Dealing With Papal Mistakes

One of the most common misunderstandings, both by Catholics and non-Catholics, is that we believe that every word from the Pope must be accepted as infallible Church teaching. That’s not at all what we believe, as I will explain in a moment. But we must be clear about this, because sometimes we have to deal with and explain papal mistakes.

This is really important, because like every other human being, popes make mistakes. I think it’s fair to say that every single pope who ever lived has made mistakes. Nobody is error free. But it does us no good to ignore these lapses when they happen, or try to explain them away as if they don’t matter.

I want to make clear that I deeply love Pope Francis, and am making these comments with great respect for my brother and father in Christ. I unequivocally accept and submit to the teachings of the Church. May God forbid that I ever say anything contrary to the teachings of the Church or anything that leads anyone astray from the truth.

The Pope’s Comments

The reason for writing this is a news story that broke today. In an interview for an Italian documentary, the Holy Father made a serious mistake (assuming that the reported quotations are accurate). But we have to be clear about what this error means – or doesn’t mean – for our faith.

The mistake came in comments made by the Holy Father about homosexual relationships. Here is the first part of what he is reported to have said:

“Homosexuals have a right to be a part of the family. They’re children of God and have a right to a family. Nobody should be thrown out, or be made miserable because of it.”

This is certainly true, with one exception that will become apparent in the Pope’s next comment. All human persons are made in the image and likeness of God. We are all part of the human family as well as our natural family.

Our Church has always, and will always teach that homosexual acts are gravely immoral and can never be justified (Catechism 2357). It is also Church teaching that “there are absolutely no grounds for considering homosexual unions to be in any way similar or even remotely analogous to God’s plan for marriage and family” (Pope Francis, Amoris Laetitia 251). But we also are taught that we must always treat our homosexual friends and neighbors “with respect, compassion and sensitivity”, and not subject them to unjust discrimination (Catechism 2358).

The problem arises from the next reported comment by the Holy Father:

“What we have to create is a civil union law. That way they are legally covered.”

Unfortunately, supporting the legal recognition of any kind of same-sex union is contrary to Church teaching.

The Pope’s Mistake

As the battle over the legal redefinition of marriage and recognition of same-sex unions was heating up, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued a document called Considerations Regarding Proposals to Give Legal Recognition to Unions Between Homosexual Persons (June 3, 2003). This was done under the supervision of the Prefect of the CDF, then-Cardinal Ratzinger, and promulgated with the approval of Pope John Paul II.

The purpose of the document was made clear at the outset: “The present Considerations do not contain new doctrinal elements; they seek rather to reiterate the essential points on this question” (Considerations 1). It then went on to explain, in abundant detail and based on arguments from the natural law, the common good and reason, that there was no possible justification for the legal recognition of any kind of same-sex union. In fact, it repeatedly called such laws “gravely unjust” and support for these laws is “gravely immoral”.

Here’s the teaching of the Church, as summarized in Considerations:

The Church teaches that respect for homosexual persons cannot lead in any way to approval of homosexual behaviour or to legal recognition of homosexual unions. The common good requires that laws recognize, promote and protect marriage as the basis of the family, the primary unit of society. Legal recognition of homosexual unions or placing them on the same level as marriage would mean not only the approval of deviant behaviour, with the consequence of making it a model in present-day society, but would also obscure basic values which belong to the common inheritance of humanity. The Church cannot fail to defend these values, for the good of men and women and for the good of society itself. (Considerations 11)

As for how Catholics should deal with proposals to recognize such unions, the document is also very clear:

One must refrain from any kind of formal cooperation in the enactment or application of such gravely unjust laws and, as far as possible, from material cooperation on the level of their application. (Considerations 5)

Even though the Holy Father’s comments were informal and not an official pronouncement of policy, they clearly can be construed as “formal cooperation”. So this is a serious mistake by the Holy Father and it can lead to a lot of confusion.

The Teaching of the Church

The teaching of the Church is clear that the Holy Father exercises great authority in his regular teaching on faith and morals. This is called his “ordinary magisterium”, and Catholics are bound to “adhere to it with religious assent” (Catechism 892). This is especially true when the Holy Father is teaching in union with the College of Bishops, either gathered together or in their own home dioceses.

This is in contrast to the formal exercise of his “extraordinary magisterium”. This only takes place when the pope makes a solemn proclamation of a doctrine that must be accepted as a matter of faith. This is also called a teaching ex cathedra because it is (at least figuratively) given from the papal throne (the “cathedra“) as the Successor of St. Peter. These teachings are guaranteed by the Holy Spirit to be free of error (the doctrine of “papal infallibility”).

An example of how the Pope exercises this ordinary magisterium is the issuance of an encyclical. Pope Francis just issued one last week, Fratelli Tutti, on the need to develop a fraternal society based on love. Other ways in which it is done is through the regular formal addresses given by the Pope, such as his Wednesday Catechesis, his comments at the weekly Angelus, or in his homilies at pontifical Masses.

Informal comments during an airplane news conference, or remarks to documentary film-makers, are clearly not formal exercises of the Pope’s teaching authority. While we are always bound to respect the Holy Father and his statements, we are not bound to accept as infallible every word that comes from his mouth. These are subject to all the ordinary human fallibilities – ambiguity, incompleteness, and even outright error.

And that’s what happened here. The Pope said something that was incorrect.

What Do We Do?

It’s not my place to counsel the Holy Father what to do about this. It may well be that he was misquoted, or taken out of context. But I would hope that he immediately clarifies the comments and reaffirms the correct principles. But that’s up to him, and I doubt he will ask my advice.

My concern is how we should respond.

In this case, I think we have to recognize that the Holy Father has plainly erred. Catholics cannot promote the legalization of same-sex unions. But we also have to be clear that he isn’t changing the teaching of the Church on homosexuality or same-sex unions in any way. He can’t do that, and he has himself repeatedly upheld the teaching – including in a formal encyclical, Amoris Laetitia, a few years ago.

Unfortunately, the Holy Father has a history of off-handed comments that are unclear or can be construed as erroneous. This has caused a lot of anxiety and confusion, and even a lot of division in the Church. I wish the Pope had better “message discipline”, but you could say that about just about every public figure. At least he doesn’t say outlandish things on Twitter every few minutes, like the President.

So instead of getting all upset and hysterical about this, we should take that for what it is. It was a mistake by a man with good intentions but who just got it wrong. He was trying to give expression to his long-standing desire that we reach out to and include those who are marginalized or alienated from the Church or society. It was an unforced error, and it will have to be corrected either by the Holy Father, his press team, or our own bishops. It’s an opportunity for all of them to publicly reaffirm the true teaching of the Church, which would at least bring something good out of the situation.

In the end, I don’t see any reason for people’s faith to be shaken by this. The teaching is clear and will never change. The gates of Hell will never prevail against the Church. It would be nice if we all prayed for the Pope, instead of critiquing everything he says or does. And as a weak and foolish man who has made millions of mistakes, I would like to think that we can extend to the Holy Father the same degree of mercy that I hope others give to me.

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