Of infallible popes and the (chronically) fallible Mr. Walford

September 30, 2017 (Steven O’Reilly) – An article has appeared in the National Catholic Reporter entitled “Filial Correction of Pope marked by glaring hypocrisy, and risible accusations.”  The article is authored by Stephen Walford, against whom your humble blogger has penned a (growing) “Summa.”


  1. Pope Francis’ Predecessors come to the Defense of his Magisterium? Well–Yes and No, Mr. Walford  (February 19, 2017)
  2. Honorius Redivivus – Addendum  (February 23, 2017)
  3. Answering Mr. Walford’s Questions on Amoris Laetitia – Really (March 28, 2017)
  4. Responding to Mr. Walford: Been there, done that (several times, Mr. Ivereigh) (June 23, 2017)
  5. Mr. Walford Pelts the Great Wall of China with Popcorn, Again  (June 29, 2017)
  6. Mr. Walford’s “Ode to Francis” (September 15, 2017)


In his most recent article, Mr. Walford attacks the recent “Filial Correction” document and its signatories.  My response focuses on one aspect of his rebuttal, i.e., Mr. Walford’s continued misuse of the papal magisterium.  Mr. Walford writes of the “hypocrisy” of the signatories of the “filial correction” of Pope Francis. Noting the “most glaring” example of this hypocrisy – in his view – he says (emphasis added):

The most glaring — and comically ironic, considering the famous footnote 351 of Amoris Laetitia — is the deliberate omission in footnote 21 of the signatories’ letter of a crucial quote from Pastor Aeternus, the First Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church.

The letter writers directly quote either side of the passage but omit this portion: “Indeed, their apostolic teaching was embraced by all the venerable fathers and reverenced and followed by all the holy orthodox doctors, for they knew very well that this See of St. Peter always remains unblemished by any error, in accordance with the divine promise of our Lord and Savior.

Now the question must be asked: why did they omit that? Simply because to have included it would have destroyed in one stroke their entire premise of heresy against the pope. It beggars belief they thought nobody would notice. Can they seriously accuse the pope of “omissions” after that?

But of course Pastor Aeternus was only repeating what Pope Innocent III had proclaimed in his apostolic letter Sedis Primatus: “The Lord clearly intimates that Peter’s successors will never at any time deviate from the Catholic faith, but will instead recall the others and strengthen the hesitant.”

Mr. Walford might do best to stick to piano playing. His “song book” of cherry-picked and misused papal quotes is getting old (see Pope Francis’ Predecessors come to the Defense of his Magisterium? Well–Yes and No, Mr. Walford). His suggestion of “glaring hypocrisy” is as sloppy as it is disingenuous. The signatories profess papal infallibility, thus Pastor Aeturnus. They are not denying infallibility, but rather, they – it seems to me – believe the Pope has possibly acted outside of its conditions in a questionable manner, as has happened to popes on occasion. Mr. Walford ought to demonstrate, precisely, how Amoris Laetitia is an “intervention of the magisterium” and one that is infallible. He’s been writing about this for several months now and hasn’t quite gotten round to explaining how, specifically.

But the reality is, Mr. Walford’s lame appeals to infallibility in these arguments over Amoris Laetitia only serve to weaken the perception of it among those not familiar with its nuances. For example, Mr. Walford’s quote above might leave the false impression that popes cannot err in any way whatsoever related to faith and morals. Perhaps that is the hope of Mr. Walford – i.e., to leave that impression with some sincere Catholics – who are less-versed in the nuances of the teaching – that everything the Pope says is free from error. Why he does so, I don’t know. One might surmise it is a cheap debating trick, playing to the ignorance of some in the audience.

Whatever the reason, Mr. Walford must know better, thus I can’t help but find his articles becoming increasingly disingenuous in this regard.  As I show in the articles cited above (the “Summa Contra Stephen Walford”), Mr. Walford alternates between being wrong and dead-wrong. The quote from Pastor Aeturnus, for example, does not treat of the Pope whenever he speaks. As Rev. James T. O’Connor points out in his translation of Bishop Vincent Gasser’s Official Relatio of the draft of Pastor Aeturnus:

“Albert Pighius (Pigge) was a Dutch theologian (c. 1490-1542) and a strong defender of a papal infallibility in a sometimes exaggerated form. He is generally understood to have defended the thesis that the Pope, even as a private person, was incapable of falling in heresy. Using Robert Bellarmine as a source, Gasser maintains this is a probable and pious opinion, but, it is not this opinion that the Draft proposes to define since Gasser has been at pains to stress that the Draft is treating the Pope in his role as a public person, supreme teacher of the Church, when he defines doctrine of faith or morals for the entire Church, a position Bellarmine held as “common and certain.” (The Gift of Infallibility: The Official Relatio on Infallibility of Bishop Vincent Gasser at Vatican Council I. Translated with commentary by Rev. James T. O’Conner. St. Paul Editions, 1986.  P. 54)

As Rev. O’Conner states, Gasser in his Relatio speaks of infallibility where the pope in his role “as a public person, supreme teacher of the Church” defines a “doctrine of faith and morals for the entire Church.”  This happens under limited and specific circumstances. We know not every utterance, public or not, written or not, is necessarily infallible.  Mr. Walford, I know, is aware of the case of John XXII who made erroneous statements concerning aspects of the Beatific Vision (see Pope Francis’ Predecessors come to the Defense of his Magisterium? Well–Yes and No, Mr. Walford). For there to be an infallible exercise of the magisterium, Pope John Paul II speaks of the necessity of “explicit or implicit intention” (emphasis added below)

“The Successor of Peter fulfills this doctrinal mission in a continual series of oral and written interventions that represent the ordinary exercise of the Magisterium as the teaching of truths to be believed and put into practice (fidem et mores). The acts expressing this Magisterium can be more or less frequent and take various forms according to the needs of the time, the requirements of concrete situations, the opportunities and means available, and the methods and systems of communication.However, given that they derive from an explicit or implicit intention to make pronouncements on matters of faith and morals, they are linked to the mandate received by Peter and enjoy the authority conferred on him by Christ. [1]

Given that these interventions-which represent the exercise of the Magisterium as the teaching of truths to be believed and put into practice- “derive from an explicit or implicit intention to make pronouncements on matters of faith and morals, they are linked to the mandate received by Peter and enjoy the authority conferred on him by Christ,” then it follows that where such “an explicit or implicit intention to make pronouncements on matters of faith and morals” is lacking, no such act or intervention expressing the infallible, ordinary papal Magisterium necessarily exists – thus John XXII. How then do we determine an explicit and implicit intention on the part of a Roman pontiff? One answer comes in the form of guidance from the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith (emphasis added):

“It should be noted that the infallible teaching of the ordinary and universal Magisterium is not only set forth with an explicit declaration of a doctrine to be believed or held definitively, but is also expressed by a doctrine implicitly contained in a practice of the Church’s faith, derived from revelation or, in any case, necessary for eternal salvation, and attested to by the uninterrupted Tradition: such an infallible teaching is thus objectively set forth by the whole episcopal body, understood in a diachronic and not necessarily merely synchronic sense. Furthermore, the intention of the ordinary and universal Magisterium to set forth a doctrine as definitive is not generally linked to technical formulations of particular solemnity; it is enough that this be clear from the tenor of the words used and from their context.” [2]

And, thus, we are led back to the question of Amoris Laetitia, and Mr. Walford’s accusations of “glaring hypocrisy.” Given his own citation of Pastor Aeturnus, Mr. Walford should answer the following questions.

Where is the Pope’s implicit or explicit intention (cf. John Paul II, General Audience, 3/10/1993) to exercise an infallible intervention of the magisterium revealed to us in Amoris Laetitia; and how is this suggested by “the tenor of the words used and from their context(cf. Doctrinal Commentary on the Concluding Formula of the Professio fidei, n. 17, Cardinal Ratzinger, Prefect of the CDF, 6/29/1998)?

Mr. Walford faces a tall hurdle in demonstrating his case.  Below, I provide a number of Papal statements taken from Amoris Laetitia that suggest by the “tenor of the words used and from context their context” that the Pope had no intention, explicit or implicit, to exercise an “intervention of the magisterium.” I will cite Pope Francis, below which I will provide my comments (emphasis added in all cases).

(Amoris Laetitia, 2)                                                                                                               “The complexity of the issues that arose revealed the need for continued open discussion of a number of doctrinal, moral, spiritual, and pastoral questions. The thinking of pastors and theologians, if faithful to the Church, honest, realistic and creative, will help us to achieve greater clarity”

O’Reilly comments:  At the very beginning of Amoris Laetitia (AL), in the midst of section 2 above, Pope Francis states the synod revealed the need for “continued discussion on a number doctrinal, moral, spiritual and pastoral questions.” The context suggests an ongoing process. A “continued open discussion” is one that is not settled, i.e., the Pope is not suggesting that something has been decided.  There is no “causa finita est.”

(Amoris Laetitia, 3)                                                                                                         “Since “time is greater than space”, I would make it clear that not all discussions of doctrinal, moral or pastoral issues need to be settled by interventions of the magisterium. Unity of teaching and practice is certainly necessary in the Church, but this does not preclude various ways of interpreting some aspects of that teaching or drawing certain consequences from it. This will always be the case as the Spirit guides us towards the entire truth (cf. Jn 16:13), until he leads us fully into the mystery of Christ and enables us to see all things as he does. Each country or region, moreover, can seek solutions better suited to its culture and sensitive to its traditions and local needs. For “cultures are in fact quite diverse and every general principle… needs to be inculturated,
if it is to be respected and applied.”

O’Reilly comments:  Pope Francis in section 3 above specifically says he makes it clear that “not all discussions of doctrinal, moral or pastoral issues need to be settled by interventions of the magisterium.” Pope Francis hereby disclaims the notion there is an intervention of his infallible magisterium to be found in Amoris Laetitia, there is no other reasonable explanation for the inclusion of such a statement – if his intention had been to exercise an intervention of the magisterium in Amoris Laetitia.

Furthermore, Francis goes on to say that while unity is important “this does not preclude various ways of interpreting some aspects of that teaching or drawing certain consequences from it.” Thus, it is clear that Francis is not intending to settle on a specific interpretation. He goes so far as to suggest different regions could have different solutions, and seemingly suggesting this is a good thing (to have many different interpretations). Thus, his policy in this regard is striking similar to that of Pope Honorius (see Why the Case of Pope Honorius Matters, Mr. Alt) in many respects.

(Amoris Laetitia, 4)                                                                                                                       “I am grateful for the many contributions that helped me to appreciate more fully the problems faced by families throughout the world. The various interventions of the Synod Fathers, to which I paid close heed, made up, as it were, a multifaceted gem reflecting many legitimate concerns and honest questions.  For this reason, I thought it appropriate to prepare a post-synodal Apostolic Exhortation to gather the contributions of the two recent Synods on the family, while adding other considerations as an aid to reflection, dialogue and pastoral practice, and as a help and encouragement to families in their daily commitments and challenges. “

O’Reilly Comments: In section 4 of the introduction above, Pope Francis states the purpose of his Exhortation as being to “gather the contributions from the two recent synods”, while adding “other considerations” of his own as an “aid to reflection, dialogue and pastoral practice.”  No where is there an indication there is an infallible utterance or teaching to come. Popes do not infallibly pronounce “reflections” or “considerations” or “dialogue.” They define and teach infallibly when they have the intent, implicit or explicit, to do so. I do not know of an instance where a Pope has said something to the effect of: “We, with our full Apostolic Authority, with the Authority of St. Peter, do hereby reflect and consider and dialogue that…”!

(Amoris Laetitia, 6)                                                                                                                       “I will begin with an opening chapter inspired by the Scriptures, to set a proper tone. I will then examine the actual situation of families, in order to keep firmly grounded in reality. I will go on to recall some essential aspects of the Church’s teaching on marriage and the family, thus paving the way for two central chapters dedicated to love. I will then highlight some pastoral approaches that can guide us in building sound and fruitful homes in accordance with God’s plan, with a full chapter devoted to the raising of children. Finally, I will offer an invitation to mercy and the pastoral discernment of those situations that fall short of what the Lord demands of us, and conclude with a brief discussion of family spirituality.” (Amoris Laetitia 6)

O’Reilly Comments: In section 6 above of the introduction, Pope Francis outlines the structure of his Exhortation. His reference to Chapter 8 is as invitation to “pastoral discernment,” hardly sounding like something which puts the reader on notice to expect to hear the voice of Peter defining something or ending confusion. Further on in Chapter 8 after the controversial sections (i.e., AL 300-305) – Pope Francis gives no indication that he has spoken of anything that is anyway binding.  Consider, in AL 308 the Pope says (emphasis added):

“At the same time, from our awareness of the weight of mitigating circumstances – psychological, historical and even biological – it follows that “without detracting from the evangelical ideal, there is a need to accompany with mercy and patience the eventual stages of personal growth as these progressively appear”, making room for “the Lord’s mercy, which spurs us on to do our best”. I understand those who prefer a more rigorous pastoral care which leaves no room for confusion. But I sincerely believe that Jesus wants a Church attentive to the goodness which the Holy Spirit sows in the midst of human weakness, a Mother who, while clearly expressing her objective teaching, “always does what good she can, even if in the process, her shoes get soiled by the mud of the street”. The Church’s pastors, in proposing to the faithful the full ideal of the Gospel and the Church’s teaching, must also help them to treat the weak with compassion, avoiding aggravation or unduly harsh or hasty judgements.” (Amoris Laetitia, 308)

O’Reilly Comments: In the quote above, Pope Francis reflects back on what he has just said in the most controversial sections of Chapter 8 (i.e., 300-305, including n. 351). Francis professes to “understand those who prefer a more rigorous pastoral care which leaves no room for confusion,” in obvious contrast to his own position which would – by implication – presumably allow such room for confusion(!). Yet, even if we were to grant what the most lenient commentators accept about the pope’s intent and policies in Chapter 8 of AL, what authority does Pope Francis muster in support of his argument? Given the ‘time and space’, does Pope Francis outlaw “rigorous pastoral care” and practice with a definite pronouncement based on Sacred Scripture or Tradition? No.

What is the tenor and context of the Pope’s words? Francis exhorts, cajoles, and even seems to plead with the rigorists: “But I sincerely believe that Jesus wants a Church attentive to the goodness which the Holy Spirit sows in the midst of human weakness” etc.  His words have the tenor and context of an opinion intended to convince, not of a teaching intended to be definitively held. It would be difficult to argue these words represent or reveal an intent to exercise an “intervention of the magisterium” – certainly not an infallible one.

Final Thoughts

It seems rather clear that Amoris Laetitia was not intended, implicitly or explicitly, to be an “intervention of the magisterium.” Mr. Walford continues to declare the Pope intervened with his magisterium in Amoris Laetitia, but, if so, he should direct his argument against Pope Francis. It was Pope Francis who said in the introduction of Amoris Laetitia: “not all discussions of doctrinal, moral or pastoral issues need to be settled by interventions of the magisterium.”

Mr. Walford’s argument from infallibility fails at many levels. Individual bishops and bishops’ conferences have taken opposite, contradictory positions on communion guidelines for manifest adulterers, for example. If the Pope had taught infallibly, why did he not publicly rebuke Cardinal Muller specifically on AL? Even in letting Muller go at the end of his term, Pope Francis did not take the opportunity to correct him. Why has the Pope not rebuked the bishops of Poland where communion for manifest adulterers is taught to be a sacrilege? Why won’t the Pope answer the Dubia?  Why must the Pope rely on snarky surrogates to be his apologists instead of speaking plainly to the faithful?

Mr. Walford’s bluster masks a serious problem the surrogates face: the defenders of the “liberal” interpretation of Amoris Laetitia have a tough task. For example, on the question for communion for manifest adulterers, they must reckon with the clear teachings of John Paul II (Familiaris Consortio 84, Reconciliatio et Paenitentia 34), the Catholic Catechism (1650), guidance from the CDF[3], the Code of Canon Law (915, 916) and all this reaffirmed again by Benedict XVI in 2007 in Sacramentum Caritatis 29. One cannot help but be struck by the clarity and force of the words used in these documents in all instances – without exception. These documents teach that, based on Sacred Scripture, it is impossible for the divorced and remarried to receive communion – and that this is “constant and universal practice” of the Church which is called “binding” and which “cannot be modified because of different situations.” I have no doubt that Mr. Walford wished he had but one magisterial statement citing scripture as its basis. No such evidence has ever been offered. In the final analysis, to what does Mr. Walford’s case amount against this constant and universal practice taught by Pope John II, Pope Benedict XVI and 2,000 years of the Church’s Tradition? His case comes down to one ambiguous footnote (n.351), a private letter that was leaked, and a brief response to a question in an airplane press conference. Mr. Walford’s argument would be laughable if the matter were not so serious. As I have said before, Mr. Walford’s paltry evidence against the aforementioned interventions of the magisterium amount to little more than pelting the Great Wall of China with popcorn.

Mr. Walford sees in Amoris Laetitia an exercise of the Holy Spirit protecting the Church. In this I must agree with Mr. Walford.  However, I believe this is the case for different reasons. Fallible and sinful man that I am, when reflecting on this whole controversy (e.g., the above cited passages from AL, the ambiguity of footnote 351 (305), the Pope’s silence on the dubia, the leaked letter, etc.) it seems pretty clear to me that Francis has not spoken with the “Voice of Peter” to clearly state the faith on these questions precisely because it is the Holy Spirit who won’t let him. I believe the Holy Spirit is protecting the Church – and the Petrine office – as we potentially witness the unfolding of something similar the case of Pope Honorius (see Why the Case of Pope Honorius Matters, Mr. Alt). That is my honest take on the events we are witnessing.

In light of the above, it is passing strange that Mr. Walford writes: “This cynical attempt to force the hand of the Pope…comes from a group that doesn’t really trust in the Holy Spirit.” It is absolutely bizarre for Mr. Walford to claim to defend Pastor Aeturnus on the one hand, and then with the other, to accuse those who want the Pope to authoritatively teach and dispel confusion as being the ones who do not “really trust in the Holy Spirit. I want the Pope to speak with the “Voice of Peter,” to teach authoritatively. Mr. Walford finds that “cynical” – and so he defends the Pope’s silence?  I do trust the Holy Spirit will not let Pope Francis teach in error should Francis attempt to do so with his full authority on this question, and it is because of this Faith that I find it curious the Pope and his surrogates defend papal silence.  Very curious, indeed. Perhaps, it is Mr. Walford who doesn’t trust the Holy Spirit!  Mr. Walford should reread Pastor Aeturnus:

“For the Holy Spirit was promised to the successors of Peter not so that they might, by his revelation, make known some new doctrine, but that, by his assistance, they might religiously guard and faithfully expound the revelation or deposit of faith transmitted by the apostles.”

We are looking and hoping for the Holy Father to “expound.” The Pope should answer the Dubia or respond in the manner prescribed by the “formal correction,” should it come to that (see The Coming Storm).  Let us pray that Pope Francis remembers the Lord’s words to Peter: “Simon, Simon, behold Satan hath desired to have you, that he may sift you like wheat. But I have prayed for thee, that thy faith fail not: and thou being once converted, confirm thy brethren” (Luke 22:31-32).

Steven O’Reilly is a graduate of the University of Dallas and the Georgia Institute of Technology. He lives near Atlanta with his family. He has written apologetic articles and is working on a historical-adventure trilogy, set during the time of the Arian crisis. He asks for your prayers for his intentions.  He can be contacted at StevenOReilly@AOL.com (or follow on Twitter: @S_OReilly_USA)


  1. John Paul II, General Audience, Wednesday 10 March 1993. Retrieved February 16, 2017 from:http://totus2us.com/vocation/jpii-catechesis-on-the-church/the-roman-pontiff-is-the-supreme-teacher/)”
  2. Doctrinal Commentary on the Concluding Formula of the Professio fidei. Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, June 29 1998. (n. 17).  Retrieved February 17, 2017 from Vatican: http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/cfaith/documents/rc_con_cfaith_doc_1998_professio-fidei_en.html
  3. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) under Cardinal Ratzinger, with the approval of the Pope John Paul II, issued a response (Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church Concerning the Reception of Holy Communion by the Divorced and Remarried Members of the Faithful. September 14, 1994). In it, the Cardinal Prefect says in part: “At the same time it (i.e., Familiaris Consortio) confirms and indicates the reasons for theconstant and universal practice, “founded on Sacred Scripture, of not admitting the divorced and remarried to Holy Communion”. The structure of the Exhortation and the tenor of its words give clearly to understand that this practice, which is presented as binding, cannot be modified because of different situations.[ Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church Concerning the Reception of Holy Communion by the Divorced and Remarried Members of the Faithful. September 14, 1994.]




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