What a pope can – and can’t — change
Published: March 11, 2013 01:13PM
Updated: March 18, 2013 11:27AM
FILE - This Nov. 30, 2006 file photo shows Pope Benedict XVI, looking on during a solemn ceremony with Ecumenical Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew I, unseen, in the Patriarchal Church of St. George, in Istanbul, Turkey, At the moment Cardinal Albino Luciani learned his colleagues had elected him pope, he responded, "May God forgive you for what you've done.'' The remark, by the man who became Pope John Paul I, was seen as an expression of humility, but also a commentary on the mammoth task ahead. There is no job like that of the pope. He is the CEO of a global enterprise, head of state, a moral voice in the world and, in the eyes of Roman Catholics, Christ's representative on earth. The man who emerges as pontiff from the conclave starting Tuesday has a crushing to-do list as he leads the world's 1.2 billion Catholics. (AP Photo/Patrick Hertzog, pool, file)

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.”

Peggy Fletcher Stack