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What a pope can – and can't — change

Published March 11, 2013 1:13 pm

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

If a pope is infallible, why can't he do anything he wants — like do away with priestly celibacy?

Pope John Paul II, for example, altered the long-standing rule for electing a new pontiff from a two-thirds majority vote to a simple majority. Then Pope Benedict XVI changed it back.

But the presumption of a free-wheeling Holy Father misunderstands both infallibility and the office of the papacy.

"There are theological and logistical limits on the changes [the pope] can make," writes Ann Rodgers of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. "He can't create new doctrine out of thin air."

Popes are "servants of the church's settled tradition," papal biographer George Weigel, senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C., told Rodgers, "not the tradition's masters."

The pope can govern the church, and even overhaul the Vatican, Rodgers writes, but he "must answer to its doctrine as a [U.S.] president answers to the Constitution."

As to the pope's infallibility, it is widely presumed to mean any statement or position he takes. Not so, Rodgers explains.

"In order to make an infallible declaration, a pope must clearly address the worldwide church from the throne of Peter, saying that he is defining a matter of faith or morals that every Catholic is required to assent to," the award-winning journalist writes. "The doctrine at stake must already have strong roots in tradition, have wide support from bishops and the faithful, and be compatible with Scripture."

So far, there have been only two such declarations, both involving the Virgin Mary. The first, issued in 1870, declared that Jesus' mother was a product of "Immaculate Conception," meaning that she was conceived without original sin. The second, made in 1950, referred to the "Assumption of Mary," that she was taken into heaven rather than lying in a grave.

If the pope reversed traditional teachings on, say, women's ordination, Rodgers' sources say, "the bishops and faithful of the world would realize he had fallen into heresy and disregard him."