Infallible must be one of the most misunderstood terms in Catholic vocabulary. Reflecting on the Papacy of Benedict XVI we can remind ourselves what Papal infallibility is and most importantly what it is not.
The origins of the idea of infallibility started not with Popes but with the Church. The notion is that the whole body of the Church gathered together – for example a council of the worldwide college of bishops – must be inspired by the Holy Spirit and so cannot make an error. Thus, the bishops assembled with the Pope (as at the Second Vatican Council 50 years ago) can invoke infallibility.
However, 150 years ago, faced with the prospect of being isolated in the Vatican City by the newly united Italy, the then Pope Pius IX was worried that he would not be able to call a Council of the Church if he needed to. He thus proposed that infallibility applied not only to Councils but also to the Pope acting on his own; this was declared by the First Vatican Council in 1870. Thus, every Pope since has in theory been able to invoke infallibility.
But this is the key: infallibility must be invoked. It is not automatic. The Pope has to be speaking from his office as Bishop of Rome (the Latin term for this ‘ex cathedra’ is the source of the word ‘cathedral’); it must be on a matter of faith or morals; and it must be in keeping with Scripture and the tradition of the Church; it is held to be ‘divinely revealed’. So you can’t go and ask the Pope to tell you the location of the Holy Grail or the weather forecast for next April or the winning numbers of the Lotto and expect his answer to be infallible.
In fact, infallibility was never invoked by Pope Pius IX nor by Paul VI nor even by John Paul II. It has only been used explicitly once which was in 1950 when Pope Pius XII proclaimed the dogma of the Assumption – which had actually been widely since at least the 4th century.
When a Pope teaches it is – outside of a General Council – the highest teaching of the Church but it is not automatically infallible. Benedict knew that very well. Furthermore, he knew that he had to distinguish between his authoritative teaching as Pope (his extraordinarily beautiful and thoughtful encyclicals or his weekly Angelus address) and his writings as a theologian, even the ones that came out while he was Pope.
He was also able to admit a mistake. One example of this was when, in an attempt to build bridges with a right-wing breakaway group of bishops, he unwittingly engaged with a man who turned out to be a holocaust denier. Pope Benedict came as close to any Pope ever has in saying – whoops, we got it wrong; we didn’t do our homework.
It is worth remembering the answer he gave just before the conclave that elected him in 2005. A journalist asked if the Holy Spirit would be electing the new Pope. The then Cardinal Ratzinger replied: “No, the cardinals will elect the new Pope. However, we hope that the Holy Spirit is not absent from the process.”