Skip to comments.When Does the Pope Speak Infallibly? [Catholic Caucus]
Posted on 02/18/2011 2:44:51 PM PST by NYer
Q: There was a lecture at our parish and the guest-speaker said something in passing about the Pope making infallible decisions. He claimed that it has only happened twice in history! Do you know what he was talking about? I dont know if this is even a canon-law question or not… Kay
A: This is indeed a canon-law question, since canon law (as we have seen numerous times before in this space) is driven by theology. Whenever an issue arises about who in the Church has the authority to do what, its generally safe to assume that canon law is involved.
As surprising as it may seem, the speaker whom Kay mentions was correct. The Catholic teaching about papal infallibility is so thoroughly misunderstoodespecially by non-Catholics with a hearty dislike for our Churchthat some of the erroneous ideas that one encounters might almost be entertaining, if their absurdity didnt at the same time reveal such sad misconceptions about the authority which the Pope really has.
Many, if not most Catholics have heard statements like, the Pope cannot err in matters of faith and morals or the Pope is infallible when he speaks ex cathedra. These statements are absolutely true, and simply restate in different ways the Churchs teaching on this subject, which is also contained in the code. But how many people really understand what they meanand at the same time, what they dont mean? Lets take a look first at what the code says on this subject, and at the history behind the law; then we can address Kays specific question.
Canon 749.1  says that by virtue of his office, the Supreme Pontiff teaches infallibly when he proclaims, by a definitive act, a doctrine to be held concerning faith or morals. This sounds like a lot of power, and it is! But the canon is worded very carefully, to show the specific context within with it applies, and we need to unpack it to fully understand its limitations.
First of all, nothing is ever proclaimed infallibly if it does not pertain to faith or morals. The Pope, who routinely comments publicly on current events, constantly makes statements which do not fit this description. Just recently, in fact, the Pope made some public statements about social networking and the use of Facebook . No doubt the Pope checked his facts and educated himself about this phenomenon before speaking publicly about it, and thus we Catholics should of course listen attentively and respectfully to what he has to saybut there is nothing infallible about his comments, because they do not directly address an issue of faith or morals. Thus it is quite possible that the Pope may have made a mistake in his remarks: he could have made a factual error, like getting a date or a statistic wrong; or he might have overlooked some aspect of social networking which he understandably knows nothing about. The point is, on such issues the Pope is a mere mortal like anyone else, and we Catholics are certainly not required to accept everything he said about Facebook as infallible!
Secondly, the canon indicates that when the Pope speaks about doctrinal matters, he does not speak infallibly when he does not intend to. For example, many Catholics are familiar with Pope Benedicts book, Jesus of Nazareth . Since the book deals directly with many aspects of Christs life on earth which pertain directly to Catholic teachings, it was assumed by many that the content of the book was infallible. But the Pope specifically stated at the beginning of the book that it was not to be regarded as an exercise of papal infallibility, but rather expressed his own personal search for the face of the Lord. Nowhere in the book do we find Pope Benedict proclaiming that anything he is writing must be held by all Catholics everywhere. The Pope did not write the book in order to proclaim anything infallibly, and so it is not infallibleits as simple as that. And its fortunate that he explained this to everyone in advance, because readers quickly found a factual mistake in the text , showing the world what Benedict himself already knows full well: he is human and thus subject to human error.
This is, incidentally, how the term ex cathedra fits into the whole equation. The Latin phrase, which means from the throne, is intended to mean that the Pope is speaking in a deliberately formal, official way, exercising his power as the Vicar of Christ, seated on the chair of Peter, the first Pope. It is, of course, a metaphor, but its point is that when the Pope intentionally speaks in a definitive way on a dogmatic issue, he is being guided by the Holy Spirit and thus he cannot err.
We can thus see why that the vast majority of papal statements and writings are not infallible pronouncements. Still, we Catholics know that throughout the past 2000 years, there have certainly been many official papal statements on doctrinal matters. So how is it possible that, as the speaker at Kays parish rightly said, it has only happened twice that the Pope has spoken infallibly?
The answer to this seeming contradiction lies in the relatively short history behind the precise wording of canon 749.1. The fact is, the Catholic Church has accepted from time immemorial the general notion that the Pope, as Vicar of Christ on earth, cannot lead the Church into error. Since Christ Himself told Saint Peter, Thou art Peter, and upon this Rock I will build My Church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it (Matt. 16:18), there is little room for doubt that Peter and his successors are guiding the Church along the theological path that Christ intended.
But it is interesting to note that the Church did not declare, in a public, formal, and definitive way, that the Pope cannot err in doctrinal matters until only the late 1800s! The First Vatican Council, which was convoked in 1869, was never technically finished; Council Fathers adjourned for what was intended to be a temporary pause, at the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War in 1870but the Council was never resumed. During the year or so that it was in session, however, the Church focused the bulk of its attention on articulating the nature and extent of papal power. It was here that we find, for the first time, a clear-cut explanation of the infallibility of the Pope:
We teach and define as a divinely revealed dogma that, when the Roman Pontiff speaks ex cathedra, i.e., when, in the exercise of his office as Shepherd and Teacher of all Christians, in virtue of his supreme apostolic authority, he defines a doctrine concerning faith or morals to be held by the whole Church, he possesses, by the divine assistance promised to him in blessed Peter, that infallibility which the divine Redeemer willed his Church to enjoy in defining doctrine concerning faith or morals. Therefore, such definitions of the Roman Pontiff are… irreformable. So if anyone should have the temerity to reject this our definition (which God forbid), let him be anathema (IV, 4, 9) .
It should be easy to see that the wording of the relevant canon of the code, discussed above, is based ultimately on this carefully worded declaration from Vatican I. The Pope only speaks infallibly when he addresses dogmatic issues, and intends that his pronouncement constitutes a definitive statement which all Catholics must accept as the Churchs teaching.
Historically, we could come up with countless examples of doctrinal statements made by previous Popes on matters pertaining to faith and morals. But in centuries past, they were not worded with this sort of unambiguous precision, because thats simply not the way that the Church used to think. In the first few centuries of the Church, for example, when the Roman Empire outlawed Christianity and thousands upon thousands of Christians were brutally martyred for their faith, Popes issued teachings through simple letters, which were copied by hand and clandestinely passed around by the faithful. The legal niceties that subsequently developed over time simply did not exist back then! Therefore it would be totally anachronistic for us to sift through the history of the Church in a search for papal pronouncements that were made with the exact formulation found in this statement from Vatican I. That is why it is historically impossible to point to a particular papal decree issued in, say, the 15th century on some doctrinal matter, and conclude, this was an infallible pronouncement. The Church has, over the course of time, simply accepted that particular teachings on matters of faith and morals are, in fact, free from error. God has always been guiding the Church, since long before we Catholics began to use terminology like dogmatic and infallible!
There are, however, two occasions in history when the Pope did in fact issue a doctrinal statement in exactly the manner described by the First Vatican Council. The first example, ironically, occurred before the definition of papal infallibility was ever made: in 1854, some 15 years before Vatican I was convened, Pope Pius IX issued the papal bull Ineffabilis Deus , in which he declared that the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception was an article of Catholic faith. Look at the way he worded the decree :
We declare, pronounce, and define that the doctrine which holds that the most Blessed Virgin Mary, in the first instance of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege granted by Almighty God, in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Savior of the human race, was preserved free from all stain of original sin, is a doctrine revealed by God and therefore to be believed firmly and constantly by all the faithful.
Clearly, the Pope was speaking on a matter of faith and morals, and intended that all Catholics must accept his declaration as Catholic teaching. Therefore, even though the definition of papal infallibility formulated during Vatican I did not exist yet, Catholic theologians agree that Pope Pius IXs pronouncement constituted an exercise of papal infallibility.
The second example concerns the doctrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, defined by Pope Pius XII in 1950. In his Apostolic Constitution Munificentissimus Deus , we can see once again the careful wording, making very clear the Popes intention to bind all Catholics to accept this dogmatic teaching:
…by the authority of our Lord Jesus Christ, of the Blessed Apostles Peter and Paul, and by our own authority, we pronounce, declare, and define it to be a divinely revealed dogma: that the Immaculate Mother of God, the ever Virgin Mary, having completed the course of her earthly life, was assumed body and soul into heavenly glory. Hence if anyone, which God forbid, should dare willfully to deny or to call into doubt that which we have defined, let him know that he has fallen away completely from the divine and Catholic faith (44-45 ).
It is quite evident that this was intended to be an infallible pronouncement, as it is formulated exactly as Vatican I had stipulated. (Note that Pope Pius did not specify whether Mary had actually died or not, before she was assumed into heaven. Catholics are thus free to hypothesize about both possibilities!) There is absolutely no doubt that this is an instance of the Pope speaking ex cathedra.
To date, there have been no further papal pronouncements that have unequivocally met the criteria set forth by Vatican I. Thus we can see that the visiting speaker at Kays parish was absolutely correct. The Pope has the ability to exercise formidable power, as a human being who represents Christ here on earth. But history shows us that Popes are not quick to use that power lightly! We can rest assured that in the future, should Pope Benedict or any of his successors decide that it is time to define some doctrinal matter, we Catholics will be able to see plainly, from the formulation of his declaration, that that is what he intends to do.
Sorry, but this article is incorrect. John Paul II spoke infallibly in Evangelium Vitae in three instances. Ordinatio Sacerdotalis in 1994 (on the ordination of women) was intended as an infallible, irreformable pronouncement. This was tested when pro-womens-ordination people sent a formal inquiry to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (a “dubium”) asking whether Ordinatio Sacerdotalis was intended as an infallible papal statement. The CDF replied in the affirmative and with the pope’s agreement.
Infallible statements can be embedded in non-infallible documents. Evangelium Vitae contains three pronouncements that satisfy the “definiteness” criterion cited in the canon quoted in the article.
The first pronouncement was that taking innocent human life deliberately is always wrong, no exceptions. John Paul cited both natural law and unbroken Catholic tradition before invoking his office as successor of Peter to confirm natural law and tradition, confirming DEFINITIVELY. He used language that made it clear that this was intended to be a definitive, final, irreformable, hence infallible statement.
He only did this because, for the first time in human history, some people claim that innocent human life may be taken for some “higher cause.” Formerly people always tried to show that whomever they wished to kill was not innocent, not human etc. Brazenly, today, some say it’s okay to kill innocents. So he had to make this statement, which should never have needed to be made.
The other two pronouncements were variations:
2. deliberate (rather than spontaneous, accidental) abortion is indeed an instance of taking innocent human life (since some have argued that it’s not taking human life or not innocent human life—again, he only had to make this infallible, definitive pronouncement because some people, even Catholics, argue otherwise.
3. euthanasia (which he defined) is also a subset of no. 1: taking of innocent human life.
In the same encyclical he addressed capital punishment. Many Catholics have exalted that section, saying that the Church now opposes capital punishment and so forth. For clarity, one has to realize that that section was clearly set off from the three pronouncements because capital punishment deals with guilty life, not innocent life. So it’s not an exception to the “taking of innocent life is always wrong” infallible pronouncement but is a related issue, taking of human life, but guilty rather than innocent. The development of doctrine statements he makes there (that the only justification for taking guilty human life are as a last resort to defend the innocent, not retribution or punishment) is NOT surrounded by invoking natural law and ancient tradition or his authority as successor of Peter.
So, in the same exact document, one finds 3 infallible statements that confirm long-held teaching and one new statement that marks a development of doctrine. The latter is clearly not infallible but proposed with serious intent (and later put into the Catechism). It cannot simply be sloughed off and ignored but it clearly is not surrounded with the definitive infallible language.
So popes have spoken infallibly on more than 2 occasions since 1870. But no, they haven’t invoked that level of teaching very often.
Because in the first place, Catholics are supposed to give assent not just to infallible teaching but to the ordinary teaching as well. (Lumen Gentium, # 25, as I recall). So there’s a need for highest level infallible teaching relatively rarely, only when people “just don’t get it” (women’s ordination, abortion). But the ordinary teaching, including the new development on capital punishment, is supposed to be assented to by faithful Catholics.
I think we still need more theological discussion of the “CP is only justified to defend the innocent” principle but in the meantime, I give assent to the teaching that it should virtually never be implemented, which carries with it the responsibility to find other ways truly to protect the innocent, which means locking up dangerous criminals and not pardoning or paroling them etc. We aren’t doing that and the bishops should put as much effort into that aspect as into crusading for repeal of CP laws (which repeal I do not support and JPII’s teaching does not require me to support). So I assent to JPII’s teaching on CP but that doesn’t make me a repeal-activist. But I assent not because it’s infallible teaching but because I am required to assent by Lumen Gentium etc.
Assent to or defer to? I defer to the pope even in matters where I do not give assent.
Pope Eugene IV, Council of Florence, Cantate Domino, 1441, ex cathedra: The Holy Roman Church firmly believes, professes and preaches that all those who are outside the Catholic Church, not only pagans but also Jews or heretics and schismatics, cannot share in eternal life and will go into the everlasting fire which was prepared for the devil and his angels, unless they are joined to the Church before the end of their lives; that the unity of this ecclesiastical body is of such importance that only those who abide in it do the Churchs sacraments contribute to salvation and do fasts, almsgiving and other works of piety and practices of the Christian militia productive of eternal rewards; and that nobody can be saved, no matter how much he has given away in alms and even if he has shed blood in the name of Christ, unless he has persevered in the bosom and unity of the Catholic Church.
Pope Innocent III, Fourth Lateran Council, Constitution 1, 1215, ex cathedra: There is indeed one universal Church of the faithful, outside of which [u][b]nobody at all [/b][/u]is saved, in which Jesus Christ is both priest and sacrifice.
Pope Boniface VIII, Unam Sanctam, Nov. 18, 1302, ex cathedra: With Faith urging us we are forced to believe and to hold the one, holy, Catholic Church and that, apostolic, and we firmly believe and simply confess this Church outside of which there is no salvation nor remission of sin Furthermore, we declare, say, define, and proclaim to every human creature that they by absolute necessity for salvation are entirely subject to the Roman Pontiff.
Pope Clement V, Council of Vienne, Decree # 30, 1311-1312, ex cathedra: Since however there is for both regulars and seculars, for superiors and subjects, for exempt and non-exempt, one universal Church, outside of which there is no salvation, for all of whom there is one Lord, one faith, and one baptism
Pope Eugene IV, Council of Florence, Sess. 8, Nov. 22, 1439, ex cathedra: Whoever wishes to be saved, needs above all to hold the Catholic faith; unless each one preserves this whole and inviolate, he will without a doubt perish in eternity.
Pope Leo X, Fifth Lateran Council, Session 11, Dec. 19, 1516, ex cathedra: For, regulars and seculars, prelates and subjects, exempt and non-exempt, belong to the one universal Church, outside of which [b]no one at all is saved, and they all have one Lord and one faith.
Pope Pius IV, Council of Trent, Iniunctum nobis, Nov. 13, 1565, ex cathedra: This true Catholic faith, outside of which no one can be saved I now profess and truly hold
Pope Benedict XIV, Nuper ad nos, March 16, 1743, Profession of Faith: This faith of the Catholic Church, without which no one can be saved, and which of my own accord I now profess and truly hold
Pope Pius IX, Vatican Council I, Session 2, Profession of Faith, 1870, ex cathedra: This true Catholic faith, outside of which none can be saved, which I now freely profess and truly hold
Lumen Gentium calls for loyal assent even to the ordinary magisterium. One can do this in a spirit of humility, asking God for the grace and insight to understand why the Church teaches what she teaches. It’s not easy where you have questions and doubts but that’s part of being a faithful Catholic. That applies to teaching, not to disciplinary actions.
I can hope that the capital punishment development might get further theological consideration. I think there could be a healthy debate among theologians about whether abandoning the retributive aspect is right. But for now, we have what the pope and the Catechism say: should virtually never need to be used. Which means we have to focus our efforts on making sure the innocent are defended, that dangerous criminals are paroled to kill again etc. Instead, the bishops concentrate on repeal. That’s a prudential choice on their part, not a teaching point, so I don’t have to agree with them on that.
I agree with you regarding capital punishment. I see Pope John Paul’s point, but due to the influence of liberals, convicts are released to kill again. Society is not protected.
Theology must also be developed regarding punishment for crimes that are so heinous as to justly deserve execution.
IMO, another thing worthy of consideration is just punishment and deterrent for the intentional (non accidental/manslaughter) of pregnant women, infants, and small children. I have often thought that the value of the lives of adults have been shown to be much greater than those of children through the relatively light sentences given for crimes against the latter.
I respectfully disagree. As between assent and dissent, I come down on assent. But there are some matters on which the magisterum is less definite than on others. Hence, as in the case of infallibility itself, the need for a formal, final answer. Certain other matters, as the prohibition of women priests enjoy such unanimous testimony in its favor that it must be taken as definite as the existence of the special priesthood itself. IOW, to accept it is to accept the Protestant denial of a sacerdotal priesthood. With regard to other matters, such as the immorality of the death penalty, it seems almost a novelty.
The article says that the writer is a canon lawyer. Amazing! But does not surprise me at all. Your simple layman’s comments are more professional precise and accurate than “the canon lawyer”.
This is why I stated that it was another article for dumb down Catholics.
You assent based on the level of authority. If by “defer” you mean something like that, fine—we agree. But the point is that we need to assent to ordinary teachings, not just to the extraordinary magisterium. I’d like to see a theological discussion about the development in teaching on capital punishment. A future pope could reverse JPII—that’s the point of it NOT being infallible.
A non-infallible, ordinary magisterium teaching doesn’t clear the way for us to dissent from it (na, na, na-nah nya, it’s not infallible, I can dissent —that’s the way the libs act), but it means that we assent to it knowing that future development could modify it or reconsider it.
But when somethings taught with definiteness and surrounded with invocation of irreformable authority, as in the case of non-ordination of women or taking of innocent life and abortion being definitively classified under taking of innocent human life, that “irreformable” quality (infallibility is more accurately described as irreformability), then we can’t say, “well, this could develop further, I assent to it as it stands and I do so cheerfully and loyally, not grudgingly,” as we have to say with ordinary magisterium.
The “virtually never” part of the capital punishment teaching leaves ambiguity. To me it says that, as a Catholic layman I need to ask what can concretely be done to protect the innocent, truly protect them (that’s part of JPII’s teaching too) without, except as an absolute last resort, taking guilty life. It would mean campaigning for changes in parole processes. It would mean somehow finding ways to keep the executive’s ability to pardon under control. I don’t know how to do that. I don’t want to take away the prerogative to pardon—mercy is also part of Catholic teaching. But we have to protect the innocent.
The solution would be only ever to elect wise and prudent executives and to have parole boards that are wise and prudent and honest . . . .
But JPII has said that we can’t solve these terrible dilemmas merely by executing people. And he’s right about that. But he’s just made our task as citizens harder. Except that it always was hard.
“Dogmatic decrees” are not necessarily ex cathedra or infallible.
“Dogmatic decrees” are not necessarily ex cathedra or infallible.
All the decrees that I posted are infallible.
The practical use of the death penalty is to reserve punishment to the king so as to deny the right of vendeta—private revenge. The worship of process in the legal profession undercuts even this aim, because the victims families too often feel that the perp literally gets way with murder. In the interest of social peace it really is better that the innocent sometimes suffer.