Frank Sheed on Church Teachings

We hear much discussion of late about church teaching, especially with regard to marital issues, and whether statements of the Pope violate classical norms. Cardinals issue their doubts; sixty theologians inaugurate what they call “fraternal correction” over a list of seven statements concerning marriage, found largely in Amoris Laetitiae, about divorce and communion. Others bring up discussions found in Bellarmine, Suarez, and Molina about what procedures are possible if a heretical pope does, in fact, show up. The general conclusion is that it is not likely that there will be a heretical pope. But if one shows up, he would cease to be pope at the instant he officially pronounced as true a clearly heretical position. Just who might make such a decision is not always clear, especially if a heretical pope did not grant that he was heretical. (For a general overview, see Edward Peters, “A Canonical Primer on Popes and Heresy,” Catholic World Report, December 16, 2016).

Back in 1933, Frank Sheed wrote a very concise and inspiring book entitled, A Map of Life. This book was reissued in 2016, by the Martino Publishing Company. Chapter Seven of this book is entitled: “Truth: The Teaching Church.” It is worth taking a look at what Sheed, the eloquent Australian publisher and philosopher, had to say on the topic of whether the teaching Church could err. Sheed’s account provides a good survey of what most Catholics, some eighty-five years before our time, thought on this lively topic.

The first thing to notice is that the whole discussion falls under the more general consideration of truth. The Catholic Church presents itself as a speaker of truth from whatever source. This truth it speaks is derived from revelation, but it also must relate to reason. If the two were intrinsically incompatible, no such thing as Catholicism could survive. In this understanding, the source of truth, whether from reason or revelation, is in the divine reality, usually referred to as a mystery. Right away, Sheed makes an important point: “As used by theologians, the word (mystery) does not mean a truth of which we can know nothing: it means a truth of which we cannot know everything.” Revelation was not designed to relieve us from the burden and delight of thinking for ourselves. Its effect, when thought out, makes us think better, more clearly, and more precisely than we would without it.

Revelation does not tell us everything we can know about God. We can figure out some few important things by our own reason. Revelation presupposes that we seek to know by our own powers what we can of the meaning of man, the world, and God. We are not supposed to be inert duds unaware of, and unpracticed in, the fine art of thinking.

We need to know the Scriptural sources of what is claimed to be revealed to us, basically the Old Testament, the Gospels, Acts, the letters of Paul, and the other Apostles. Once we know basically what the early Church held, what was revealed to it, we can then think about it, draw it out, and see more clearly what it means. This process has generally been called since Newman, “the development of doctrine.” We are supposed to confront the logic of what is revealed to us. How does it relate to what we can grasp by our own rational powers?

In the case of the Church, this “development” involves two things—(1) thinking about what is handed down, and (2) “the overruling protection of God” to assure us that the truth, as handed down, remains stable and active among us. In science, progress comes by making mistakes, then correcting them. In Church teaching, “God intervenes to prevent the teaching of error by His Church.” God is not trying to save us from the complexities of thinking. God does not interfere “to save men the trouble of doing what they can very well do for themselves.” God has revealed certain things that we could not figure out by ourselves. But once given, we are to seek to understand what the revealed fact could mean. Again, God does not do man’s thinking for him. He created men so that they would understand, not just repeat by rote, something about the meaning of which they had no clue.

The teaching found in the Church comes from the Apostles and their successors, the bishops. We may think that God might have come up with a better way. But the way He came up with, for better or worse, is the one that was set up. This divine “plan”, as Paul called it, was itself an issue for us to think about. Sheed then adds: “The bishops are the teaching body of the Church. Therefore, since God will not have His Church taught (sic) error as to His doctrine, He will not allow the bishops to teach error.” In the light of actual history, Sheed modifies this strong statement a bit: “This or that bishop, or group of bishops, may give wrong teaching in theology. But what is taught by bishops as a body cannot be wrong.” When some things still are not clear, a General Council—that is, the whole body of bishops—might be called to settle the issue. “Once we do know what the bishops as a body teach, we know the certain truth, for their teaching is guaranteed by God.”

So in 1933, in this manner, Frank Sheed summarized the teaching Church’s authority, and located the responsibility for preserving the truth as handed down. “The bishops as a body are not allowed by God to teach what is wrong on matters of faith or morals revealed by Him: this is what we mean when we say they are infallible.” Much of the world will, no doubt, find this to be hard doctrine. It seems to be contrary to freedom. But, as posed, it essentially means that God remains free to inform us of some things that we need to know for our own good. It is important for us to know that what we are asked to hold is from God. It not just made up by men. Our freedom to believe what is true is guaranteed by God through the bishops as the truth originally handed down. We would not be fully free if we could not listen to, and know what was handed down, about God’s ways for human beings.

But Sheed added that there was a second way that this infallibility was guaranteed. That is through the Office of the Bishop of Rome. Christ always remains head of the Church. The Pope is conceived of as His vicar, or representative, on Earth. In an interesting footnote, Sheed considers the question of the personal effects of this office on the man who holds it. On the man’s personal status, infallibility has no necessary effect at all. His infallibility exists not for his own sake, but for ours…. It does not make virtue easier for him, or sin less attractive. It does not, therefore, make the salvation of his soul any easier. It is simply a way in which God uses him for the preservation of the truth. And it does not affect his character, so it does not arise from it. If by chance a bad man is Pope, it is just as necessary for us that he should be prevented from teaching error, and just as easy for God to prevent him.

This passage is most illuminating. It might be well that we have philosophical, artistic, literary, or holy popes—ones with pleasing personalities. But whether a given pope is personally good or bad, bright or dull, charming or boorish, makes no difference to the point being made here, namely that infallibility depends on God, not on the virtue, vice, or character of a given pope.

Sheed next tells us that “throughout the ages, there has never ceased to be a stream of solid thinking on theology.” Theology is “the thinking of men” about what has been revealed. Thus, this thinking might clarify things, but it can err also. How do we know? If true, we may adopt it. But if it is false, Sheed affirms, “God does not allow them (the bishops) to adopt it and teach it.” But reasons should be given for why any errors are errors. This need to explain what is in error “leads to a closer examination, and thus, to a better understanding of the doctrine at issue.” Again, here we see the positive use of error as an occasion for thinking correctly.

Then the bishops, as a body, or the Pope, decides this decision is “final”. Thus, “God does not allow them (pope and bishops together) to teach His Church what is wrong.” It is important to understand that God does not allow new (that is, basically different) teachings or doctrines. For any new insights, “they must use their minds in the ordinary way of man.” Thus, theology and Church authority are given to us to assist us in understanding more completely something we may not fully grasp from reading Scripture itself, though that is basic. A new way of expressing God’s inner life, the “Trinity,” say three persons in one divine nature is not contrary to, but based in, the ways Christ spoke of His Father, of Himself, and of the “Holy Ghost,” as Sheed still called it in 1933. What God does, however, is to prevent “falsehood to be taught by them (pope and bishops assembled).”

In the light of today’s discussions about papal teachings, Sheed next made a most interesting comparison. The ordinary man, he tells us, in his affirmations can speak what is true, or he can speak what is wrong, or finally he can be silent. “The infallible man has only two (choices). He is prevented by God from saying what is wrong.” Where does this leave him? He either speaks “what is right if he knows it is right” or he remains silent. “A pope does not necessarily by some miracle know the whole of Catholic doctrine, the answer to every doctrinal question that could be raised.” To assume otherwise would give a pope divine powers directly.

Sheed then recalls that he is “concerned with the human machinery, so to speak, of infallibility.” I recall that Belloc, in The Path to Rome, remarked somewhere that as we grow older, we become more and more concerned with “the human machinery of the supernatural Church.” God knows, in other words, of the limits of given popes. Sheed adds that what a pope “does not know, he cannot teach.” In any case, “he cannot teach what is wrong: for God will not let him, lest we, the members of the Church, be led into error.” To this discussion, Sheed added one more point. Whether a doctrine is easy or difficult, we believe it, not because of its ease or difficulty, but because this is what is taught, difficult or easy. The key point to be drawn from Sheed’s discussion is that a pope who might teach what is in error will somehow be kept silent.

Earlier discussions of papal infallibility in Bellarmine and Suarez have granted that a pope might actually be heretical. Thus, there is some canonical and dogmatic reflection on what to do if this situation, in fact, proves to be the case. Who is competent to judge? What is to be done? Sheed’s view, in 1933, seemed to be that it could not happen that a pope would actually teach heresy in some official manner. We do have cases of pope’s having private opinions that are not orthodox, and other discussions about what exactly a pope may have meant if something appears irregular.

The value of rereading Sheed’s earlier discussion, I think, is his confidence that God would not allow a pope officially to teach error in a matter of faith and morals, even if he did hold it. The recent discussions over Amoris Laetitiae are indeed posed in terms of apparent heresy, particularly with regard to Christ’s admonition about divorce, and its consequences. It is interesting, in the light of Sheed’s commentary, to notice that when questions of doctrinal consistence are posed in very precise terms, we do not, thus far, have answers forthcoming, but we do have silence, exactly as Sheed surmised.

What we do have now, as practically everyone has noticed, are single bishops, and groups of bishops, in different dioceses, teaching the opposite things about marital questions in such a way that both sides cannot be right. If the Church teaches one thing in one diocese, and its opposite in another—something Pius XII warned that should not happen—the central purpose of a consistent and abiding revelation is called into question. This result leads to a deeper question that silence as such cannot answer. The episcopal and papal offices also were designed to bring forth judgments when needed.

Fr. James V. Schall, SJ About Fr. James V. Schall, SJ

Fr. James Schall, SJ (1928–2019), was long a professor of political science at Georgetown University, a thinker of wide learning, and an author extensively published — including, happily, here at HPR.


  1. Avatar Vicky Gordon says:

    Interestingly, I recently read that in regard to troubling questions of the
    transmission of the faith in truth, the duties of the priest and those of the Catholic in the pew are different and inverse from one another. It is the duty of the lay Catholic to uphold the faith at all costs and if necessary to make their voices collectively heard (witness St. Catherine of Siena who as a woman in her twenties rebuked the Pope of her time), whereas the priest has first to be loyal to the Pope and must hold that position until there is no doubt that a line has been crossed. And that duty of the priest in the ranks differs yet again from the College of Cardinals and the bishops since they share a cooperative function with the Pope in governing the Church.

  2. Avatar Ed Hummel says:

    What Fr. Shall seems to give us with this article, is an introduction to a much longer article which is not yet written. I would bid him relate for us some of the troubling statements of Pope Francis and apply the points he and Frank Sheed made in a continuance of this beautiful article.