The authority of the Catholic Church is notoriously hard to understand for non-Catholics—even many Catholics struggle to define exactly how and when the Church is exercising its authority. But one question that Catholics apologists hear often goes something like this,
Well, Pope Francis said this during an interview on an airplane so isn’t that infallible Church teaching?
To put it simply, no.
It is not.
But I can see why it can be confusing.
I recently had a conversation with Catholic Answers Senior Apologist Jimmy Akin about this exact topic on my podcast. It was a great episode and we dug deeply into different ways of understanding the authority of the Catholic Church.
Non-Catholics, and even many Catholics, get papal infallibility wrong. For one thing, it gets confused with papal impeccability. In other words, that everything the Holy Other says, does, and even thinks about doing must be perfectly holy. This is squarely not Church teaching. If it were, the very first pope, St. Peter himself, would automatically be disqualified from the position. Remember his whole denying Christ thing? Yeah, that.
So papal infallibility doesn’t mean that all popes will be perfect; in fact, there have been bad popes. Popes appointed by the power of the Holy Spirit acting—as we Catholics believe—through the appropriate succession process who, for whatever reason, sucked at their job.
But what the doctrine of papal infallibility says is that no pope, which specifically and intentionally teaching, can err. In his book, Teaching With Authority, Jimmy Akin outlines exactly how this works. There is, he says, a very specific and intentional formula that a pope will enact to make it very, explicitly clear, that they are exercising this power. A power that the Church says originates with the charge that Christ Himself gave to Peter: that he was building a Church on him which would never be overcome; that he has specific abilities to bind and loose. A power first exercised, authoritatively, at the Council of Jerusalem, which welcomed gentile believers into the Early Church.
So is a papal interview on an airplane considered authoritative Church teaching? Well, no.
The pope may discuss or mention or even expand on things which the Church has taught authoritatively but an airplane isn’t the time nor place for expounding any new teaching—and not the way it’s done.
For authoritative Church teaching, says Jimmy, the best place to look is the comprehensive Catechism of the Catholic Church. It’s available cheaply on Amazon or any Catholic bookstore and also freely available online. Anything you find in the Catechism, says Jimmy, is guaranteed to be the authoritative teaching of the Church—some teaching issues by popes and some by authoritative offices of the Vatican.
It’s the best place to look to clarify, confirm, or learn about what the Catholic Church actually believes.
For more from Jimmy Akin on Church Authority listen to the podcast episode here or below.