Infallibility: a user’s guide

I received the following piece via email from the Jesuit Institute of South Africa.

I didn’t write it, but I think that it is a useful discussion of what the Catholic concept of “papal infallibility” actually entails.

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Raymond Perrier.

Infallible? by Raymond Perrier

Infallible must be one of the most misunderstood terms in Catholic vocabulary.  Reflecting on the Papacy of Benedict XVI we can remind ourselves what Papal infallibility is and most importantly what it is not.

The origins of the idea of infallibility started not with Popes but with the Church.  The notion is that the whole body of the Church gathered together – for example a council of the worldwide college of bishops – must be inspired by the Holy Spirit and so cannot make an error.  Thus, the bishops assembled with the Pope (as at the Second Vatican Council 50 years ago) can invoke infallibility.

However, 150 years ago, faced with the prospect of being isolated in the Vatican City by the newly united Italy, the then Pope Pius IX was worried that he would not be able to call a Council of the Church if he needed to.  He thus proposed that infallibility applied not only to Councils but also to the Pope acting on his own; this was declared by the First Vatican Council in 1870.  Thus, every Pope since has in theory been able to invoke infallibility.

But this is the key: infallibility must be invoked.  It is not automatic.  The Pope has to be speaking from his office as Bishop of Rome (the Latin term for this ‘ex cathedra’ is the source of the word ‘cathedral’); it must be on a matter of faith or morals; and it must be in keeping with Scripture and the tradition of the Church; it is held to be ‘divinely revealed’.  So you can’t go and ask the Pope to tell you the location of the Holy Grail or the weather forecast for next April or the winning numbers of the Lotto and expect his answer to be infallible.

In fact, infallibility was never invoked by Pope Pius IX nor by Paul VI nor even by John Paul II.  It has only been used explicitly once which was in 1950 when Pope Pius XII proclaimed the dogma of the Assumption – which had actually been widely since at least the 4th century.

When a Pope teaches it is – outside of a General Council – the highest teaching of the Church but it is not automatically infallible.  Benedict knew that very well.  Furthermore, he knew that he had to distinguish between his authoritative teaching as Pope (his extraordinarily beautiful and thoughtful encyclicals or his weekly Angelus address) and his writings as a theologian, even the ones that came out while he was Pope.

He was also able to admit a mistake.  One example of this was when, in an attempt to build bridges with a right-wing breakaway group of bishops, he unwittingly engaged with a man who turned out to be a holocaust denier.  Pope Benedict came as close to any Pope ever has in saying – whoops, we got it wrong; we didn’t do our homework.

It is worth remembering the answer he gave just before the conclave that elected him in 2005.  A journalist asked if the Holy Spirit would be electing the new Pope.  The then Cardinal Ratzinger replied: “No, the cardinals will elect the new Pope.  However, we hope that the Holy Spirit is not absent from the process.”

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Raymond Perrier is Director of the Jesuit Institute of South Africa

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Related posts:

Vale, Pope Penedict XVI

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One thought on “Infallibility: a user’s guide

  1. An interesting article, although it seems inaccurate in two key places.

    However, 150 years ago, faced with the prospect of being isolated in the Vatican City by the newly united Italy, the then Pope Pius IX was worried that he would not be able to call a Council of the Church if he needed to. He thus proposed that infallibility applied not only to Councils but also to the Pope acting on his own; this was declared by the First Vatican Council in 1870.

    The tradition of infallibility considerably precedes the formal declaration thereof. The Hormisdas formula from 519 states that “the Roman church has never erred (and will never err)”. The Dictatus Papae (attributed to Pope Gregory VII in 1075) assert that no one can judge the pope and that “the Roman church has never erred; nor will it err to all eternity, the Scripture bearing witness”. In 1330, Carmelite bishop Guido Terreni described papal infallibility in terms very similar to those of the First Vatican Council. Wider discussion and definition of papal infallibility dates back to roughly the fourteenth century and continued in subsequent centuries.

    Thus, every Pope since has in theory been able to invoke infallibility.
    But this is the key: infallibility must be invoked. It is not automatic.

    This is wrong, or at best imprecise. He does not have to invoke anything; infallibility applies by definition when the Pope is acting ex cathedra. No General Council is required.

    Vatican I stated: “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.”

    But the advice regarding Papal lottery guidance is solid. 🙂

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