Papal mistake


Let me begin by the observation that during his pontificate, John Paul II authoritatively taught that the Church had no authority to perform a certain action. Furthermore, he certified that this teaching was infallible via the ordinary and universal magisterium.

Now, let us suppose that it is discovered that during the Middle Ages, a bishop encountered a situation where in his opinion, a woman had an especially meritorious case for having this action applied to her. The bishop wrote to the Pope at the time, and the Pope approved of having this action applied to this particular woman.

The question: How are we to understand this? Did the medieval pope make an error in doctrine, or merely a misjudgement in the application of a practical discipline? If this was only a matter of discipline, would it be possible for a future pope to make the same disciplinary misjudgement?

Finally, did the action have its intended effect, or does the infallible teaching that the Church does not have the authority to perform this action mean that the action was invalid?

Note: I’m keeping this discussion at an abstract level for now, because I don’t want to get side-tracked with tons of details before I understand the general principles involved. Thanks!


The Pope has no particular protection from making a personal mistake or acting badly. The protection granted to the Pope under the definition of infallibility is in making a teaching that is binding on the universal Church on matters of faith and morals. Sometimes things are not defined until a later time. A prior Pope may or may not have done something that falls under a later definition. The prior would not invalidate the later decision, and the later decision would not necessarily condemn the prior Pope. Nevertheless, the prior Pope may have done something that was theoretically invalid.

I hope this helps.


Womens ordination, eh?

Just cut to the chase.


Disciplines are changeable and are therefore not infallible statements in and of themselves. The issue of women being ordained is not a discipline. This is a doctrinal issue.


Hey Pax…

The OP never mentioned anything about the details behind what this medieval pope did or did not do. Did this pope declare this action to be infalible? Was it a matter of faith and morals?

I think that, without the details, the answer will be just as abstract as the question.


I’m just looking for abstract answers for now. After that, I will post the details and we can proceed to tear them apart.


Thanks for the reply!

Does your answer mean it might be possible that a future pope could declare, as a matter of doctrine, that the Church has no authority to, for example, allow girls to be altar servers?


I’m not playing this game. Nobody deserves to be a priest.


As far as I understand it, girls as altar servers is a clearly defined matter of Church discipline. Yes, the Church has the authority to change this. Although I don’t see how this widespread practice is analogous to the situation mentioned in your first post.


I do not believe so. The issue of girl altar servers falls into the area of discipline and not doctrine.


Deserves is the keyword - so that pretty much sums it up :thumbsup:


Up until the hypothetical pope, this event had never been allowed. All of a sudden a particular pope lets it happen or gives permission once. Did he actually proclaim infallibly that this could be done? Sounds like all he did was screw up once. Hardly seems to me that a single screwup invalidates what the Church has always taught up to this point and continued to teach after.

Second point, the Pope is the head man, but he is not “the Church.” Unless he proclaimed the exception for the whole Church it remains an isolated incident that does not change precedent.

I think I know where this is going and I hope your documentation and source or sources is correct and reliable. :slight_smile:


Here are the details. John Paul II taught that (see here)

  1. Today’s meeting with you, members of the Tribunal of the Roman Rota, is an appropriate setting for also speaking to the whole Church about the limits of the Roman Pontiff’s power over ratified and consummated marriage, which “cannot be dissolved by any human power or for any reason other than death” (CIC, can. 1141; CCEO, can. 853). By its very nature this formulation of canon law is not only disciplinary or prudential, but corresponds to a doctrinal truth that the Church has always held.

The medieval pope was Celestine III and his decretal Laudabilem. Celestine allowed the dissolution of the marriage of a Catholic woman whose Catholic husband had abandoned both her and the Catholic faith.

My take on this is that Celestine made a doctrinal error in dissolving, or should I say attempting to dissolve, a sacramental marriage, but that his actions were clearly not infallible. I’m wondering if there are any other ways to view his actions.


Without source material it’s impossible to tell what exactly happened, and the details are important. My bet is that it didn’t happen the way you think.


I am clueless about this incident.


Ahhh…well, you certainly threw me for a loop :wink:
So, first, as a matter of form, I’m not certain that JPII’s statement qualifies as infallible (although it is certainly reflective of Catholic teaching). Second, I was unable to find Celestine III’s document. Do you have a link? The Petrine Privilege might apply here. Alternately, it could have been a legitimate finding of nullity.


The only thing I see in the Catholic Encyclopedia is evidence that he was a strong defender of marriage:

…and defended with vigour the validity of the marriage of Queen Ingeburg with Philip Augustus of France, to whom he refused a divorce, while he declared invalid the divorce accorded to Philip by the bishops of his kingdom.

I’d be interested to see your source!


We are only concerned about the form of a Pope’s statement if he intends to proclaim something ex cathedra. But a teaching can be regarded as infallible by other means.

IOW, the Pope does not have to appeal to his own authority for something to be regarded as infallible. He could very well appeal to a decision of an Ecumenical Council or well-established Sacred Tradition.



There is a Biblical precedent for this. St. Paul states that there is an exception for the converts whose spouses left them when they became Christians. It seems to me that the situation you describe is parallel to the one written of by St. Paul.


Brother JonS, that situation only applies when the spouse is ORIGINALLY an unbeliever when the two were married. It does not apply to a spouse that has left the faith, but was a believer when they were married.


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