Are the bishops and the Pope infallibile when they issue practical, pastoral decrees?
The matter we touch on is organically connected with the issue of the magisterium. We have seen how the Spirit protects the college of bishops or the pope speaking in the name of the whole college; through his providence, he prevents them from error when they solemnly authenticate a point of doctrine. But what about practical decisions by popes and bishops? How far are they guided and protected by the Spirit in matters prudential?
Before answering those questions, let us make one point clear: no amount of human imprudence or neglect on the part of anyone can ever destroy the fundamental orientation and the actual progress of the church toward the fullness of the Kingdom of God; that much the Spirit guarantees. The good news will be announced to the end of time.
Once this is clear, we can return to our initial questions. The answer is that the pope and the episcopal college have been granted the charism of infallibility in matters of doctrine, but they have not been guaranteed the highest degree of prudence in matters of practical policy. There is nothing new in this statement for those who are familiar with the history of the church.
There is a difference between seeing the truth, and reaching out for a value. Truth is one and indivisible, either we surrender to it or not. Prudence has degrees, and history proves amply what theology knows in theory: popes and bishops can fail in reaching its highest degree; in fact they can fail to act prudently altogether.
This statement, however, needs immediate qualifications. It is not to say that the Spirit cannot guide those in the episcopal order in practical matters; he certainly can and he certainly does. But there is no guarantee of indefectibility in matters of prudence. Not even when a great solemnity surrounds the decision, as happened (to quote an example) when Pope Urban II 1aunched the first crusade at Clermont in 1095. It follows that the practical decisions and actions of the popes and bishops are legitimate subject matter for evaluation. In fact, such evaluations have been done on an immense scale by historians; all one has to do is to read Pastors well known History of the Popes, highly praised by many popes.
Often, there is an illegitimate transfer, perhaps inadvertently. The rules concerning obsequium in the case of teaching are transferred to practical decisions, and the same intellectual respect or submission is required and given to a practical decision which is due to doctrinal proclamations only.
From all this, an important consequence follows: in merely practical matters, the episcopate ought to be advised, protected and controlled not only because of human frailty, but also for theological reasons; prudence in practical decisions and actions is not guaranteed by the Spirit. The official documents of the church may not stress this doctrine, but canon law is certainly mindful of it. For instance, in every diocese there must be a financial committee (see canons 492 - 494) which has far-ranging powers to prevent the bishop from making mistakes, including the right to stop him from making unsound transactions.
From: The Church: Learning and Teaching, by Ladislas Örsy, Michael Glazier 1987, chapter 2. Read the whole chapter here.
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