Pope Francis has launched the Year of Mercy and so the comments about being merciful are frequent these days. But the pope may have gotten ahead of himself when he said that Jesus needed to ask forgiveness of Joseph and Mary (and only the Remnant seems to have objected):
. . . to give credit where credit is due, the Holy Father said some very fine things in his homily for the Mass of the Holy Family. Indeed, his pronouncements nearly always contain much that is good, true and spiritually helpful. He could surely never have been elected to the highest office on earth if his track record revealed that most of what he said was foolish, mistaken, superficial or heterodox. Nevertheless, it will only take a small drop of venom to make a rich and delicious Christmas cake highly dangerous for your health. Likewise, just one shocking affirmation in a papal homily can make its overall effect deeply unsettling and dangerous for our spiritual health.
In this case, the Pope has said something which makes many of us shudder; for it is something which it is not easy to exculpate, at least at the objective level, from the charge of blasphemy. Intentionally or otherwise, he has spoken words which, taken in their natural, unforced sense, imply that the Son of God himself has committed sin.
Consider these words by which His Holiness, preaching in Italian, commented on the Gospel incident: “We know what Jesus did on that occasion. Instead of returning home with his family, he stayed in Jerusalem, in the Temple, provoking great suffering (provocando una grande pena) to Mary and Joseph, who were unable to find him. For this little ‘escapade’ (questa ‘scappatella’), Jesus probably had to ask forgiveness (dovette chiedere scusa) of his parents. The Gospel doesn’t say this, but I believe that we can presume it.”
That may raise problems for the theologically picky, but Pope Francis has also said that Mary has lots of forgiveness to give since she is the “mother of forgiveness”:
For us, Mary is an icon of how the Church must offer forgiveness to those who seek it. The Mother of forgiveness teaches the Church that the forgiveness granted on Golgotha knows no limits. Neither the law with its quibbles, nor the wisdom of this world with its distinctions, can hold it back. The Church’s forgiveness must be every bit as broad as that offered by Jesus on the Cross and by Mary at his feet. There is no other way. It is for this purpose that the Holy Spirit made the Apostles the effective ministers of forgiveness, so what was obtained by the death of Jesus may reach all men and women in every age (cf. Jn 20:19-23).
For anyone wondering if the pope’s statements might qualify as heretical and so complicate the doctrine of papal infallibility, keep in mind the fine print. In order to define infallibility in a way that made room for the seventh-century pope, Honorius, the Vatican Council had to finesse papal authority (with papal approval, of course):
In order to save infallibility it is better to admit the historical possibility of a heretic Pope, rather than shatter the dogmatic definitions and the anathemas of a Council ratified by a Roman Pontiff. It is common doctrine that the condemnation of the writings of an author is infallible, when the error is anathematized with the note of heresy, whereas, the Ordinary Magisterium of the Church is not always necessarily infallible.
During the First Vatican Council, the Deputation of the Faith confronted the problem by setting out a series of rules of a general character, which are applied not only in the case of Honorius, but in all problems, past or future that may be presented. It is not enough for the Pope to pronounce on a question of faith or customs regarding the universal Church, it is necessary that the decree by the Roman Pontiff is conceived in such a manner as to appear as a solemn and definitive judgment, with the intention of obliging all the faithful to believe (Mansi, LII, coll. 1204-1232). There are, therefore, non-infallible acts of the Ordinary Papal Magisterium, since they are devoid of the necessary defining character: quod ad formam seu modum attinet.
Pope Honorius’ letters are devoid of these characteristics. They are undoubtedly Magisterial acts, but in the non-infallible Ordinary Magisterium there may be errors and even, in exceptional cases, heretical formulations. The Pope can fall into heresy, but cannot ever pronounce a heresy ex- cathedra.
Bottom line, Pope Francis should be okay. Back to your regularly scheduled shrugging.