What If Pope Francis Teaches Under Papal Infallibility?

Suppose that Pope Francis decides an open theological question using Papal Infallibility. He might do so. He knows well that any big decision of doctrine from him will be opposed by his conservative critics. He has to have concern that such a teaching would fail to reach the minds and hearts of the faithful amid substantial opposition. Papal Infallibility would be the best way to make certain that the doctrine is not destroyed by a dog-pile of critics and nay-sayers. And we all know that Pope Francis has no problem confronting and contradicting his opponents. Suppose, then, that the Pope issues a new definition of doctrine under Papal Infallibility. What then?

This would present a new type of problem for papal critics. Currently, they can disagree with his personal opinions and his decisions of discipline. The faithful are not required to agree with every opinion or prudential judgment of the Pope. And when they disagree with his non-infallible teachings, they can claim to have that right, since non-infallible teachings are open to a limited possibility of error and correction. Of course, they have greatly exceeded all bounds of charity and responsibility in that regard. They are not justified in their current behavior, in treating the Pope with contempt, denigration, and derision. They are not justified in opposing his every word and deed. Already, many papal critics are guilty of formal schism for their public statements indicating a rejection of submission to his authority. But the Papal Infallibility situation will be different.

The faithful are required to believe every divinely-revealed teaching which is also taught by the Magisterium under Papal Infallibility, Conciliar Infallibility, or the ordinary and universal Magisterium. To obstinately doubt or obstinately deny such a teaching is formal heresy. For these teachings cannot possibly err. And therein lies the problem. Until the Pope exercises Papal Infallibility, his critics can claim that he is the one who is in error. But under Papal Infallibility, his teaching cannot err.

Possible responses:

1. Live by faith. Accept the teaching of Pope Francis under Papal Infallibility as the teaching of Christ. That is the only faithful response. But one can easily imagine, from the current behavior of critics, that they will chose another path.

2. They might claim that Pope Francis is not a valid Roman Pontiff. If that were true (it is not ), then he could not exercise Papal Infallibility, and they could reject the teaching.

The counter-argument is that, since the Church is indefectible, God does not permit any invalid Pope to be accepted by the body of Bishops. The acceptance of Pope Francis as the legitimate Roman Pontiff by the body of Bishops proves, as a dogmatic fact, that he is a valid Roman Pontiff.

3. They might claim that the teaching under Papal Infallibility is heresy, and that, as an act of heresy, Pope Francis is automatically excommunicated and therefore no longer Roman Pontiff. And that would mean his teaching does not fall under Papal Infallibility.

The problem with this approach is that the First Vatican Council taught that every Pope has the gift of truth and a never-failing faith. And this teaching of the Council is directly taken from Sacred Scripture. It is the authoritative interpretation of the Word of God by an Ecumenical Council. And a never-failing faith does not allow for the possibility of heresy. So, as I have been saying, the prevenient grace of God absolutely prevents any Roman Pontiff from teaching heresy (as this would be contrary to the gift of truth) and from committing apostasy, heresy, or schism (as this would be contrary to a never-failing faith).

They might say that the Pope, when he commits heresy, becomes not-the-Pope, and therefore he no longer has those gifts. But that interpretation of the gifts makes them quite useless. It is like the gift of an unbreakable bowl, which, when it is dropped, can break into a thousand pieces because, when broken, it is no longer a bowl and thus no longer an unbreakable bowl. Such an interpretation of the gift of a never-failing faith is absurd.

4. They might claim that his teaching is in error, therefore it does not fall under Papal Infallibility.

That might sound good at first glance. But the gift to the Church of Papal Infallibility has the very purpose of presenting a set of teachings which the faithful can trust with their souls and their salvation, without having to rely each on his own understanding of truth. If a teaching meets the conditions for Papal Infallibility, then it is certainly true — without any consideration of the content of the teaching. That is the very meaning and purpose of Papal Infallibility.

So if you are certain that a teaching under Papal Infallibility is in error, it cannot be. It is the infallible teaching of Christ, and you are the one who is mistaken.

{6:61} Therefore, many of his disciples, upon hearing this, said: “This saying is difficult,” and, “Who is able to listen to it?”
{6:62} But Jesus, knowing within himself that his disciples were murmuring about this, said to them: “Does this offend you?
{6:63} Then what if you were to see the Son of man ascending to where he was before?
{6:64} It is the Spirit who gives life. The flesh does not offer anything of benefit. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life.
{6:65} But there are some among you who do not believe.” For Jesus knew from the beginning who were unbelieving and which one would betray him.
{6:66} And so he said, “For this reason, I said to you that no one is able to come to me, unless it has been given to him by my Father.”
{6:67} After this, many of his disciples went back, and they no longer walked with him.
{6:68} Therefore, Jesus said to the twelve, “Do you also want to go away?”
{6:69} Then Simon Peter answered him: “Lord, to whom would we go? You have the words of eternal life.
{6:70} And we have believed, and we recognize that you are the Christ, the Son of God.”

5. They might say that it does not meet the conditions for Papal Infallibility.

There are five conditions:

Vatican I:

1. “the Roman Pontiff”
2. “speaks ex cathedra” (“that is, when in the discharge of his office as shepherd and teacher of all Christians, and by virtue of his supreme apostolic authority….”)
3. “he defines”
4. “that a doctrine concerning faith or morals”
5. “must be held by the whole Church” [Pastor Aeternus, chap. 4.]

Vatican II:

1. “the Roman Pontiff”
2. “in virtue of his office, when as the supreme shepherd and teacher of all the faithful, who confirms his brethren in their faith (cf. Lk 22:32),”
3. “by a definitive act, he proclaims”
4. “a doctrine of faith or morals” (“And this infallibility…in defining doctrine of faith and morals, extends as far as the deposit of revelation extends”)
5. “in accordance with revelation itself, which all are obliged to abide by and be in conformity with” [Lumen Gentium, n. 25, paragraph 3.]

But as you can see from the above criteria, that will be a difficult argument to make, and an easy one to refute. So they will not succeed with this approach.

In the end, they will reject the teaching under Papal Infallibility, declare Pope Francis to be a heretic and no longer a valid Pope, and then they will depart from communion with the Pope and with the Bishops who are faithful to him. Even now, many critics are already in a state of formal schism — but they don’t admit it. If Pope Francis teaches under Papal Infallibility, they will be forced to admit that they have departed from communion with the Roman Pontiff. And this is one likely way that the great conservative Schism begins.

Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian and translator of the Catholic Public Domain Version of the Bible.

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