It doesn’t happen often, but just when I think everybody’s finally got it sorted out, someone will ask me why Catholics believe that the pope is incapable of making a mistake.
I’ve gotten pretty good at suppressing a yelp of laughter at that instant. Instead, I launch into the ex cathedra explanation—that the pope is considered to be infallible only when speaking officially on matters of faith or morals in defining a doctrine to be held by the entire Church—and hope I can get through it before they start to get that thousand-yard stare.
But, they’ll wonder, doesn’t he do that all the time? Nope. Defining a dogma is a big deal. The last time a pope did it was in 1950, when Pope Pius XII defined the dogma of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin. And that was almost 100 years after the previous time a pope spoke ex cathedra: when Pope Pius IX defined the dogma of the Immaculate Conception of Mary in 1854.
But to believe that the pope is carrying around so much high octane spiritual juice that he never gets distracted and misdials a phone number or makes a typo or pours orange juice on his corn flakes…
Take it from no less an authority than Pope Francis himself. On May 1, he apologized to about 5,000 members of the European Cursillos in Christianity movement gathered in Rome for bollixing up their schedule. The big group was slated to meet Francis on May 1, “but instead he had them join him at the Vatican the evening of April 30,” according to Catholic News Service.
“I must apologize,” the pope said. “You had to move many things around, creating difficulties, arranging transportation. Truly, I’m sorry. “You know the pope is infallible when he makes dogmatic definitions—something that rarely happens. But even the pope has defects and infallibility has nothing to do with his personal defects.”
Defects? If there were doubters in the crowd, Francis helpfully listed them. He is, he said, “a bit disorganized and also undisciplined.”
And so much for 24/7 infallibility.
I’m betting the pope made a lot of people feel pretty terrific that day, and not just because they got a chance to meet him—on schedule or not. They got a close-up look at a genuinely self-aware man who approaches the world and the people in it with the words from the Offertory of the Mass always before him: with a humble and contrite heart.
I know I feel a lot better knowing that there’s a chance that the pope’s desk is as messy as mine and that he’s perfectly capable of frequent goofs, gaffes, hiccups, omissions, lapses, malaprops and miscues. He’s human, bless him, and when he messes up, he owns up.
Besides, if he truly were infallible, period, he’d probably spend half his time working for the Weather Channel and the other half sitting at a blackjack table in Vegas, bankrupting the house.
Long live Francis the Fallible.