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“Ask a Priest: May We Question What a Pope Says or Does?”
Q: Is it a sin to question something a Pope has said or done? For instance, John Paul II with regards to what some of his encyclicals and actions taught with regards to what previous Popes called false religions? -G.S.
Answered by Fr. Edward McIlmail, LC
A: Your questions prompt a focus on the notion of papal infallibility. Sometimes this notion is misunderstood to mean that a Pope never makes a mistake. Infallibility is a more limited notion.
The glossary of the Catechism of the Catholic Church defines infallibility in part as: “The gift of the Holy Spirit to the Church whereby the pastors of the Church, the pope and bishops in union with him, can definitively proclaim a doctrine of faith or morals for the belief of the faithful.”
So papal infallibility does not mean that everything a Pope says and does is perfect. It does means that he is prevented, by the help of the Holy Spirit, from making mistakes when officially proclaiming a doctrine of faith or morals. It also protects his ordinary magisterium, a fancy word for “teaching authority.”
It is worth noting that infallibility does not include a Pope’s administrative decisions (such as how he runs the Vatican) or his prudential decisions (such as which bishops he appoints). Nor does infallibility cover pastoral decisions such as when a Pope chooses to participate in a certain event.
Having said that, we could say that the short answer to the first question is: no. It is not automatically sinful to question or disagree with something a Pope does. Presumably a Pope might routinely face people who disagree with him or his style. That is natural and to be expected; people frequently see things differently. Also, a Pope speaks at many different levels. What he says in an encyclical has more weight than what he says at a news conference or in an off-the-cuff homily.
The second question didn’t mention any specifics, so I will try to answer in a general way. What a Pope says has to be understood in its historical context. Past Popes, for instance, might have resorted to what we consider polemical or strong language, depending on how they perceived the gravity of the situation. Today, Popes might use softer language, in part because our age of global communication makes the dynamics of dialogue much different from, say, the 16th century.
Yet while it is true that not everything a Pope says is infallible, we still owe him a high level of respect and obedience. He is the Vicar of Christ, after all, the visible head of the Church on earth. As such, he enjoys a special grace of state. And he certainly has wide authority within the Church. What he says should not be dismissed as just “one opinion among many.” At the very least we should give him the benefit of the doubt when he decides on prudential matters.
Catholics who constantly criticize the Pope and his actions and teachings could be falling into sins against charity and even against faith. “Whoever listens to you listens to me, and whoever rejects you rejects me” (Luke 10:16). A person who has difficulties with a Holy Father should turn to prayer and ask the Holy Spirit for light and guidance. Faith sheds light on even the darkest corners of skepticism.
Moreover, we can be thankful for the gift of the papacy and the teaching authority of the Church. Having a Pope as a visible agent of unity in the Church is no small thing in this age of rampant doubts and division.