EWTN Catholic Q&A
Papal Infallibility - must be of 'of sound mind and free of coercion'
Question from Anonymous on 08-23-2012:

Dear Dr Geraghty,

I just sent this to the 'Apologetics' section a few minutes ago, but I am not sure when or if they will answer it there so I though it might be a good idea to send these questions as well as they have been on my mind for a few days and I thought I would probably get a quicker reply from you (and perhaps get a longer response from the 'Apologetics' section later). However, if you it is better for the 'Apologetics' section to answer this and better for you not to, I understand if you don't answer it.

1) I am having a bit of trouble understanding papal infallibility and the relationship between the Pope and the Magesterium so I thought it would be a good idea to ask about it here. I was wondering, what would happen, if the Pope suffered some sort of brain damage or psychological problem e.g. became brain damaged, became crazy or insane, or had mental problems because of old age etc and started uttering statements that weren't necessarily against the already established dogmas and morals of the Church that he said were ex cathedra but were somewhat absurd and clearly a result of some brain of psychological problem? would they be binding? would they be infallible?

I read on the internet somewhere that "The Pope must make his decision to define while of sound mind and free of coercion. Otherwise he cannot be said to be exercising his supreme teaching authority" [the webpage seems to be saying that it is from Francis A. Sullivan, Magisterium. Teaching Authority in the Catholic Church, Gill & MacMillan, Dublin 1983, p. 101.] Is this correct? Is there some official teaching or document that I can read (Vatican I or Vatican II or the Catechism or something else on the www.vatican.va website etc) that confirms this? If so, what document and what section and where can I read it?

Also, who would point this out and stop it from being counted as infallible? Is this the role of the Magesterium? Does the Magesterium act as a control that keeps things like this in check?

2) What is the relationship between the Pope and the Magestrium when it comes to infallible teachings? Does the Magesterium have to have the approval of the Pope before it can declare a teaching infallible? Does the Pope also have to have approval from the Magesterium before he can declare a teaching infallible? If so, wouldn't this in practice be somewhat similar to what the Eastern Orthodox teach with regards to Ecumenical Councils?

3) Can you recommend some books on Papal Infallibility? Also, can you recommend some books on the Magesterium and the relationship between the Pope and the Magesterium?

Answer by Richard Geraghty on 09-05-2012:

Dear Anon,

As you may guess, I have not been particularly concerned about the question you bring up. It has too many hypotheticals. What the Church teaches is that the Pope is infallible when he teaches ex cathedra, which has not been too often. What is more pertinent is the teaching that the ordinary Magisterium, which consists of the Pope and the Bishops united with him,is also infallible. It is the job of the theologians to deal with the details of this question. Today is open and flagrant rejection by Catholics of the teachings against abortion, artificial contraception, and same sex marriage. That is a very practical problem. I doubt that a new treatise on the details of infallibility will clear it up. At any rate, see if the apologetics section takes up your question. Saving one's soul does not require an intimate knowledge of the details of doctrine. It requires practice like saying one's prayers and going to church. That the hard path even theologians have to take.

Dr. Geraghty

Dr. Geraghty