The notion of papal infallibility enjoys an unhappy distinction. One of the most widely known memes of the last one-hundred-and-fifty years, it is also one of the most utterly misunderstood. The media’s reporting of two recent events illustrates the issue.

First, consider the retirement of Pope Benedict XVI. After Benedict’s dramatic announcement, serious and respected commentators raised such questions as “Will a resigned pope continue to be infallible?” and “What will happen if an infallible Benedict is contradicted by an infallible successor?” Questions like that may sell papers, but they show no evidence that the writers made the effort even to Google the term, “papal infallibility.” More recently, take the commentary on Pope Francis’s Synod on the Family. At the close of the synod’s initial sessions, a columnist for the New York Times—an educated Catholic—blankly depicted the policy of denying Communion to civilly divorced-and-remarried Catholics as an unavoidable implication of infallible papal teaching on the indissolubility of marriage.

The bishops who promulgated the doctrine of papal infallibility at the First Vatican Council in 1869 would have shuddered at such cartoonish misrepresentations of their highly nuanced creation. How egregious are those misrepresentation? Here is the original text of their decree:

We teach and define that it is a dogma Divinely revealed that the Roman pontiff when he speaks ex cathedra, that is when in discharge of the office of pastor and doctor of all Christians, by virtue of his supreme Apostolic authority, he defines a doctrine regarding faith or morals to be held by the universal Church, by the Divine assistance promised to him in Blessed Peter, is possessed of that infallibility with which the Divine Redeemer willed that his Church should be endowed in defining doctrine regarding faith or morals, and that therefore such definitions of the Roman pontiff are of themselves and not from the consent of the Church irreformable.

Note that the decree never uses the phrase “papal infallibility.” Its language, while dense, is quite specific and explicit: under certain very limited circumstances, the pope enjoys the protection of a divine gift that belongs in the first instance to the church as a whole. Nowhere is it decreed that the pope is infallible; indeed, the Catholic Church has never taught that any pope is infallible. Such a formulation would make the pope a sort of Superman, irrevocably inoculated against error. But the promise of infallibility is best imagined as a transient quality attributed not to the person, but only to one very narrowly circumscribed kind of action. And the promise of protection from error is made, moreover, to the whole church; the papacy is never presented as being imbued with such a power in isolation from the rest of the body of Christ. When a pope defines a doctrine, the faithful can trust they are not being led into error not because of any inherent quality of his, but rather by a prerogative conferred on the community of the faithful by its divine Redeemer. And so, to return to the sensational questions about Benedict’s retirement, the answer is that a pope can’t lose what he never possessed. Benedict was no less infallible the moment he resigned than he had been the moment before—because he wasn’t infallible then, either.

The catechesis concerning the doctrine of inerrancy has always emphasized the limited scope of the promise; the faithful were assured that it only applied in matters of faith and morals. But there exists a further, frequently overlooked limit: namely, that the promise applies to “defining doctrine”—a limiting phrase that occurs twice in the 1869 decree. This means that papal decisions of a merely practical or pastoral nature—even within the areas of faith and morals—enjoy no special divine protection. A similar distinction must be made concerning any pastoral decisions that may be taken by the pope as a consequence of last October’s Synod on the Family.

Those synod participants who oppose the leadership of Pope Francis are attempting to cast the event as doctrinal. Francis, by contrast, has stressed that it is a pastoral effort. The basic question is not “What will the church teach the body of the faithful?” but rather “How will the church respond pastorally to individual members who experience pain and exclusion as a result of prior pastoral responses by church leaders?” In other words, nothing that transpired in the pastoral discussions at the synod comes close to falling within the realm of papal infallibility. If Francis decides that some customary practices (such as the policy of denying Communion to the divorced-and-remarried) need to be changed, his decision will be no more “infallible” than are the practices he will be revising. They will be the fallible effort not of a teacher of doctrine, but of a caring pastor trying his best to balance justice with compassion. Whether they prove effective or not will be revealed only by the quality of Christian hope and living they engender.

As for the phrase in the decree separating papal doctrinal definitions from “the consent of the church,” it reflects the ecclesial realities of 1870, and must be understood in that context. Ending the decree with the earlier language situating the whole church as the primary object of the promise of inerrancy could have led an incautious reader to conclude that papal definitions lack authority unless and until they are endorsed by the body of the church. As a matter of fact, the Conciliarist movement and its stepchild Gallicanism—the belief that popular civil authority over the Catholic Church parallels that of the pope’s—were grounded in the assumption that ecumenical councils were, to use the shorthand phrase of the day, “over” the pope. The fathers of Vatican I were intent on eliminating any vestige of that mentality. The definition of a pope acting in accord with the prescribed conditions enjoys, by itself, the promise of inerrancy. It needs no further authentication by a council.

The issuing of a conciliar definition does not, of course, end the story. Far from it. The actual effect of such a decree on the life of the church lies not in the language of the formal decree itself, but in what the faith community hears—in the minds and hearts, that is, of those who receive it. To appreciate that subsequent history we need to return to the debate during Vatican I.


AMONG THE BISHOPS at the council three groups emerged. The positions of the first two are easily summarized: for and against. In the end, most of the opposition group abstained from voting, reluctant to go on record against a teaching that clearly was going to be adopted, and the result was an overwhelming vote of 451 to 2 in favor of the definition. But it is the third position, and the rationale presented by the bishops who took it, that we need to reflect on. It points directly to the current muddle.

A sizable group of bishops believed in the essential truth of the teaching but was opposed to its dogmatic proclamation. Their argument was based on pastoral rather than doctrinal considerations. Their question was not “Is the teaching reliable?” but “What will be the result if we proclaim it formally?” Was it wise, they wondered, to issue a definition? They foresaw a worrisome outcome of the issuance of a solemn declaration—namely, that once you declared that a pope’s teaching enjoyed the protection of infallibility, even under severely restricted conditions, it wouldn’t be long before people began saying that he is infallible. At which point all those careful restrictions would evaporate, and anything a pope said—does he endorse Verdi or Puccini, oatmeal or Cheerios?—would be considered infallible.

How prescient they were. The phenomenon they had foreseen came to enjoy its own picturesque designation: “creeping infallibility.” And despite the limits laid out in the decree, the trickle-down process moved swiftly from the pope to the whole system. Once the pope was viewed as infallible, it didn’t take long before the faithful began to see every bishop—even every country pastor—as infallible, too. (An opinion many of those pastors were all too happy to promote.) Contributing to this muddying was the decree’s failure to specify the mechanism by which the promise of inerrancy that belongs to the whole church is fulfilled in the action of a pope. Does he benefit from some special revelation not accorded to others in the church? If not, how does the promise actually work?

In the absence of a conciliar answer to that question, we need to examine the theological tradition on the question. This was essentially what the council fathers did; many of the major theologians they relied on had reflected quite consciously on the question. Unfortunately, most bishops, when they intervened on the council floor, simply listed theologians’ names in a sort of florilegium of supporters: “Did X hold the doctrine of papal infallibility? Add him to the list!” Little attention was paid to the way such a theologian understood what he was affirming. And of course that makes all the difference. What were supporters really supporting? In fact, the line of theologians cited by the bishops as advocates of papal infallibility rejected the notion that the promise of inerrancy was due to any sort of personal revelation or illumination granted to the pope. Which leaves the question: In the absence of such an illumination, how is the promise fulfilled? What happens within a pope to trigger this fulfillment?

To be precise: nothing. The theological tradition posed the question differently. The writers asked, what steps must the pope take to arrive at an inerrant conclusion? And their answer was that he must do the same kind of research any person would have to do to determine that a doctrine had in fact always been taught by the church: pray over the Scriptures, the great Fathers, and orthodox theologians of the church. Instead of appealing to some sort of personal revelation, the theological tradition subsumed the promise of infallibility within a broader theology of general divine providence. God guides creation not through extraordinary measures, but by respecting the nature of each creature. By promising inerrancy, God is promising equally that appropriate means will be taken to achieve it. To make this point, the writers often used the analogy of farming. God may promise a farmer a fine harvest; but that doesn’t absolve the farmer of the responsibility to do the work of planting, fertilizing, and watering the crop. In similar fashion, the pope must marshal evidence that a particular doctrine has already existed within the “deposit” of faith. His declaration—after adequate study—puts a seal on a process already at work, under the guidance of the Spirit, across the centuries of church life.

While analysis by a long line of esteemed theologians does not enjoy the exact same binding character as the formal definition itself, it is nonetheless a significant part of the history of the church’s rumination on what it is really teaching. In the cases of the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption of Mary, the only two doctrines defined since 1870, the official declaration appeals to the evidence of history, announcing that it is “Following upon the constant teaching embodied in Holy Scripture and Tradition.” What we are really promised in a papal definition is the reliable assumption that the pope’s immersion in the long life of the church—his prayer and study—is adequate to the task. Such theologizing has the salutary effect of taking a free-floating phantasm of papal inerrancy and anchoring it in our faith in God’s protection of the church itself—and ultimately in our trust of the Spirit of Jesus.

It would be irresponsible to end this reflection without confronting a final question: What allowed the muddling of a very precisely crafted definition? How did the syndrome of creeping infallibility come to work its mischief in secular society and indeed within the consciousness of the faithful?

To blame it all on power-hungry hierarchs would be too easy; nor can we lay responsibility solely at the feet of poor catechesis. That lets you and me off the hook. The truth is that the church is a single co-creating body of teachers and the taught; even the most effective catechesis comes up against the collective psyche of those being instructed. The caricature of papal infallibility clearly has exerted a certain attraction on the minds of the faithful, appealing to an understandable but spiritually unhealthy susceptibility at work in every last one of us. We allow the boundaries of the definition to be extended—and thus perpetuate the travesty—because we lust for a kind of certitude that is unavailable to us as finite creatures. We all want to see as God sees. And yet the one infallibly true thing is that we walk not by sight, but by faith.

Published in the February 12, 2016 issue: View Contents

George Wilson, SJ, is a retired ecclesiologist living in Cincinnati.

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