While reading this Guide it is important to keep in mind that the citations used will differ in rank with respect to authority. There are papal addresses, encyclicals and council documents, as well as the occasional work produced by conferences of bishops such as the USCCB. Even within council documents there are varying degrees of authority between constitutions, declarations, and decrees.
While it would be possible to elaborate on the binding force of each type of document, detailing the degree of assent demanded from the believer who wishes to remain in good standing, we choose not to dwell on that subject here. Instead, we’ll simply quote from the popes themselves in order to show that the criticism leveled at Pope Francis today is usually exaggerated. No, the pope is not infallible in everything he says, a point humorously illustrated by Cardinal Gibbons who recounted how the pope once called him “Jibbons,” obviously a silly mistake. Rather, the office of the pope and the gravity that goes along with such a role means simply that when the pope speaks, he ought to receive our earnest attention.
This is suggested even from the words of Christ, who said: “I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail.”
We are all familiar with the doctrine of infallibility, of course. And we all know that this only applies in very specific situations and to certain kinds of statements. But what does this means for statements and acts which fall outside those narrow limits? Do these all fall within the category of “take it or leave it”? Not if we are to believe Francis’ predecessors.
Pope St. John Paul II, for example, said that:
“Alongside this infallibility of ex cathedra definitions, there is the charism of the Holy Spirit’s assistance, granted to Peter and his successors so that they would not err in matters of faith and morals, but rather shed great light on the Christian people. This charism is not limited to exceptional cases.”
And elsewhere he quoted Pope Innocent III, saying “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.”
At this point, the pundits and armchair theologians of today will be quick to tell us that there is still a distinction to be made between the “private opinions” of the popes and those teachings which are properly “magisterial.” We must agree that this is true. But even so, it would be wrong to assume that, just because not all of the words of a Successor of Peter are infallible, we can therefore ignore them with impunity. That is to say, a statement of a pope need not be binding in order for us to be morally obligated as believers to take it into account in our deliberations.
The pope may err, but he will never, even as a private person, become a public heretic. He is the head shepherd of the Church, and in that sense nothing he teaches can be considered “irrelevant” to his flock.
Pius XII was clear on the matter:
“Whatever may be the name, the face, the human origins of any Pope, it is always Peter who lives in him; it is Peter who rules and governs; it is Peter above all, who teaches and diffuses over the world the light of liberating truth.”
And Blessed Pius IX suggests that what we have said about the submission owed to the pope is likewise true about our submission owed to the Teaching Church as a whole, beyond those few points which are “officially infallible”:
“Even when it is only a question of the submission owed to divine faith, this cannot be limited merely to points defined by the express decrees of the Ecumenical Councils, or of the Roman Pontiffs and of this Apostolic See; this submission must also be extended to all that has been handed down as divinely revealed by the ordinary teaching authority of the entire Church spread over the whole world.”
“I adhere with religious submission of will and intellect to the teachings which either the Roman Pontiff or the College of Bishops enunciate when they exercise their authentic Magisterium, even if they do not intend to proclaim these teachings by a definitive act [cf. Canon 752, CCC 892].”
To conclude with the words of St. Ambrose, which summarize the whole matter: “Where Peter is, there is the Church. Where the Church is, there is no death but life eternal.”
With these words recounted, we will move on to other subjects without pressing the matter. The reason for this can be found in the social conditions prevalent in our era. We have already hinted above at these conditions. Within modern liberal-democratic regimes such as the United States, the social mind tends to be preoccupied with freedomfrom religious authority, rather than with dutytoward it.
The result is that appeals to authority, whether legitimate or not, fail to exert any force whatsoever on contemporary audiences. Listeners instinctively turn against any claims on their conscience which are not chosen solely by themselves. The principle of docility, or the suggestion that a person can and should adopt an attitude of submission toward the pope while still retaining his or her dignity, simply does not resonate in cultures where each person is assured, from the cradle to the grave, that there is no higher authority than his own reason or preference, and that he owes obedience to no one.
Thus, we have judged it prudent in this Guide to pass over an examination of the binding nature of certain documents, proceeding on to the teachings themselves in hopes that, although we will make no attempt to prove their varying degrees of authority, the reader will be sufficiently interested in the doctrines that he will explore the matter himself.
Moreover, by openly avoiding the legalistic paradigm of what one must and must not believe, we are able to outline the body of social teachings more comprehensively, because much of it consists, not in laying out what the church demands, but, as we said above, in indicating the lofty ideal for which it hopes, and after which we are obliged, as lovers of Christ, to strive.
 This is why St. Alphonsus Liguori, referencing St. Robert Bellarmine, said that: “We ought rightly to presume as Cardinal Bellarmine declares, that God will never let it happen that a Roman Pontiff, even as a private person, becomes a public heretic or an occult heretic.”