When the First Vatican Council formally declared the dogma of papal infallibility in 1870, it was very carefully circumscribed. According to the council’s formula, a papal edict is regarded as incapable of error only if:
- It pertains to faith and morals
- It does not contradict scripture or divine revelation
- It’s intended to be held by the whole Church
As Benedict XVI put it in July 2005: “The pope is not an oracle; he is infallible [only] in very rare situations.” Benedict reinforced the point when he published his book “Jesus of Nazareth,” actually inviting people to disagree with him.
At the popular level, however, those limits often haven’t registered. Many people assume Catholics are supposed to accept everything a pope says as Gospel truth — or, at least, that it’s a major embarrassment if a pope is caught in a mistake.
In that context, it’s especially striking that Pope Francis appears determined to set the record straight by embracing what one might dub his own “dogma of fallibility.” The pontiff seems utterly unabashed about admitting mistakes, confessing ignorance, and acknowledging that he may have left himself open to misinterpretation.
Whether such candor is charming or simply confusing, leaving one to wonder if the pope actually means what he says, perhaps is in the eye of the beholder. In any case, it’s become a defining feature of Francis’ style.
A classic, almost emblematic case in point came during the pontiff’s airborne news conference on the way back to Rome on Sunday after a week-long trip to Latin America.
During a 65-minute session with reporters, Francis embraced his own fallibility at least seven times:
- Asked about a border dispute between Bolivia and Chile, Francis said he wouldn’t comment because “I don’t want to say something wrong” — an indirect admission that he’s capable of doing precisely that.
- On a controversy in Ecuador over what he meant by the phrase “the people stood up,” Francis replied that “one sentence can be manipulated” and that “we must be very careful” — an acknowledgement, perhaps, that he hasn’t always shown such prudence.
- Asked about tensions between Greece and the Eurozone, Francis said he has a “great allergy” to economic matters and said of the corporate accounting his father practiced in Argentina, “I don’t understand it very well.” For a pontiff who’s made economic justice and global finance a centerpiece of his social rhetoric, it was a fairly breathtaking acknowledgment.
- Also on the situation in Greece, Francis said he heard a year ago about a United Nations plan to allow countries to declare bankruptcy, but added, “I don’t know if it’s true,” and, remarkably, asked reporters traveling with him to explain it if they happened to know what he was talking about. (Francis may have been referring to a UN debate in 2014 over an international bankruptcy law.)
- On blowback in the United States about his rhetoric on capitalism, Francis said he’s aware of it, but declined to react because “I don’t have the right to state an opinion isolated from dialogue.”
- When challenged about why he speaks so much about the poor, but relatively little about the middle class, Francis bluntly conceded, “It’s an error of mine not to think about this,” and “you’re telling me about something I need to do.”
- Asked whether he’s concerned that his statements can be exploited by governments and lobby groups, Francis said “every word” is at risk of being taken out of context, and added: “If I make a mistake, with a bit of shame I ask forgiveness and go forward.”
To be clear, it’s hardly as if Francis was backing away from his stinging critique of what he termed in Bolivia a global economic system that “imposes the mentality of profit at any price” at the expense of the poor.
On the contrary, he took another swipe during the news conference at what he termed a “new colonization … the colonization of consumerism,” which the pontiff said causes “disequilibrium in the personality … in the internal economy, in social justice, even in physical and mental health.”
What he added, however, was a dose of personal humility in acknowledging a lack of technical expertise and a capacity for error when he speaks on such matters, both in the substance of his positions and in the way he formulates them.
Francis has flashed that awareness several times before. In November 2013, for instance, he phoned an Italian traditionalist writer named Mario Palmaro, who was in the hospital at the time, and who had co-authored a critical piece about Francis. Palmaro said Francis told him he knew the essay was written “out of love for the pope,” and added “these are things I need to hear.”
In a sense, this personal dogma of fallibility fits with Francis’ overall style. For example, he refers to himself as “bishop of Rome” rather than “Supreme Pontiff,” and rides around in a Kia or a Ford rather than the traditional limo. It’s another chapter, in other words, in an ongoing “de-mythologizing” of the papacy.
One could view such self-criticism either as strengthening or undercutting the pope’s message, depending on how you look at it, and both reactions probably will make the rounds.
In any event, theologians, Church historians, and ordinary Catholics alike have spent much of the last century and a half complaining that the outside world has an inflated concept of what papal infallibility actually means.
If nothing else, under Pope Francis it seems that restoring a healthy sense of fallibility to the mix has a fighting chance.