Many Protestants believe that Catholics believe that anything the Pope says is infallible. This is a superstition. Strangely, some “progressive” priests have recently been promoting this superstition.
We must return to the sources of revelation, especially those sources which the Church considers to be “without error.” Pope Leo XIII wrote that the following five aspects of Catholic Revelation can be held to be definitely without any error:
1) Sacred Scripture
2) Councils (eg. the Council of Trent)
3) Creeds (eg. Nicene Constantinopolitan Creed.)
4) Anytime the Church Fathers speak in union.
5) Ex-Cathedra Statements by the Pope (only done twice in history, on Mary’s Immaculate Conception  and Mary’s Assumption [1950.])
All five of the above are without error (a negative charism) but only one of them is considered to be word-for-word, no-more and no-less exactly as God willed it, functioning as a positive charism: The Sacred Scriptures.
This may smack of Protestantism or fundamentalistism even to the best of Catholics. It is not. It is Our Faith:
“For all the books which the Church receives as sacred and canonical, are written wholly and entirely, with all their parts, at the dictation of the Holy Spirit.”—Pope Leo XIII, Providentissimus Deus, #20.
After reading this 1893 encyclical by Pope Leo XIII, the analogy I choose to describe his description of doctrine is a dart board: Every part of the Creeds or Councils are guaranteed by the Holy Ghost to land on the dart board. But Scripture hits the bull’s eye every time.
Some of the greatest preaching and miracle-working saints had the entire Bible memorized. An example would be St. Anthony of Padua. St. Thomas Aquinas also had the whole Bible memorized. In his Summa Theologica, St. Thomas Aquinas’ gives two sides of a theological argument. He settles the argument not by his own authority as an innovator (as some Scholastics seem to imply) but by the Bible, rightly interpreted by the Magisterium and Church Fathers. (The Church later put her stamp on St. Thomas as the clearest and most reliable interpreter of Scripture.) But Scripture remained the fountain, and St. Thomas the fountain-keeper.
Thus, neither St. Thomas Aquinas nor a Pope nor a synod can contradict Scripture, the highest source of Divine Revelation flowing directly from the Divine Word Incarnate, Jesus Christ. Even then, the only topics considered infallible are articulated faith and morals.
John Allen (who writes for the liberal National Catholic Reporter) actually has an excellent article on Pope Francis, where Pope Francis admits he is a bit rusty on modern topics:
Notice that within 65-minutes with reporters, Pope Francis explained his lack of surety at least seven times with phrases like: “I don’t understand it very well”; “I don’t know if it’s true”; “It’s an error of mine not to think about this,”; “If I make a mistake, with a bit of shame I ask forgiveness and go forward”; “I don’t want to say something wrong” and “one sentence can be manipulated.”
I appreciate the humility on economic topics, but I could have told you “I don’t know.” (I only found out what a mortgage was last year at the age of 35.)
But as to far-reaching theological statements of Pope Francis, let me say only say that I’m tired of semi-orthodox theologians and bloggers telling us that Pope Francis didn’t really mean what Pope Francis said. It was fair to give that odd grammatical clean-up team in Rome (and the neo-con Catholic blogs in the USA) a bit of modification-leeway at the beginning of his Pontificate. But now the liberals are probably right about one thing: Pope Francis means very much what he says, and he believes what he promotes. If a man should be taken at his word, shouldn’t the Pope? In pre-kindergarten, monitors would make peace between children, saying things like “Frenchy didn’t mean what he said…” Pope Francis means what he says. He is an adult who officially sits on the seat of Peter. The Pope (like St. Thomas Aquinas) has always been called to be the interpreter of the Faith, not the interpreted.
We must respect the Pope, but that doesn’t mean everything the Pope says is without error, as the Holy Father readily admits. John Allen points out that for a Pope’s words to be considered infallible, there are three requirements outlined by Vatican I that must be met with precision for a Pope to make an infallible ex-cathdra decision:
- It pertains to faith and morals.
- It does not contradict Scripture or Divine Revelation.
- It’s intended to be held by the whole Church.
No such doctrinal proclamation has ever been made by Pope Francis, or any Pope for that matter since 1950.