Skip to comments.Papal Infallibility: A Symbolic, Yet Problematic, Term
Posted on 04/29/2012 3:06:06 PM PDT by NYer
Although papal infallibility is commonly found in popular conversation, how well the term is understood is another matter.
“Christ giving Peter the keys of the kingdom” by Pietro Perugino
As Danny Garland, Jr., pointed out in his recent article on The Development of the Dogma of Papal Infallibility, the term papal infallibility has a centuries-old history that stretches from Peter John Olivi, in the thirteenth century, through John Henry Newman, in the nineteenth century, and down to the present. 1
In addition to being a well-known term with a lengthy history, papal infallibility is also highly symbolic: for Roman Catholics, it has often been a badge of self-identitya way of distinguishing themselves from Anglicans, Orthodox and Protestants. Simultaneously, the popes infallibility has been a counter-symbol to those Christians who do not recognize the authority of the Bishop of Rome. Indeed, for many non-Catholic Christians, the term symbolizes everything that is wrong with Roman Catholicism.
Although papal infallibility is commonly found in popular conversation, how well the term is understood is another matter. One of the most entertaining discussions of the issue is found in a pub-scene in James Joyces Dubliners, where a group is stoutly discussing and strenuously defending the infallible teaching of the pope. In Joyces story, Mr. Cunningham summarized the doctrine with Hibernian exuberance: But the astonishing thing is this: Not one of them (the popes), not the biggest drunkard, not the most . . . out-and-out ruffian, not one of them ever preached ex cathedra a word of false doctrine. Now isnt that an astonishing thing? 2
Cunningham went on to claim that one of the two prelates who voted against Pastor Aeternus at the Council was a German Cardinal, by the name of Dowlingpresumably meaning Johann Joseph Ignaz von Döllinger (1799-1890), a German priest-professor at the University of Munich, who was not at Vatican I, but was excommunicated in 1871 for refusing to accept its teachings about infallibility. 3 Although Cunningham and companions can be credited for knowing the essentials of the doctrine, their theological method makes historians and theologians winceat least if they know anything concerning the history and teaching of the First Vatican Council (1869-1870) about infallibility. As John Tracy Ellis once remarked: It is doubtful that any event in the history of the modern Church ever gave rise to a greater flow of misinformation than the [First] Vatican Council. 4
Unfortunately, Ellis was all too right. First of all, contrary to popular belief, Vatican I did not really define infallibility, at least, not in the sense of stating precisely what infallibility is. Rather, the Council described how infallibility is operative. What the Council actually did was to specify the conditions required for pope to exercise this authority of infallibility. He must: (1) Rely on the divine assistance promised to Peter; (2) Act as pastor and teacher of all Christians; and, (3) Invoke his supreme apostolic authority. In addition, the Council limited the type of teachings that can be taught infallibly to matters of faith and morals, held by the whole Church. Only if all these conditions are fulfilled, does the pope enjoy the infallibility given by Christ to the Church. Then, and only then, can such papal definitions be deemed irreformable. 5
Although the First Vatican Council did not give a precise definition of the nature of infallibility, its operative description suggests that the Council understood it to be an endowment or charism given by Christ to the Church, which can only be exercised by the pope under specific conditions. A charism ensures that the teaching of the pope, in a particular instance, is immune from error. In describing this divinely given gift of infallibility, the Councils list of conditions serves a double purpose. First, the list specifies the conditions which must be fulfilled (i.e., if a pope truly wants to mandate a particular doctrine by using the charism of infallibility). Secondly, the list of conditions enables Christians to recognize when a particular teaching is being infallibly taught.
The fact that the vast majority of Church teachings are not taught under this charism does not mean that such teachings are unimportant. They do not have the same importance as teachings deemed infallible, which have a greater binding force, precisely because they are closely connected with the essentials of revelation. 6 Moreover, while teaching the Gospel is a daily responsibility of the Church, only rarely has the Church invoked infallibility in fulfilling its teaching mission. In fact, since Vatican Is declaration on infallibility in 1870, there is only one clear-cut instance where a pope has taught infallibly: Pope Pius XII’s 1950 proclamation of Our Lady’s assumption. 7
Meaning of Infallibilitas
What is absolutely crucial to any discussion about infallibilitybut all too often overlookedis what the term actually means. In English, infallibility has simply been taken from the Latin, infallibilitas, without specifying its meaning. 8 As a result, many people use the term in a rather elastic senseoften meaning immunity from error or inability of making fundamental mistakes in religious matters. While such casual explanations may suffice for popular understandings, they have the potential for creating misunderstandings, among Catholics and other Christians.
In contrast, German-speaking theologians have tried to translate the term. The most common translation has been Unfehlbarkeitinability of erring. However, this term is not completely satisfactory, since it can have a pejorative connotation. Unfehlbar can describe a person who thinks that he is incapable of making mistakes, which is obviously not the case here. Accordingly, unfehlbar can make the not-too-subtle suggestion that it is humanly impossible for anyone, including the pope, to claim to exercise infallibility. Such a dismissive connotation underpinned Hans Küngs attack on infallibility on the centennial of Vatican I in 1970. 9
Some German-speaking theologians, such as Hans Urs von Balthasar, have opted for other understandings of infallibilitas, such as Letzverbindlichkeit, implying that a definitive response can be given to a specific doctrinal question. He states:
Heinrich Fries suggestion of Verbindlichkeit (binding power), which at the highest level can become an ultimate binding power (Letzverbindlichkeit) seems to me certainly worth considering. 10
The merit of interpreting infallibility as ultimate binding power or judicial finality is that a doctrinal decision pronounced under infallibility is finalat least, here and now, for this specific question, unless, and until, new questions are raised.
The understanding of infallibility as judicial finality has sometimes been popularized in American catechetics, comparing doctrinal declarations to decisions of the Supreme Court: whose decisions are judicially final as there is no higher court to which an appeal can be made. So, too, decisions under infallibility are ecclesially final, as a pope, or an ecumenical council, teaching with infallibility, has the definitive word about the specific doctrinal matter under discussion, with no further appeal possible. Nonetheless, change is possible in the future, that is, a new legal question may arise, resulting in the Supreme Court modifying a previous decision. Similarly, a new doctrinal question may be posed, resulting in a new doctrinal decisionnot one contradicting the previous teaching, but one amplifying and developing it.11
In other words, just as judicial finality does not preclude the possibility of the Supreme Court modifying a previous Supreme Court decision, infallibility does not exclude the possibility that a later pope, or later council, might amplify and develop it further, and in that sense, change the doctrinal decisions of their predecessors. In this respect, the answer to one doctrinal question sets the stage for further questions, and for further doctrinal decisions in the future. For example, the responses of the ecumenical councils of the early church to a series of Trinitarian and Christological controversies may be seen as instances of this continual dynamic of definitive decisions, followed by new doctrinal developments and consequent clarifications. 12
While papal infallibility is routinely used, not only in common conversation, but also among theologians, it should be emphasized that the First Vatican Council did not use the term. In fact, Vatican I deliberately changed the heading of the fourth chapter of Pastor Aeternus. The original draft read: the infallibility of the Roman Pontiff, which was changed to: the infallible magisterium of the Roman Pontiff. The importance of this terminological shift is two-fold. First, it avoided the implication that the pope possesses infallibility in such a personal way that all his statements come under infallibility. While Catholics generally take this for granted today, at the time of the First Vatican Council, there were people who felt that any and every doctrinal statement by the pope was a matter of infallibility. The English theologian, W. G. Ward (1812-1882), for example, was famously reported as desiring a daily exercise of infallibility by the pope: I should like a new Papal Bull every morning with my Times at breakfast. 13
Secondly, the reason for preferring the term infallible magisterium is that infallibility can be exercised not only by the pope, but also by the college of bishops in union with him; as the Second Vatican Council taught:
Although the individual bishops do not enjoy the prerogative of infallibility, they nevertheless proclaim Christs doctrine infallibly whenever, even though dispersed through the world, but still maintaining the bond of communion among themselves and with the successor of Peter, and authentically teaching matters of faith and morals, they are in agreement on one position as definitively to be held. 14
Accordingly, just as Vatican I specified a list of conditions that the pope must follow in order to exercise the Churchs infallible magisterium, Vatican II indicated the conditions that the bishops must follow if their teaching is to be considered a collegial exercise of the Churchs infallible magisterium.
Another term, routinely used in discussions about infallibility, is the expression: infallible statements. Again, one must emphasize that this term was not used by Vatican I; rather, the Council used the term irreformable definitions. Many commentators on infallibility have ignored the difference, or have even claimed that the two expressions are equivalent. However, in addition to the need to respect the Churchs official terminology, a casual mixing of terms entails a number of philosophical and theological difficulties. For example, to speak of infallible statements suggests that such statements are absolute. In contrast, most philosophers insist that all statements are historically and culturally conditionedexpressions delimited by a particular time and place, and so not absolute, but relative. Similarly, many theologians today do not want to speak of infallible statements in order to avoid the doctrinal equivalent of biblical literalism: if God did not dictate the Bible word for word, why should one suggest that God dictates doctrinal decisions word for word?
Using terms, like infallible statements or infallible teaching, risks making the doctrine of infallibility both philosophically, and theologically, indefensible. It becomes an easy target for rejection. In effect, defenders of infallible statements, with the best of intentions, can inadvertently become the doctrines enemies, just as defenders of biblical literalism can unwittingly destroy the credibility of the Bible. In contrast, the expression irreformable definitions harmonizes readily with interpreting infallibility as judicial finality or ultimate binding power (Leztverbindlichkeit), as proposed by Hans Urs von Balthazar. 15 Key to this interpretation, however, is the meaning of irreformable definitionswhich, at first glance, would seem to have the same meaning as infallible statements and, therefore, sharing the same philosophical and theological problems.
Why did the First Vatican Council use the term irreformable definitions? Apparently, the Council used this term as a way of rejecting Gallicanismthe seventeenth century doctrinal claim that all papal decisions are subject to the approval of local churches. According to the its proponents, no Vatican ecclesiastical decision could be considered authoritatively final unless, and until, it received the official approval of the Church in France. When Pastor Aeternus is read in the context of Gallicanisman ecclesiological position well-known to the participants at Vatican I, though not so familiar todaythe Council is effectively stating that definitions enunciated by the pope, when exercising infallibility, are not subject to any further approval or appeal. 16 In sum, irreformable definitions are not definitions that are philosophically immutable or theologically unchangeable, but decisions that are judicially final.
Lessons from History
The axiom that: Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it, has been repeatedly exemplified in the numerous discussions about infallibility in the half-century since Vatican II. There is not only a vast amount of material on the teaching of the two Vatican Councils about infallibility, but, unfortunately, many writers on infallibility have discussed what they presume the Church teaches, rather than carefully examining what the Church actually taught. 17 Sadly, there is a great deal that has been written about infallibility showing little or no familiarity with, much less critical analysis of, the texts of the two Vatican councils. Surprising as it may seem, some commentators have proposed interpretations about infallibility without analyzing the conciliar texts, much less studying the history of the Councils.
This failure to do the essential historical-theological homework means that many discussions of infallibility are like the conversation in Dublinerseloquent and entertaining but exaggerated and often erroneousleading some people to find infallible statements everywhere, while leading others to reject infallibility out of hand. Neither an outright denial of infallibility, nor an exaggerated extension of it to all church teachings, really serves anyone well. In effect, the many misconceptions about infallibility effectively distort the Churchs teaching, confuse believers, repel prospective converts, and create unnecessary ecumenical difficulties. 18
Admittedly, changing terminology is always a difficult task. Like overcoming an addiction, one keeps falling back into accustomed habits of speech. Yet papal infallibility is one of those theological terms that has been misinterpreted so often that it might well be worth the effort to replace it with the terminology that Vatican I actually used: the infallible magisterium of the pope. Admittedly, this substitution requires a few more words, and people might be puzzled by the seemingly new terminology, but that reaction might be beneficial. This historical version might succeed in drawing peoples attention to what the two Vatican Councils actually taught, rather than what many people presume the Councils taught.
In addition, terms like infallible statements and infallible teaching might well be replaced with terms like irreformable definitions or teachings of the Churchs infallible magisterium. Again, such substitutions involve a few more words, but their use might prompt people to reflect on what the Churchs teaching really is. Last but not least, in explaining the doctrine of infallibility, it would seem not only appropriate, but extremely beneficial to use the short and succinct description of infallibility found in the Glossary of the Catechism of the Catholic Church: The gift of the Holy Spirit to the Church whereby the pastors of the Church, the pope and bishops in union with him, can definitively proclaim a doctrine of faith or morals for the belief of the faithful. 19
The same can pretty much be said of all true doctrine, especially in a world where things like the New York Times and MTV live.
An “infallible” teaching of the Pope, of which there has been exactly one since Vatican I, is Christ speaking directly through the Pope as heir to Peter's grant of the Earthly keys to the Kingdom.
IOW, an infallible teaching isn't really the Pope's. It is His. And as stated, it is beyond very rare.
Seen in that light, much of the to do about the Pope being “infallible” is wasted breath.
“Infallible” is not a difficult to understand word, it means not subject to failure or error.
The “problematic” part seems to be in redefining the word to make it rubbery enough to find an example of any Pope making an “infallible” statement.
There’s is where you err — **on any statement.**
A Pope is not impeccable — he is human and makes personal mistakes.
The infalibility only comes into play on announcements of faith and morals, either alone or with the Magisterium.
You’re right, it is greatly misunderstood.
Only on matters of faith and morals — OK?
Another term used here is “ex cathedra”
from the chair of Peter
“Infallibility” is not limited to the pope, but extends to ecumenical councils when fulfilling the criteria for such, with papal infallibility being able to provide assurance that such were infallible (though RCs cannot know how many infallible decrees there are, which should be necessary to give the required assent of faith, and must seek to make sure they understand them rightly).
What Rome has done is “infallibly” declare that she is and will be perpetually infallible whenever she speaks in accordance with her infallibly defined (scope and subject-based) formula, which renders her declaration that she is infallible, to be infallible, as well as all else she accordingly declares.
She may invoke Scriptures to support this, but assurance of the veracity of her doctrines is not dependent upon the exegetical weight of Scriptural warrant, and interpretations only have weight if she sanctions them, but it rests upon the premise of her self-proclaimed assured infallibility.
And no one can argue with that.
Docility (on Catholic dogma and infallibility)
Beginning Catholic: Infallibility: Keeping the Faith [Ecumenical]
Papal Infallibility [Ecumenical]
Peter & Succession (Understanding the Church Today)
Pope: may all Christians recognize true meaning of Peters primacy
THE PRIMACY OF THE SUCCESSOR OF PETER IN THE MYSTERY OF THE CHURCH
Pope St. Leo the Great and the Petrine Primacy
The Epiphany of the Roman Primacy
THE PRIMACY OF THE SUCCESSOR OF PETER IN THE MYSTERY OF THE CHURCH [Ratzinger]
“faith and morals”, a sufficiently flexible term to cover anything, everything and nothing.
“Infallibility”, For all the definitions no one seems to be able to recognize it if or when they hear it unless the one making the statement deems it so.
But unless the one making said statement is making an infallible statement then what they deem infallible may not be so.
Hard to understand? Since the whole idea makes no sense that’s true enough.
In that which the faithful hold in common to be the TRUE CATHOLIC FAITH, THEY ARE INFALLIBLE and "CANNOT ERR IN MATTERS OF BELIEF". -Second Vatican Council, "Dogmatic Constitution on the Church", no. 12.
Just HOW are the "faithful" able to "infallibly recognize truth"? I can tell you this: THIS is how so many of the "faithful" cannot debate honestly and openly with the Scriptures and non-Catholics. They, in their own minds, are infallible and simply CANNOT be wrong.
Are you trying to be infallible?
I’ll have to check with “She who does not take contradiction gracefully”.
Understandability, by you or any person, is not a criteria for defining truth. At some point human capabilities must give way to faith.
Actually Ordinatio Sacerdotalis on the question of women and priesthood was clearly irreformable. The libs asked the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in a “dubium,” whether John Paul had intended that it be understood as infallible and the dubium was answered with “Yes.” Then the libs complained that the CDF lacked competence to rule on infallibility, only the pope does—so why did you doofuses send in a dubium? Only when you didn’t get the answer you hoped for do you decide the CDF lacked competence.
In Evangelium Vitae (1995) John Paul II made three clearly, beyond any doubt, infallible statements:
1. that taking of innocent human life is always wrong and no good intention can make it good. Look at par. 52 or 57 or somewhere in there. He clearly invokes the authority of Peter, acts in communion with all the bishops, points out that Scripture, unbroken teaching, and natural law all confirm this truth, then explicitly claims that he is making a definitive ruling. He had to claim the highest level of authority here because some people, for the first time in history, were arguing that sometimes taking of innocent life is okay. Always before, people justified taking of life by first declaring the one(s) being killed guilty. War and capital punishment are not exceptions to no. 1 because they take guilty life. They should be avoided as much as possible but if ever justified, they are cases of taking of guilty life. So there are no exceptions to taking innocent human life.
2. that abortion is a case of taking of innocent human life. Again, some people argue that it’s not human or not innocent and he’s saying, yes it is. Period.
3. that euthanasia also is a case of taking innocent human life (euthanasia defined as deliberately, not accidentally or double-effect, taking the life of a born person. Again, some argue that compassion or some other good intent (mercy killing) makes taking of innocent human life okay. He said, “No.”
and each of the three was as clear an example of an irreformable teaching as you will ever want to see. I use these three to try to clarify for students just what an infallible statement looks like.
The early church fathers only recognized one thing as infallible and that was the scriptures-and not the ones the Church has today. While they were busy creating the creeds of the church, the fathers never put those creeds to the same level as scripture although most would agree with them.
The term “infallibility” like many other convoluted doctrines of Rome is undefinable. They don’t know what it means but they’ll tell you when they see it. I wouldn’t hold your breathe for a list of “infallible” teachings.