Pope’s recent failure strengthens my Catholic faith

Alabama can be an interesting place to be Catholic.
On the one hand, it’s challenging to live within an overwhelmingly evangelical community that generally believes our faith isn’t authentic Christianity. “If he’s a Christian, it’s despite being Catholic,” is how I’ve heard it said.
On the other, we have great opportunities to learn from the thriving protestant communities that dominate the Bible Belt – their knowledge of scripture, how they make church fun for families, and how they build thriving, mission-minded congregations.
But perhaps the greatest challenge, and opportunity, is when we’re questioned by a knowledgeable and well-meaning protestant. While there are many theological differences to discuss – why we believe that Christ is present in the Holy Eucharist, for instance – one of their favorite topics always seems to be the pope.
“Why do you think the pope is such a great guy?” someone might ask. Well, who said I did? Some popes are great while others aren’t. I’m sure you’ve had great pastors and not-so-great pastors, as well.  
“Why does the pope wear that funny hat?” I don’t know, it probably has something to do with customs and traditions. Why does your choir wear robes?  
“Why do you think the pope is infallible?” I don’t. He’s capable of making mistakes like the rest of us. But I do believe, as the fathers of the First Vatican Council wrote, that when the pope “defines a doctrine concerning faith or morals to be held by the whole Church, he possesses … that infallibility which the divine Redeemer willed his Church to enjoy.”
Plainly put, we believe the Holy Spirit prevents the pope from error when he defines a doctrine, which is an exceedingly rare occurrence by the way (most theologians agree that it last happened in the 1950, and even then it only affirmed an already centuries-old teaching).
Still, infallibility is when the wheels come off most discussions. In fairness, I think it’s perfectly reasonable for a non-Catholic to be suspicious of the notion of papal infallibility. The term alone conjures fears of hubris, abuse, and excess.
If popes don’t like a doctrine, then they can simply change it, right?
Wrong.
Putting aside the fact that Catholic doctrine cannot change – once true, always true – I view papal infallibility as a great blessing that actually prevents popes from changing doctrine, not a means for them to do so. Being preserved from error doesn’t necessarily take the form of action, in giving the pope free-reign to change things. It most often takes the form of an unexplainable restraint from action, in something that keeps the pope from making any change at all, even when he wants to.
I believe we saw this happen last month in Rome.
Many church leaders believe Pope Francis wanted to use the Synod on the Family as a catalyst to change our church’s teaching on the indissolubility of a valid marriage (in other words, we don’t believe in divorce … ever). He demoted dissenting cardinals, stacked the forum with allies, and changed the meeting’s rules to allow an easier path for the majority’s view to be adopted in the final document.
But it wasn’t. Their efforts were halted, the teaching on indissolubility remained, and a clearly frustrated pope delivered a speech that many viewed as a harsh criticism of conservatives who hold fast to doctrine.   
That’s an amazing result. Consider this analogy for perspective: if the president of one of the mainstream protestant denominations called a general assembly with an aim to change something, invited a majority of pastors to the forum who agreed with his view, and had the support of a vast majority of the denomination’s members (polls show most Catholics want to change the church’s teaching on divorce), one would expect the change to occur without much fuss.
But there was a great deal of fuss in Rome, and nothing actually changed from what has been taught for 2,000 years. Sure, some bishops walked away thinking they had a wink and a nod to think differently, but we’ve always had those who dissented from church teaching.

In the end, the pope’s failure to change doctrine strengthened my belief in the Catholic Church and in the divine shepherd who keeps His sheep, and His church, from going astray. 

26 thoughts on “Pope’s recent failure strengthens my Catholic faith

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