25 April 2004
This widely misunderstood teaching does not guarantee that the Pope will always be correct in his pronouncements; the horrible crimes of the Renaissance popes would refute that idea all by themselves. What it does is to indemnify the faithful against any errors they might commit by following papal teaching. If the Pope can be wrong, he is nevertheless Christ's designated vicar on Earth; one cannot be held to account for taking his statements as morally authoritative.
This is not, so far as I know, what spurred Tom Lehrer to intone, "Do whatever steps you want if / You have cleared them with the Pontiff." And I'm reasonably certain Sister Mary Discipline never explained it quite this way.
Although actual pronouncements which were claimed to be infallible, says Porretto, have only been issued twice in two thousand years, certain aspects of the doctrine still provoke controversy. As a practical matter, though, if you ever have a run-in with an individual who is Never, Ever Wrong, it's far more likely to be someone at work than someone in the Vatican.