The Pope is infallible only in certain very specific times and situations.
In speaking of matters of faith and morals, ex cathedra, or when speaking of the Deposit of the Faith in the ordinary Magesterium, the Pope is protected from teaching error.
When it comes to ‘decisions’, you’ll note that none of the ‘reversed’ decisions have to do with what the Catholic faith TEACHES. (I’m assuming you’re thinking of the late JP 2 who apologized to all peoples for any errors made by individuals throughout history in the ‘name’ of Christianity --which you will note is a very different thing from apologizing for any WRONG TEACHINGS).
You are very unlikely to ever have the Pope tell you that a dead relative is in heaven (unless your relative is up for sainthood and the Holy Spirit has guided not just the Pope but the college of cardinals and all those investigating your relative’s life into the knowledge that he IS in heaven). So don’t worry.
Once you understand that infallibility doesn’t mean we Catholics ‘think’ the Pope is God, or that if he says something he ‘makes God bring it about’ or that ONE pope can teach something and another pope teach the OPPOSITE. . .but instead understand it iswhat I said right at the beginning --he is, was, and will be protected from TEACHING ERROR as head of the Church. . . then you won’t be bothered by such speculations as you have brought up. God bless.
It’s not that the Pope tells God what to do, but rather the Pope confirms what God has already done.
The Pope has the final say on matters of doctrine–there’s no higher judge to appeal to in those matters. So, if there is ever any point of divine revelation called into doubt or disputed, he can definitively confirm us in the truth and we can receive in faith the divine revelation that has been confirmed (if it could be wrong, we couldn’t have that firm faith in it).
He doesn’t make up or reveal new divine revelation, but rather confirms what God has already revealed and which is handed down by the Church with the assistance of the Holy Spirit. If the pope could bind us to hand down a falsehood, the revelation God has revealed for all men would be corrupted and potentially lost to generations. So, whenever he makes a definitive and binding judgment on a matter of faith or morals, the Holy Spirit assists to make sure the fullness of the truth is handed down faithfully.
The Pope is not infallible on all matters, his decisions do deserve a degree of respect. But he is only infallible on matters of Faith and Morals that affect the whole Church. If the Pope says that your brother is in Heaven by solemn public papal decree, then he is in Heaven. If he says in private conversation or even in a simple public speech. your loved ones are with the Lord. Then we should rest assured that they most likely are in the presence of the Lord in some manner.
There is a real freedom to the faithful in papal infalliability, in that (as I recall) we believe that if we follow those teachings we cannot be held accountable if they are in ultimately found incorrect. In other words, we don’t have to interpret these matters for ourselves.
There’s a lot of misunderstanding about the scope of infallibility. Karl Keating gave this example of where its limits are.
The Holy Father is infallible in teaching faith and morals. Let’s assume that he’s infallible (in the same way, and to the same degree) in mathematics as well, and also assume that, when he arrives at his desk one morning, there’s a surprise math test waiting for him.
Now, if there are 100 questions on the test, what is the minimum number of correct answers that the Doctrine of Infallibility call for there being on his answer sheet?
The answer is zero (not 100 as many might suppose). The Holy Father is protected from errors in math in our example the same way he is protected from teaching error in faith and morals in the Doctrine. There’s no guarantee that he will give right answers, just that he will never give wrong ones, and ONLY when he teaches, for the whole Church, on matters of faith and morals.
This is a very important protection, but it is not as wide in scope as many sometimes assume. That’s why Popes can still sin and not negate this Doctrine.
The Pope is infallible much like how Prophets were infallible.
Many prophets sinned and said things that were incorrect.
But in the context of their job they were 100% trustworthy
So when Elijah spoke as a Prophet of God, or when Moses acted as God’s personal scribe in writing the laws, they were infallible in the context of their work. They were being used, by God, as a channel of his truth.
So when the Pope is acting as the Vicar of Christ and speaks infallibly…we’ll know it.
Theres like a zillion words he has to use in the infalible statement too…its very official.
We pronounce, declare, define,
(some more stuff)
(insert infallible statement)
…for the whole Catholic world
(insert anathema for dissenters)
(insert really cool red wax seal)
pretty interesting stuff.
So the Pope cant sneak up on us with some infallibility,
for example, Pope Benedict XIV says that Classical music contains the entire drama of human existence…
If its not said in the context of him being Supreme Pontiff,
than I can think whatever I want about Classical music.
Another way to explain papal infallibility, using your example, would be to understand that if your brother were not truly in Heaven, the pope could not suddenly change this reality by declaring as a matter of Faith that your brother was in Heaven. But rather, if your brother was not in heaven, papal infallibility would protect the pope from erroneously declaring as a matter of Faith that he was.
This is not to say that only those persons the Church has canonized are in heaven, or that only those things a pope has infallibly defined to be true are true, but only that we may be confident that none of these things a pope has infallibly defined to be true are false.