Most of What the Pope Says and Does is Fallible

Pope Francis recites the Angelus noon prayer from the window of his studio overlooking St. Peter's Square, at the Vatican, Sunday, Sept. 2, 2018.

By Jennifer Roback Morse Published on September 4, 2018

The pope, in almost everything he says and does, is fallible.

There. I said it. I said what many people have been itching to say. The pope is fallible. And saying this as a Catholic does not make me a dissenter. My position is as orthodox as they come.

I recall that in my (pre-Vatican II) Catholic grade school, the nuns taught us: “The pope is infallible when he speaks ex cathedra on matters of faith and morals. He is not infallible when he predicts who is going to win the World Series.”

This should not be controversial. Nothing in Catholic teaching, before or after Vatican II, or Vatican I, for that matter, requires Catholics to believe that the pope can do no wrong. Papal infallibility is limited to a very specific set of circumstances. In fact, the pope has clearly spoken ex cathedra only twice, in defining the dogmas of the Immaculate Conception in 1854, and of the Assumption of Mary in 1950.

On Scientific Claims

The pope can be mistaken about scientific claims. Chilean clerical abuse survivor Juan Carlos Cruz, a now openly “gay” adult man, reported that Pope Francis told him, “God made you that way.” Now, we do not really know what the Holy Father said in this private meeting. But we can say that the statement attributed to Pope Francis has scientific claims embedded within it. These claims include:

  • People are born gay.
  • People cannot and should not try to change their pattern of sexual attractions.

These claims, while widely believed in today’s culture, are not scientifically sound. The most honest thing to say is that they are disputed. Some would say they have been refuted. In any case, the charism of papal infallibility does not include any particular scientific expertise. The pope can certainly be wrong about science.

On Personnel Appointments

The pope can make bad personnel appointments. We know the saying, “Personnel is policy.” The choice of a person to hold an office amounts to a decision about the direction that office will take. Here are a few papal appointments that represent, at the very least, poor judgment.

  • Juan Barros as Bishop of Osorno Chile. Fr. Barros was a protégé of disgraced priest Fernando Karadima. Survivors of Karadima’s sexual abuse accused Barros of being fully aware of Karadima’s crimes and covering for him. The crisis got so bad that every bishop in Chile resigned. Pope Francis accepted only three of these resignations, including Bishop Barros’. It is an understatement to say that appointing Fr. Juan Barros as Bishop was a poor decision.
  • Gotfried Cardinal Daneels: Pope Francis brought Daneels out of retirement to participate in the 2015 Synod on the Family: advocates for sexual abuse survivors say that Daneels told abuse victims to “not make a lot of noise.” An odd choice for a synod on the family.
  • Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia Pope Francis appointed him President of the John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family. Paglia commissioned a homoerotic mural for his cathedral. Ditto: an odd choice to head up an Institute on Christian marriage.
  • Bishop Marcelo Sanchez Sorondo, Chancellor of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, gave an interview gushing over communist China. He claimed that China, the nation known for the one-child policy and its countless millions of forced abortions (among many other crimes) “best realizes the social doctrine of the Church.”

Respectfully Disagreeing

Speaking of Bishop Sorondo’s extraordinary statements about China: The pope is certainly fallible in foreign policy. Even a cursory glance at Church history will show this. Faithful Catholics have every right to voice their concerns about the Holy Father’s choice of these embarrassing prelates for major posts. No name-calling or cheap shots, of course. But qualified laypeople should offer their views, along with reasons and evidence.

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Current circumstances surrounding the sex abuse and cover-up scandals require that we say this out loud. Many tradition-minded Catholics hate to criticize any priest, much less the pope himself. On top of that, some close collaborators of Pope Francis have made rash statements that seem to suggest any disagreement is an attack on either the person of the pope or the office of the papacy. These statements do not enhance civil dialogue about the important issues we face. We need to get at the truth about a whole series of complex matters. Attacks on opponents do not help. Neither does self-censoring out of an over-zealous deference to the clergy.

I claim the right to respectfully disagree with clergy. I do NOT claim the right to disagree with the Deposit of Faith or the Apostles Creed or authoritative Church documents and teaching. In fact, the solidity of the truth is what provides ordinary people like me with the ability to stand up to authority figures in the Church. Any of us can appeal to the ultimate Authority, Jesus Christ, who is higher than all of us.

Obedience and Honesty

The pope is fallible when he speaks about science. He is fallible when he makes appointments. He is fallible when he makes diplomatic choices. He is fallible on airplanes and on Twitter and when he gives off-the-cuff interviews.

The good of the Church depends on obeying legitimate authority. That is true. But the good of the Church depends on a robust conversation about topics where the pope is plainly fallible, even mistaken.

 

Jennifer Roback Morse, Ph.D., is the Founder and President of the Ruth Institute, and the author of The Sexual State: How Elite Ideologies are Destroying Lives and Why the Church Was Right All Along.

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