Thursday, February 28, 2013

Papal Infallibility and the Comics

The humor in today's Non Sequitur comic strip depends on a fairly common misunderstanding of Catholic belief:

(from Non Sequitur, Wiley Miller, via, used w/o permission)

I read Wiley Miller's Non Sequitur comic regularly, although I don't always agree with Mr. Miller's personal philosophy. Today's strip plays with an assumption about the Catholic Church that may be more common in the English-speaking world than elsewhere: and that's another topic.(December 5, 2011)

Some of the world's billion-plus living Catholics may believe that the Pope can't make mistakes. That's not what "papal infallibility" means.

I'm not angry or upset about Mr. Miller's joke, by the way. More topics.

Perfect Popes? No Such Thing

Some Popes are recognized Saints. Some were anything but saintly. We hit rough spots in papal quality, about five hundred and a thousand years back, and that's almost another topic.1

I decided to become a Catholic after learning who currently held the authority my Lord gave Peter. I also realized that the Catholic Church had endured, without a break in continuity, for two millennia. Human organizations don't do that.

The Catholic Church has had help. (January 13, 2011)


Very simply,2 infallibility is strictly limited to a particular sort of formal declaration made by the:
  • Pope
    • Comes with being Pope
    • Applies when the Pope
      • Proclaims that a doctrine of faith or morals is to be held
        • By definitive act
        • In his official capacity
    (Code of Canon Law, Book III, 749 §1)
  • College of Bishops
    • Exercising the Magisterium
      • As teachers and judges of faith and morals
    • Speaking for the entire Church
    • Agree that a particular proposition is to be held definitively
    • This authority may be performed
      • In an ecumenical council
      • When dispersed throughout the world
        • But preserving the bond of communion among themselves
        • With the successor of Peter
    (Code of Canon Law, Book III, 749 §2)
No doctrine is infallible unless these conditions are obviously met. (Code of Canon Law, Book III, 749 §3)

Rules and Outside Help

Rules like the Code of Canon Law are important, and serve to define how the Catholic Church works.

But I don't think any set of rules could keep humans from mismanaging an organization into oblivion, given time. As I said before, we've had help.

"Divine assistance" is what holds up the Church, and papal infallibility. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 888-892)

That's an extreme claim. But after two millennia of wildly improbable survival, I'm inclined to believe what the Church says.

Related posts:

1 The 265 successors to Peter:
2 A tip of the hat to Jordan Henderson, on Google+, for pointing out that my outline leaves out - quite a bit. Books could be - and have been - written about the doctrine of infallibility. My intention was to give a very quick overview of the doctrine. I recommend further reading, starting with resources listed under "More", above: or use the Vatican's Google-powered search function.

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What's That Doing in a Nice Catholic Blog?

From time to time, a service that I use will display links to - odd - services and retailers.

I block a few of the more obvious dubious advertisers.

For example: psychic anything, numerology, mediums, and related practices are on the no-no list for Catholics. It has to do with the Church's stand on divination. I try to block those ads.

Sometime regrettable advertisements get through, anyway.

Bottom line? What that service displays reflects the local culture's norms, - not Catholic teaching.