The old joke about Pope St John Paul II – referring to his time as a keen footballer – went: “He’s a goalkeeper and he’s infallible. How is that fair?” But confusions about infallibility go further than that. Most Catholics have been asked by Protestant or atheist friends what would happen if the Pope suddenly announced that some doctrine was false. Even some Catholics have an expansive view of the Pope’s role – I have seen someone tell other believers that “only the Pope can change dogma”.

In a speech last week which made waves, the distinguished theologian Fr Aidan Nichols observed that papal infallibility does not mean a pope cannot make “doctrinal howlers”. And therefore, Fr Nichols went on, canon law could include a procedure to correct such mistakes.

The prompt for Fr Nichols’s intervention was, of course, Amoris Laetitia, that sprawling, multifaceted, enigmatic papal exhortation. And he is not the first thinker to express concerns about its contents – in particular, its much-debated statements about marriage, Communion for the divorced and remarried, and the moral law.

Fr Nichols was one of 45 priests and theologians who last year asked the College of Cardinals to ask Pope Francis for a clarification. Germain Grisez and John Finnis, two well-known philosophers, have made a similar request. So has the Confraternity of Catholic Clergy, and the international Filial Appeal, signed by 35,000 Catholics including 10 bishops. And so, of course, have the four dubia cardinals (now three since the death of Cardinal Meisner).

What is new about Fr Nichols’s intervention is, first, that he does not speak of ambiguity but error. The other appeals just said that Amoris Laetitia was too vague on some points, and that these points should be restated. And some say these appeals are based on a misapprehension: Amoris Laetitia just restates Church teaching, they argue.

But Fr Nichols seems to believe Amoris Laetitia may just be erroneous. This is partly because of reports that the Pope ignored the amendments suggested by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Moreover, the Vatican (apparently with the Pope’s blessing) congratulated the Maltese bishops on their highly controversial guidelines, which said that in some cases avoiding adultery might be “impossible”.

​How to continue reading…

This article appears in the Catholic Herald magazine - to read it in full subscribe to our digital edition from just 30p a week

The Catholic Herald is your essential weekly guide to the Catholic world; latest news, incisive opinion, expert analysis and spiritual reflection