Pope Francis has had his share of controversies since he took the papal throne in 2013 after the retirement of Benedict XVI. From the Dubia to Pachamama to Fratelli Tutti, His Holiness’s words (or lack thereof) have sent the Barque of St. Peter on quite the ride. And it’s also made many people wonder, “What is papal infallibility? Do I need to always listen to Pope Francis?”
The short answer: Sometimes.
The long answer? Well…
First, we need to define “papal infallibility”.
To be infallible means to be without error. Someone who is infallible is someone who is not wrong and can be trusted. This is a critical thing in the Catholic Church because if someone isn’t infallible, then we’re going to be doing a lot of arguing. Well. More arguing than usual.
Papal infallibility, then, is the doctrine that the Pope speaks without error on matters of faith and morals. This belief has been around for centuries but wasn’t made official doctrine until the First Vatican Council in 1870.
Faith and Morals
Papal infallibility, then, isn’t a blank check for the Pope to decree whatever he wants. He can’t get up tomorrow morning and say, “Coffee is anathema.” I mean, he could but that doesn’t make it so. I can disagree and not be concerned about my eternal destination. Why? Because whether coffee is good or bad is not a matter of faith or morals.
Another example: it is good to take care of the environment. Way back in Genesis, God entrusted the planet to us by giving us dominion over it. Like children given new clothes, our Heavenly Father expects us to take care of what we have been given. But can Pope Francis decree that everyone who drives a car is in mortal sin? No. Again, it does not concern the faith. There is an aspect of morality to it but it doesn’t have the level of gravity that requires the Pope’s judgment. He can offer his opinion but that’s all it is: his opinion.
A third example would be concerning birth control. Now, this does affect faith and morals because it deals with sex, procreation, and the sacrament of marriage. Popes have long condemned the use of birth control and, in this, they are infallible. To use birth control is a mortal sin. Period. End of discussion. The Pope has spoken.
Where does this leave us?
The Pope’s latest encyclical, then, is not an example of papal infallibility but, rather, his thoughts on brotherhood. As with any encyclical, we are free to leave it or take it. There’s nothing in our faith that demands we read every single thing the Pope writes or listen to everything he says. If Pope Francis were to ever decree something from the Chair of St. Peter, that is, exercise his infallibility, then we have to sit up and take notice.
There is a tendency in our current culture to “pope watch”. We are obsessed by what he is saying and doing. However, this wasn’t always the case. Centuries ago, most people didn’t even know the name of the pope and only heard about him when he made an infallible statement. When it comes to a controversial pope, I argue that we should go back to that “old point of view”.
What the Pope says during an airplane interview, or even what he writes in an encyclical, as long as he’s not speaking infallibly, is not something we need to be concerned about. It doesn’t affect our faith or how we live it. We have enough problems, in fact, without worrying about whether or not His Holiness is edging out of the grey into full-blown heresy.
Or, as my military husband likes to say, it’s above our pay grade. Most of us are the boots-on-the-ground, in-the-muck soldiers. We can’t be concerned about what the generals are arguing over. Rather, we have to keep our eyes fixed on our Commander-in-Chief, Jesus Christ.