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Papal infallibility—or, the prisoner of the Vatican

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Dec 14, 2010

Reading Light of the World, the book-length interview in which Pope Benedict XVI reveals so much about himself, one is frequently reminded of the title that Pope Gregory the Great preferred: The Roman Pontiff is the servus servorum Dei: the servant of the servants of God. 

Secular commentators look upon the Pope as an absolute despot, who could change Church teachings if he wished, with just a stroke of his pen. Not so.

The Pope has considerable authority, to be sure. But he cannot use that authority to enforce his own preferences; he can only teach what the universal Church teaches—what the Church has always taught.

When a gently smiling Joseph Ratzinger walked out onto the loggia of St. Peter’s basilica on that fateful day in April 2005, to be introduced to the world at Benedict XVI, servus servorum Dei, he was accepting a task that allowed him less freedom than he had previously enjoyed, not more. Light of the World drives home that truth, in ways both big and small.

Consider first the small—but not insignificant—ways in which a Roman Pontiff has forfeited his personal freedom.

In the book, journalist Peter Seewald questions the Holy Father about day-to-day life inside the apostolic palace. Pope Benedict speaks about the “family life” of the pontifical household: the regular meals, the common prayers, the occasional movie watched together. He says:

We celebrate Christmas together, listen to the holiday music, and exchange gifts. 

Now stop there for a moment, and think about what it must be like for a Roman Pontiff to exchange Christmas gifts with his closest aides. Of course his secretaries and housekeepers will be delighted with a signed portrait or an inscribed book. But the Pope is denied the simple pleasure of searching for a special gift. Unlike ordinary people, he cannot go shopping to find something "just right" for a friend or colleague; he cannot enter a store without creating a sensation. He has little or no spare time in which he might steal off to a workshop, to fashion some hand-made present. In fact he has no privacy. He cannot go to the store; he cannot take a leisurely walk around town; he cannot have a quiet dinner at a favorite restaurant.

Other celebrities have the some problems, to be sure. But for the Pope—representing a worldwide institution with a legacy built up over 20 centuries—the pressure of public scrutiny is particularly acute. Any public action, any little gesture, might be taken to mean something that the Pontiff did not intend.

Take, for instance, Pope Benedict’s decision to wear the camauro: the red woolen cap that had once been a regular item in the papal wardrobe. Pope Benedict wore it once, and caused a sensation; analysts announced—with delight or horror, depending on their perspectives—that the Pope was signaling his interest in restoring an old-fashioned model of the papacy. In reality, the Pope tells Seewald, his intentions were far more mundane:

I wore it only once. I was just cold, and I happen to have a sensitive head. And I said, since the camauro is there, then let’s put it on. But I was really just trying to fight off the cold. I haven’t put it on again since. In order to forestall over-interpretation.

Imagine being restricted in your choice of winter headgear, not by considerations of size or comfort or fashion, but by the fear that people a thousand miles away might interpret your selection as some sort of profound theological signal! All the poor man wanted to do was keep his head warm; because of his position, he was denied that small comfort.

These are admittedly minor concerns, and someone who achieves worldwide prominence must accept minor inconveniences. There are other, more serious problems that come with the papal office. Consider this brief exchange from Light of the World

Seewald: Are you afraid of an assassination attempt?
Pope Benedict: No.

Peter Seewald is a skilled interviewer. On countless other occasions he pushes the Pope—respectfully, yet persistently—for a fuller explanation of his statements. In this one case, and this case alone, he lets the matter drop. Nowhere else in Light of the World does Pope Benedict cut off a question with such a terse, peremptory answer. Nowhere else does Seewald fail to follow up. 

We, as readers, do not know why Seewald did not pursue this line of questioning. But it seems reasonable to assume that the Pope signaled, by his facial expression or his tone of voice, that he would not welcome further questions on the topic. If so, was that because he has full confidence in Vatican security procedures? Because he has already led a full and happy life? Because he has left his fate in God’s hands? We don’t know. But we are reminded that the threat of an assassination attempt hangs constantly over the Pope. (And so we are also reminded to say a quick prayer—right now would be a good time—for the Holy Father’s safety.) 

Still, other world leaders must face constant public scrutiny, and even the threat of assassination. What makes the Pope’s role truly unique—what leaves the Pontiff less freedom than he enjoyed before ascending Peter’s throne—is the very thing that many people mistakenly see as the source of his despotic power: the unique belief of the Catholic Church in papal infallibility. 

As any educated Catholic should know, the doctrine of papal infallibility does not mean that the reigning Pope will be right when he predicts tomorrow’s weather, or when he voices his opinion on a current political controversy. The charism of papal infallibility is not a sort of magic that protects the Pope from error whenever he opens his mouth. Pope Benedict makes a special point of saying that his own personal opinions, as he puts them forward in Light of the World, should not be regarded as official Church teaching.

The Pope does not speak with infallible authority when he speaks in his own voice. He only enjoys that authority when he speaks for the Church. Pope Benedict explains this authority—which is enjoyed to some degree by any priest—early in the book:

The important thing is that I do not present my ideas, but rather try to think and to live the Church’s faith, to act in obedience to His mandate. 

There will be times when Christ’s mandate is not altogether clear, even to those who honestly wish to know it. Then, when there is confusion or uncertainty among the faithful, the Pope must respond to Christ’s exhortation to St. Peter, and “confirm the brethren.” When he responds to that imperative, the Pope is not voicing his own opinions; he is not creating his own doctrinal rules. Rather, he is prayerfully discerning what the Church teaches, what the Church has always taught, what has been believed semper et ubique by the faithful.

So the very essence of papal authority is that it is not the authority of an individual; the Pope has no freedom to say something different from what his predecessors have said. Pope Benedict explains to Seewald:

Under certain circumstances and under certain conditions the Pope can make final decisions that are binding, decisions that clarify what is and what is not the faith of the Church.

Only when certain conditions are present, when tradition has been clarified and he knows that he is not acting arbitrarily, can the Pope say: This is the faith of the Church—and denial of it is not the faith of the Church. 

When the Pope speaks authoritatively, he is not telling us what he thinks, but what we think, as the community of Christ’s faithful. He is not telling us what we must believe, but helping us to clarify what we do believe—or rather, to be more accurate, what we and our forefathers have always believed, back to the time when Jesus disclosed the truths of the faith to His disciples.

The Pope has no authority to add to that deposit of faith, nor to subtract from or alter it. His authority extends only far enough to help us identify the right path. His authority is like that of a native guide, who can guide tourists up the mountain not because he lords it over the tourists, but because for generations his family has explored and improved and widened the best path. The tourists might choose to ignore that native guide, since he has no power over them. But they would do so at their peril, because he knows the way. So too with the Pope, the servus servorum Dei.

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 See full bio.

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  • Posted by: - Dec. 16, 2010 10:56 AM ET USA

    I'm partway through the book and was also struck by the loss of simple pleasures that Benedict cites (without any hint of self-pity, BTW) - e.g., walking into town and browsing the shops. These are difficult things to give up, especially in the evening of life when you would think that you've "earned" these simple pleasures. What a burden this office is! I can't imagine it. We must pray harder for the Successor of Peter!

  • Posted by: - Dec. 15, 2010 10:40 AM ET USA

    Phil, Maybe it's beyond the scope of this column, but another area that the Pope has authority over is simple discipline. Today my own Bishop Olmsted of Phoenix provided a great example of how discipline should be handled. From page 2 in letter to St. Joseph's hospital: "you have not acknowledged my authority...It is my duty and obligation..." Would that our previous Pope had exercised such control over all those wayward bishops.