The Extent of Possible Papal Error

A Pope can err in matters of discipline, in decisions in how to run the Church and in judgments about particular persons and cases. The only limit, in regard to discipline, is that the Pope is prevented by God from decisions that would cause the Church to pass away or be unable to save souls.

Pope Francis reminds me of a past Pope, who was holy but not a particularly good administrator: Pope Saint Celestine V. He is one of very few Popes to have resigned his office:

“It is wonderful how many serious mistakes the simple old man crowded into five short months. We have no full register of them, because his official acts were annulled by his successor. On the 18th of September he created twelve new cardinals, seven of whom were French, and the rest, with one possible exception, Neapolitans, thus paving the road to Avignon and the Great Schism. Ten days later he embittered the cardinals by renewing the rigorous law of Gregory X, regulating the conclave, which Adrian V had suspended. He is said to have appointed a young son of Charles to the important See of Lyons, but no trace of such appointment appears in Gams or Eubel. At Monte Cassino on his way to Naples, he strove to force the Celestine hermit-rule on the monks; they humoured him while he was with them. At Benevento he created the bishop of the city a cardinal, without observing any of the traditional forms. Meanwhile he scattered privileges and offices with a lavish hand. Refusing no one, he was found to have granted the same place or benefice to three or four rival suitors; he also granted favours in blank. In consequence, the affairs of the Curia fell into extreme disorder. Arrived in Naples, he took up his abode in a single apartment of the Castel Nuovo, and on the approach of Advent had a little cell built on the model of his beloved hut in the Abruzzi. But he was ill at ease. Affairs of State took up time that ought to be devoted to exercises of piety. He feared that his soul was in danger. The thought of abdication seems to have occurred simultaneously to the pope and to his discontented cardinals, whom he rarely consulted.” [Catholic Encyclopedia]

Pope Francis has made some errors in handling the abuse scandals and in deciding who to fire or promote, in my opinion. However, I think his motivation was to be lenient and merciful, and to give sinners an opportunity to repent. He is like Christ forgiving the woman caught in adultery, if she had fallen back into that sin. We don’t know what happened with her next. But we do know that sinners who repent and go to Confession often fall back into the same sin, and then go to Confession again.

I used to work with abused children and teens. I have no sympathy for abusers, and I do not think that leniency, in this particular type of case, is the best approach. But the Pope has the right to run the Church as he sees fit. And the conservative Catholic subculture is not an authority above the Pope, as it presents itself.

There are two problems here. The Pope’s decision to be lenient, where perhaps leniency was not called for. And the attitude of conservative Catholics that they should take the rule of judging and correcting the Roman Pontiff. And the latter problem is more serious.

This situation reminds me of the wife who is constantly undermining her husband. Every time he errs in any way, she criticizes him bitterly because she wishes to be the head of the family. She exaggerates his faults, because she wishes to exalt herself over him. Accusing him is to her benefit, as it gives her more power in the marriage and the family. It is the same with conservatives and Pope Francis. They wish to run the Church, and he is standing in their way.

They complain bitterly about his mistakes. They cry out loudly about every perceived error of doctrine. My analysis of the Pope’s teaching is that he has erred mildly and occasionally, in his non-infallible teaching. By comparison, many conservative Catholic leaders have taught abject heresy as well as grave moral errors. And the conservative Catholic subculture does not correct them, nor even acknowledge the error. The conservative Catholic subculture sees itself as an infallible teaching authority, above the Roman Pontiff and the Magisterium.

The recent example of Dr. Ed Peters’ heretical and schismatic error is instructive. He feels entitled to teach whatever ideas come into his head. He does not care that his words contradict the teaching of three Ecumenical Councils (Florence, Vatican I and II). When corrected, he is indignant. A while back, when Stephen Walford tried to correct him, Peters’ reply was that Walford should be grateful for his arrogance: “It’s not arrogance, it’s serious impatience with your writings. And, even if it were arrogance, you should not be grateful for it.” Wow. That is arrogance. Peters can’t be wrong, and anyone who disagree is disagreeing with a nearly-infallible pseudo-authority.

There are many other examples among conservative Catholics. They do not see the need to learn from the Magisterium. Instead, whatever ideas seem right to themselves and their peers, that is Catholicism. If a few of them agree among themselves, then they don’t see the need to consult Tradition, Scripture, Magisterium. And if the Pope disagrees, he must be wrong. They have made themselves to be infallible.

Concerning the Pope’s mishandling of the abuse crisis. Pope Saint John Paul II did not handle it much better. The crisis continues with little abatement. John Paul II did not depose McCarrick, nor these other leaders who also were great sinners. And neither did Pope Benedict XVI.

And I notice that the conservative Catholic subculture did not cry out against McCarrick, until he was accused publicly and the accusation, this time, stuck. Only after McCarrick was discredited was there a tidal wave of posts and articles calling out the perverted Cardinal. That is not so brave. When he still had power, they were silent — all except Michael Rose of “Good-bye, Good Men”. So the conservative Catholic subculture is not doing any better than the Pope.

Doctrinal Error

But I digress. Popes can err in matters of discipline, rather extensively. They can err in matters of doctrine only to a limited extent. No Pope can teach material heresy, nor commit apostasy, heresy, or schism. The grace of God prevents it. This is the teaching of the First Vatican Council, that the Pope has the gift of truth (hence he cannot teach heresy) and the gift of a never-failing faith (hence he cannot commit heresy).

Pope Francis has erred perhaps a few times, mildly, on doctrine. I think most of his alleged errors are exaggerated accusations from conservative Catholics who are upset that they are now ruled over by a liberal. I see nothing in the Pope’s teaching that even approaches heresy or grave moral error.

What will happen next? Pope Francis will teach some new definition of doctrine, correctly but contrary to the assumptions of the conservative Catholic subculture, and they will falsely accuse him of heresy and depart from communion with the Pope. It is inevitable. To avoid this schism, they would have to repent and humble themselves. But already their arrogance is extreme. They accept correction from no one. They do not care if their words contradict Sacred Scripture. They seldom speak about Jesus himself. They have made the Catholic religion into a political party. The Pope is seen as being of the opposition party, so they constantly undermine, oppose, and criticize him.

Pope’s cannot teach or commit heresy. They have the right to run the Church as they see fit. And if they err in some way, I doubt that you could do better. It is very easy to sit back and criticize.

Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian and translator of the Catholic Public Domain Version of the Bible.

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12 Responses to The Extent of Possible Papal Error

  1. Guest says:

    My opinion here is that conservatives try to make the Pope appear malicious by framing the way they interpret events. A charitable reading of the facts can be interpreted as the pope being too lenient or trusting of sinners. Also that he has a less democratic leadership style. They seem unable to distinguish between objective facts and their own interpretation of the facts.

    First the try to make the pope look like a heretic, now they try to make him look like a sex abuse supporter, what next?

    How quickly the Jewish crowd changed from singing hosannas to requests for blood at the instigation of priests and Phraisees!

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