20. Nor must it be thought that what is expounded in Encyclical Letters does not of itself demand consent, since in writing such Letters the Popes do not exercise the supreme power of their Teaching Authority. For these matters are taught with the ordinary teaching authority, of which it is true to say: “He who heareth you, heareth me”; and generally what is expounded and inculcated in Encyclical Letters already for other reasons appertains to Catholic doctrine. But if the Supreme Pontiffs in their official documents purposely pass judgment on a matter up to that time under dispute, it is obvious that that matter, according to the mind and will of the same Pontiffs, cannot be any longer considered a question open to discussion among theologians. (Humani Generis)
Claudia Carlen, ed., The Papal Encyclicals: 1939–1958 (Ypsilanti, MI: The Pierian Press, 1990), 178.
can. 752† Although not an assent of faith, a religious submission of the intellect and will must be given to a doctrine which the Supreme Pontiff or the college of bishops declares concerning faith or morals when they exercise the authentic magisterium, even if they do not intend to proclaim it by definitive act; therefore, the Christian faithful are to take care to avoid those things which do not agree with it.
can. 753† Although the bishops who are in communion with the head and members of the college, whether individually or joined together in conferences of bishops or in particular councils, do not possess infallibility in teaching, they are authentic teachers and instructors of the faith for the Christian faithful entrusted to their care; the Christian faithful are bound to adhere with religious submission of mind to the authentic magisterium of their bishops.
can. 754† All the Christian faithful are obliged to observe the constitutions and decrees which the legitimate authority of the Church issues in order to propose doctrine and to proscribe erroneous opinions, particularly those which the Roman Pontiff or the college of bishops puts forth.
Code of Canon Law: New English Translation (Washington, DC: Canon Law Society of America, 1998), 247–248.
One error that afflicted modernist dissenters for generations, and is now spreading to critics of Pope Francis is the error that if the Pope does not teach ex cathedra, then what he says might be riddled with error and we don’t have to follow it. This position further claims that only the ex cathedra teachings of the Pope are binding, but we can ignore what the bishops. The problem is, since most of the teachings done by the Church don’t involve ex cathedra declarations, this error amounts to justifying disobedience to whatever teaching or Pope the person wants to ignore.
What this error ignores is the fact that ex cathedra definitions start out as teachings from the Ordinary Magisterium. The infallible definition is only made when the ordinary teaching is denied and needs to be clarified. So the Church infallibly defined Transubstantiation in response to certain individuals rejecting the ordinary magisterium of the Church. So, if the ordinary magisterium of the Church was not binding, then a good number of Church teachings on doctrine and morality would not be binding, and (under this logic) people were “free” to reject these teachings before an Ecumenical Council or a Papal Bull said otherwise.
But the Church, in her wisdom, taught about what the faithful are bound to obey. People forget that the First Vatican Council not only defined the authority of an ex cathedra statement, but also defined that the Pope was to be obeyed under the ordinary magisterium as well:
Hence We teach and declare that by the appointment of our Lord the Roman Church possesses a sovereignty of ordinary power over all other Churches, and that this power of jurisdiction of the Roman Pontiff, which is truly episcopal, is immediate; to which all, of whatsoever rite and dignity, both pastors and faithful, both individually and collectively, are bound, by their duty of hierarchical subordination and true obedience, to submit, not only in matters which belong to faith and morals, but also in those that appertain to the discipline and government of the Church throughout the world; so that the Church of Christ may be one flock under one supreme Pastor, through the preservation of unity, both of communion and of profession of the same faith, with the Roman Pontiff. This is the teaching of Catholic truth, from which no one can deviate without loss of faith and of salvation. (Pastor Æternus, Chapter III)
Vincent McNabb, ed., The Decrees of the Vatican Council (New York: Benziger Brothers, 1907), 40.
That’s actually a serious (and binding) teaching made in an Ecumenical Council presided over by Pope Pius IX. People who refuse submission to the Pope, acting as Pope, risk the loss of faith and salvation. There is nothing in Church teaching that allows the individual Catholic to withhold obedience from the teaching authority of the Pope. It is only when the Pope does not intend to teach, that one is not bound to follow. If the Pope roots for the Falcons, we’re not obliged to do the same. When Benedict XVI published Jesus of Nazareth, this was not teaching binding doctrine. But when Pope Francis issued Laudato Si, he did say that (#15), “It is my hope that this Encyclical Letter, which is now added to the body of the Church’s social teaching, can help us to acknowledge the appeal, immensity and urgency of the challenge we face.”
With this so clear, the only way the dissenter can try to evade it is by trying to impeach the authority of the Pope by accusing him of acting against Our Lord Himself (popular with those who want to accuse the Church of being “merciless” in terms of sexual moral teachings) or against the previous teachings of the Church (popular with those who dislike the Church changing disciplines). One popular tactic is to cite the opinion of St. Robert Bellarmine [†] that, “a Pope who is a manifest heretic, ceases in himself to be Pope and head, just as he ceases in himself to be a Christian and member of the body of the Church: whereby, he can be judged and punished by the Church.” [Ω]
The problem is, we have never had a manifest (proven) heretic Pope. Even Cardinal Burke denies Pope Francis is in heresy. We’ve had two Popes accused of privately holding heresy (Liberius and Honorius), and one Pope (John XXII) who held a personal opinion that had hitherto never been defined but was later condemned by his successor. One could argue from St. Robert Bellarmine (in the forgotten part of his opinion) that this is a sign, “that the Pope cannot be a heretic, and hence would not be deposed in any case: such an opinion is probable, and can easily be defended, as we will show in its proper place.” [§]
So when critics of the Pope argue that they can ignore or reject the Pope if he teaches what they think is error, we see they have made an argument without authority which tries to claim the Pope or bishops who teach what they dislike can be rejected. But as we’ve shown above, the Church does not now nor ever accepted this as valid. To be blunt, these people are living in a fantasy world which can endanger their souls. They think their interpretations must be right and a Pope or bishop who says otherwise must be in error. But it is the Pope and bishops in communion with him who have the authority to interpret Scripture and Tradition and apply it to the problems of today. We trust that God protects His Church from teaching error in matters we are bound to obey. Otherwise we would be caught in a paradox—being forced to obey the Church (Luke 10:16, Matthew 18:17) in disobeying Our Lord by His own command.
I find it far more reasonable to believe that God protects His Church, under the stewardship of the Pope, from teaching error than to believe that He reneged on His promise to be with His Church always (Matthew 28:20) and to protect it (Matthew 16:18-19) after Vatican II or after Pope Francis was elected Pope. That may involve the Holy Spirit dissuading a bad Pope from teaching at all.
But the rebellion against the Ordinary Magisterium of the Church when the Church intends to teach is dangerous. Whether it is based on ignorance or obstinacy, we will have to account for why we did not obey the Church and chose to trust in ourselves instead of Him when Our Lord Himself declared the Church necessary.
[†] For a more in depth analysis of St. Robert Bellarmine that I wrote, see HERE.
[Ω] Bellarmine, Robert (2015-05-22). On the Roman Pontiff (De Controversiis Book 1) (p. 309). Mediatrix Press. Kindle Edition. It should be noted that the term “true opinion” does not mean “fact.” It means an opinion reached through valid reasoning.
[§] Bellarmine, Robert (2015-05-22). On the Roman Pontiff (De Controversiis Book 1) (p. 304). Mediatrix Press. Kindle Edition. The saint goes on to say that the opinions that a Pope can be deposed for heresy can only be considered if this view is false. But he just said he considers this view probable and easily defended. So the rest is more of a theoretical exercise.