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-identity—a way of distinguishing themselves from Anglicans, Orthodox and Protestants. Simultaneously, the pope’s 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 Joyce’s Dubliners, where a group is stoutly discussing and strenuously defending the infallible teaching of the pope. In Joyce’s 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 isn’t 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 Dowling—presumably 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 wince—at 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 Council’s 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 I’s 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 “infallibility”—but all too often overlooked—is 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 sense—often 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 Unfehlbarkeit—“inability 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 Küng’s 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 final—at 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 decision—not 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 Christ’s 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 Church’s “infallible magisterium,” Vatican II indicated the conditions that the bishops must follow if their teaching is to be considered a collegial exercise of the Church’s “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 Church’s 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 conditioned—expressions 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 doctrine’s 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 definitions”—which, 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 Gallicanism—the 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 Gallicanism—an ecclesiological position well-known to the participants at Vatican I, though not so familiar today—the 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 Dubliners—eloquent and entertaining but exaggerated and often erroneous—leading 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 Church’s 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 people’s 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 Church’s infallible magisterium.” Again, such substitutions involve a few more words, but their use might prompt people to reflect on what the Church’s 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
- Danny Garland, Jr., “The Development of the Dogma of Papal Infallibility,” Homiletic and Pastoral Review 111/9 (June/July, 2011): 48-54, at 50; hereafter cited: Garland, HPR 111/9. ↩
- James Joyce, Dubliners (New York: Penguin Books, 1967), 168. ↩
- Dubliners, 169-170. For a comparison of the views of Döllinger and Newman on infallibility, see Wolfgang Klausnitzer, Päpstliche Unfehlbarkeit bei Newman und Döllinger: Ein historisch‑systematischer Vergleich, Innsbrucker theologische Studien 6 (Innsbruck‑Vienna‑Munich: Tyrolia, 1980). ↩
- John Tracy Ellis,“The Church Faces the Modern World: The First Vatican Council,” in The General Council, edited by William McDonald (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 1962), 113‑145, at 135. ↩
- The First Vatican Council described conditions for papal infallibility in Pastor Aeternus, in Denzinger-Schönmetzer, Enchiridion Symbolorum §3073-3075 at: http://www.documentacatholicaomnia.eu/03d/1957,_denziger,_enchiridion_symbolorum lt.pdf For English translation: http://www.ewtn.com/faith/teachings/papae1.htm: “Therefore, faithfully adhering to the tradition received from the beginning of the Christian faith, to the glory of God our savior, for the exaltation of the Catholic religion and for the salvation of the christian people, with the approval of the Sacred Council, we teach and define as a divinely revealed dogma that when the Roman Pontiff speaks ex cathedra , that is, 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 (mores) to be held (tenenda) 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 (pollere) in defining doctrine concerning faith or morals. Therefore, such definitions of the Roman Pontiff are of themselves, and not by the consent of the Church, irreformable.” ↩
- Although the prelates at Vatican I acknowledged that infallibility had been previously exercised by various popes, the Council did not provide a list of such teachings; accordingly, theologians differ about which papal decisions prior to Vatican I should be considered exercises of infallibility; for example, theologians disagree whether Unam Sanctam (1302) of Pope Boniface VIII should be considered an exercise of infallibility or not. ↩
- Although some theologians in the past considered canonizations an exercise of infallibility (e.g., Francis Kieda, “Infallibility of the Pope in His Decree of Canonization,” The Jurist 6 (1946): 401‑415), few do so today; this view in no way diminishes the importance of canonizations, but it does emphasize that the exercise of infallibility is limited to essential matters of Christian faith. ↩
- In fact, many theological terms in English have a Latin background: revelation, Trinity, magisterium, etc., however, if the meanings of revelation and Trinity are clear, some Latin terms, such as magisterium, have a spectrum of meanings in English. ↩
- Hans Küng, Infallible? An Inquiry, translated by Edward Quinn (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1971); unfortunately, the English translation did not always capture all the nuances of the German original. Among the numerous critiques of Küng’s Infallible?, see: Walter Brandmüller, “Hans Küng and Church History, Some Critical Observations on ‘Infallible? An Inquiry’,” Homiletic and Pastoral Review 72 (1972): 10‑24. ↩
- Hans Urs von Balthasar, The Office of Peter and the Structure of the Church, translated by Andrée Emery (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1986), 221-222, cited by Garland, HPR 111/9: 52; the theological problem of translating infallibilitas into German is an often over-looked factor in the “infallibility debate” initiated by Hans Küng in 1970. ↩
- Like every comparison, this one has limitations; for example, Supreme Court decisions may effectively revoke laws (e.g., laws that formerly permitted slavery); in contrast, a new dogmatic decision can not contradict previous decisions, although it may significantly reinterpret previous doctrinal decisions. ↩
- John Henry Newman discussed the relationship between doctrinal continuity and change in his seminal work, An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine (18461; 18783); for a comparative study of the differences between the first and third editions of Newman’s Essay, see: Gerard H. McCarren, “Development of Doctrine” in The Cambridge Companion to John Henry Newman, edited by Ian Ker and Terrence Merrigan (Cambridge University Press, 2010), 118-136. ↩
- Wilfrid Ward, Life of Cardinal Newman 2:213 (available at: http://www.newmanreader.org/biography/ward/volume2/chapter27.html). ↩
- Lumen Gentium § 25 http://www.vatican.va/archive/hist_councils/ii_vatican_council/documents/vat-ii_const_19641121_lumen-gentium_en.html . ↩
- Again, see Garland’s citation of von Balthasar, HPR 111/9: 52. ↩
- For a detailed study of the Gallican background of the First Vatican Council, see Richard F. Costigan, The Consensus of the Church and Papal Infallibility: A Study in the Background of Vatican I (Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 2005). ↩
- See the now-dated survey of John T. Ford, “Infallibility: A Review of Recent Studies,” Theological Studies 40/2 (June, 1979): 273‑305. ↩
- See John T. Ford, “Differences about infallibility . . . too significant to be brushed aside as inconsequential,” in Church and Theology: Essays in Memory of Carl J. Peter, edited by Peter C. Phan (Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 1995), 111‑160. ↩
- Glossary, Catechism of the Catholic Church, at: http://www.usccb.org/catechism/text/glossary.shtml#I This description refers to §891 of the Catechism, and adds: “This gift is related to the inability of the whole body of the faithful to err in matters of faith and morals” (§ 92). ↩