Catholic Culture Liturgical Living
Catholic Culture Liturgical Living

A new theological concept: temporary infallibility

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Mar 31, 2023

Let’s take another look at that remarkable interview with Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich. In my first analysis I gave top priority to his claim that “homosexuality did not even exist” at the time when St. Paul wrote about it. But now I want to look more carefully at his comments on the ordination of women, and his statement that when Pope John Paul II said it could never happen, that was “a true teaching for its time.”

True for its time. That concept deserves a closer look.

Pope John Paul II did not merely say that the Church would not ordain women; he said that the Church could not ordain women. The Catechism of the Catholic Church confirms this teaching (1577): “Only a baptized man (vir) validly receives sacred ordination… For this reason the ordination of women is not possible.”

The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith proclaimed in 1995 that this teaching on the impossibility of ordaining women “requires definitive assent, since, founded on the written Word of God, and from the beginning constantly preserved and applied in the Tradition of the Church, it has been set forth infallibly by the ordinary and universal Magisterium.” Pay careful attention to that word “infallibly.”

Cardinal Hollerich takes a more relaxed approach, but even he acknowledges that the teaching of Pope John Paul II has sufficient authority so that “we cannot just push it aside.” But he does argue that Pope Francis must decide whether or not to revive the question that his predecessors definitively answered. With that in mind, the cardinal reaffirms his belief in papal authority: “But at this moment, if Pope Francis tells me it’s not an option, it’s not an option.”

Well actually, Pope John Paul II and Cardinal Ratzinger (soon to be Pope Benedict XVI) had already told you it’s not an option—and that it never can be an option. So it shouldn’t be surprising if Pope Francis says the same thing. In fact if Pope Francis said something different, we would face a crisis, because the Roman Pontiff would then be contradicting an infallible teaching.

How, then, can we reconcile the thinking of Cardinal Hollerich with the concept of papal infallibility? I think I have the answer. It’s time for the Church—perhaps at the coming Synod on Synodality—to define the concept of temporary infallibility: the understanding that when the Roman Pontiff speaks ex cathdra on a matter of faith or morals, defining Catholic doctrine based on the Word of God and the constant Tradition of the universal Church, his teachings are preserved from error, and must be recognized as true for their time. These definitive teachings may then be modified, contradicted, or otherwise superseded by later infallible statements, which in turn will be true for their time.

To advance the proper understanding of infallibility, the Synod should then arrange to catalogue all the infallible teachings of the Catholic Church, listing their expiration dates, just as grocery stores list the expiration dates of their perishable goods. And just as I list the expiration date of this short essay, which is intended to be read on April 1.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

Sound Off! CatholicCulture.org supporters weigh in.

All comments are moderated. To lighten our editing burden, only current donors are allowed to Sound Off. If you are a current donor, log in to see the comment form; otherwise please support our work, and Sound Off!

  • Posted by: ewaughok - Apr. 08, 2023 12:56 PM ET USA

    Unfortunately, what is offered as a jest by Mr Lawler, will probably be offered seriously by some bean-brain of a theologian (faggioli soup, anyone?) as part of synodal doublethink. Mr Lawler has covered this ground well in his earlier book, Lost Shepherd. These heresiarchs are doing their vilest to destroy Christ’s Church!

  • Posted by: philtech2465 - Apr. 02, 2023 8:53 PM ET USA

    Good April Fool's joke, Phil!

  • Posted by: Retired01 - Apr. 02, 2023 4:50 PM ET USA

    To me, more alarming that what Cardinal Hollering says, is the fact that Pope Francis has made him a cardinal, a member of the Council of Cardinals, and Relator General of the Synod. If Pope Francis does not agree with what the cardinal says, why does him promote the cardinal in such a way? What can a reasonable person conclude?

  • Posted by: CorneliusG - Mar. 31, 2023 7:32 PM ET USA

    We are led by knaves and mountebanks.