Tenth Sunday after
Thoughts for the Week - Fr R Taouk
24th July 2016
Limits of Papal Infallibility by Rev. Charles Coupe S.J.
Suppose, during your summer holidays, you were to travel to
Rome and were to ask the Pope's opinion, let us say, about
South African politics, or Bimetallism, or Sunday Closing,
or the Income Tax, or the Death Dues, or the relative merits
of English and Australian mutton, or whether a certain
well-advertised patent medicine really is "worth a guinea a
box"; would not the Pope's answer (you ask) on these points,
if he gave an answer, be regarded as infallible? Most
assuredly not. The Pope knows less about many of these
things than you do. The Pope is only infallible when, among
other conditions, he treats of faith or morals; and the
points you have touched on concern neither faith nor morals.
Suppose, during the same tour to Rome, you heard the Pope
preach in St. Peter's on some question relating to faith or
morals; and you did not agree with the preacher's view; and
you wrote to him to say so; and the Holy Father condescended
to reply to you in a private letter. You ask again: "Would
not such sermon and such letter have to be considered
infallible?" Not a bit of it.
The Pope in his private capacity, even when treating of
faith and morals, is no more infallible than you are.
only when the Pope speaks as Pope, that is, "ex cathedra",
officially, judicially, as interpreter of God's revelation,
as Vicar of Christ, as addressing the Universal Church - it
is only then that he speaks infallibly.
Non-Catholics ask how the Pope can be infallible since all
men are liable to sin. The objection, of course, confuses
infallibility with impeccability. Infallibility, that is,
freedom from liability to teach error, is confounded with
impeccability, that is, freedom from liability to practise
error. John the Baptist, whom while yet unborn God confirmed
in grace, was impeccable but not infallible. The Roman
Pontiff is infallible but not impeccable. The two gifts are
as different as water is different from wine, or as fire
from snow, or as the North Pole from the South. The two
gifts are different both in meaning and in purpose.
Infallibility is for the benefit of the Church.
Impeccability is for the benefit of the individual.
Infallibility is an official gift. Impeccability is a
private gift. Among the 258 Popes who have sat in Peter's
chair, most have been holy men, many have been glorious
few - a very few - you can count them on the fingers of one
hand - have been, alas, a scandal to the Church and a
stumbling-block to the faithful.
But how did their evil life touch the question of their
"infallibility". Infallibility excludes error in the
interpretation of the law. Impeccability excludes error in
the observance of the law. You might as well argue that
Judas the Apostle had no supernatural gifts because he sold
his God. You might as well argue that David the Royal
Psalmist had no supernatural gifts because he was an
adulterer and assassin. You might as well argue that neither
Balaam nor Caiaphas, neither Samson nor Solomon, had
supernatural gifts because they all of them spurned the
Commandments of God. Must a barrister be a bad interpreter
of the law if he sometimes fails to observe the law?
Must a lawyer be a bad judge if he be guilty of assault and
battery? The fact is that infallibility in no sense depends
on the Pope's personal qualities, but on the promise and
assistance of God who can choose the foolish things of the
world to confound the wise and the weak things of the world
to confound the strong. And thus Our Lord warned His
followers to distinguish between the official acts and the
personal unworthiness of His ministers when He said: "The
Scribes and Pharisees sit in the chair of Moses. All things,
therefore, whatsoever they shall say to you, observe and do;
but according to their works do ye not". The wickedness of
some of the Popes proves the divine character of the Church.
A merely human institution must necessarily have perished
with such men for its leaders.
Where is the Church?
1920, pp. 16-18.