In most quarters, the frenzy over the Pope’s last press conference has abated.  American attention, anyway, has turned to the unfortunate remarks of the U.S. Presidential aspirants instead.

But Pope Francis inadvertently presented us with a superb “teaching moment” concerning infallibility and the Magisterium.

The setup, in case you missed it: Pope Francis made the casual and apparently not fully thought-out statement that women in Zika-affected areas might avoid pregnancy in order to prevent conceiving infants with a birth defect that might (might, says the CDC) be linked to the virus.  Two days later, Vatican spokesman Fr. Federico Lombardi specified contraception as the means of avoiding pregnancy, which is farther than the Pope had gone in his original response.

FrancisThe fear of many Catholics is that Pope Francis has perforated Christian moral teaching on the essential nature of the marital act.  In a golden moment, he missed the chance to clarify the beautiful Catholic teaching and instead added confusion to an already neglected and misunderstood truth.

It was definitely a tragedy, but was it a rip in the fabric of the Faith?

All right.  It’s the Year of Mercy and even the Supreme Pontiff needs a little mercy now and then!  The Pope is 79 and suffers some mobility issues. How many other octogenarians do you know who are capable of world travel, high-level meetings and the demands of enormous crowds?  The Pope is remarkable in his personal capacity, and we should consider his humanity.  In a nutshell, he had to have been exhausted after the apostolic journey to Mexico.

When I’m exhausted, I get foggy, short of patience and low on critical thinking skills.  Heck, sometimes it takes three stabs to even get my housekey into the door lock.  On a purely human level, I’m inclined to cut him some slack.

That’s a good reason for the Pope to nix those inflight, homebound press conferences altogether. But it’s a prudential decision that belongs to him, no matter how desperately I would like to advise him on it.

So we need to know how to take these statements he makes.  Are they drop-dead truth or casual opinion?  What attitude is required of us in response?

What follows is the gist of one of the most useful theology lectures I ever heard (thank you, Dr. Mark Lowery, University of Dallas.)  It might be more scholarly than I would ordinarily use in a blog, but it’s important for Catholics to know.

The only reason the Church has any authority at all is because God has granted it, for the benefit of His people.  Not for the power, ego gratification or enrichment of the hierarchy, as critics maintain, but solely for the good of His people.  So we can know the truth, and trust it so deeply that we form and commit our lives to it.  So that the wolf cannot deceive us.

“On this rock, I will build My Church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”  (Matthew 16:18-19)

The Church teaches many things, in many ways, from a catechist’s lesson on the Eucharist, to a bishop’s letter to his diocese, to a letter from the Pope to the world… and countless shades in between.  Are all these things equally protected by the guarantee of truth?Screen Shot 2016-03-03 at 3.01.50 PM

Here’s the Big Pie of Catholic teaching: everything the Church teaches, at all times and places.

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Some of the pie is Custom and tradition, such as standing or kneeling during the Eucharistic prayer, the preference for Gregorian chant and whether the tabernacle is centered in the sanctuary.  Such things may have implications for faith and morals, but themselves are not statements of faith or morals; they are customs and (small ‘t’) tradition

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As you move into the Faith & Morals side of the pie, such teachings either partake of the Spirit’s guarantee of infallibility or they do not.  This is the critical cut of the pie, and discernment is essential.

The “Not Infallible” quarter of the pie would contain such things as a letter from a national bishop’s conference on the economy, the part of a papal encyclical having to do with science or climate change, and a bishop’s editorial arguing whether a particular conflict constitutes a “just war.” In such matters, there may be a liberality of legitimate opinion.

The concept of “Not Infallible” is essential for dialogue within the Church, and should not sink our personal boats.  If a bishop, for instance, preaches on immigration reform, the lay faithful must know that he is expressing a prudential judgment or a considered opinion in light of Christ’s teaching.  Members of his flock may come to disagree with their bishop on such matters, but is that fatal to their Catholic faith?  No. Are they outside the bounds of the Church’s authority?  No.

That’s because when a churchman speaks from that “Not Infallible” quarter of the pie, we do not owe him the sacred assent of faith, but rather religious assent, an attitude of willingness to be led by him as a teacher, even if we might have come to a different conclusion on our own.  In the matter of “Not Infallible” teaching, one may decline to submit, but must maintain the attitude of willing-to-be-convinced.  Like so many aspects of our Catholic faith, it’s a delicate balance.

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In the final quarter of the pie lie the infallible teachings of our faith.  To these, we owe the sacred assent of faith, accepting them as the revealed truth of God.  These are truths we can base our lives on, without question.

They fall into the following categories:

1. Extraordinary Papal Magisterium… “ex cathedra”

Solemn statements of the Pope made by virtue of his supreme apostolic authority defining a doctrine of faith or morals to be held by the universal Church.  This has only been invoked twice in history:

  • the Assumption of Mary (1950)
  • the Immaculate Conception (1854)

2. Extraordinary Episcopal Magisterium… Councils of the Church

Solemn assemblies of the bishops worldwide convened by the Pope when defining matters of faith and morals.

  • Jesus is divine and human (Council of Nicaea 325)
  • Jesus is truly present in the Eucharist (Council of Trent 1551)

3. Ordinary Universal Magisterium

Unanimous teaching of the bishops throughout the world in union with the Pope on a matter of faith or morals, including Scripture and Apostolic Tradition.

  • God created heaven and earth.
  • Abortion is a grave evil.

It is essential that we understand these different exercises of authority.  Otherwise we risk drifting towards the extremes of automatism or dissent.  The authority of the Church is meant for our peace, provided we understand it properly.

Sometimes a bishop, or even the Pope, may speak in a way that does not engage his teaching authority at all. Pope Francis certainly speaks in that vein occasionally and even alerts us to it when he says things like, “It’s an error of mine not to think about (the middle class)” and “If I make a mistake, with a bit of shame, I ask forgiveness and go forward.”

We are not obliged to give our religious assent when a pope or bishop speaks in this manner, or when

  • the subject is something other than faith and morals, or
  • the Pope or bishop speak as an individual believer, not in their teaching capacity, or
  • the Pope or bishop is teaching, but tentatively, or
  • the Pope or bishop is making an observation incidental to a teaching.  (Grisez, Living a Christian Life)

Pope Francis’ inflight press conference is by no means an official teaching capacity.  The Pope even said, ‘This (the situation in Zika-affected areas) needs to be worked on,” which conveys tentativeness.  We can wish all day long that the Pope would be more cautious in his observations, but the bottom line is that he spoke in a context and a manner that does not require our religious assent.  His words may have done serious damage to the witness of the Church but they did not change authoritative teaching.

The theology of the body could have rendered a brilliant response to the question asked by the reporter.  Bloggers all over the Internet are using the Church Fathers and Doctors, Scripture and Magisterial teachings to construct better responses.  People like my boss, Monica Ashour, could have smacked that ball right out of the park and they’d be finding the fragments on Jupiter.

That is all to the good; let’s use those better responses in our individual spheres.  My next blog post will delve into why the Church has always regarded contraception as an ill, and how we might evangelize the world on this subject.

In our era, it is not enough to be merely submissive to whatever a churchman says. By dignity of our Baptism, it is our responsibility to discern what attitude we owe to various aspects of our faith and to the remarks made by members of the hierarchy.  If we don’t distinguish, we will be blown around like kites in a hurricane and wind up resenting our pastors instead of loving them.  Worse, we could lose faith.


Sheryl Collmer, M.T.S. is director of outreach for TOBET in Irving, Texas.