By Jenna Marie Cooper
Q: Can priests be wrong? (Madison, Wisconsin)
A: Taking your question at simple face value, yes; of course priests can be wrong! Priests are mere human beings, not all-knowing demigods or supercomputers running on perfect algorithms. And no priest is going to be an expert in all areas of knowledge. Like the rest of us, priests can and will be wrong about at least some things some of the time.
Priests do receive quite an extensive training in graduate-level theology, so – in general – when a priest explains Church teaching, he is speaking as a qualified professional in his field. Many priests have roles of authority (like, for example, pastor of a parish) that empower them to make practical decisions. So even if we believe that our priest is wrong in his prudential decision-making in a given instance, it may, nevertheless, be a choice the priest is legitimately able to make.
We Catholics also have a concept of papal infallibility, which means that the Pope is protected from error in certain very specific circumstances; namely, when he “proclaims by a definitive act some doctrine of faith or morals” (See Lumen Gentium, 25). That is, the Holy Father is infallible when he specifically and deliberately raises some aspect of established Catholic teaching on faith or morals to the level of infallibility. But this is a rare occurrence; the last time it happened was in 1950 with the proclamation of the dogma of Mary’s Assumption. There is no belief that the Pope would be infallible in other ways.
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Jenna Marie Cooper, who holds a licentiate in canon law, is a consecrated virgin and a canonist whose column appears weekly at OSV News. Send your questions to [email protected].