The Infallibility of the Pope.
15th September 2018
The gospel reading of today (Mk. 8:27-35) gives us an opportunity to reflect on the person and authority of the pope. Jesus asked his disciples what people say about him. Their response was that people say he is Elijah or one of the prophets. Obviously not satisfied with this answer, he then asked the disciples what they personally think about him. The evangelists did not tell us if each of the disciples gave a personal response to this question. The only response recorded is that of Peter who said Jesus is the Christ. Matthew’s account of Peter’s response was more elaborate by adding that Jesus is “the Son of the Living God” (16:16) and in this way he gives us more insights into Jesus’ Trinitarian relationship as God.
Two elements must immediately be noted about the pope’s infallibility. The first is that it is a negative protection: prevention from error. This implies that it does not mean that when the pope teaches infallibly or his ordinary teachings that flow from the infallible or defined teachings of the Church cannot be explained further, rather, it means that substantially that teaching is prevented from error. Secondly, infallibility does not mean impeccability. That is, that the pope teaches infallibly does not mean he is impeccable, that is, it does not mean he is perfect. The evangelist taught us this by showing how just shortly after Peter professed Jesus as Christ, he was denounced for his too worldly view about Jesus’ impending suffering (Matt. 16:22-23; Mk. 8:32-33). If the pope like Peter, were impeccable, then he will not need the gift of infallibility; If he was perfect, he will not need to be protected from error.
What this shows is that the concrete manifestations of the teaching authority of the pope does not always come out in black and white. It is often within the course of time that this becomes clearer on certain teachings. This might often entail constructive criticisms as Paul did to Peter (Gal. 2:11-13). This is because as Pope Benedict XVI remarked when he began his papacy, the pope is not an absolute monarch, but his office exists to serve the truth. Consequently, he needs the constructive dialogue of others to exercise this ministry. But for these criticisms and suggestions to be helpful, they should not be presented in ways that attempt to delegitimise the office of the pope through polemics and the mobilisation of the mass media. We cannot reform the Church by causing scandals. Martin Luther, the founder of Protestantism, may have been right on some of his criticisms against the pope and the Church in his own time, but the way he went about it left the Church and the history of Christendom more problems than the ones he wanted to address.
The infallibility of the Church and the pope can be seen as God’s insurance of his teachings. We would not need car, property or health insurances if our cars or properties can never be accidented or if we never fall sick. Hence when ever we face difficult moments in the Church where we desire more from those in authority, it is always a time for more prayers. This is not only because God will always set things right, but also that many may not be led astray. The Church as a whole and the office of the papacy is insured from error. But its efficacy at every point in history in carrying out that role such that more persons are served in their journey to salvation often depends on our fidelity. But Christ has also ‘insured’ his Church such that any time that fidelity fails, the Church would not be led astray. Hence the priest says at mass “Look not on our sins, but on the faith of the Church.” If the Church’s teachings cannot be preserved from error, then it means that the wish of Christ for his teachings to lead human beings to salvation will not be achieved. It would also mean that the gate of hell will be able to prevail against the Church. That is, the Church would not be able to teach sure doctrines that will lead people to salvation.
In addition to prayer, every Catholic expresses this fidelity to the Church’s and papal teachings by good doctrinal formation that should be rooted in Tradition. The Catholic faith is not just what we believe today, but what has been believed in the past, and what we are going to handover to the future. The guarantee of what is worthy to be handed over to the future comes from how we have faithfully received what has been given to us in the past. In this way, in responding to the issues of today, we deepen what we have received not only in knowledge, but also by allowing it to guide our lives as we enrich it with the best insights of today. It is for this reason that the saints have always stood out as the best guide in what we believe. Their lives faithfully combine the harmony of doctrine and life. In order to always wade through the competing interpretations of times, let us ask for the guidance of the saints. St. Catherine of Siena called the pope our Sweet Christ on earth even when he criticised Pope Gregory XI for relocating away from Rome to Avignon in France. The exercise of the pope’s office calls for religious obedience of mind and will, which does not necessarily exclude constructive criticism. But the harmony of such constructive criticism with obedience, comparable to Mary’s question at the annunciation on how she can be the Mother of God since she knew no man (Lk. 1:34) often comes from the way we air our reservations, and how we continue to remain loyal and faithful when our criticisms are not accepted. Let us ask Mary the Mother of the Church to help us have a true love and reverence for the pope that flows from love for the Church and love for the truth.