Here’s an interesting question: Are Catholics required to accept everything the Pope says?
On the one hand, there are people who call themselves Catholic who have ignored and rejected papal teachings for decades. They claim a person’s individual feelings about an issue are all that matter. Therefore, whatever a person feels is right, must be right. So, whenever the Pope presents a particular teaching, especially on incendiary topics such as abortion, marriage, euthanasia, etc., these Catholics shove their fingers in their ears and shout, “La la la! I can’t hear you!” In other words, they claim it’s perfectly OK to ignore any and all statements from the Pope that they don’t agree with.
On the other hand, there are other Catholics who say we must accept and obey all pronouncements from the Pope. They cite the Church’s teaching on “Papal Infallibility,” and warn that if anyone disagrees with the head of Jesus’ Church, then his or her eternal soul is in jeopardy.
It all depends on how we understand the teaching on Papal Infallibility. Some folks think this means the Pope, as a person, is infallible. Since he is the Supreme Pontiff, the leader of the Church founded by Jesus Himself, it is impossible for him to think, say, or do anything that is incorrect. If the Pope declares it is going to rain a week from Thursday, then you don’t have to watch the weather report because it IS going to rain a week from Thursday.
Or they think Infallibility means the Pope is morally perfect. In other words, he is not capable of committing a sin. These people are shocked when they discover the Pope goes to Confession on a regular basis. “Why?” they ask. “What’s he got to confess?”
The Church’s teaching on Papal Infallibility actually is very narrowly defined. And the one thing it does NOT mean is that the Pope himself is morally perfect and incapable of making an error. (If that were the case, a lot of major league teams would be begging the Pope to play shortstop for them.)
The doctrine of Papal Infallibility is explained by the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which says the pope is protected from error when he “proclaims by a definitive act a doctrine pertaining to faith or morals” (CCC 891).
The key is that the subject must deal only with faith or morals. The Pope cannot claim to make infallible proclamations about the weather forecast, or the upcoming NFL season, or which wine is proper to serve with hot dogs and potato salad. (Answer: wine in a box.)
More than anything else, the doctrine of Papal Infallibility prevents the Pope from making an erroneous claim about faith or morals. You see, the Church has been teaching the core truths of the Gospel, handed down by Jesus and the apostles, for 2,000 consecutive years now. The basic claims of Christianity have not been altered since Day One, and no Pope has ever been empowered to make fundamental changes.
Popes have made infallible proclamations only twice in the past two centuries, in 1854 (the Immaculate Conception) and 1950 (the Assumption of Mary). So, obviously, Papal Infallibility is not used very often.
Therefore, the answer to our original question is no, Catholics are not required to accept everything the Pope says. But since he is the leader of Jesus’ Church on earth, Catholics do owe him a high level of respect. If the Pope makes a statement about some aspect of religious practice, politics, or culture that we consider incorrect, we need to make sure our disagreement is polite and respectful.
And if the Pope says it’s going to rain a week from Thursday, we should bring an umbrella that day. I mean, c’mon, he’s the Pope. He just might have some inside information.