Is it ever licit for a faithful Catholic to disagree with an authoritative, non-infallible teaching of a pope? Yes. If a person has inquired diligently into the teaching in question, and if after serious prayer and reflection, feels that fraternal correction is in order, then one may express this disagreement publicly as long as: (A) one’s reasons are serious and well-founded; (B) one’s dissent does not question or impugn the teaching authority of the Church; and (C) the nature of the dissent is not such as to give rise to scandal.
I’ve often thought that these would serve as good rules-of-thumb for disagreeing with almost anybody. You should have good reasons for your position; you should strive not to impugn the integrity or good intentions of your interlocutor; and you should argue in such a way as not to give scandal. One rarely wins over others (including bystanders) by brow-beating them; you usually succeed only in making your side look bad.
So much for papal teaching.
What about papal actions? Along with the gift of infallibility, do popes have the gift of impeccability (from the Latin peccatum, meaning “sin”), a special charism guaranteeing they never make mistakes?
The Church has never made this claim. Quite the contrary, those who have been the staunchest defenders of infallibility have always distinguished it from impeccability precisely because (A) it’s clear that any number of popes have committed grievous sins, and (B) it’s a matter of faith that every pope is a sinner, just like the rest of us, in need of God’s saving grace won by the death and resurrection of Christ. We don’t worship the man; we respect the office; we have faith in Christ’s promise to be with His Church until the end of the age and to send His Holy Spirit to guide and protect her.
Years ago someone told me that John Paul II didn’t give communion in the hand, which showed that John Paul II was condemning the practice. I suggested that if the pope wanted to communicate this message, he had plenty of official channels to do so. There is a species of papal idolatry that is, in the long run, not helpful. I wonder what my friend would say now. If he is still mistaking the pope’s personal actions for official papal teaching, he’s probably confused – and angry.
Watching a pope’s every action for its political significance is the sort of foolishness that caused certain people to condemn Christ for eating with (“yucking it up with”) prostitutes and tax collectors. Such actions were said to “cause scandal,” “sow confusion,” and “show support for the Church’s enemies.” Maybe; maybe not. “Time will tell where wisdom lies.”
Some popes have made major mistakes. But every pope makes some mistakes; they’re only human after all. If you want perfection and sinlessness, you’re looking for a church that doesn’t exist, an empty promise from the Father of Lies, not the one established by Christ.
Being confused or disappointed with a pope is a common enough state of affairs in Church history. But Catholics who imagine that they have the authority to set the canonical standard by which the teaching of this or any papacy can be judged are simply showing (A) that they have really been Protestants all along, and (B) that their view of authority is the one that characterizes too much of modern American politics: authority’s job is to do what I say and to crush my opponents.
The Church hasn’t always been well served by her popes. But then again, she has always been much worse off when she has given-in to the self-righteous voices of the mob – especially when they’re shouting “Crucify him.”
Self-righteous arguably being defined as those who insist, as an example, that not only is the Pope wrong on one or more issues, but he’s a Marxist, a Socialist, a Peronista, someone who willingly allows his words to be twisted by the enemies of the Church. They clearly seem to be shouting “Crucify him” and all because he speaks in opposition to what they hold dear.
Of course, there’s a flip side as Ed Feser, in a recent piece comprehensively looking at Papal authority, warns:
That popes are fallible in the ways that they are is as important for Catholics to keep in mind as the fact that popes are infallible when speaking ex cathedra. Many well-meaning Catholics have forgotten this truth, or appear to want to suppress it. When recent popes have said or done strange or even manifestly unwise things, these apologists have refused to admit it. They have tied themselves in logical knots trying to show that the questionable statement or action is perfectly innocent, or even conveys some deep insight, if only we would be willing to see it. Had Catholic bloggers and pop apologists been around in previous ages, some of them would no doubt have been assuring their readers that the Eastern bishops excommunicated by Pope Victor must have had it coming and that St. Irenaeus should have kept silent; or that Pope Stephen was trying to teach us some profound spiritual truth with the cadaver synod if only we would listen; or that Liberius, Honorius, and John XXII were really deepeningour understanding of doctrine rather than confusing the faithful.
This kind of “spin doctoring” only makes those engaging in it look ridiculous. Worse, it does grave harm to the Church and to souls. It makes Catholicism appear Orwellian, as if a pope can by fiat make even sheer novelties and reversals of past teaching somehow a disguised passing on of the deposit of faith. Catholics who cannot bear such cognitive dissonance may have their faith shaken. Non-Catholics repulsed by such intellectual dishonesty will wrongly judge that to be a Catholic one must become a shill.
The sober truth is that Christ sometimes lets his Vicar err, only within definite limits but sometimes gravely. Why? In part because popes, like all of us, have free will. But in part, precisely to show that (as Cardinal Ratzinger put it) “the thing cannot be totally ruined” — not even by a pope.
With the shadow of Feser’s piece as backdrop (do yourself the favor of reading the whole thing), I think it fair to suggest that Pope Francis has erred recently.
In the same airplane interview where Donald Trump was reported to have been maligned (I disagree and it seemed later that Trump thought the same), the Holy Father appears to have misspoken:
Paloma García Ovejero, Cadena COPE (Spain): Holy Father, for several weeks there’s been a lot of concern in many Latin American countries but also in Europe regarding the Zika virus. The greatest risk would be for pregnant women. There is anguish. Some authorities have proposed abortion, or else to avoiding pregnancy. As regards avoiding pregnancy, on this issue, can the Church take into consideration the concept of “the lesser of two evils?”
Pope Francis: Abortion is not the lesser of two evils. It is a crime. It is to throw someone out in order to save another. That’s what the Mafia does. It is a crime, an absolute evil. On the ‘lesser evil,’ avoiding pregnancy, we are speaking in terms of the conflict between the fifth and sixth commandment. Paul VI, a great man, in a difficult situation in Africa, permitted nuns to use contraceptives in cases of rape.
Don’t confuse the evil of avoiding pregnancy by itself, with abortion. Abortion is not a theological problem, it is a human problem, it is a medical problem. You kill one person to save another, in the best case scenario. Or to live comfortably, no? It’s against the Hippocratic oaths doctors must take. It is an evil in and of itself, but it is not a religious evil in the beginning, no, it’s a human evil. Then obviously, as with every human evil, each killing is condemned.
On the other hand, avoiding pregnancy is not an absolute evil. In certain cases, as in this one, or in the one I mentioned of Blessed Paul VI, it was clear. I would also urge doctors to do their utmost to find vaccines against these two mosquitoes that carry this disease. This needs to be worked on.
The Pope has seemingly made a factual mistake. John Allen over at Crux goes into this in great detail.
The reference is to Congo in the late 1950s and early 60s, where Catholic nuns faced widespread sexual violence and the question was whether birth control could be used to avoid pregnancy after rape.
Francis said Paul VI “permitted” birth control in that context, which, to Anglo-Saxon ears, implies a formal juridical act. The line sparked a frenzy of fruitless Internet searches, as people went looking for a Vatican edict or decree that just doesn’t exist.
Here’s what happened: In December 1961, the influential Italian journal Studi Cattolici (“Catholic Studies”) published an issue in which three Catholic moral theologians agreed that in the Congo case, contraception could be justified.
The future Paul VI, at that stage, was still the Archbishop of Milan, and close to the currents that shaped Studi Cattolici. It was assumed the conclusions reflected his thinking. That appeared to be confirmed later when Paul VI made one of the authors, Pietro Palazzini, a cardinal.
Paul became pope in 1963, and never issued any edict writing that position into law. Thus, when pressed about it some years later, a Vatican spokesman could accurately say, “I am not aware of official documents from the Holy See in this regard.”
Still, the Vatican never repudiated the 1961 position, so the takeaway was that it remained a legitimate option. To Italians — and remember, Francis’ ancestry is Italian, and he’s very wired into the country’s ecclesiastical scene — that meant Paul VI approved.
If anything screams for clarity from the Vatican, I’m of the opinion that this fits the bill. Mr. Allen at Crux believes we’re likely not to get that clarification.
I hope he’s wrong. Truly.
Crossposted at Brutally Honest.