The Infallibility of the Pope and the Magisterium
In discourse in the Catholic blogosphere in the last two years, it has become increasingly evident that Catholics grossly misunderstand the infallibility of our holy ecumenical Pontiff, presently, Benedict XVI, pope of Rome, and the universal Magisterium. This point of clarification is, to be honest, in response to a dispute on another column that began with the claim that “an encyclical is not dogma.”
Following the First Vatican Council, a number of Catholic theologians oversimplified the dogma of papal infallibility due to Orthodox and Protestant criticisms. The unfortunate result is that it has given rise to a flawed understanding of the dogma promulgated by the Council. The most prevalent, profoundly erroneous practice has been to view the dogma of papal infallibility as a formula, which severely misunderstands the teaching of Vatican I.
This is most obvious in a number of myths surrounding the dogma that are unfortunately still taught to some Catholics. For example, to exercise papal infallibility, the Holy Father does not have to be actually seated on the Papal Throne, nor does the ecumenical Pontiff have to explicitly cite the fact that he is invoking infallibility, and neither does the Bishop of Rome have to be issuing a dogma or doctrinal definition for his words to be infallible and therefore binding on all the faithful.
If one takes the contrary perspective, any time our holy ecumenical Pontiff is not seated in the Chair of St. Peter, explicitly mentions his authority to make infallible statements, and proceeds to “define” some doctrine, then it logically follows that in no other circumstance is the Holy Father infallible. This is undoubtedly an incorrect view.
The difficulty is with the term “defines,” as it can be confusing because it leaves the laity to imagine that it is a solemn pronouncement, which is not always the case. This has led to the contemporary, wide-spread notion that the definition of the Immaculate Conception in 1854 by our holy ecumenical Pontiff of venerable memory, Pius IX, and later the Assumption in 1950 by the Venerable Pope Pius XII are the only cases of the exercise of papal infallibility in the two millennia of Christianity. Such a view is incorrect. The idea that the exercise of papal infallibility has only ever occurred twice in history began in circles of dissenting Catholic theologians who wished to diminish the practical impact of the doctrine of papal infallibility on their dissenting views. By holding that there are only two known infallible dogmas, they implicitly suggested nothing else the Pope says can be interpreted as infallible, which allowed dissenting Catholic theologians to be free to promote heretical ideas. This established the breeding ground for contemporary wide-spread dissent as commonplace in the Catholic Church.
But a closer reading of history (or some of vibrant theologians of today, including the theologian who is currently the Bishop of Rome), papal infallibility has been exercised far more than two times. This was the understanding of the First Vatican Council, as is evident by Archbishop Gasser’s relatio (this can be found in a highly recommended book, entitled The Gift of Infallibility) which was read to the Bishops gathered at the council. This “briefing,” as it were, was to confirm there was a common understanding of the proposed definitions of papal infallibility that were to be voted on. The particular interest for purposes of the subject being raised here is that Gasser references to a number of instances that papal infallibility had been exercised before Vatican I. In other words, the Bishops voting at Vatican I believed they were solemnly defining a truth that had been known in Christian tradition for centuries, as the gift of infallibility, to their minds, had been exercised by the holy ecumenical Pontiffs throughout the ages.
At second reflection, such a view is perfectly logical. It would be a terribly odd (and suspicious) thing for an ecumenical council to declare papal infallibility and for there to be only two recognized exercises of this charism in history, which both fall after the council declared it. For if the pope truly possessed the charism of infallibility, he would not need a council to declare such a thing, he could do it himself. Furthermore, this reading of the facts gives considerable credence to Eastern Orthodox assertions that the dogma was an “invention” because nowhere in Christian history, given this stated view, has the pope ever used this alleged charism until after an ecumenical council stated that he possessed it—an ecumenical council he did not even need to elucidate such a divinely revealed truth because, technically, he could have defined it himself.
Such speculation, however, is irrelevant. The First Vatican Council believed the charism of papal infallibility had been used before and this view is obviously essential. The “Tome of Leo,” (449) by Pope St. Leo the Great, on the two natures of Christ received by the Council of Chalcedon, the Letter of Pope Agatho (680) on the two wills of Christ received by the Third Council of Constantinople, and a host of other historical instances of popes definitively resolving disputes are cited as instances of papal infallibility. The speculation still continues today among Catholic theologians.
Truly, our ecumenical Pontiff of venerable memory, John Paul II the Great exercised papal infallibility more than any of his predecessors, if only for the reason that papal canonizations are infallible. This very point highlights the very “crux” of the pervasive misunderstanding of papal infallibility. Going into the First Vatican Council, there was an ultramontanist view that held that every infallible element of bulls, encyclicals, etc., every decree of the Roman Congregation, if adopted by the Pope should be seen as stamped with the mark of infallibility; in short, “…every doctrinal pronouncement is infallibly rendered by the Holy Spirit.” Such an attitude treated papal pronouncements the way Protestants treat the Bible.
This view was rejected by the Council (yet many Orthodox and Protestants think this is what was adopted). The danger of such a theological position is not only the ultra-monarchist, dictatorial overtones but the inevitable historical problems of the past popes who obviously erred—the most notable examples being Pope St. Liberius, Pope Vigilius, Pope Honorius I, Pope John XXII, Pope Sixtus V, Pope Paul V, Pope Clement XIII, and Pope Pius VIIII.
Yet the view adopted by the First Vatican Council, the authentic understanding of the papal infallibility, easily survives all these historical objections with little difficulty. The council never intended the oversimplified equation of solemnity to infallibility. Archbishop Gasser at the council addressed the very point of emphasizing solemnity as the innovation that it is:
“…most eminent and reverent Fathers this simply will not do because we are not dealing with anything new here. Already thousands and thousands of dogmatic judgments have gone forth from the Apostolic See and where was the form that was attached to these judgments?” (Relatio).
The Archbishop was obviously speaking in hyperbole claiming that “thousands” of dogmatic judgments have been given by the Bishop of Rome, but it was to underscore his point—definitive papal judgments, underscored by infallibility, was not a new concept. It is not something that the Church invented. From the perspective of the development of doctrine, as articulated by Cardinal Newman, of venerable memory, the dogma has not always been fully understood, in terms of its extent and its limits. Whenever it was employed, as the First Vatican Council surely thought it had been, it lacked the rigid formulas and the insistence of formal solemnity that was being imposed upon the charism—even though these things do, arguably, serve the purpose of clarity. Yet given this insistence, those who hold the view that equates solemnity to infallibility will never find a moment in history where a pope exercised papal infallibility outside of the two instances claimed to be the only ones, at first by dissenting Catholics, and now virtually by most Catholics.
The form or relative level of solemnity cannot be germane to the infallibility of a papal judgment. Such a claim is preposterous. A church under persecution or fighting widespread contentious heresy, at the time of the historical rise of Christianity could hardly be given to such a view requiring such form. Solemnity, at best, may have its proper place, in the modern context, concerning the importance of the truth being taught or defined, but it is not some sort of formulaic requirement for whether or not a given teaching is or is not infallible. It is into even relevant.
The First Vatican Council employed the term “define” to highlight an important point: for the Bishop of Rome to be exercising papal infallibility the teaching must be addressed explicitly or by implication to the universal church, hence, the employment of the phrase “exercising his office as shepherd and teacher of all Christians.” In addition to this, the Holy Father must be intended to make a teaching definitive in a manner that makes such an intention known. Such a teaching is infallibly given ex cathedra.
At Vatican I a group of bishops (called a “Deputation”) was given the task of drafting the definition of papal infallibility. They submitted their definition in a first draft as a tentative document to be revised by suggestions for correction and additions. A second draft incorporating such changes was submitted to the council. It read as follows:
“Therefore, faithfully adhering to the tradition received from the beginning of the Christian religion, for the glory of God our Savior, for the exaltation of the Catholic faith and the salvation of the Christian people, with the approval of the sacred council, we teach and define that it is a divinely revealed dogma that the Roman Pontiff, when he speaks “ex cathedra,” i.e., when exercising his office as pastor and teacher of all Christians he defines, by his supreme apostolic authority, a doctrine of faith or morals which must be held by the universal Church, enjoys, through the divine assistance, that infallibility promised to him in blessed Peter and with which the divine Redeemer wanted His Church to be endowed in defining doctrine of faith or morals; and therefore that definitions of the same Roman Pontiff are irreformable of themselves.”
Following the presentation of the draft, virtually identical with the official dogmatic statement of the council, Archbishop Gasser stood before the council and made a noteworthy point of clarification about the draft concerning the connotation of the word “defines” as it relates to papal infallibility:
…the word ‘define’ as it is found in our Draft. It is obvious from the many exceptions that this word is an obstacle for some of the reverend fathers; hence, in their exceptions, they have completely eliminated this word or have substituted another word, viz., ‘decree,’ or something similar, in its place, or have said, simultaneously, ‘defines and decrees,’ etc. Now I shall explain in a very few words how this word ‘defines’ is to be understood according to the Deputation “de fide.” Indeed, the Deputation de fide is not of the mind that this word should be understood in a juridical sense so that it only signifies putting an end to a controversy which has arisen with respect to heresy and doctrine which is properly speaking “de fide.” Rather, the word signifies that the Pope directly and conclusively pronounces his sentence about a doctrine which concerns matters of faith or morals and does so in such a way that each one of the faithful can be certain of the mind of the Apostolic See, of the mind of the Roman Pontiff; in such a way, indeed, that he or she knows for certain that such and such a doctrine is held to be heretical, proximate to heresy, certain or erroneous, etc, by the Roman Pontiff. Such therefore, is the meaning of the word ‘defines.’
This point specifically refutes the common notion espoused by many Catholics, apologists or otherwise, regarding papal infallibility. The pope in “defining” a doctrine is not only defining a doctrine as an article of faith to be held—in the Archbishop Gasser’s words, “a juridical sense…only…putting an end to a controversy which has arisen”—but also in a stating what is and what is not in accord with Catholic teaching and what views the faithful cannot hold on matters of faith and morality.
This problem was specifically addressed by Venerable Pope Pius XII in 1950 when a number of dissenting Catholic theologians, influenced by “modernism,” began to dismiss the Ordinary Universal Magisterium and claimed that only ex cathedra teachings understood in the sense of solemn definitions were infallible and irreformable (as mentioned above). The view of the dissenting Catholic theologians was that only the dogmatic pronouncements regarding the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary were infallible and nothing else the pope said, particularly in his encyclicals, was binding and that Catholics could dissent in good conscience from the Holy Father’s statements on faith and moral principles. This view could not be more erroneous and unfortunately today it is mainstream.
This is obvious from the clarification that the term “defines” encompasses not only positive teachings but doctrinal and theological condemnations of “secondary truths” of divine revelation. In this sense, Vatican I dealt with only a narrow aspect of papal infallibility because the decree only addresses what is to be beliveved de fide, it does not address the other areas where the pope can and does speak with infallibility. Addressing the assent owed to the Magisterium of the Church, Venerable Pope Pius XII stated in Humani Generis:
[It must not] be thought that what is expounded in Encyclical Letters does not of itself demand consent, since in writing such Letters the Popes do not exercise the supreme power of their Teaching Authority. For these matters are taught with the ordinary teaching authority [The Ordinary Magisterium], of which it is true to say: ‘He who hears you, hears me’; [Luke 10:16] and generally what is expounded and inculcated in Encyclical Letters already for other reasons appertains to Catholic doctrine. But if the Supreme Pontiffs in their official documents purposely pass judgment on a matter up to that time under dispute, it is obvious that that matter, according to the mind and will of the Pontiffs, cannot be any longer considered a question open to discussion…
Pope Pius XII noted that the Bishop of Rome passing judgment on a theological or moral dispute in his official documents (such as an encyclical), either by affirming or condemning, is sufficient to remove that issue from being open to debate. In short, this is a reference of papal infallibility—the Pope declaring a position to be either certain or in error, in varying degrees. Such an act is not ex cathedra (the “Extraordinary Magisterium”) but would still be infallible according to the Supreme Ordinary Magisterium, which is equally infallible but not as solemn or precise in form. The Ordinary Magisterium emphasizes truths of the Catholic faith, which are definitively, i.e. infallible, but are not de fine; the degree of assent owed is identical, but the canonical penalty for willful rejection by any Catholic differs. Solemn definitions (called dogmas) fall under the censure of heresy for disbelief (as being divinely revealed) and truths of doctrine (infallible non-solemn teachings) do not incur the censure of heresy for dissent but vary according to the theological matter from dangerous to erroneous (and in some cases, “proximate to heresy”).