What is Infallibility?

Tuesday, May 06, 2003



Believe it or not, I do accept the notion of papal infallibility and the infallibility of the Roman Catholic Church. Mt 16:19, Lk 22:31-32, and Jn 21:15-17 seem clearly enough to lay the groundwork for a Petrine ministry, even if it evolved over time, and the Apostolic ministry in the New Testament seems to be authoritative (including, perhaps, Junia? (see Rm 16:7).

At the same time, I also believe that the whole Church is made up of sinners, and we are effected by original sin and both personal and social sin. Many beliefs and practices that are widespread, and even supported by the Pope may very well be erroneous!

Truth is truth, whether the Church, or an individual, or nobody at all but God recognizes it.

I believe the Church discovers truth through a progressive dialogue occurring throughout history until Christ comes again. This dialogue often involves debate. Saint Jerome and Saint Augustine disagreed about which books belonged in the Old Testament. Aquinas and Bonaventure disagreed about the role of reason in the life of faith, and Aquinas was wrong about the Immaculate Conception.

The idea of a progressive development of doctrine has been with the Church from the beginning, and began to be clarified most recently at the time papal infallibility was defined. Cardinal Newman of the nineteenth century is often credited with one of the best explanations of how doctrine develops.

There are infallible truths that are not known to us yet as infallible. For example, I anticipate that one day, the pope or a Council will define that Mary is the co-redemptrix with Christ, but until a solemn definition is made, those who disagree with me cannot be called heretics. If such a definition were made, however, then those who disagree with me would have to change their minds or leave the Church.

I also think the Church will change some of its long-standing practices and teachings and discern that what appeared to be true was in fact an error. Anyone who has read through the rest of my site knows that I feel this way about the issue of women's ordination.

Here is my understanding of the issue of infallibility:

First, we have to establish what we mean by "infallibility". By this, we mean that a teaching has been stated in such a way that we believe that the Holy Spirit has protected us from error. Once the Church knows a doctrine as infallible, this teaching is considered irreversable. A later Pope or Council cannot come along and flatly deny it, thought the doctrine can always be further developed.

There are different sources that are considered infallible according to the Church.

1) The Scriptures are infallible, and even those with magisterial authority are the servants of Scripture, not its lords (see DV 10).

2) In certain circumstances, the Pope can speak with infallible authority based on the promises made to Peter that we believe were passed down through his successors in the city of Rome.

3) The bishops as a whole in union with the bishop of Rome have a charism of infallibility called "universal magisterium" based on the promises Christ made to all of the Apostles when acting as a what we have later called a "college".

4) We believe that the Church as a whole is protected form error such that we can speak of the "sense of the faithful" when a near universal consensus from the Pope down to the laity is perceived on a specific issue of faith.

Regarding Scripture, all Catholics know that Scripture is open to interpretation, and none of us calling ourselves Catholic believe in the notion of sola scriptura.

Indeed, the traditional sense of the fathers and doctors of the Church has been that since God is the author of scripture, and God is infinite, there may be infinite levels of valid meaning in the texts. One could build a strong case that the meaning of the term "Sacred Tradition" is the People of God's dialogue with Scripture through history unfolding these infinite possibilities.

At the same time, Vatican II places the literal sense and intent of the human author as the primary meaning for the formulation of doctrine. This helps us lock down some clarity so we don't get carried away considering the infinite and forgetting the basics. No interpretation of Scripture that contradicts the intent of the human author can be considered infallibly valid.

To clarify what is meant by the intent of the authors, Vatican II goes on to say that the human authors are employing human agency and writing with full human freedom in human language and human culturally bound idioms, modes of expression, and figures of speech. Furthermore, Scripture must be taken as a whole, and the magisterium is guided in their interpretation of Scripture when infallibility is invoked (see the Vatican II Decree, Dei Verbum).

Thus, any appeal to Scripture to try to demonstrate a contradiction with infallible doctrine cannot be asserted by simply taking a passage or even a handful of passages as obvious and posting them then saying "See all you progressives, you guys are wrong, heretics, and outside the pale of Catholic orthodoxy".

The texts must be demonstrated to be taken in historical and literary context, and the interpretation of the text must be shown to be consistent with magisterium. To demonstrate a contradiction with infallible teaching, any appeal to Scripture must be coupled with a good historical and literary exegesis of the text and that interpretation must be tied to other infallibly and solemnly defined doctrines.

Otherwise, the appeal to Scripture amounts to private interpretation, and permits a difference of opinion - not allowing us to call each other heretics simply because we have this difference of opinion.

Not all writings by popes, bishops, fathers and doctors of the Church, saints, and so forth are not considered infallible and irreformable. They still may be true, and they are certainly worthy of consideration - they may even come to be solemnly defined some day in the future - but to assert all these other things are infallible can lead to absurd conclusions such slavery being God's will, and the banking industry being sinful.

Infallibility is known through doctrinal decrees of Ecumenical Councils, and statements of the Pope that meet specific criteria indicating that he is defining a matter of faith and morals infallibly.

No other writings that I am aware of meet the criteria of a solemn definition of infallible import defined by the extraordinary magisterium - not even the Catechism of the Catholic Church where it departs from these or goes beyond them!

The CCC has footnotes. This can help you locate where in a Council or infallible pronouncement of a pope point to where we progressives might have made a mistake.

If a section of the CCC does not reference one of the Councils or ex cathedra papal pronouncements, I question whether that section is truly defined as infallible (even if it quotes Scripture), and I will test its truth in light of the golden rule and the two great commandments, and good exegesis, as Christ asks us to, and as the Church infallibly teaches regarding obedience to conscience in Guadium et Spes of the Second Vatican Council.

Let's explore what I am saying a bit further.....

Types of infallibility:

1) Infallibility of the papal magisterium (yes, I do believe in this)
2) Infallibility of the universal magisterium (the consensus of the bishops, such as when gathered in Council)
3) Infallibility of the sensus fidei (the universal sense of the faithful)
4) Infallibility of Scripture

The papal and the universal magisterium express themselves in two ways:

1) The ordinary magisterium
2) The extraordinary magisterium

What is the difference?

Ordinary = Not itself a solemn definition of a teaching to be understood as infallible. Examples are past teachings on slavery, as well as current teachings on contraception.

Extraordinary = A solemn definition that is intended to be understood as infallible. The defintions by Pius IX on the Immaculate Conception and Pius XII on the Assumption are prime examples.

Thus, there can be the following four categories of magisterial teaching:

1) The ordinary papal magisterium
2) The extraordinary papal magisterium
3) The ordinary universal magisterium
4) The extraordinary universal magisterium

Where does the sense of the faithful fit in?

Ideally, the four categories listed last should be giving voice to the sensus fidei as the faithful interpret Scripture in light of past tradition and contemporary circumstances.

Indeed, before exercising extraordinary papal authority to define a doctrine as infallible, both Pope Pius IX and Pius XII sent questionnaires to the bishops asking them to consult the faithful and the Scriptures before either pope issued their Apostolic Constitutions that invoked infallibility!

While it can be argued that a Pope is not canonically bound to do this, one could very well argue that a Pope is morally bound to seek the sense of the faithful. After all, anyone presuming to speak in the name of God to define something irrevocable has a moral obligation to be sure he or she is absolutely right!

But can a Pope speak infallibly through his ordinary magisterium?

When the pope says the creed of Nicea at Mass, he is exercising the ordinary papal magisterium to affirm what was defined by the extraordinary universal magisterium at Nicea! In this sense, and in this sense only, an act of the ordinary magisterium can be known by all Catholics as infallible.

The ordinary magisterium, whether papal or universal, is not itself infallible. However, a teaching of the ordinary magisterium that is not yet declared through the extraordinary magisterium may one day be declared and defined through the extraordinary magisterium. For example, as I've stated, I believe there is a chance that calling Mary our co-redemtrix may one day be defined infallibly.

Yet, the ordinary magisterium, in and of itself, and by itself should never be assumed to be infallible. The reason for this is obvious. The ordinary magisterium has been wrong in the past!

However, when the ordinary magisterium repeats what was already said through extraordinary magisterial authority, it is stating infallible doctrine!

What if the ordinary papal magisterium and the ordinary universal magisterium say the same thing? Isn't that infallible?

The answer is that this cannot be the case, as demonstrated in the examples of slavery, usury, salvation outside of the institutional Church, and so forth. The extraordinary magisterium has proven the ordinary magisterium wrong in all of these situations - even when the pope and bishops seemed to be in universal, but not solemn agreement.

Pope John Paul II's exercise of ordinary papal magisterium in Ordinatio Sacerdotalis witnesses to something defined through the ordinary universal magisterium (Laodicea, Nimes, Orange, and letters by Pope Gelasius and Paul VI).

However, JP II did not make a solemn definition, and neither did these prior local synods, nor Gelasius or Paul VI. Thus, the exclusion of women from ministerial priesthood cannot be known with certainty to be infallible - yet. The best conservatives can argue is that it may one day be known as infallible, while in the mean-time, it is open to debate (Though the Pope certainly wishes personally that the debate would stop, he has not invoked the authority necessary to actually stop debate - indicating his own seeds of uncertainty about his position).

What about Vatican II? Wasn't this simply an exercise of the ordinary magisterium? If Vatican II isn't infallible, can't we just go back to the way things were in the 1950's, when it all seemed so much simpler?

Vatican II is heavily footnoted and entirely consistent with prior Councils of the Church and all recognized acts of extraordinary papal infallibility. In addition, it references Scripture throughout.

Even where a particular sentence may not reference a past infallible and extraordinarily defined doctrine, the sentence flows logically from doctrines that are infallible and is contextualized in a heavily referenced paragraph making it nearly impossible to try to separate some non-infallible piece out of the Counciliar decrees of Vatican II.

If you don't believe me, just try to find a passage you don't like that isn't footnoted to something you consider authoritative.

Contrary to conservative grumbling, Vatican II contains no doctrine that cannot be verified in prior infallible teachings! Thus, while it is nothing new, and it is an exercise of the ordinary magisterium, Vatican II is, in effect, infallible. The Holy Spirit clearly intended the renewal of Vatican II.

So what level of assent must we give infallible and non-infallible teachings?

1. Divinely revealed truth: Requires a response of faith, with the opposite being heresy: Solemnly defined through the extraordinary magisterium, such as an ex cathedra papal pronouncement, or definition proposed in an Ecumenical Council, or a teaching "manifestly demonstrated" to be taught definitively by the ordinary and universal Magisterium. Includes such things as the Creedal confessions, the Blessed Trinity and the Assumption.

2. Definitive non-revealed truth: Requires firm ascent, with the opposite being error. Proposed as Infallible matters of faith and morals that "even though not revealed themselves, are required to safeguard the integrity of the deposit of faith, to explain it rightly, and to define it effectively." There is a "Necessary and intrinsic relationship to the truths of faith." These are truths such as the numbering of the sacraments at seven, which are based on Christ's words and deeds, and what we believe about him and his action in the Church. Such truths must also be manifestly demonstrated, with a burden of proof on the magisterium to be clear that infallibility has been determined. Once known, however, a person who disobeys or rejects such teachings is in schism.

3. Authoritative but not irreformable teaching: Requires respect and obedience, with the opposite being dissent. A doctrine or non-definitive teaching to aid a better understanding of Revelation or make explicit how some teaching is in conformity with the truths of faith. A prime example of this is Humanae Vitae. A person can dissent in thought and practice, and still call oneself Catholic. However, the individual is asked to seriously consider if their disobedience is rooted in conscience, or pride. Like it or not, Ordinatio Sacerdotalis falls in this category, as demonstrated by the Pope's use of an Apostolic Letter, rather than an Apostolic Constitution, his failure to address the whole Church in the letter, and his use of the first person singular to signal his intent to be understood as speaking not ex cathedra, but as a fellow bishop.

4. Disciplinary Rules: Requires obedience, with the opposite being disobedience. Universal laws of the Church, particular laws of a diocese, liturgical norms, and Church practice. An example of this is fasting on Good Friday, or joining religious life under the rule of a saint. It is not erroneous to question these disciplines, but may violate obedience to act against them.

5. Theological Opinion: Invites agreement, with the opposite being difference of opinion. An example is limbo.

6. Pious Practices and Devotions: Invites imitation, with the opposite being personal preference. An example is the Rosary.

Only a very clear denial of the first category publically made and acknowledged as incorrect by those in authority to issue an excommunication can earn one the title of heretic in its literal sense, though we can certainly feel free to ask each other if an opinion does not tend toward a particular heresy. Even schism can be only be declared by proper Church authority. Note that withholding assent or even offering dissent and disobedience is quite a bit different than actual heresy.

While it may feel fun to call each other heretics, only a bishop can actually make such a determination, and to my knowledge nothing I have proposed on here would meet the criteria a bishop would use for making such a determination. This is why I still consider myself Catholic, and continue to participate in Catholic spirituality and Catholic life.

If all of this is too complicated, and we really want to keep things simple, remember that Jesus gave us the two great commandments and the golden rule as the principles upon which the entire law and prophets rest!

If this topic interests you, see related blogs at the following links:

Is the Church a Divine Monarchy?
Did the Church Support Slavery?
How Does Doctrine Develop?
The Primacy of Conscience
Is the Church Like a Political Party?
Papal Infallibility?

Peace and Blessings!

Readers may contact me at jcecil3@attglobal.net


posted by Jcecil3 3:28 PM

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