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(Bartolomé Esteban Murillo. St. Leander. Source)
Why do Catholics claim that the Pope is special? How come we hear about this "Papal Infallibility" thing?
The first step in studying anything is to avoid falsehood, rumors, prejudices and gullibility. If we want to study what the Catholic Church teaches about "Papal Infallibility", we have to listen to what the Catholic Church claims, not what we picked up in the gutter or on a phone-in show.
Here is an example of what happens when you don't carefully listen to the official claim somebody is making. Let's imagine we are hundreds of years back into the past, and some apparently crazy scientist has just discovered the Law of Conservation of Mass. This scientist claims that, in a closed system, mass is apparently conserved whatever the chemical reaction.
After hearing this, some well-intentioned but unrigorous person says: "Ha! That is obviously false, and I will prove it!" So this person weighs a candle, then lights it, and after the candle has burned down, weighs it again, and triumphantly cries out: "See, what did I tell you! Mass has not been conserved after the chemical reaction of burning!"
The scientist would gently reply: "Pardon me, Sir, but I did explicitly say in a closed system. If you create a closed system, say using a very large glass jar with an airtight lid, put a candle in it, then weigh the whole thing (candle, jar, air and all), then (using a fancy timer) light the candle, you will see that when you weigh the whole thing after the candle has burnt down, you will apparently have the same mass."
It's roughly the same thing for Papal Infallibility. Many well-intentioned but unrigorous persons say: "There once was a Pope who had syphilis, or who committed some other sin, therefore Popes are not infallible". But the Catholic Church doesn't teach "Papal Impeccance" (i.e. the impossibility of sinning), but that:
In order to preserve the Church in the purity of the Faith handed on by the Apostles, Christ who is the Truth willed to confer on Her a share in His own infallibility [...]
The Roman Pontiff, head of the college of Bishops, enjoys this infallibility in
virtue of his office, when, as supreme pastor and teacher of all the faithful -
who confirms his brethren in the Faith - he proclaims by a definitive act a
doctrine pertaining to faith or morals [...].
Catechism of the Catholic Church, #889 and #891.
In layman's terms, this means that God has given His Church a "Recipe for Salvation", and that this recipe, if carefully executed, will always guide people into Heaven.
"Papal Infallibility" only deals with this "Recipe for Salvation", not with everything else the Pope does. For example, the Pope's actual government of the Church is not infallible [Denzinger #3116]. As you can imagine, if the government of the Church is not "covered by the warranty", then it will be even more true concerning the "government of oneself" of the Pope! In other words, the Pope can commit sins, and end up in Hell like you or me.
You can arrive at the same conclusion more quickly: about 30% of Popes are canonized. If the Church claimed that Popes were endowed with impeccance, then She would canonize 100% of Popes!
We can look at this whole situation from another point of view, that of the Sociologist. A sociologist studying religions will probably notice that religions have some sort of concept of "Salvation", and some sort of "series of things that must be done by the faithful" to obtain this "Salvation".
Now if the "Recipe for Salvation" is contained inside the head of a Cult Leader, then probably that religion won't have anything like "Papal Infallibility", since the Cult Leader will usually claim he is God or at least that he has a secure, high-speed connection with God. But as soon as the "Recipe" is contained in a book, then the issue of the "correct interpretation" of that book arises.
This is a very important philosophical idea, so let's take some time to explore it.
Books don't talk, and books can't tell the person reading them: "Wooow buddy! You're not interpreting me correctly!" The reason behind this is the very nature of the word. A word doesn't signify a thing directly (like a cat or a bowling ball), a word signifies a concept, and this concept in turn signifies an actual thing (like that cat or that bowling ball we were talking about). Words only let us "talk about things" in an indirect way. And as you can imagine, if our concept is unclear, or ambiguous, or even non-existent, the word just won't convey the information.
Another way of saying the same thing is to say that ideas, in themselves, cannot be transmitted. Nobody has ever conveyed the idea of anything to anybody else. All we can do is try to help the person listening to us to "re-build" that idea inside their head, based on the material signs we give them (like ink blots on a sheet of paper, or vibrations in the air, etc.).
This has serious consequences for all religions that claim to have Sacred Scriptures. If something is written down, then it necessarily can be misinterpreted. This is why the sociologist can show you that the notion of "Papal Infallibility" is not only present in the Catholic Church, but can be found in most major religions. Of course, it is not called "Papal Infallibility" in other religions, but the general idea is the same.
If a "Recipe for Salvation" sometimes works, and sometimes doesn't, then God didn't write it. And if God really did inspire some Sacred Scriptures, then the correct interpretation of that book will somehow be guided by God himself.
After all, God isn't a stupid cook!
(For readers interested in more information on this topic, please see A Little Course By Professor Madjisterioom.)
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