What Do We Do When the Pope Gets It Wrong?

Must Catholics torture our minds with North Korean gymnastics, forcing ourselves to agree with each papal statement?

By John Zmirak Published on June 24, 2015

No less a defender of Catholic truth than Barack Obama has made it clear: Pope Francis threw “the full moral authority of his position” behind the need to abandon fossil fuels, junk our unjust and exploitative free market system, and massively redistribute wealth via globalist institutions. These heroic measures are essential to save the earth and cushion the impact of switching to solar, thermal or hamster-treadmill power for poor countries worldwide.

Meanwhile, climate catastrophists would love you to (a) completely ignore the encyclical’s reiteration of bedrock Christian principles and (b) conclude that the pope indeed has invoked his “full moral authority” and that docile Catholics must fall in line with his political and economic advice and vote accordingly.

Catholics should, of course, charitably consider what the pope has to say. But, ultimately, are we obliged to agree with either his scientific assessment or his policy recommendations? If the pope predicts it will rain, but then it doesn’t, must we say that it is “raining spiritually” but we are too sinful to see it?

I heard a lecture from a priest a few days ago which insisted that we must, that not just papal encyclicals but even ordinary papal lectures on Wednesday afternoons might well form part of the “ordinary magisterium,” which some Catholics consider to be protected from error by the Holy Spirit. In other words, the pope is something very close to an oracle, coming out with divinely-ordained truths at least once a week.

eightballThis is not what the Church teaches, and a good thing too, because it is manifest nonsense. We can see that it is nonsense simply by toting up the statements on which popes have contradicted each other, or which Church councils or catechisms have later gone on to reverse.

When Popes Contradict Each Other, They Can’t All Be Oracles

Let’s leave aside, for the present, the issue of which papal positions are true or false. The only important point here is that papal positions have been different, sometimes radically. Here is a short (and non-exhaustive) list of issues on which, over the course of time, papal positions have made what can be honestly called a 180-degree reversal.

  • Usury. Lending money at interest was condemned for centuries by popes and councils (Clement V; Lateran II, III, IV & V) as usury, a sin against nature akin to sodomy. Dante, following Aquinas, put bankers alongside sodomites in Hell. Simple lending of money at interest is no longer identified with usury. Pius VIII and Pius XII each allowed for lending at interest, and the Vatican runs its own bank today, which charges interest.
  • Slavery. Several popes (Gregory I, Urban II, Nicholas V, Paul III) explicitly allowed for the owning of slaves by Christians and Pope Pius IX’s Holy Office was still defending the moral licitness of slave-owning as late as 1866, three years after the Emancipation Proclamation. It took until Leo XIII — after slavery had ended in most major Catholic countries – for a pope to condemn this practice outright. The Catechism of the Catholic Church now calls the practice “intrinsically evil.”
  • Religious liberty. A long list of papal statements in the 18th and 19th centuries, echoing previous papal bulls and centuries of Church practice, reaffirmed the positive duty of Catholic rulers, whenever prudent, to repress and punish “heretics,” that is, non-Catholic Christians. (The most recent such statement was made by Leo XIII.) This was contradicted by the Second Vatican Council, which teaches that state coercion in matters of conscience violates both revealed and natural law — which means that it is intrinsically evil.
  • Torture. In service of the repression of heresy, countless popes were knowingly complicit in the use of torture to extract confessions, and a means of execution (burning at the stake). Pope Innocent IV explicitly called for such use of torture. The Catechism of the Catholic Church now teaches that torture is intrinsically evil (2297).

Were those Catholic bankers who charged interest before the popes reexamined the question really committing sins against nature? Were Catholics who joined the abolitionist movement also sinning, by claiming that the institution was evil prematurely, before the popes got around to it? Were advocates of religious liberty before Vatican II material heretics, until that day in 1963 when the Council came round to agreeing with them? Were opponents of torture culpable for teaching a position before the Church approved it?

Or could it be that the notion of the papacy as oracle is false, that Christ never intended the papacy to serve such a function on a such a wide range of issues?

The popes try to act as shepherds, and consult their knowledge of Scripture, Church tradition and natural law to come up with the wisest, most prudent ways to apply the timeless and divinely-protected principles drawn from these sources at a given moment in time — and sometimes they make mistakes.

Sometimes the pressure of secular society, long-engrained evils, institutional self-interest, bad advisors, the limits of their background or personal foibles, overwhelm them and lead them astray. Clearly this is what the Church believes, or else it would have felt duty-bound to cling forever to the first thing said by any pope on any subject. Pope Francis (like each of his predecessors) would feel obliged to go right on denouncing all interest on money, defending slavery and allowing for the torture and imprisonment of Protestants — for fear of discrediting the Oracle.

Then-cardinal Ratzinger said approvingly in 1982 that the Vatican II constitution Gaudium et Spes was a “counter-syllabus” to that issued by Pius IX. The future Pope Benedict XVI knew that the Church is not sacramentally married to every assertion on economics and politics by any pope. Nor are laymen. If popes could be wrong about something like slavery — when Protestant laymen like William Wilberforce were right — they might also be wrong about immigration or economics or climate science.

Does anyone really think while the Holy Spirit failed to prevent popes from approving slavery, He has given Pope Francis infallible insight into the sensitivity of the climate to carbon dioxide and how best to solve the problem? The reality is that popes might be hearkening too closely to secular wisdom, liberal opinion or dominant forces in powerful countries (like the EU), just as previous popes were when they defended slavery.

Our Lord has made His intentions perfectly clear by letting popes contradict each other on such subjects — when He could easily have prevented it. Catholics believe God does prevent popes from erring on central and narrowly-defined matters of faith or morals, much as He protected the biblical authors from error. The credibility of this doctrine is only undermined when we confuse it with contradictory scientific and economic papal opinions. God never meant to leave behind an oracle. When we invent one to shore up our political preferences, we are forging a golden calf.


This article reprints with permission relevant sections of “The Myth of Catholic Social Teaching,” with a few minor updates, from the site The Catholic Thing

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