Three Questions on Popes, Sin, and Infallibility

Why Does God Allow Popes To Sin? Three Questions.

Three Questions answered in this post:
1. Why does God allow Popes to Sin?
2. Is a sinful Pope unable to teach infallibly, or more likely to err?
3. How can God protect the Church’s indefectibility while allowing free will in the Pope and Bishops?

1. Why does God allow Popes to Sin?

Suppose every Pope were personally sinless, what would the result be? The Pope would then be preaching a path of salvation which he himself need not follow, as he would be necessarily saved (as a baptized sinless person in this hypothetical). That would not be a fitting choice for the leader of a Church which, in this life, is filled with sinners stumbling along the path of salvation. And a sinless Pope would not really be treated any better by this sinful world, as they would judge his holiness and beliefs to be offensive to their sinful way of life — as they do anyway with the Popes in real life, who of course are fallen sinners.

Suppose every Pope had the Beatific Vision of God, and so could not be mistaken on any assertion on any subject (just like all the angels and souls in Heaven). Would this be a better situation for the teachings and opinions of the Pope? I don’t think it would. In such a case, the Pope could never be wrong on any subject — in this counterfactual hypothetical — and anyone who disagreed on any subject would be certainly in error. Do we really want a Pope who is infallible in literally everything? That seems worse to me, as each individual believer could not develop and hold to his own understanding of the Faith. A Pope who is never wrong would not be a popular Pope, and it would in a sense be disruptive to the spiritual lives of fallen sinners to be constantly corrected in all matters small and great by someone who could not err in anything, as a result of the Beatific Vision.

Christ the Lord had the Beatific Vision during his life and Ministry on earth. But He had the prudence not to reveal many things that He knew to us at that time.

{16:12} I still have many things to say to you, but you are not able to bear them now.

Instead of the above two hypotheticals, a sinless Pope or an inerrant Pope, we have a much more fitting and tolerable (to fallen sinners) situation. The Pope is a fallen sinner, who can sin even gravely in his personal life, so he must walk the path of salvation that he teaches and make use of the Sacraments, including Confession. That is better than having a sinless Pope, but it means that we must forbear any serious personal sins that might occur from time to time in a Pope. And we must not reject any past Pope accused of serious personal sins. Should the Pope be a fallen sinner like his flock, or not?

A sinless or inerrant Pope also runs the risk of being venerated to the point of idolatry, as we know that Christ is sinless and had the Beatific Vision during his Ministry on earth. We don’t want to confuse, in our ideas about, nor in our behavior towards any Pope, with Christ the Lord.

The Pope is able to teach infallibly, under Papal Infallibility, Conciliar Infallibility, or the ordinary universal Magisterium. But otherwise, his non-infallible teachings and personal opinions (even on theology) are not inerrant or infallible. That is the better situation. Why complain if you think that a Pope has erred in what is non-infallible or in what is fallible (personal opinions)? Do you want a Pope whose every utterance is infallible? No? Then why complain when you see that it is not the case?

What most Catholics do not realize, however, is that the Roman Pontiff, when exercising the Keys of Blessed Peter, in doctrine or discipline, non-infallibly, can err only to a limited extent. The indefectibility of the Church, of which the Pope is both the foundational Rock and one Head with Christ, would be contradicted if the Pope could possibly err gravely in any doctrine or discipline. And it is an ancient teaching of the ordinary universal Magisterium that the Pope has a charism of truth and never-failing faith, which prevents him from grave error and from grave failings in faith.

So when the Roman Pontiff teaches non-infallibly, and you disagree, to be faithful in that disagreement, you must never accuse the Pope of grave error. If either the Pope has erred gravely (under the Keys of Peter) — or you yourself have erred gravely — then you are the one who is in the wrong. The inability to admit that one could possibly be wrong when disagreeing with the Pope is one of the most alarming trends among papal critics today. They shout that the Pope was not teaching infallibly when he said this or that, but they never consider that they themselves are not infallible in holding a contrary position. They call their ideas, directly contradictory to the non-infallible teachings of the Pope, as “truth”, and they presume to judge and correct the Vicar of Christ. It is the Roman Pontiff and the body of Bishops with him who are the judges over the truths of faith and morals.

So while a Pope can err in what is non-infallible, specifically non-infallible doctrine and discipline, he cannot err gravely. And that teaching has been the constant teaching of Popes, Saints, Fathers, Doctors, and Councils from the earliest centuries of the Church to the present. They err gravely who hold that a Pope can err to any extent — even to the extent of heresy! — in his exercise of the Keys of Peter. For in every age, Saint Peter lives, presides, and exercises judgment in the See of Rome.

As concerns the opinions of the Roman Pontiff, whether on religion, morals, or other topics, the faithful are not bound to assent to those opinions. All are free to disagree, when the Roman Pontiff is not exercising his authority as Roman Pontiff. Why complain that the Pope has a different opinion that you have, when no one holds that you are obligated at all to agree on such matters? Are you infallible, or is the Pope obligated to assent to your opinions?

The infallible teachings (and dogmatic facts) of the Roman Pontiff (or the body of Bishops with the Roman Pontiff) require the full assent of faith, as these teachings are infallible.

The non-infallible teachings of the Roman Pontiff require religious assent and the non-infallible decisions of discipline of the Roman Pontiff require religious obedience. These are ordinary exercises of the Keys of Peter, and so they require of us only ordinary assent and ordinary obedience, with some possibility of licit theological dissent or licit faithful disobedience. But just as the possibility of error is limited in the non-infallible exercise of the authority of the Church, so also is our ability to dissent or disobey. The Pope cannot err gravely in doctrine or discipline; he can only err to a limited, less-than-grave extent. And so we can only possibly depart from those decisions to a limited extent, which must be also less than grave or less than full. A community of monks is never justified in cutting itself off from the authority of the Church, to wait for a more favorable Roman Pontiff. An individual is never justified in resisting the Roman Pontiff per se, or in leading others to regard him as wholly unfit or unfaithful.

Opposing the Roman Pontiff at every turn, or calling the Roman Pontiff an abusive father or a heretic or other accusatory terms is not justified by the judgment of fallen sinners that the Pope has supposedly erred in doctrine or discipline. Since he can only err to a limited extent, any dissent or disagreement must be mild, limited, and restricted to one or a few matters. If the only possibility is that the Pope has erred gravely OR you are wrong, then you are wrong. Assuming that you yourself can’t possibly be wrong, because you are surrounded by many others with the same position, is foolish and unfaithful. The Sons of Kor opposed Moses as a group, and when God judged between their large group and Moses, the earth opened up and swallowed the entire group, leaving Moses standing justified before the rest of the Israelites. Being part of a group that opposes the Pope, or that has a position incompatible with his teachings or decisions does not guarantee that the group is right or that the Pope is wrong.

2. Is a sinful Pope unable to teach infallibly, or more likely to err?

Many past Popes are accused of grave personal sins. Undoubtedly, some of these past Popes did sin gravely. But just as undoubtedly, some were falsely accused. At least a few of these sinful Popes may not have been valid Roman Pontiffs. But as some others certainly were valid, we must all admit that a Pope can sin gravely in personal matters. This does not affect the ability of the Roman Pontiff to teach infallibly on faith and morals, nor his ability to teach non-infallibly with limited possibility of error (no grave error).

When the very wicked leader of the Pharisees, Caiaphas, spoke about Jesus, he was led by prevenient grace to prophecy the truth, despite being the leader who deliberately and knowingly condemned Jesus to death using false witnesses.

{11:49} Then one of them, named Caiaphas, since he was the high priest that year, said to them: “You do not understand anything.
{11:50} Nor do you realize that it is expedient for you that one man should die for the people, and that the entire nation should not perish.”
{11:51} Yet he did not say this from himself, but since he was the high priest that year, he prophesied that Jesus would die for the nation.

No matter how allegedly sinful a Pope may be, his infallible teachings are without any error and his non-infallible teachings are without any grave error, by the prevenient grace of God.

Consider also that fallen sinners are really bad at judging which Popes are holy and which are sinful. To a conservative Catholic, the conservative Bishops and Popes seem holy, and the liberals seem very sinful. But the opposite is true to a liberal Catholic.

St. Therese of Liseaux tells the story of two sisters in her community, who came in to the room, one and later another, in short order, each giving a different opinion. One sister said that Therese seemed to her to be a nun who would keep the Rule of their Order well for a long time. But the next gave the exact opposite opinion. And Therese commented that she learned not to put too much trust in the opinion of creatures.

Do not be so sure that your judgment of one Pope or another, supposedly being sinful, is a correct judgment. And if you feel you must disagree with a non-infallible teaching or decision of the Roman Pontiff, do not be arrogant. Do not assume that the Pope is certainly wrong, or that you are certainly right. And, above all, never accuse a Roman Pontiff of grave error, even when he could be mistaken in what is non-infallible.

3. How can God protect the Church’s indefectibility while allowing free will in the Pope and Bishops?

The exercise of the Keys of Blessed Peter occurs under the grace of God, and God can and does use His prevenient grace to ensure that the Church remains indefectible, that She never goes astray or leads astray, no matter who the Roman Pontiff or the Bishops may be. Prevenient grace is grace that is received and has its effects without the cooperation of the recipient. The holy souls in Purgatory cannot sin gravely (or at all) and so cannot lose their salvation. Yet they do not have the Beatific Vision of God while in Purgatory. Prevenient grace keeps them from sin.

God has given fallen sinners the gift of free will, but this gift has limits. God certainly can and does exercise his prevenient grace, God operating not cooperating, and no one can resist that grace. The Babylonian captivity was ended when a pagan leader of a pagan empire decided to return the Jews to their Holy Land. This pagan leader had not converted to Judaism with repentance and fasting. As far as we know, he did not convert or repent. But grace guaranteed that the plan of God would unfold as God decided. Prevenient grace brought about the purpose of God in a pagan leader named after a pagan god.

The indefectibility of the Church is secured by providence, by grace in cooperation with free will, but also by prevenient grace, which it is not given to free will to accept or reject. The prevenient grace of God is irresistible.

Similarly, God gives us life, and He also decides when that life ends and our afterlife begins. God offers us salvation and gives us time to repent, and He also decides when that offer has ended and we must be judged. Free will is not absolute or all-encompassing. God sets limits on that free will.

But as concerns the Roman Pontiff, he freely takes up his office, and he can freely resign, and so it is not unfair for God, as long as that man is Roman Pontiff, to require the action of prevenient grace to teach without error in what is infallible and without grave error in what is non-infallible.

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

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1 Response to Three Questions on Popes, Sin, and Infallibility

  1. Robert Fastiggi says:

    Dear Ron,
    Thank you for another good article. It’s worth noting that some of the traditional authors of Scripture (e.g. David and Solomon) were guilty of grave sin. God, however, was able to use them to write inspired Scripture. In the same way, God can use sinful popes to teach the truth.

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