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
Once, when the Magisterium canonized the entire Bible declaring it inerrant and divinely inspired, wasn't enough?
The first thing we need to understand is that dogmas NEVER change, practices do. Doctrines may be revised is a very few specific ways:
1) Doctrines that are implicit in Tradition and Scripture become explicit or may be confirmed as dogma.
2) Doctrines that are explicit develop over time so as to be more fully understood. 3) Non-infallible doctrines can be corrected or changed; i.e.; Limbo was taught by many Bishops for time.
And the bulk of Scripture was established as such without a perpetual assuredly infallible magisterium, and souls could also have Scriptural assurance of truth.
No, it is not enough for Catholics, for whom Scripture is not the supreme or determinative authority, even after Rome finally provided an infallible, indisputable settled canon in the 16th century, and yet that was not the point.
For as you must know, affirming a source to be Divine, and declaring what it means are two different things, and which was the issue, and that the parameters of magisterial teaching leaves RCs with a great amount of liberty to interpret Scripture to support traditions of Rome as they understand them, (even if they do not rest upon the weight of Scriptural warrant).
You are missing the point. I affirmed that some of Scripture was first oral tradition before being written, that of it first being spoken before it was written (though not after centuries, and i reject the JEPD hypothesis), but i was addressing the often-used logic that since some of Scripture was first oral, then that makes other things which were passed down in the same medium to be equal to it, which is akin to saying that everything the human instruments of revelation wrote was also inspired.
Of course, it does not make it equal, and thus the key issue is that Rome decides which part of this nebulous oral tradition is equal to tradition (even if she disagrees in part with others such as the EOs, which also presume the same), and which effectively adds to the canon, as well as making Rome the supreme authority over both.
And in which she presumes that assurance of Truth and establishment of writings as Scripture necessitates her assuredly infallible magisterium, which she infallibly declares she is, but which is not Scriptural, as truth was known and preserved, and most of the Divine writings were established as such, without an assuredly infallible perpetual magisterium of men.
Nor was the authority of prophets or men of God or of Christ Himself, or the church, dependent upon the sanction of those who laid claim to historical decent and positional authority (though they should affirm such).
Rather, as with Scripture, their authority was established upon conflation with Scripture and the Heavenly qualities and the Divine attestation it provides for (and which the gospel sees in manifest regeneration).
Rome presumes the authority of a Moses, or an apostle, but lacks their attestive qualities in text and in power, and is more akin to the chief priests and elders who disallowed the authority of any who lacked their sanction, but the church began in dissent from those who presumed a level of assured veracity that Scripture did not given them, and such dissent, due to submission to Scripture in key aspects, is sometimes required for the church to prevail against the gates of Hell when it becomes too much as those gates.
This is an ongoing debate btwn RCs.
It is not "Rome", but the Holy Spirit that decides. And, like Scripture, communicates that through chosen persons.
It is hypocrisy to accept the actions of the Church and the Holy Spirit when it is found flattering and then to reject it when it challenges you authoritative comfort zone.
That was no formal canon of Scripture prior to Trent is an old Protestant canard. The canon was set in 381 and affirmed when St. Jerome was commissioned to produce a Latin Vulgate translation of it. It was re-affirmed at Trent in response to the Reformation's challenge to it and the removal of books previously canonized. The canard has been propagated to give cover and credibility to the Protestant canon.
Let's agree that we can have different theologies, interpretations and doctrines, but matters of documented history are not subject to convenient revision.
That is an absurd statement, the logic of which would once again nuke the church if consistently followed.
For what Scripture reveals is that being an instrument of the Holy Spirit does not equate to assured infallibility, which is what Rome claims she has, for if it did then everyone in the first century would have had to submit to the Jews and their magisterium, and men like Caiaphas.
The issue here is not whether Rome can speak infallible truth, which even a donkey might, but that of the assured formulaic infallibility of Rome, in which she has "infallibly" declared that she was, is and ever will be infallible whenever she has spoken or will speak in accordance with her infallibly defined scope and subject-based criteria. Which renders her declaration of infallibility to be infallible and whatever else she utters under that premise in maintaining her "authoritative comfort zone."
Furthermore, our historically commonly held affirmation of core truths such as the deity of Christ does not rest upon Rome, but on the weight of Scripture, it alone having assured veracity.
And, like true men of God, the Divine writings were progressively established as being of God based upon its Heavenly qualities and Divine attestation, and not by men presuming authority over them.
And thus the church began in dissent from those who could lay claim to historical authority, as the authority of the former and its Object of faith rested upon Scripture and the attestive qualities and power of God it affirms. (Ps. 19: 7-11; 119; Mt. 22:29-45; Lk. 24:27,44; Jn. 5:39,42; Lk. 24:27,44; Jn. 5:36,39; Acts 2:14-35; 4:33; 5:12; 15:6-21;17:2,11; 18:28; 28:23; Rm. 15:19; 2Cor. 6:1-10; 12:12; Heb. 1-5-2:4, etc.)
"For the kingdom of God is not in word [proclamation], but in power. " (1 Corinthians 4:20) And most principally the Biblical gospel of grace with its manifest transformative regeneration (which multitudes of paedobaptized souls later realized upon true conversion) is "the power of God unto salvation." (Rm. 1:16) Thanks be to God!
Were that true you would be able to demonstrate that exclusively from Scripture. Your argument is purely inductive which produces a deduction, not a truth or conclusion.
Your failure here is that you attribute to "Rome" that which belongs to the Holy Spirit. On those occasions when the Church speaks infallibly it is doing so not as another voluntary denominational organization but as the mystical body of the Church as established by Jesus and under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
To be a Christian we have to believe that Jesus is God and that His words are not merely descriptive but carried with them the same power of creation as when God said; "Let there be light". They were transformative. When Jesus said; "Tabitha, get up. She opened her eyes, and seeing Peter she sat up. "When He said; Lazarus, come out! it was so. When He said; "Your sins are forgiven." they were. And when He said; And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church" it too was so.
For what Scripture reveals is that being an instrument of the Holy Spirit does not equate to assured infallibility, which is what Rome claims she has..."
Were that true you would be able to demonstrate that exclusively from Scripture. Your argument is purely inductive which produces a deduction, not a truth or conclusion.
What kind of truth or conclusion are you asserting ? Do you really believe that Scripture itself does not conclusively show that being an instrument of the Holy Spirit, which the Jews surely were as the instruments and steward of Divine revelation, (Rm. 3:2; 9:4) does not equate to assured infallibility? Or do you think they were assuredly infallible whenever they spoke on faith and morals to their flock? Only God is, and His assured word is Scripture.
On those occasions when the Church speaks infallibly it is..as the mystical body of the Church as established by Jesus and under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.........
And so forth as she and her children must preach a church, but we are not impressed by such arguments by assertion for this object of devotion.
That was no formal canon of Scripture prior to Trent is an old Protestant canard.
Rather, that Rome had an "infallible, indisputable settled canon before 1546 (the year Luther died) is an oft-repeated Catholic canard. And one that i have often corrected here (and here here, here and here etc.) on FR.
See here, for the facts are that there was dispute over book s right into Trent (which some argue appears to differs as regards 1 + 2 Esdras with its confusing nomenclature), which finally definitively settled the matter of the Old Testament Canon, and affirmed the Vulgate (but which required a thorough revision, as there was not a single authoritative edition at that time, of there there were many variant editions, with the oldest extant manuscript containing the Epistle to the Laodiceans. More below.*) Some Roman Catholics even held that the Vulgate was superior to the Greek in the places where they disagreed!
*The affirmation of Trent necessitated an official version which resulted in the Sistine Vulgate , undertaken by the over zealous Pope Sixtus V, with at least two assistants, and for which Vulgate he wrote the Bull Aeternus Ille (1 March 1590), which was attached to the Lateran basilica, which declared it to be the the authorized Vulgate of the Tridentine Council, and excommunicated those who deviated from it. But it is understood that this Vulgate was not to be reprinted for 10 years outside the Vatican (though it was found in many countries, and the pope sent one to the king of Spain), and it is contended that the Bull was not properly formally promulgated. Bellarmine warned of the danger of this Vulgate and Bull to the claims of the church, and after the sudden death of Sixtus (who had placed one of Bellarmine's books on the list of forbidden books), further sale of the Sistine Vulgate was forbade, and Bellarmine recommend buying up all the copies (over 40), which the succeeding pope Clement 8 executed, repurchases being mostly from Germany, Belgium and Holland.
Correction of its many errors resulted in the first edition of the Clementine Vulgate (official version till 1979), presented as a Sixtine edition, with a preface in which Bellarmine charitably attributed the problem of the previous version to being that of copyist errors, rather than being the fault of Sixtus. And which removed 3 and 4 Esdras and the Prayer of Manasses (commonly found in medieval MSS of the Vulgate, immediately after 2Chronicles) from the Old Testament and placed them as Apocrypha into an appendix following the New Testament. and the Vetus Latina (not really a single version) the current Nova Vulgata which is said to follow the Hebrew and Greek textual variations more often than the Latin ones.
Other sources: The American ecclesiastical review;: a monthly publication for the ...: Volume 51 - Page 492-94, and Vol. 46, pp. 387-390Catholic University of America
The Catholic faith; or, Doctrines of the Church of Rome contrary to ... By John Harvey Treat, p. 542
Bruce M. Metzger, The Early Versions of the New Testament, Clarendon Press, Oxford 1977, pp. 348-349
With all due respect, I am not swayed by the number of times you "correct" the issue or the length and number of dubious sources you cite in the process. The Canon of Scripture was established in the 4th century by the Catholic Church, deriving it from the Apostolic traditions and using the Nicean Creed as a litmus.
The first authorization was at by Pope Damasus I's Council of Rome in 382 and provided the listing of books for St. Jerome's Vulgate translation. The Synod of Hippo in 393 reaffirmed it and the Councils of Carthage in 397 and 419, under the direction of St. Augustine again affirmed it.
The Council of Trent, as stated earlier, reaffirmed the original Canon in response to its radical revision by Luther and the Reformation.
We can certainly debate or disagree on doctrine, and even the significance or consequences of historical events, but you cannot misstate history and maintain any credibility. To attempt to do so is yet another Protestant canard.
So .... specifically, what parts of Scripture are fallible?
And the authority which the RC's claim gives the RCC their claim to infallibile Sacred Tradition, is what again?
Isn't it the Scripture they claim to have written and appeal to for their authority?
Or are we to accept their claim of infallibility and Sacred Tradition on their say so?
Circular reasoning much?
Who just happen to be in Rome.
Any self-declared and self-authorized group which claims to be the mouthpiece of God in the earth that all others are bound to follow on pain of eternal damnation, is immediately suspect.
It doesn't matter one iota who they claim to be, what their pedigree is, or how long they've been around, claims like that smack of serious control and manipulation issues.
That is a question that ignores the nature of Scripture and violates proper English grammar. It is an errant question and the one who posed it is therefore fallible.
Scripture by definition is inerrant, a state of being completely without error. Fallibility or infallibility describes actions relative to the ability to err. To refer to Scripture as fallible or infallible assigns to the ability to act, which it does not have.
No, the Bible is inerrant.