“Even a stopped clock is right twice a day”
— Popular proverb, unknown author
One of the criticisms against our website we most often hear is: “you think that everything the Pope does or says is infallible.”
We know full well that a Pope is only infallible when he makes an ex cathedra definition (even though it is also true that the Pope is acting infallibly in a sense when he promulgates a dogmatic teaching of an Ecumenical Council or when he teaches from the Ordinary and Universal Magisterium.)
We know that the Pope is not infallible outside this narrow scope.
We know the Pope is not infallible when he teaches on matters pertaining to faith and morals as part of his Ordinary Magisterium (not ex cathedra).
We know that the Pope is not infallible in his non-teaching acts, such as when he approves a Church discipline, or in his acts of governance.
But even granting this, there are certain things we cannot accept. First of all, Francis’ detractors have been advancing an extremely pernicious misconception: that every papal teaching that isn’t defined ex cathedra is up for grabs. That a person is free to dissent from any of the pope’s teachings that aren’t defined infallibly. They suggest that such teachings are merely the Pope’s opinions.
This is a serious error. It has been condemned so many times in the past 150 years that it is difficult to decide among all the Church documents that support this position. The list is long and many of the teachings have been quoted multiple times in the articles on this site. For now, I will limit myself to a speech from Pope St. John Paul II, since its wording is the best for the purpose of this article:
“Alongside this infallibility of the ex cathedra definitions, there is the charism of assistance to the Holy Spirit, granted to Peter and his successors so that they do not err in matters of faith and morals and instead give good illumination to the Christian people. This charism is not limited to exceptional cases, but embraces in various degrees the whole exercise of the magisterium.”
— General Audience, March 24th, 1993
As for acts of Church discipline, they are also not infallible, but anyone criticizing the Pope’s decisions regarding disciplines should consider the words of Donum Veritatis #17:
“Magisterial decisions in matters of discipline, even if they are not guaranteed by the charism of infallibility, are not without divine assistance and call for the adherence of the faithful.”
In other words, even if the scope of infallibility is very narrow, the scope of divine assistance that the Pope receives from the Holy Spirit is very wide. The Holy Father is helped in his task by the Holy Spirit throughout all of his magisterial acts, even in matters of discipline.
This makes sense, if we take into account Jesus Christ’s promise to St. Peter that the gates of Hell would not prevail against the Church (Mt 16:18), or His prayer that Peter’s faith would not fail so that he could confirm his brethren (Lk 22:31-32). God’s protection over Peter is very strong.
Given this, how is a Catholic to respond? Regarding teachings of the Ordinary Magisterium of the Pope, several Church documents (Beginning with Lumen Gentium #25) say that the proper response from the faithful is religious submission of mind and will. Regarding Church discipline or other acts of the prudential order, the CDF’s Doctrinal Commentary on the Professio Fidei states that a proposition contrary to those is “rash or dangerous and therefore ‘tuto doceri non potest’ “
What about matters not of Church teaching, but of Church governance? These are not protected by infallibility, of course, but the First Vatican Council asserts that the faithful are bound “to submit, not only in matters which belong to faith and morals, but also in those that appertain to the discipline and government of the Church throughout the world” (Pastor Aeternus, Chapter 3).
Of course these acts can be criticized, but such criticism must be done in a reserved manner and with a loving tenor that is often missing in the speech of papal critics, even when they pay lip service to “loving the Pope.”
Also, just because it is possible to criticize the Pope, this does not mean that every single criticism is legitimate or fair. We at Where Peter Is have scrutinized many of the criticisms that papal detractors have raised against Francis and found them extremely wanting. We have exposed some media outlets that have taken pains to construe everything that Pope Francis says and does in the worst possible light. Inevitably, whenever we defuse this anti-papal propaganda, we are accused of believing that the Pope can do no wrong. They make outlandish claims and–when confronted with inconvenient facts–say that we are the ones who are blind because we won’t uncritically accept everything they say.
Here is where I would like to turn the tables.
I know that we at Where Peter Is don’t really believe that everything the Pope says and does is infallible. The impression that we do is likely an illusion generated by the fact that we challenge the Pope’s critics, because they seem to believe the opposite: that everything Pope Francis says and does is infallibly wrong.
Scarcely a week goes by without a new scandal breaking out involving something Francis says or does. Nothing he does is immune: from his decisions on how to deal with the abuse scandal to his signing of the Abu Dhabi Declaration or the Vatican-China deal. His decisions about the Synod of Bishops are pilloried, whether it’s the main topic for the assembly or his choices on which bishops are invited to attend. His choices on to who to elevate as bishop or cardinal are criticized, his decisions on who he demotes or transfers are attacked. Negative assumptions about his motives are made whenever he accepts a resignation or elects not to renew a curial official’s mandate. He’s accused of plotting against the Church’s doctrine when he decides to reorganize a papal institute. Francis is disparaged when he gives relics to brethren from separated churches. He is accused for every public gesture he makes, from his setting up a Nativity scene in the Vatican representing the corporal works of mercy, to blessing a carved wooden image that the critics are certain is pagan (official denials notwithstanding). Even his choice to wear more humble papal garments is mocked, and his choice to not allow pilgrims to kiss the papal ring is viewed with suspicion.
Everything he does is wrong, wrong, wrong. He is even wrong when he walks into the St. Peter’s square and scares birds away.
He is wrong even when he does the right thing. Let us recall the recent event where Francis slapped the hand of a woman who grabbed him and yanked his arm. The critics were quick to pile up on Francis and accuse him: he was wrong for slapping the woman’s hand. Then Francis apologized. But he was wrong then too. He had only apologized–so they said–because his actions created scandal and he wanted to do PR damage control. Others insisted that his apology was not enough: he must apologize to the woman in person. For every step Francis takes to make things right, he is always one step away from being right. Which, practically speaking, is the same as saying that he is always wrong. It makes one think that some people just want to have reasons to accuse him or something.
But let us not just focus on papal actions. Let’s consider his magisterial teachings. What do papal critics say about Francis’ Magisterium?
According to them, Francis was wrong in Laudato ‘Si: it is liberal claptrap.
Francis was wrong on the sacramental discipline he laid out in Amoris Laetitia: it is heretical.
Francis was wrong in his revision to the Catechism on the death penalty: he cannot do that, it’s just his personal opinion (which happens to be heretical).
Francis was wrong when he decided to add “ecological sin” to the Catechism: there is no such thing.
Francis was wrong in his homilies about the multiplication of the loaves. Francis was wrong in asking Christians to evangelize, not proselytize. Francis was wrong in his addresses comparing the Holy Family to immigrants. In fact, Francis was wrong whenever he taught anything about immigration. Francis was wrong whenever he taught something about social justice, about helping the poor or anything that could be construed as politically liberal.
Francis was wrong every time he opened his mouth to teach something on faith and morals that wasn’t related to abortion, homosexual behavior, or any of the topics preapproved by his critics. In fact, even when he teaches on those topics, he is still wrong because what he says can be misinterpreted. He is wrong for not condemning those ills more forcefully. He is wrong for not talking about them more.
Francis is always considered wrong, period.
This got me thinking. Doesn’t the Church teach, as I said at the beginning of this article, that the Holy Spirit gives His divine assistance to the Pope when he teaches, even non-infallibly, and even in matters of discipline?
How can a Pope, who is granted divine assistance of the Holy Spirit in his Ordinary Magisterium, promulgate error in his teachings–not once, not twice, not thrice, but almost every single time?
How can a man have so much protection from the Holy Spirit, yet manage to get everything so consistently wrong all the time? This can be described as nothing short of a miracle in itself. This is something unheard of throughout the entire history of the Church.
Granted, a person can reject the inspirations of the Holy Spirit. Still, it does not cease to be remarkable that someone with so much assistance from the Holy Spirit could reject it so many times! Even the Borgia popes, as evil as they were, did not teach heresy! And who would be more impervious to the action of the Holy Spirit than they? Even the supposedly heretical popes that Francis’ critics (and Protestants) use as talking points against papal primacy are typically alleged to have committed only one heresy in each of their papacies, and never in magisterial documents that were binding on the whole faithful. But here comes Francis, remarkably soiling Peter’s record almost anytime he opens his mouth or wields a pen. If it would come to pass that a Pope could and would do this so consistently, maybe God really should not have given us so many assurances on the reliability of Peter.
Or maybe… maybe (this is a crazy thought, but hear me out)… it is those who tar and feather the Pope, day and night, who are wrong… possibly? I mean, isn’t it more likely–given the divine assistance promised to the Pope–that what we are witnessing is the work of an unhinged media cabal deliberately working to undermine Francis’ papacy whenever possible, by whatever means possible? Maybe the way that those outlets criticize Francis whenever he lifts his pinky finger is a sign–not of how Francis is unreliable, but of how unreliable those outlets are when reporting on Francis? Maybe?
I think the obsessive way papal critics have dug for dirt to pitch at Pope Francis has made them actually dig themselves into a hole. At this stage, it is much less likely that all their criticisms are valid, than it is that their understanding of Catholicism is flawed. And if it is not likely that all their criticism is valid, maybe it is also not likely that any of their criticism is valid. Falsus in unus, falsus in omnibus.
This would suggest that their criticism of our website is also invalid. It is not true that we believe the Pope is infallible in everything he says and does. Rather, we simply have a healthy dose of skepticism towards those who seem to believe the current Vicar of Christ is infallibly wrong in everything he says and does (and those who act like that even if they don’t believe it). That is not Catholicism, rather it is a Bizarro world kind of inverted Catholicism, where Catholic doctrine is believed to rest in the opposite direction taught by the Roman Pontiff. Not “Where Peter is, there is the Church,” but “Where the Church is, then Peter isn’t.”
Being a sign of contradiction against this trend is not ultramontanism. It’s simply common sense. If the Pope is not infallible in everything he says and does, even less so are his critics. And, contrary to the Pope, his critics do not receive divine assistance from the Holy Spirit. And they never speak infallibly. Maybe Catholics should think twice before following those pundits instead of following the Pope.
The barrage of criticism raised against the Vicar of Christ night and day speaks poorly about the reliability of his detractors. The longer their litany of accusations, the less likely their narrative becomes. In their eagerness to find anything to spin against the Pope at any possible time, they have unmasked their bias. Perhaps, if they had focused their attention on a single issue, or if they kept their criticisms principled, giving the Pope praise where it was due, and not jumped onto every anti-Francis bandwagon, no matter how unhinged, they might have more credibility. At it turns out, not so much.
Even a broken clock is right twice a day. Are we supposed to accept that the Vicar of Christ, given divine assistance by the Holy Spirit every time he exercises his Magisterium, cannot clear such a low bar? If so, what is the purpose of having a Vicar of Christ to begin with? For papal demonizers, anyone who does not validate their worldview is a papolater. Papolatry is wrong, of course. But so is papal demonization. The latter is a greater problem in today’s Church than the former.
[Image credits: giulio napolitano/Shutterstock]
Pedro Gabriel, MD, is a Catholic layman and physician, born and residing in Portugal. He is a medical oncologist, currently employed in a Portuguese public hospital. A published writer of Catholic novels with a Tolkienite flavor, he is also a parish reader and a former catechist. He seeks to better understand the relationship of God and Man by putting the lens on the frailty of the human condition, be it physical and spiritual. He also wishes to provide a fresh perspective of current Church and World affairs from the point of view of a small western European country, highly secularized but also highly Catholic by tradition.