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
They know it means it precludes the possibility of error, but it is a matter of interpretation as to how many of the possibly multitudes of “infallible” pronouncements really fit the criteria. As well as their meaning to some degree, as assured infallibility is not provided for the hearers.
We are to seek to persuade men after the manner of 2Cor. 4:2. After all the the itinerant preacher from Bethlehem did not have the sanction of the historical heavyweights who actually had positional power based on promises and historical decent, but who presumed a level of assured veracity and perpetuation that Scripture did not affirm.
And thus the church began in dissent from them, as in contrast to them, the Lord Jesus established His claims on Scripture and the love, faith, purity and power of God it affirms, as did the apostles and early church. ( Mt. 22:23-45; 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. 12:12)
And so must the church today, and we have comparatively far to go in love and purity...
Hmmm.... would the teaching on infallibility be on that list? I wonder.
I remind you I will waste no more time with you beyond this response.
Revelation 18 will be infallibly fulfilled when Rome goes up in smoke in “one hour.”
Probably the best list would be included in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, but you can check out the Vatican website too. It’s there too.
I got used to this search engine for the Catechism of the Catholic Church — you can check it out too.
I think with most it is more that they believe whatever the Roman Catholic Church tells them is true and it's true because the Roman Catholic Church says it is true. They are also taught to view those outside of Catholicism as partners with Satan to draw the "faithful" away from the "true" church. So-called "heretics" were executed in the past for the crime of "stealing away the souls of the faithful" through their false teachings.
When I was about twelve, we were living on base and I went to Mass by myself. Since it was the first time there, I got the service times mixed up and sat in on the Protestant service by mistake. I kept waiting for the priest to come out and he never did and it dawned on me that I was sitting in on the Protestant service and I was too scared to get up and leave. I remember having this terrible feeling that I had sinned by going to a Protestant church! In fact, it was and may still be considered a sin to attend any church that is not Catholic.
So, as you pointed out, some here simply refuse to consider that what their church teaches about anything can ever be in error. In the occasional discussions I have with my Catholic Mom, they mostly end with her retort of, "Well, that's what we believe.". It doesn't matter that I show her from her own Bible version what Scripture says about an issue, if it goes against what she has been taught, she refuses to even think that maybe "they" were wrong. The REAL problem with that - and something Catholic leaders should keep in mind - is that far too much weight is placed on the idea of the "Church" being infallible about everything they say that, when it IS proved in inescapable ways that they HAVE erred, many may go to the opposite extreme and reject everything they were taught - even of those things where the Catholic Church is right Scripturally. The "Berean" method that Paul spoke about is there, I think, specifically as an admonition for us to do the same - prove all things by Scripture.
Also known as: IKIWISI - I'll know it when I see it
Hmmm, didn’t know those were infallible. I stand corrected.
This part was the most surprising of all the article. I cannot imagine what the author means by saying doctrines such as the trinity, the Deity of Jesus Christ, his propitiatory death for sin, the grace of God, salvation by grace through faith and all the essential doctrines that go into making Christianity do "not have the same importance as teachings deemed infallible". Seeing that the author identifies only the Assumption of Mary as falling under the heading of "Infallible teachings", I find it astonishing that these other core doctrines are not seen as important as a doctrine that is nowhere even found in Scripture and has no relation at all to what needs to be believed in order to be saved.
He explains that the reason is "Infallibly" defined doctrines "have a greater binding force precisely because they are closely connected with the essentials of revelation". To me, he is saying that extra-Bibical, "special" revelation of these doctrines makes them MORE important that Biblically revealed truths. Am I understanding this correctly and do you agree with him?
I realize what you are talking aout. But the sacraments, creed, everything that is in the Catechism are things that were decided usually my Magisterium or by Council, so it’s a valid resource.
The Vatican link, however, has encyclicals and writings of Pope on it...some important, some not so important.
You got that right. All of the hallmarks of infallibility are present in the documents that you mentioned. As you said, Ordinatio Sacerdotalis was a crystal clear example of infallibility and yet certain groups still refuse to acknowledge it as definitive. A clear look at the text of the infallible part of Ordinatio Sacerdotalis and the text of the decrees of Vatican I and Vatican II on how to determine when the Church teaches infallibly make it abundantly clear that the Pope intended this statement to be an infallible exercise of his teaching authority. The Dogmatic Constitution of the Second Vatican Council, Lumen Gentium, clearly decreed this concerning infallibility of the Pope :
And this is the infallibility which the Roman Pontiff, the head of the college of bishops, enjoys in virtue of his office, when, as the supreme shepherd and teacher of all the faithful, who confirms his brethren in their faith, by a definitive act he proclaims a doctrine of faith or morals
Now when we compare the above statement of infallibility to the actual text of Ordinatio Sacerdotalis:
Wherefore, in order that all doubt may be removed regarding a matter of great importance, a matter which pertains to the Church's divine constitution itself, in virtue of my ministry of confirming the brethren (cf. Lk 22:32) I declare that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church's faithful.
All of the criteria set out by the above passage of Lumen Gentium for papal infallibility are clearly met by Ordinatio Sacerdotalis. The pope proclaimed, by a definitive act, a matter of faith and morals, to be held by the whole Church, and by citing his ministry to confirm the brethren, the pope has clearly invoked the power of infallibility, because Lumen Gentium declares explicitly that the power of infallibility protects the pope when he is confirming the Brethren in the faith by a definitive act. (The definition of Papal infallibility from Vatican I's Pastor Aeternus also could be used to demonstrate the infallible nature of this statement.)
The CDF said that the above statement from Ordinatio Sacerdotalis was infallible because of the Ordinary and Universal Magisterium but that it was not a solemn definition in itself. That seems a very odd statement, because isn't a definitive act a solemn definition by definition? Doesn't the fact that Ordinatio Sacerdotalis issued a solemn definition to be held by the whole Church make it in and of itself, a dogmatic definition? Wouldn't that then constitute a textbook use of the Extraordinary papal magisterium rather than the Ordinary and Universal papal Magisterium? The only thing it seems to be missing might be an explicit anathema upon those who refuse to assent to the definition. However, I suppose that it could be argued that an anathema is implicit against those who refuse to assent to the definitive acts of the magisterium. After all, presumably those who refuse to assent to the Church's definitive acts are outside Her aren't they?
No, the Catholic Church says that these doctrines are equally infallible with scripture. (The Council of Trent itself infallibly defined the Biblical Canon so the Bible is itself part of those "special" doctrines defined as infallible).
The Church believes all Public Revelation (The Deposit of Faith) is divided into two parts. The Scriptures and Sacred Tradition. Scriptures are the part of Revelation that the apostles and prophets wrote down, the unwritten parts of Revelation that were taught by Christ to the Apostles and handed down orally are called Sacred Tradition. When the pope/Ecumenical Council promulgate an infallible definition, they cannot create/receive new revelations, they can only clarify whether a teaching has always been in or is compatible with the Deposit of Faith or not. Here is what the Council of Trent had to say concerning the scriptures:
The sacred and holy, ecumenical, and general Synod of Trent,lawfully assembled in the Holy Ghost, the same three legates of the Apostolic See presiding therein,keeping this always in view, that, errors being removed, the purity itself of the Gospel be preserved in the Church; which (Gospel), before promised through the prophets in the holy Scriptures, our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, first promulgated with His own mouth, and then commanded to be preached by His Apostles to every creature, as the fountain of all, both saving truth, and moral discipline; and seeing clearly that this truth and discipline are contained in the written books, and the unwritten traditions which, received by the Apostles from the mouth of Christ himself, or from the Apostles themselves, the Holy Ghost dictating, have come down even unto us, transmitted as it were from hand to hand; (the Synod) following the examples of the orthodox Fathers, receives and venerates with an equal affection of piety, and reverence, all the books both of the Old and of the New Testamentseeing that one God is the author of both as also the said traditions, as well those appertaining to faith as to morals, as having been dictated, either by Christ's own word of mouth, or by the Holy Ghost, and preserved in the Catholic Church by a continuous succession.
As the article explains, the person who is Pope is not infallible, neither is his talks on common matters, neither except for a specific pronouncement ex-cathedra, are his teachings. Only specific, let’s call it deadlock breaker statements pronounced ex-cathedra are infallible., thanks purely and solely to the grace of God who takes care of His Church and not due to any innate ability of the person who occupies St. Peter’s chair — in fact it would be despite the innate fallibility of the person who occupies Peter’s chair
False -- scripture is inerrant, not infallible. Persons who read scripture are fallible or not, hence the wide differences in interpretation.
All of those essential doctrines that you mentioned above are already infallibly defined doctrines, so yes they do have the same importance as teachings deemed to be infallible. (All essential doctrines that Christ taught for salvation are of their very nature infallible whether or not the Church has explicitly defined them as such thus far. However, not all dogmas are explicitly defined, some are infallible and have always been taught by the Church as the truth, but they have not yet been defined because they have not been directly denied by members of the Church. These doctrines are infallible teachings of the Ordinary and Universal Magisterium ( the Magisterium is the teaching authority of the Church).
However, if an infallible doctrine of the Ordinary and Universal Magisterium comes under attack or is questioned by the faithful, it sometimes becomes necessary for the Church to explicitly state that a certain truth is infallible to help prevent the faithful from being led into error. When the Church does this, a doctrine moves from being infallible under the Ordinary and Universal Magisterium to being infallible under the Extraordinary Magisterium. Both the extraordinary and Universal Magisterium are equally binding, it's just more obvious and explicit when things are declared infallible under the Extraordinary Magisterium.
Like all their man made doctrines, it's not from God. So the Vatican will define it however they want and will apply it however/whenever they want to suite their agenda.
The concept of any man having infallibility - is pagan, warped and laughable.
God is The Almighty One and Supreme over ALL.
Yes, and He speaks to us infallibly through His Church, its Magisterium, and its Popes, all of whom conspired with the Holy Spirit to produce the Sacred Scriptures.
I think the CDF was trying to get across the idea that infallibility rests, basically, on the degree of definitiveness announced in the text of a particular pronouncement, not in some specific set of words.
I assume that “solemn” refers to the sort of thing that was done in 1854 and 1950 and the CDF was trying to wean people away from the idea that the Pope has only spoken ex cathedra and infallibly twice in the last 200 years.
But beyond that, I too am a bit mystified by the distinction being drawn in the response to the dubium.
GOD speaks infallibly through HIS WORD ALONE - He would never use man to speak infallible for Him - because man is INCAPABLE of it!
You are under compulsive to believe what the Vatican says - so you can't entertain that the pope's 'self proclaimed' infallibility is bogus. You are stuck - so discussing it with you is equivalent as discussing it with a stone wall.
But it shows those of us who know they Truth, there will be gnashing of teeth when those who believe in man's infallibility are presented with 'Why did you believe man could every be infallible? Clearly you never KNEW ME'.
But it's written down now, you were told the Truth and believed it not. And guess what - it wasn't from the one 'claiming infallibility' because he still has his hooks in you - he has no plans on letting you go. However, many have escaped. 'Man's infallibility' is the height of pride - so we know who is behind that.