The past couple of weeks have seen a lot of reaction regarding comments made by our Holy Father regarding the use of condoms to fight HIV/AIDS. The Pope made the following statement in an interview for his new book Light of the World.
“There may be a basis in the case of some individuals, as perhaps when a male prostitute uses a condom, where this can be a first step in the direction of a moralization, a first assumption of responsibility.”
While there is a greater context to these comments, which we will not go into here since Theresa took care of that already, many have interpreted this to indicate a change in the Church’s policy regarding the use of condoms to fight HIV/AIDS while many others have moved to defend the constant policy in light of the Church’s constant teachings as well as the Holy Father’s whole remarks. Any hope or fear that change in the Church’s moral beliefs would proceed from this small quote in a book interview reveals insufficient understanding in the doctrine of infallibility.
Paragraph 890-891 of The Catechism of the Catholic Church specifies the parameters of papal infallibility as applying to a proclamation “by a definitive act [of] a doctrine pertaining to faith or morals”. Paragraph 892 extends this to the “exercise of the ordinary Magisterium” on the part of all bishops as well when it comes to any “teaching that leads to better understanding of Revelation in matters of faith and morals.”
It’s important to understand that the Pope’s words are a) not a definitive act, in the same sense that Pope Pius IX formally proclaimed the dogma of the Immaculate Conception, nor b) any more than the meandering thoughts in an interview-style conversation of a single person. There’s no shortage of material which does fall under the example of the ordinary Magisterium – just look to the Catechism itself, or the various documents on the Vatican website and throughout the Church’s history!
Many people mischaracterize papal infallibility to mean that the Pope is a perfect person. He is anything but. He’s not God but a man, who is a sinner and in need of God’s mercy like the rest of us. The Pope goes to confession regularly, just as we ought. It’s unfair to scrutinize the Pope to this level of detail but this is the reality of the age of real-time communications. The past has certainly seen scandals from a few number of Popes, albeit rare, but because of the parameters of infallibility, none of these scandals contradicted the soundness of the doctrine of infallibility. Never has the Pope formally pronounced heresy as being something the faithful are to adhere to.
In times of scandal or confusion, we must pray for the Pope and all of our leaders, and to have faith in the Holy Spirit, who protects the teaching ministry of the Church from error. We cannot have a reliable Church that God would allow to fail in this area lest the Church explicitly lead souls to danger. For over 2000 years we’ve had a continuous faith, where teachings never change but rather become clearer to us. On doctrinal matters, especially those that are controversial, it is especially enlightening for a Catholic thinker to follow the reasoning of the Church in order to discover her wisdom.