It seems like at least once a month, Pope Francis makes the news and the media focuses on how he is "modernizing" the views of the Catholic Church. They don't talk about how he actually isn't saying too many things different from what was said before, he just typically says it in a different way. He uses vocabulary that is more colloquial and less ivory-tower. It's his vivacious personality and man of the people personality that everyone gets excited about. Like with many issues in our modern society, the media paints him the way they want to see him.
His newest encyclical actually encompasses a lot of what Pope Benedict and Pope St. John Paul II had already said. The media never discussed how the Pope refused an ambassador from France. There's actually not a whole lot to be found on the discussion. Refusal of a gay ambassador doesn't exactly fit how the media wants to see Pope Francis.
I am writing about this subject not to get a whole political thing going. Heaven knows with the recent Supreme Court decision and other cultural debates there is enough of that on the internet already. I am writing this for those who are confused about the Catholic Church and the role of the Pope. (I had a friend call me up recently and ask if it was true that the Church was going to change its teaching on some pretty fundamental items)
The Catholic Church has been around for over 2,000 years. Our founder, Jesus Christ said in Matthew 16, "You are Peter and upon this rock I will build my church and the gates of Hell shall not prevail against It." It is our belief that the Pope is successor to Peter and so it follows that the Gates of Hell will not prevail against our Church and our Pope. That doesn't mean our Pope, or any Pope for that matter is perfect. It doesn't mean that everything the Pope says is divine. Take sports for example. The Pope can't predict that the Broncos are going to win a game. Infallibility is a "negative" statement. It doesn't mean that everything he says is right. It means in certain situations when he intends to define doctrine for the whole church, what he teaches/states will not be in error. (There's a great podcast in which Steve Ray talks about this, Catholic Answers Episode 6956).
Infallibility does not = sinlessness. The Pope is human (although, I believe this Pope is definitely Holier than most of us). There have been some popes in history that have been far from sinless.
Same thing with a Bishop's impramatur, when there is a Imprimatur on a book (typically ones found in Catholic bookstores), it's not like the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval, it doesn't mean it's on the Bishop's top 10 favorite reads, it just means the Bishop and/or his office has not found error in it.
In case you are interested in this subject further, check out the book Pope Fiction by Patrick Madrid, (1999 Basilica Press, Rancho Santa Fe, CA). It talks about "Pope Joan" and all the common misconceptions of the Papacy. It's an interesting read, if you're Catholic or not (especially if you like history).
The following summary from pg. 135 of his book describes the requirements for an infallible statement. The words in italics are my commentary.
1) The statement must be made by a lawful Pope
2) The subject matter must be in an area of faith and morals (science, economics, history do not fall within this subject matter). Hmm. Some of the controversy over whether the Catholic Church would split over some of Pope Francis' recent statements... Also, just because science, economics and history do not fall within his purview of papal infallibility, doesn't mean we shouldn't listen to what he has to say. Pope Francis has stated multiple times that he wants to start a dialogue. Not to even attempt to speak for him, but his off the cuff and sometimes vague and taken out of context remarks definitely achieve that.
3) The Pope must be speaking ex cathedra (from the very seat and office of Peter). He must be specifically intending to proclaim a doctrine and to bind the Church to that doctrine. So this means whatever the New York Times reports or even how President Obama interprets what he says does not = papal infallibility and Catholic Doctrine.
Below is perhaps a more articulate explanation by Father William Saunders:
Also, if the above gives you cranial pain, perhaps the following is a better way to end. Check out the below link on How do you get to the truth? It is concise and speaks about faith and reason.
What do you think? I am definitely not a theologian, but I thought I would bring this topic up because papal infallibility does seem to be a common point of confusion: )