The Limits of Papal Infallibility
By Fr. George W. Rutler *
A museum curator showed me a contemporary copy of the papal bull Inter Caetera by which Pope Alexander VI divided the world between Spain and Portugal with a meridian.
While not without effect, it was generally ignored. John Henry Newman's letter to the Duke of Norfolk lists popes who were mistaken in certain policies: St. Victor, Liberius, Gregory XIII, Paul IV, Sixtus V, and St. Peter himself when St. Paul "withstood" him.
Pope Urban VIII and his advisers, in the misunderstood Galileo case, inadequately distinguished the duties of prophecy and politics, and of theological and physical science. Saint John Paul II said that "this led them unduly to transpose into the realm of the doctrine of the faith, a question which in fact pertained to scientific investigation." Father Stanley Jaki, a physicist, cautioned me against using the "Big Bang" as theological evidence for creation. On a loftier level, the physicist Fr. Georges Lemaître likewise restrained Pope Pius XII from conflating the parallel accounts of the universe.
Father Lemaître pioneered the "First Atomic Moment" — contradicting the prevailing thesis of a cosmological constant, or "static infinite" universe. Sir Fred Hoyle mocked it as the "Big Bang" but the term now has lost its condescension. Lemaître told the Pope: "As far as I can see, such a theory remains entirely outside any metaphysical or religious question. ... It is consonant with Isaiah speaking of the hidden God, hidden even in the beginning of the universe." It was like the counsel of Cdl. Baronius: The Scriptures teach us how to go to Heaven, not how the heavens go.
Pope Francis' encyclical on the ecology of the earth is adventurously laden with promise and peril. It can raise consciousness of humans as stewards of creation. To prevent the disdain of more informed scientists generations from now, however, papal teaching must be safeguarded from attempts to exploit it as an endorsement of one scientific theory over another concerning anthropogenic causes of climate change. It is not incumbent upon a Catholic to believe, like Rex Mottram in Brideshead Revisited, that a pope can predict the weather. As a layman in these matters, all I know about climate change is that I have to pay for heating a very big church with an unpredictable apparatus. This is God's house, but He sends me the utility bills.
The first pope, from his fishing days, had enough hydrometeorology to know that he could not walk on water. Then the eternal Logos told him to do it, and he did, until he mixed up the sciences of Heaven and Earth and began to sink. As vicars of that Logos, popes speak infallibly only on faith and morals. They also have the prophetic duty to correct anyone who, for the propagation of their particular interests, imputes virtual infallibility to papal commentary on physical science while ignoring genuinely infallible teaching on contraception, abortion and marriage and the mysteries of the Lord of the Universe.
* The Rev. George William Rutler
Father Rutler was ordained to the diaconate in Rome by His Eminence William Cardinal Baum in 1980 and received priestly ordination in St. Patrick's Cathedral at the hands of His Eminence Terence Cardinal Cooke in 1981. He served as Associate Pastor of St. Joseph's in Bronxville; Our Lady of Victory in the Wall Street area; and St. Agnes, in Manhattan. He was a university chaplain for the Archdiocese, and also chaplain to a general hospital and a psychiatric hospital. For ten years he was also National Chaplain of Legatus, the organization of Catholic business leaders and their families, engaged in spiritual formation and evangelization. A board member of several schools and colleges, he is Chaplain of the New York Guild of Catholic Lawyers, Regional Spiritual Director of the Legion of Mary (New York and northern New Jersey) and has long been associated with the Missionaries of Charity, and other religious orders, as a retreat master. Since 1988 his weekly television program has been broadcast worldwide on EWTN. Father Rutler has lectured and given retreats in many nations, frequently in Ireland and Australia. Cardinal Egan appointed him Pastor of the Church of Our Saviour, effective September 17, 2001.