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Battling the Papal Rumor Net

Jimmy Akin

Every apologist quickly learns that there are a lot of people making sketchy claims about what popes have said.

Sometimes it’s the current pope. Sometimes it’s a pope from long ago. Sometimes it concerns a doctrinal matter. Sometimes it concerns a practice.

Sometimes they want you to believe and embrace whatever the pope allegedly said. Sometimes they want you to infer the claim is so absurd that the Catholic Faith must not be true.

Whatever the case, the phenomenon of people making sketchy claims about what popes have said is real—and widespread. I call it the papal rumor net.

Whenever you encounter it, there are a series of questions you can ask that will help you get past the rumors.

Question 1: What’s your source?

Just because somebody tells you something, that doesn’t oblige you to believe it. If somebody wants you to believe something—no matter what the topic—the burden of proof is on him, not you.

This is particularly true when dealing with an area known to be infested by rumors, half-truths, and outright falsehoods—which, unfortunately, is what the papal rumor net is. Therefore, if somebody wants you to believe that a pope said something, the first thing to do is ask what his source is.

Often the answer may be remarkably unsatisfying: “I don’t know.” “Everybody knows this.” “I’ve always heard this.” “Somebody told me this.” “I think I read an article somewhere.”

None of these are good answers. And none of them impose a burden on you to believe the claim. So you may want to ask another question.

Question 2: Why don’t you get back to me when you have a source?

Just as you don’t bear the burden of proof when someone else claims something, you also don’t bear the burden of research. If someone wants you to believe something, it’s his job to come up with evidence for the claim. So don’t think that you need to drop everything to see whether there is a source for the claim.

If you happen to have time, if the subject strikes your fancy, or if you sense that you could do significant good (e.g., helping clear up a problem for a sincere, open-minded inquirer), you might decide to do some research on the question.

But that’s not your responsibility—particularly if the person making the claim is hostile or otherwise closed-minded.

In those cases, you’re entitled to say, “Tell you what: why don’t you do some research and try to find a source—preferably a primary source. If you do, let me know, and we can examine it together.”

Question 3: Is the source authentic?

If the person does have a source, the next step is to determine if it is authentic, because in the past 2,000 years there have been papal misattributions, hoaxes, and forgeries.

For example, there is an ancient Christian document known as 2 Clement. For a long time, it was regarded as a letter written to the church at Corinth by Pope St. Clement I, who reigned in the late first century.

However, scholars today generally believe that it was not written by him and that it’s an ancient Christian homily by an unknown author who lived in the early second century. Apparently, at some point, it was accidentally attributed to Clement I.

There have been deliberate hoaxes as well. In recent years, there have been several cases where “news parody” websites have run stories claiming to report what the pope said, when in fact he said nothing of the kind.

They do this kind of thing—ostensibly—for humor’s sake. But some of these sites take such pains to make their stories look like they are serious that it seems the only “humor” involved is the amusement the creators of the sites get by hoodwinking people into believing their parodies.

These websites are a modern phenomenon, but a similar kind of hoax is found in older anti-Catholic literature. Back in the days before people could quickly look stuff up on the Internet, it was easier to simply make up a papal quote, and sometimes authors who were hostile to the Church would do this for polemical purposes.

Sometimes entire documents would be forged and attributed to a pope, and this wasn’t always done by people who were enemies of the Church. Sometimes it was done by people who were part of the Church and who wanted to bolster its claims.

A famous example is a ninth-century author who went by the name Isidore Mercator. He released a collection of forged papal letters (some of which contained authentic material) that are now known as the pseudo-Isidorian Decretals or, more commonly, the False Decretals.

While misattributions, hoaxes, and forgeries may not be the norm, it’s important to keep in mind that a proposed source may not be authentic. If you suspect that it’s not, you should check it out.

Question 4: What kind of source is this?

If a source is authentic, it’s important to note what kind of source it is. There are two basic kinds: primary sources and secondary sources.

For our purposes, a primary source is something that directly presents the words of the pope in their original context.

Examples include copies of papal bulls, encyclicals, audiences, and speeches. They also include audio and video recordings of interviews with the pope that have not been edited to tinker with the context of what the pope said.

Anything else, for our purposes, is a secondary source.

Question 5: How reliable is the source?

Sources have a wide range of reliability. Obviously, primary sources are what you want, because they’re the words of the pope himself, in context. While there might still be problems how the pope’s words were translated, if you’ve got a primary source, you’re usually in a good position to evaluate the claim with which you’ve been presented.

On the other hand, if you have a secondary source, you may have real problems.

At one end of the spectrum, there are claims people make on Facebook or other online forums. Frequently, they don’t bother citing a source. They just throw the claim out there.

In such situations, there is often no way to investigate, and we should give such declarations little weight. Often, an appropriate response is, “Sorry, but I need a better source than that.”

At the other end of the spectrum of secondary sources are things written by scholars and put out by academic presses. These carry much more weight than something someone said on Facebook.

However, even here you need to be cautious, because scholars aren’t always correct. This is particularly the case when they’re writing outside their field of expertise (see sidebar p. x).

Between these two extremes there are sources with greater or lesser degrees of credibility. Some key questions to ask when evaluating them are:

  1. How many of the pope’s original words and their context are being given?
  2. How much bias does this source display?
  3. How much overall reliability does this source have?

In general, though, your goal should be to get back behind a secondary source and find a primary one. Without that, you can’t be sure what a pope said.

Question 6: Does this involve a doctrine or something else?

Once you have the text of what a pope said, one of the most basic questions to ask is whether it deals with a matter of doctrine or something else.

This is important because people often assume that everything a pope says is a teaching of the Church.

This is not the case. In any given statement, a pope may be doing any number of things besides teaching. He may, for example, be:

  • Establishing a rule for Catholics to follow as a matter of Church law
  • Praying to God or praising God, as when he celebrates the liturgy
  • Discussing the history of something
  • Expressing appreciation for something
  • Providing advice or counsel
  • Giving an opinion

In none of these matters is a pope teaching. He thus is not establishing Church doctrine when he does these things. What he says may reflect Church doctrines. Thus, when he establishes a Church law, that law may be based on underlying doctrinal or moral principles.

For example, the Church’s laws regarding fast and abstinence from meat reflect the fact that we should on occasion deny ourselves as a way of building self-control and expressing regret for our sins. It would be a mistake, however, to say that the Church teaches that it’s a matter of divine law that we fast and abstain at certain times. That’s not the case.

Question 7: What level of authority does the statement have?

In addition to establishing the nature of a papal statement, one needs to establish the level of authority it is meant to have.

Here again an error is commonly made: assuming everything a pope says is infallible.

It’s rare that a pope makes an infallible statement. When he does so, he typically uses a phrase like “we declare and define.” If these words are not present, one should assume that a statement is not infallible.

According to the Code of Canon Law, “No doctrine is understood as defined infallibly unless this is manifestly evident” (can. 749 §3).

Just because a doctrine isn’t infallible doesn’t mean that it’s not binding, though. Even when the pope doesn’t speak infallibly, if the pope articulates a matter of doctrine as part of his ordinary teaching, the faithful “are to adhere to it with religious assent” (Catechism of the Catholic Church 892).

A papal teaching can have a spectrum of levels of authority, and although the way to determine these goes beyond the scope of this article, it’s important to note that sometimes a pope may not invest a statement with authority. Popes are free to express matters of opinion without making them matters of Church teaching. This often happens, for example, when a pope gives an interview with the press.

Question 8: Does the statement still apply?

Even if a papal statement was made authoritatively, there is still the question of whether it applies today. This is true of both statements of doctrine and statements of law.

The Holy Spirit guides the Church in a way that produces doctrinal development. As a result, earlier papal statements on doctrine can be superseded by later ones. Infallible statements of doctrine don’t change, but non-infallible ones can.

Similarly, using the power of the keys given to govern the Church (Matt. 16:19), the pope periodically modifies Church law to better suit contemporary conditions (e.g., changing the laws regarding fast and abstinence to better fit modern society).

Doctrinal and legal changes can occur in more than one way. First, a pope may directly revoke a previous papal statement. This happens most commonly when a pope changes the law.

Second, a pope may issue a new statement that supersedes a previous one even though he doesn’t refer to the prior statement. This is more common in matters of doctrine than in law.

Third, popes may simply allow a statement of doctrine or law to lose its force by not repeating it for a long period of time, allowing it to fall into disuse or what scholars call “desuetude.”

Whatever mechanism popes choose to accomplish such changes, the fact they occur means that you can’t simply take a papal statement from centuries ago and assume that it applies today. You must look at more recent Church teaching and law if you want to know what applies now.

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