it won't matter who is sitting on the Chair of Peter, and it won't matter if he errors or not. The only people who are at risk when the pope may error are the hyper-papalists, who give to the pope far more than what God has, and base their entire faith only on what he says.

Our Lady of Fatima, pray for us!


Shane Schaetzel is an author of Catholic books and a columnist for Christian print magazines and online publications. He is a freelance writer and the creator of 'CatholicInTheOzarks.com.' Your support is what makes essays like this possible. This essay and all of Shane's Internet resources come to you (ad-free) thanks to the generosity of benefactors. Please consider becoming a benefactor.

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Shane: there has also been a PRACTICAL criticism of Francis' Papacy.I would argue there never was a real "Francis effect," that is more vocations and converts simply because of Francis' "casual" style. Seminarian numbers are down slightly from Benedicts last year. Second, my Novas Ordo parish is getting ready to drop one of three Sunday Masses due to declining attendance. Mass increasingly looks like a gig at a retirement home.And now for a good matured criticism: the Latin Mass I occasionally attend is full of children and young adults. Can you say "Humanae Vitae?" 😅
Shane Schaetzel said…
Fulton, they call this the "biological solution" and it's now playing out in full swing, not only with the priesthood but with parishes as well. People in the Church can debate the "infallibility" of Humanae Vitae all they want. Maybe it is infallible. Maybe it isn't. Who cares? Biology will dictate the answer for us. Parishes that preach Humanae Vitae will reap the benefits of growth and a viable future. Parishes that don't - won't. The End.
Tom B. said…
There is much that can be said about the post, but I would focus on this:

"A Rosary -- because every good Catholic must be grounded in prayer."

The rosary is obviously very good and laudable, but the prayer we all need to be grounded in (and you know this better than I do, since it is part of the Catholic Tradition that the Anglican Patrimony often preserved better in schism than we Catholics did over the last 500 years or so) is the Divine Office.

I think it is particularly incumbent upon us as members of the Ordinariate and purveyors of that patrimony, to help all and sundry understand that reclaiming the Daily Office and liturgical prayer as the foundation of our Christian ascetical life (along with Holy Mass, the fons et culmen of liturgy and life, of course) is something to which every private devotion must take a backseat.

This isn't just a matter of personal preference. "Eucharist-Office-Devotion" forms an organic whole - Patristic, medieval and later Anglican thought alike rightly takes this for granted. If you take out the middle, it's like trying to have a mountain with a base and a floating top, without anything in-between. For that reason, I am convinced a lot of the impoverishment and effeminacy of our spiritual life in the Western Church (of which the last 50 years of postconciliar mess have only been the latest and most obvious symptom) have had much to do with the privatization of the Office as a "priest's thing" that he whispers to himself, rather than the living public liturgy it is and should be, providing common nourishment to the entire royal priesthood and People of God. Meanwhile, we have a cornucopia of private devotionalism to suit every taste and whim -- no doubt much of it good and useful in proper context, but it's like replacing NY Strip steak with whipped cream for dinner.

In fact, I'd be bold enough to say the CCC specifically (which, useful as it might be, is a modern and rather verbose didactic tool that does not enjoy the charism of infallibility either, by the way) is much less important for the formation of an integral Catholic Christian life than groundedness in the liturgy of the daily Office. Having more "catechism classes" will not solve the problem of an "uncatechized laity" (and even priesthood) one hears of day-in and day-out as the main culprit in the Church's woes. It is, yet again, full immersion in the liturgy (both Mass and Office) - a better catechist than any academic, didactic creation.

Stepping off soapbox now. And please don't take the above as criticism of your work, Shane - I appreciate all that you are trying to do, we're all in the same boat trying to row in the same direction here. It's just a point I feel needs to continue being driven home, because we have so lost it in our Church.
Claudio said…
I disagree with your comment that Humanae Vitae is not infallible. I agree that it is not an ex cathedra statement from the Pope, however it repeats the ordinary and universal teaching that artificial contraception is a sin. Therefore Humanae Vitae is infallible because it is part of the Ordinary and Universal Magisterium which is infallible. By universal, I mean a teaching that has been taught for all time and everywhere. The Ordinary Magisterium but not Universal which is basically the current Pope and bishops can be fallible which is exactly what is going on with Pope Francis and Amoris Laetitia.