Swimming the Tiber 5: The Infallible Man

For all of us stumble with respect to many [things]. If someone does not stumble in word, this perfect man [is] powerful to bridle the whole body also.

– James 3:2 (my translation)

This verse long stood as my singular objection to the infallibility of the papacy. No man could be infallible, said I, or else he would be sinless, and if history has taught us anything, it’s that the popes were mere men–many of them, perhaps, good men, but none of them sinless.

But my understanding of the infallibility of the papacy was limited to that phrase alone: “the infallibility of the papacy.” It was sufficient for me to destroy that argument, because there was no argument. Ignorance makes the best straw men. When I finally understood what the Catholic Church genuinely teaches on papal infallibility, I found that my responses targeted a foe that never really existed.

Let’s examine the reality.

There are two passages in the Catechism of the Catholic Church that deal with papal infallibility. (Why accept hearsay when we can get information straight from the horse’s mouth, so to speak?) The first is paragraphs 888-892:

Bishops, with priests as co-workers, have as their first task “to preach the Gospel of God to all men,” in keeping with the Lord’s command.1 They are “heralds of faith, who draw new disciples to Christ; they are authentic teachers” of the apostolic faith “endowed with the authority of Christ.”2

In order to preserve the Church in the purity of the faith handed on by the apostles, Christ who is the Truth willed to confer on her a share in his own infallibility. By a “supernatural sense of faith” the People of God, under the guidance of the Church’s living Magisterium, “unfailingly adheres to this faith.”3

The mission of the Magisterium is linked to the definitive nature of the covenant established by God with his people in Christ. It is this Magisterium’s task to preserve God’s people from deviations and defections and to guarantee them the objective possibility of professing the true faith without error. Thus, the pastoral duty of the Magisterium is aimed at seeing to it that the People of God abides in the truth that liberates. To fulfill this service, Christ endowed the Church’s shepherds with the charism of infallibility in matters of faith and morals. The exercise of this charism takes several forms:

“The Roman Pontiff, head of the college of bishops, enjoys this infallibility in virtue of his office, when, as supreme pastor and teacher of all the faithful – who confirms his brethren in the faith he proclaims by a definitive act a doctrine pertaining to faith or morals. . . . The infallibility promised to the Church is also present in the body of bishops when, together with Peter’s successor, they exercise the supreme Magisterium,” above all in an Ecumenical Council.4 When the Church through its supreme Magisterium proposes a doctrine “for belief as being divinely revealed,”5 and as the teaching of Christ, the definitions “must be adhered to with the obedience of faith.”6 This infallibility extends as far as the deposit of divine Revelation itself.7

Divine assistance is also given to the successors of the apostles, teaching in communion with the successor of Peter, and, in a particular way, to the bishop of Rome, pastor of the whole Church, when, without arriving at an infallible definition and without pronouncing in a “definitive manner,” they propose in the exercise of the ordinary Magisterium a teaching that leads to better understanding of Revelation in matters of faith and morals. To this ordinary teaching the faithful “are to adhere to it with religious assent”8 which, though distinct from the assent of faith, is nonetheless an extension of it.

1 Presbyterorum Ordinis (Of the Order of Priests), paragraph 4; cf. Mark 16:15
2 Lumen Gentium (The Light of Nations), paragraph 25
3 Lumen Gentium, paragraph 12; cf. Dei Verbum (The Word of God), paragraph 10
4 Lumen Gentium, paragraph 25; cf. Vatican Council I: recorded in Denzinger-Schönmetzer, Enchiridion Symbolorum, paragraph 3074Original Latin
In English:
That the Roman pontiff, when he speaks from the chair [of Peter], that is, when (engaged in the service of a shepherd and teacher of all Christians) he defines, on behalf of his own highest Apostolic authority, a doctrine about faith or morals [which] ought to be held by the universal Church, through the divine assistance promised to himself in blessed Peter, is strong with infallibility, where the divine Redeemer wishes that his Church be instructed in a doctrine [which] ought to be defined about faith or morals; therefore, that definitions of this sort of the Roman pontiff, out of himself, but not out of the consensus of the Church, are unalterable.

5 Dei Verbum, paragraph 10, section 2
6 Lumen Gentium, paragraph 25, section 2
7 Cf. Lumen Gentium, paragraph 25
8 Lumen Gentium, paragraph 25

The second passage (paragraph 2035) reinforces that infallibility is accessible to the Church via the Magisterium, which is charged with keeping the doctrines of faith and morals intact.

The first thing we learn from a careful reading here is that the infallibility of the Pope is entirely dependent on the infallibility of the Church. Without an infallible Church, we cannot have an infallible Pope.

“But wait!” you exclaim, “The Church isn’t infallible! What about the Inquisition and the Crusades and the Borgia popes and the Avignon popes and Galileo and that stuff I read in a Dan Brown novel and…” Well, first of all, I’m going to address (some) scandals of the Church in later posts. For now, consider this: the Church did not commit heinous acts, only her members did. The Church, for example, has never taught that killing a bunch of Eastern Orthodox Christians in Constantinople was a good way to stick it to the Muslims, even if that’s how the Fourth Crusade played out. The Church has never taught, as a matter of faith and morals, that torture to extract a confession is worth anything at all (but rather the contrary), even if the politics-based Spanish Inquisition did that.

In short, remember what I translated from Matthew last time about how the gates of Hell could never overcome the Church? This is what that means. The Church has never fallen under the sway of the devil or his minions. The Church has never taught, in faith and morals, anything contrary to the will of God. There have been scandals. There have been (very) bad popes. But the Assembly (ἐκκλησία) is an assembly of sinners; is it really a surprise that the people in the Church have been sinning since before it began? Of course not.

But if we hold to Scripture, we know that the Church has never been overthrown. And so the Church shares in the infallibility of Christ, given to her by Christ, so that she can lead people to Him. This is her sole purpose; if she could fail in it, then the whole faith would break down.

Her chief priest, then, shepherd of the faithful (cf. John 21), is endowed with some small measure of this same infallibility. But we see in the quotation above that there are restrictions on this capacity. First, a statement can only be infallible when made “from the chair” of Peter. This means that only official statements promulgated by the Holy See of Rome can meet this criterion. Personal interviews, off-the-cuff statements, private conversations–none can meet this criterion. Already the counter-argument of James 3:2 is fracturing; the Pope is not bridling his tongue infallibly, but only when he acts in his capacity as God’s representative (that is, in his apostolic authority, passed on to him by the Twelve and by Peter in particular) is he capable of being infallible.

But that is not the only restriction. There is also this: the statement must be on an issue of faith or morals. Not all official papal documents meet this criterion. Most, in fact, are described as “pastoral” documents. Pastoral documents are designed to guide the faithful, but are not infallible. They should be treated with respect (since they were issued by the Pope, after all, in his capacity as earthly head of the Church), but finding an error in one (or perceiving an error in one) does not mean that papal infallibility is disproved–because those documents are not intended to be infallible.

There is another restriction, too: in addition to being ex cathedra (from the chair) and on an issue of faith or morals, the doctrine must apply to the entire Church–to all the faithful equally. Many papal statements are not so broad.

But even with these restrictions, surely Popes are putting out all kinds of infallible information, right? They write a lot of letters and stuff. I bet it would be really easy to come up with a list of errors in infallible documents.

Except that they haven’t. Since the formal recognition of the doctrine of papal infallibility in 1870 (at the first Vatican Council), an infallible doctrine has only been officially declared once (in 1950). It has been applied to other documents retroactively (the most notable being in 1854), and others still which continue in traditions of infallible teaching throughout Church history (e.g., that the priesthood is restricted to men only). Not even every Pope declares an infallible doctrine; there are not, surprisingly enough, that many new things in the Catholic Church.

So what am I saying? That we should accept Papal Infallibility because it isn’t used very often? That’s not a particularly compelling argument, I admit. But papal infallibility follows from the infallibility of the Church, which is established by Christ’s own words. And in spite of all the scandals and all the bad popes and all the anti-popes from all the eras of history, God has seen to it that not one has ever attempted to declare as an infallible doctrine some error.

Well, I shouldn’t say “has never attempted,” but rather, “has never succeeded” in declaring such. Pope Sixtus V is widely credited as a proof of papal infallibility, because he had produced an erroneous translation of the Bible, but before promulgating it as the official translation of the Church, he died of natural causes. The Church very quickly retracted all copies and reissued a correct translation. There have been 266 popes; 264 of them have died. Given human nature, how many more do you think were timely deaths? The gates of Hell shall indeed never overcome the Church.

With all this talk of the papacy, no doubt you’ve started asking, “What about I Peter 2:9 and the whole Book of Hebrews? Don’t you understand that priesthood is bad?” Tune in next time for a discussion of the priesthood of believers in relation to the priesthood of the Church.

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