Q. The theory that the popes of the Catholic Church are infallible is ridiculous because history records that several popes have been evil. How can you Catholics go on believing popes are infallible in the face of the historical evidence to the contrary?
A. First let me agree with you that there have been some evil popes in the history of the Church. And if they did not repent before their death there may even be some popes in Hell. But it is common to misunderstand. The Church does not mean, when she claims that the pope is infallible, that we believe the pope is sinless or impeccable. Absolutely not. Jesus and Mary were sinless but the Church has never claimed or even pretended that our popes are sinless. They go to confession at least once a week if not more often.
What the Church means by infallible is a very narrow and closely defined dogma.
The pope is infallible, only when he is:
1. Teaching about faith and morals to the whole Church.
2. We believe that God protects His Church from error and heresy by graciously preventing the pope from ever teaching error regarding faith and morals.
3. This does not mean he is infallible in private teaching, conversations or balancing his checkbook.
Some people might think that the Dogma of the Infallibility of the Pope means that the pope is always hearing messages from God that he then passes on to the whole church. While this might, at times, occur with a very holy pope that is not what we mean. Infallibility works to prevent false teaching. The pope must study and learn in the ordinary way and the Holy Spirit guides him into teaching nothing but the truth.
So, when by the wiles of Satan a godless or worldly pope is installed, the Holy Spirit would prevent that pope from teaching error to the whole church through letters, encyclicals etc. That sort of pope would effectively be silenced by the Holy Spirit in order to protect the truth of the Catholic Faith.
CCC 889 In order to preserve the Church in the purity of the faith handed on by the apostles, Christ who is the Truth willed to confer on her a share in his own infallibility. By a “supernatural sense of faith” the People of God, under the guidance of the Church’s living Magisterium, “unfailingly adheres to this faith.”417
890 The mission of the Magisterium is linked to the definitive nature of the covenant established by God with his people in Christ. It is this Magisterium’s task to preserve God’s people from deviations and defections and to guarantee them the objective possibility of professing the true faith without error. Thus, the pastoral duty of the Magisterium is aimed at seeing to it that the People of God abides in the truth that liberates. To fulfill this service, Christ endowed the Church’s shepherds with the charism of infallibility in matters of faith and morals. The exercise of this charism takes several forms:
891 “The Roman Pontiff, head of the college of bishops, enjoys this infallibility in virtue of his office, when, as supreme pastor and teacher of all the faithful – who confirms his brethren in the faith he proclaims by a definitive act a doctrine pertaining to faith or morals. . . . The infallibility promised to the Church is also present in the body of bishops when, together with Peter’s successor, they exercise the supreme Magisterium,” above all in an Ecumenical Council.418 When the Church through its supreme Magisterium proposes a doctrine “for belief as being divinely revealed,”419 and as the teaching of Christ, the definitions “must be adhered to with the obedience of faith.”420 This infallibility extends as far as the deposit of divine Revelation itself.421