June 7, 2013

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Year of Faith: The pope is not infallible

John F. FinkDid that headline catch your attention? It was meant to, of course, because many Catholics think that the Catholic Church does teach that the pope is infallible. For some, this has been a stumbling block for ecumenism. However, the actual teaching is more nuanced.

“Infallibility” is a double-negative word meaning “the inability to err.” It’s not the same as “being correct” because someone could be correct without being necessarily correct. Infallibility for humans is possible only with divine assistance.

The Catholic Church believes that Jesus promised divine assistance to Peter and the other Apostles when he said, “Thou art Peter and upon this rock I will build my Church. . . . I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on Earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on Earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Mt 16: 18-19).

The infallibility of the pope was debated in 1870 during the First Vatican Council. Some of the bishops, led by Archbishop Henry Edward Manning of England, thought that the pope was personally infallible, that he could not err. Others, led by Lord Acton and John Henry Newman (neither of whom were at the council), thought that the pope could make doctrinal decisions binding on the whole Church only when he acted in agreement with the other bishops.

After lengthy discussion, a compromise was reached and the debate focused on the infallibility of the pope’s doctrinal decisions rather than on the infallibility of the pope himself.

Finally, the council decreed that the pope teaches infallibly under three conditions: when he exercises his office as pastor of all Christians (known as ex cathedra or “from the chair” of St. Peter), when he teaches on matters of faith or morals, and when he indicates that the doctrine must be held by the universal Church.

This is a subtle distinction between the infallibility of the pope himself and the infallibility of what he teaches, but it was considered an important distinction. Plus, not everything the pope teaches is infallible, but only what he teaches under those three conditions. When Pope Benedict XVI wrote his best-selling books Jesus of Nazareth, he made it clear that people were free to disagree with his analyses and conclusions. He was not attempting to teach infallibly.

The Second Vatican Council, in 1964, elaborated on the doctrine of infallibility. It stated that infallibility resides not only in the pope but also in the body of bishops “when that body exercises supreme teaching authority with the successor of Peter.”

The bishops’ infallible teaching authority has been exercised in 21 councils through the centuries. Doctrines concerning faith and morals defined by councils, after they have been promulgated by the pope, are considered to be infallible. That’s how most doctrines have been defined.

Popes rarely speak ex cathedra. Usually, in talks, letters, books, and other ways, they state authentic teachings of the Catholic Church in line with Scripture, tradition, and the living experience of the Church. However, Catholics should submit their wills and minds to the pope’s teaching authority whether or not he is speaking infallibly. †

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