Infallibility is an issue of momentous importance. It was the topic of multiple heated debates I had with various professors at the Athenaeum of Ohio while attending classes in the LPMP (Lay Pastoral Ministry Program.) This WebPage is a final repository for my arguments, to be linked to from other WebPages, and to have it's own left-column navigation button. Some Athenaeum professors insisted that only the highest level of doctrine - dogma - involved Papal infallibility in any way. Some denied the strength, and some even the existence, of the Ordinary teaching office of the Pope, fully recognizing only the Extraordinary Papal teaching office.
There were similar debates regarding the Church's consistent teaching on Slavery, and so I did a page on that in the Catholic American Thinker, to be linked to from the various LPMP classes in which it became an issue. Infallibility, however, is a broader and more critical issue, which a lot of Catholics and non-Catholics, American and non-American, have an interest in. Indeed, the principles of Infallibility - the notion of the existence in the World of an infallible teaching authority - is central to the preservation of Christianity itself. It is that principle alone that prevents Christianity from radical change from century to century, as can be witnessed in the recorded history of every single non-Christian / non-Jewish religion that has a historical record.
First, in considering the notion of infallibility itself, it should be noted that just about every Christian denomination or confession believes in it, although they may not call it infallibility, and many may deny this contention. Their actions speak louder than their words.
At the most extreme opposing position from the Catholic position, we find the so-called “fundamentalist” Sola-Scriptura Protestant who denies all teaching authority other than his Bible, deeply involved in his every-man-for-himself interpretation and Scripture-alone authority of the Revealed Truth, in which he believes that he, aided by the Holy Ghost, achieves the level of infallibility when reading and interpreting all of the Word for himself. (Although he might not say it like that.)
The Quaker and Quaker-like denominations hold that the “inner light” provides them with all that they need, per John 1:9: “That was the true light, which enlighteneth every man that cometh into this world.” They therefore deny Church organization, clergy, sacraments and so forth, and hold “silent” meetings in which each prays silently, according to the given inner light, which they see as infallible.
A little closer to the Catholic position we find the more orthodox Protestant denominations, in which we find that, in their Liturgy, someone is standing in a pulpit or otherwise in front of the congregation, reading – and interpreting – the Word, while the others are hearing and learning, in a modern day scene reminiscent of Ezra reading and interpreting so that all could understand (Nehemiah 8:8.), or of Phillip interpreting for the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8:30-31).
There is a very good reason that the ministers speak and the congregations hear. For the first and second centuries, the Church did not use the word Bishop to designate the Apostles and/or other heads of various Churches; the Church referred to the Apostles and their appointees in various Churches as Prophets, or Teachers. This did not mean that they “prophesied” about the future, in the older sense of the word, but that they correctly interpreted and taught the Good News of Jesus Christ as passed on by Him and by the original Apostles themselves. This is the language used in the first century – the century of Christ and the Apostles – and in the second. It is, indeed, the language of the inspired first century authors of New Testament Scripture. With that language usage in mind, let us consider the first rule of Scripture interpretation, which we find in 2 Peter 1:19-21:
These "holy men of God" who spoke under Divine inspiration were the Apostles and the Evangelists, including those who actually wrote the inspired words that became the New Testament that we read today. Out of this ongoing speaking Tradition of the Apostles came the written Word of God. (Up until that time, all Scripture mentioned in Scripture referred solely to Old Testament Scripture, the New Testament not having been written yet.)
There is a sense here that some are specially set apart for the purpose of protecting and passing on the Good News. Whether they own up to it or not, our more orthodox Protestant brothers and sisters have ministers who fulfill for them much the same functions as our bishops and priests, in that these ministers are deemed by their congregations to be devout, holy, upright and decent individuals, who (hopefully) dedicate their entire lives to the single job of correctly shepherding the flock of Christ, and passing on the “Kingdom” message to the ends of the world.
When someone sits in a congregation and listens intently and correctly to the Good News, they are saying by that action that they recognize that this Church, this organization to which this minister belongs, has the one and only correct interpretation of the Word, and if they did not believe that, then they would not be regularly sitting there hearing and receiving the Word, as interpreted by this denomination or confession, and this one alone. If they believed otherwise, then they might go to a Catholic Mass next Sunday, and perhaps a silent Quaker gathering the next. These people believe that their denominations hold the infallible truth about the Revelation of Jesus Christ.
I think we all naturally know that there exists such a thing as an objective truth that is completely independent of the mind of man, and that remains objective truth regardless of how or what or even if we think about it. But we are all different, and therefore might each interpret some small item of objective truth differently. My whole point here is this: the very existence in this world of one single unchanging Gospel message logically demands the ongoing existence in this world of one single infallible authority to preserve it unchanged, and to properly teach it to others. Newman put it this way:
There are two questions to be asked and answered regarding any on-going infallible authority on earth. First, did our Lord Jesus Christ institute an earthly Church, and second, if He did, then did He intend for it to continue existing until this day, and perhaps beyond. If the answer to both of those questions is yes, then it is fairly hard to conceive of how He might have intended for His Church to have ever altered, in any way, His saving message to the world.
We know, without question, that the Roman Catholic Church is the Church founded by Jesus Christ. The historical evidence backing that statement is overwhelming in quantity and irrefutable in quality. The Roman Catholic papacy is the oldest, uninterrupted, continuously existing institution on earth, by an exceptionally wide margin. There is a very good reason for that.
The Church is not, has never been, and can never be, a Democracy. Yet human nature seems to demand some variant of Democracy for civil government. The exact opposite of Democracy is Bureaucracy. As an organization for civil government, bureaucracy has the problem of selecting its leaders. In all forms of Socialism, which is, almost definitively, bureaucracy with a capital B, the leadership determination method has historically been by brute force. Von Mises described how early German Socialists such as Count Henri de Saint-Simon and Auguste Comte pointed to the Roman Catholic Church as the perfect model of Plato’s Utopia, a perfect bureaucracy, unchanging, fixed and stable for centuries, which had solved the problem of every non-democratic government, the peaceful and reliable method of the selection of the rulers. (Bureaucracy; Ludwig von Mises; Center For Futures Education; 1983; page 102.)
And it was the same for later Socialists, although for obvious reasons they did not publicly point to the Church as their model. It would be the perfect government organization, if only it could be stripped of its silly religion and religious trappings. It is a pure bureaucracy, but one that has “Democratic” overtones. To paraphrase Von Mises, the highest offices and dignities of the Church are virtually open and accessible to every Catholic boy. Local priests are anxious to smooth the way to higher education for the most intelligent youths with a calling; these are trained in the Bishop’s seminary, and their further career depends entirely upon their character and zeal and intellect.
As Mises pointed out, there are among Catholic Church prelates many scions of noble and wealthy families, alongside sons of farmers. They do not owe their office to their ancestry, social position or money at all; they must compete, on almost equal terms, with the sons of the poor, ordinary workers and nobodies. The princes of the Catholic Church, the abbots and the teachers of the theological universities, are (or were once) recognized by all as a body of truly eminent men. Even in the most advanced countries they were always worthy rivals of the most brilliant scholars, philosophers, scientists and statesmen. No other precedent of such a perfect hierarchy can be found other than that presented by Catholicism; but as a model for secular society and a system of civil government, it cannot possibly work.
The realm ruled by the Pope and the other Bishops is not subject to any change; it is built upon a perennial and immutable doctrine whose creed is fixed forever. There is no progress and no evolution; there is only obedience to the existing law and the dogma. What dogma? Every element of the Creed. (Dogmas “outside” the Creed flow from elements of the Creed. Infallibility, for instance, flows from “One holy Catholic and Apostolic Church”; the Assumption and the Immaculate Conception flow from “…born of the Virgin Mary…”; etc.)
To deny dogma is to deny original Revelation. Revelation, which is to say, Scripture and oral Tradition, cannot be allowed by the Church to change. Defined and decreed doctrine and dogma come into being, most usually, when doctrinal points are publicly called into question, and require an official definition in the light of Revelation to settle the matter once and for all. Doctrine and dogma develop over time only in wrapping and in nuance and in language necessary to teach old truths to newer generations under newer cultural circumstances. The core teaching does not change. When any Revealed Truth is challenged, the Church may reinforce it by re-explaining it, by elevating it in firm teaching, or by declaring new doctrine or even dogma concerning it, in its own defense. It is an important responsibility of the Church to preserve Revelation unchanged, until He comes again.
Disregarding, for the moment, the purpose to go forth and preach the Kingdom to all nations, the purpose of the Church is to protect the Creed from contamination, which is another way of saying that the purpose of the Church is to not change. Or, at least, the Church cannot change what the Church teaches. The selection process by which Catholicism chooses its future chiefs is carefully safeguarded by the old and well tried present rulers, and is based upon unswerving devotion to the creed and its dogmas; it does not look for innovators, reformers, pioneers or proponents of new ideas. This adamant conservatism, in the oldest meaning of the word, is perfect for Catholicism’s purpose of preserving an ancient liturgy and an unchanging creed, but it would be death to civil society and civil government.
Man’s most precious inherent right is to strive endlessly to improve his condition, and to innovate new methods to overcome the new and ever changing obstacles to his self improvement. Those forces which brought about our present condition, level of advancement, and civilization are still operating, they are not dead; if our ancestors had adopted pure bureaucracy and achieved perfect stability as in Plato’s Utopia, they would long ago have been wiped out by beasts of prey or microbes, which is why rigid bureaucratic methods are totally inadequate for ruling the conduct of the social and economic affairs of men. The world changes; only the Church remains unchanged. My Kingdom is not of this world (John 18:36.)
The purpose of the Church is to protect the ancient creed and liturgy from change; but the purpose of the world is to change, and change it has, and change it will, and nothing can stop it. Bureaucracy works well for the Church, but only for the Church, and certainly not for civil government (Bureaucracy, Ludwig von Mises, Center For Future Education, 1944; pages 101-104.) The Church provides stability and an unchanging basis for morality, upon which society should be founded. Bureaucracy succeeds for the Church because the goal of the church, which coincides with the goal of the bureaucracy, is to not ever change.
Bureaucracy fails as a form of national government because it is rigid and static as opposed to flexible and dynamic, and can not handle change, particularly rapid change, and the world, quite simply, will not stop changing. The most successful worldly scientists and entrepreneurs are always the proactive innovators and agents of change; but the most successful ecclesial authorities are those who deeply love, jealously protect and teach the unchanging Revelation.
While an individual should never want his moral base to change, he should always want access to a newly developed pill with which to better fight off the old or newly discovered microbe. In the ideal situation, individual men submit to the authority that gives them their moral base; these moral individuals cooperate to construct their families, the primal social unit, and their larger societies and social organizations. But the same individual who might submit to the rule of the Church over affairs of his soul may and should resist having the minute details of his day to day life micro-managed by the state. Free men need to participate in their own government. Some degree of representative civil government is needed in secular life.
There is and must be a major split between ecclesial and civil authority. But problems arise when civil authority attempts to legislate or regulate morality – whether up or down – without input from all those affected, just as problems arise when ecclesial authority attempts to interfere with affairs of state, disregarding those of other faiths. In a perfect world, which we will never see, a moral population would elect moral representatives, who would legislate and enforce moral law. We are an 86% professed Christian nation, and a 96% professed believer nation; it would seem reasonable to assume that our legislators and judges and executives might be overwhelmingly Christian and non-atheist, and “moral” in the Judeo-Christian, Western-Culture sense of the word.
But in our era, in this overwhelmingly Christian nation, we have our tax dollars used by public schools to pass out condoms to other people’s children, and to teach the mechanics of “safe” fornication, “protected” sodomy, “responsible” promiscuity, even as popular entertainment winks at “discreet” adultery, just for openers, and note well that Scripture in school and Christian expression in public are very strongly censored here. Religious censorship aimed predominantly at Christianity is the main way in which the ACLU spends our tax dollars.
We may well wonder exactly who is imposing whose religion upon whom.
No one among our “representatives” even asks how or why overarching “tolerance” and explicit sexual topics ever became an integral part of the classical education curricula, or how they help our children, let alone precisely how the teachers might have become qualified to teach them. The secular “world” is unqualified to teach morality.
Protestant America might not accept papal infallibility, but they might certainly be much more in agreement with the pope’s view of morality than that of the civil government or of academia or of Hollywood. Tension between the ecclesial and the temporal authorities is necessary; it should be expressed in direct, public, open dialogue to be healthy, which is to say, neither side should be completely overpowered or dominated by the other.
For Catholics, no matter what happens in culture, morality does not change. We have a fixed peg in a sure place, and a sure guide at the helm.
Just as papal infallibility is deeply entangled with papal supremacy, we cannot discuss infallibility without first discussing the Magisterium of the Church. We cannot even talk about official Catholic teaching, and official Catholic teaching authority, without talking about Magisterium; a definition for Magisterium can be found in any Catholic dictionary.
Magisterium is the Church’s teaching office and authority. It is vested in the Pope, as Vicar of Christ and visible head of the Church. It is also vested in the bishops, as successors of the Apostles, under the Roman Pontiff. There are two different levels of magisterial teaching.
Extraordinary Magisterium refers to Church teaching expressed in a solemn way, as in formal declarations of the Pope, pronouncements of ecumenical councils or other councils of bishops approved by the Pope. Papal definitions and counciliar decisions are binding on the consciences of the faithful, and are infallible.
Ordinary Magisterium refers to the teaching office (the hierarchy under the Pope) exercised normally through the regular means of instructing the faithful. These means are all the usual channels of communication, written, spoken or otherwise transmitted. When an ordinary magisterium (teaching) is a universal teaching, i.e., intended to instruct all faithful everywhere, it is also binding on the consciences of the faithful, and it is infallible (Pocket Catholic Dictionary; John a. Hardon, S.J.; Image; 1985; Pages 237-238.) Papal encyclicals, for example, are normally published in many languages, intended for world-wide release, and frequently contain definitive teaching on matters of faith and morals.
There have always been objections alleged to the infallibility of the pope, just as there have been for the Church itself. But none that stand the test of investigation. The chief allegation is that popes have taught heresy or changed their teaching, in the format, now it’s dogma, now it’s not. But, in all of history, this has never occurred. There are only three popes involved in these allegations that have ever been worthy of note, and they are the popes Liberius, Honorious and Vigilius.
Pope Liberius is supposed to have subscribed an Arian or Semi-Arian creed drawn up by the Council of Sirmium, and he anathematized St. Athanasius, the great champion of Nicaea, as a heretic. But even if this were an accurate statement of historical fact, it is a very inadequate statement regarding infallibility, because it says nothing about Liberius teaching anyone anything. Infallible does not equal impeccable. And, the important circumstance should be added that the pope acted under pressure of a very cruel coercion, which deprived his action of any claim to be considered ex cathedra, and that he himself, as soon as he had recovered his liberty, made amends for the moral weakness he had been guilty of. It further should be noted that there is no evidence whatever that Liberius ever anathematized St. Athanasius expressly as a heretic. It remains a moot point which of three or four Sirmian creeds he subscribed, two of which contained no positive assertion of heretical doctrine and were defective merely for the negative reason that they failed to insist on the full definition of Nicaea. There was no teaching here.
The charge against Pope Honorius is that, regarding the Monothelite controversy, he actually taught the Monothelite heresy in his letters to Sergius; and that he was condemned as a heretic by the Sixth Ecumenical Council, which was approved by Leo II.
But, first, it is clear from the tone and terms of these letters that, far from intending to give any final, or ex cathedra, decision on the doctrinal question at issue, Honorius merely tried to allay the rising bitterness of the controversy by securing silence. He went out of his way to not make a decision.
And, second, taking the letters as they stand, the very most that can be incontrovertibly deduced from them is, that Honorius was not a profound theologian, and that he allowed himself to be misled by the wily Sergius as to what the issue really was, and he too readily accepted the latter's misrepresentation of the opposite position, to the effect that the assertion of two wills in Christ meant two contrary or discordant wills.
Third, in reference to the condemnation of Honorius “as a heretic,” it is to be noted that there is nothing from the ecumenical council affirming the fact either that Honorius's letters to Sergius contain heresy, or that they were intended to define the question with which they deal.
The sentence passed by the fathers of the council has ecumenical value only in so far as it was approved by Leo II; but, in approving the condemnation of Honorius, his successor adds the very important qualification that he is condemned, not for the doctrinal reason that he taught heresy, but on the moral ground that he lacked vigilance expected of his Apostolic office, and he allowed a heresy to make headway which he should have crushed immediately. Honorius’ error was not in what he taught; it was that he failed to make a decision. Again, this has nothing to do with papal teaching infallibility, but only the weakness of a human being.
As for Pope Vigilius, there is even less reason for trying to base an objection to papal infallibility on the wavering conduct of Pope Vigilius in connection with the controversy of The Three Chapters. These Chapters pertained to documents written by Theodore of Mopsuestia, Theodoret of cyrus and a letter from Ibas to Maris. Early in this long-running controversy, the two major opposing viewpoints hardened, into those who anathematized The Three Chapters, aligned against those who did not anathematize them. The charge was made that those who did not anathematize the writings defended and/or held them, which was not necessarily true. At any rate, the whole thing had nothing to do with any Papal universal Papal teaching.
Regarding the Galileo affair, it should be enough to point out the fact that the condemnation of the heliocentric theory was the work, not of a pope, but of a fallible tribunal. The pope cannot delegate the exercise of his infallible authority to the Roman Congregations, and whatever issues formally in the name of any of these, even when approved and confirmed in the ordinary official way by the pope, does not pretend to be ex cathedra and infallible. The pope, of course, can convert doctrinal decisions of the Holy Office, which are not in themselves infallible, into ex cathedra papal pronouncements, but in doing so he must comply with the conditions already explained -- which neither Paul V nor Urban VIII did in the Galileo case. And, of course, the notion of heliocentricity does not touch upon faith or morals, and does not affect the Depositum Fidei.
The biggest negative example falsely used in modern times seems to be artificial contraception; detractors would have us believe that the Church condemnation of it is something “new.” The quotations of the Church Fathers, the councils, encyclicals and bulls consistently condemning it would fill a paper more than twice the size of this one.
The Church has never changed her position on contraception, from the first century until this very day.
The simple fact of the matter is that no infallible definition of any pope has ever been shown to be in error.
Scripture has many choice references to Apostolic succession, but I shall concentrate on only a few, since this paper primarily deals with papal infallibility; then will follow some Scriptural references to Peter’s infallibility. But first, it needs to be understood that the successors of the Apostles are with us today, as is the successor of Peter.
The Holy Ghost and Infallibility.
It is beneficial to read the entire 14th and 15th chapters of John, paying careful attention to whom it is that the Lord is speaking, throughout. He is speaking to His Apostles, and that is a very important point. He had previously appointed them Apostles; He has now told them some mysterious things that they cannot fully understand, but that they would later understand, and that He would send another “Counselor” to them, Whom they would know, but the world would not know.
They still did not understand. In 14:22, Judas, not the Iscariot, said to Him, “Lord, how is it that you will manifest yourself to us, and not to the world?” The answer is fairly long. In 14:25-26, He says in reply, “These things I have spoken to you, while I am still with you. But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you.” (Emphasis added.)
Through the Holy Ghost, the Church will never forget the Words of the Lord. Infallibility is not promised randomly to all, but to His Apostles.
He continues in 15:26-27, “But when the Counselor comes, whom I shall send to you from the Father, even the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, he will bear witness to me, and you also are witnesses, because you have been with me from the beginning.” And He continues farther in 15:12-15: “I have yet many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all truth; for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine; therefore I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.”
This represents the guidance, into all truth, of the Church of Jesus Christ, by the Holy Spirit.
Jesus Christ Himself appointed the first twelve Apostles to be the leaders of His Church. Over the last two thousand plus years, there has been an unbroken line of Apostolic succession in the Roman Catholic Church, for 265 Papacies, from number 1, Peter, to number 265, Benedict VI (although Peter and the first few were not called “Pope.”) Every single Bishop has received a laying on of hands from other Bishops, tracing back to the blessing of Jesus in the upper room, when He breathed on them, and said receive the Holy Spirit (Jn. 20:22.)
Apostolic Succession continues Infallibility.
The first Apostolic succession is to be found in Acts 1 by the establishment Mathias as a replacement Apostle for Judas Iscariot (Acts 1:20-26.) The second letter of Paul to Timothy (2 Tim. 2:2) establishes the role of Apostolic succession in preserving the doctrine that is handed on; in this one passage, “What you have heard from me before many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also” we find reference to four generations of Apostolic succession: Paul’s, Timothy’s, the generation Timothy will teach, and the generation they will teach.
Church Councils and Infallibility.
Acts 15, the Council of Jerusalem, establishes the model for future Church ecumenical councils. A contentious problem arises; Paul, Barnabas and others were appointed to go up to Jerusalem to the Apostles for a decision; they put the case before the gathered Apostles; the matter was debated; Peter spoke authoritatively; James added details; and a letter was drafted from the Apostles to the gentiles, in which it is stated that “it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us” to settle the matter in this way, and it included an authoritative, written, Apostolic teaching on the subject.
Infallibility in the Sign of the Keys.
In Matthew, our Lord gave the Apostles the power to bind and to loose, in Heaven and on Earth, which represents an awesome power to be granted. The same power to bind and to loose He gave individually to Peter, and to Peter alone He gave the power of the Keys.
In New Testament era Hebrew culture, to give someone the “keys” was to make him the chief steward of the household and to impart to him full authority to act in the absence of the master. This was a very big deal. Chief Stewards of major households wore the Keys (or emblems of them) attached to a sash worn over their shoulder as a badge of office. And in this same Scripture we see that Christ’s Church, founded upon Peter, will prevail against even the powers of Hell. Which it seems to be doing very well.
Infallibility in the Lord's special prayer for Peter.
From Luke 22(31-32) we have this: “And the Lord said: Simon, Simon, behold Satan hath desired to have you, that he may sift you as wheat: But I have prayed for thee, that thy faith fail not: and thou, being once converted, confirm thy brethren.” Here our Lord is addressing the Apostles collectively and Peter individually, in a very special way, if we consider the original Greek:
This is the prayer of Jesus for Peter, in a passage that is quoted in Vatican II documents (ex: Lumen Gentium Ch 3 § 25), and by John Paul the Great (ex. Fidei Depositum § 3 (at the front of the CCC; John Paul the Great's Apostolic Constitution re the Catechism), as well as by many other Popes and many Church Fathers, as directly referring to papal infallibility.
The Fathers of the Church attest heavily to the succession of the bishops and particularly of the bishops of Rome. I have selected several who attest to his primacy in the Church.
Clement on Infallibility.
Ignatius on Infallibility.
Dionysius on Infallibility.
Irenaeus on Infallibility.
Victor on Infallibility.
Cyprian on Infallibility.
Cyprian, again, on Infallibility.
Athanasius on Infallibility.
I stop here with quotes of the Church Fathers, to move on to more recent evidences. Suffice it to say that the Fathers supported papal primacy through the Anti-Nicene, Nicene, and Post-Nicene eras.
In order to illustrate how the Vatican I infallibility definition of 1870 drew on centuries of reflection and practice, we will cite:
St. Francis de Sales' teaching on Infallibility from around 1596:
The analysis of John Henry Cardinal Newman, in 1845:
James Cardinal Gibbons eloquently defended Papal Infallibility against many of the common objections of Protestants and other non-Catholics:
Despite the consistent Church orthodoxy on the matter, there have always been those both within and outside the Church who question papal primacy and, especially, infallibility. (Note that the two are inseparable; if the pope were not individually infallible, there would be no point in his primacy.) In 1854, Pius IX declared the dogma of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin. There was immediate negative response from Protestantism, and from some Catholic theologians, who wondered aloud how one man by himself could make such a profound statement and expect the entire Catholic world to simply follow his lead in the matter. Again, after all the previous centuries, and even after ecumenical councils had addressed the topic, it was raised in public debate, and many would not let it die.
We find in Vatican I documents the definitive decrees again outlining papal primacy, and the official declaration of papal teaching infallibility on matters of faith and morals.
Vatican I on Infallibility.
The document then went on at length to quote from the fourth council of Constantinople, the second council of Lyons, and the council of Florence. Finally, at item 9, it established the definition:
This wording seemed adequate to pretty well settle the matter; but it did not. Open contention continued. In 1950, Pius XII declared the dogma of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin. This time, although there was resistance, the Catholic opposition to papal primacy and infallibility for the most part granted the grudging concession that the pope could declare dogma when and only when he spoke ex cathedra. From this there arose the argument that the pope was only infallible when he spoke ex cathedra, whatever that meant, and at no other time.
First, Vatican I did not say that. It stipulated a circumstance under which the pope possessed infallible teaching authority, but it did not stipulate when he did not have it. Furthermore, the detractors spread the notion that there was some formula by which the pope spoke ex cathedra, some formal words or conditions the absence of which negate infallible teaching authority. But if you read the Vatican I definition, all that is required is that he intend to teach all the faithful, in a universal teaching, on faith or morals. Period. And the definition was not intended to limit the authority of the pope. But this notion gained so much ground in Catholic circles that many otherwise perfectly orthodox publications picked it up and showed it as official Catholic teaching. Yet, the statement that the pope is infallible only when speaking ex cathedra is correct only when you remove from it the word only.
Vatican II on Infallibility.
Vatican II further concretized papal infallibility in an effort to finally settle the matter; but in all likelihood a future council will feel the need to address it in even stronger terms. To begin, the council made it crystal clear that this very teaching it was giving was to be firmly believed by all Catholics:
First, the college or body of bishops has no authority without the pope:
Second, the bishops enjoy the authority of teaching infallibility only when in full communion with the pope:
Third, even an ecumenical council – in which bishops teach infallibly – is not an ecumenical council unless and until a pope declares it to be one: (Note that the head of the college is the pope.)
Fourth, the pope can teach infallibly even when not speaking ex-cathedra.
Fifth, bishops, apart from the pope, do not enjoy individual infallibility; however when in full communion with each other and with the pope, they infallibly teach on faith and morals, and we are required to give full assent to what they say:
Sixth, the sole limitation on papal infallibility is the Depositum Fidei:
And, further down:
Seventh, when the pope makes a “definitive statement” or an “absolute decision” as a teaching on faith and morals, acting completely alone, he speaks infallibly and irreformably:
This is really another explanation of the ex cathedra definition without using the term. To put it most simply: he's the Pope. He doesn’t have to put on any hat; he doesn't have to sit in any chair; he doesn't have to carefully formulate his words according to some pre-ordained formula. All he has to do is teach, and to settle things. Whenever his teaching on faith or morals is a universal teaching, that is, intended for the whole Church, it is infallible. Rome has spoken; the matter is settled.
The Vatican II Fathers may have wished to put to rest the notion of some magic word-formula required of the pope before his teaching is universally accepted as infallible. This is not rocket science or brain surgery; indeed, it is crystal clear, to those who do not seek to complexify it in order to deform it. I submit that any truly devout, cradle-Catholic in my age group with half a brain is likely to be a better source of teaching on the matter of Papal Infallibility than are most of the professors on most of the faculties of most of the Catholic teaching institutions, teaching in the name of and under the silent protection of the clear majority of our avoid-the-issue nut-less wonder American bishops.
Pope John Paul the Great, in particular, did not mince words and did not beat around the bush. There was never any reason for anyone to wonder whether or if one of his definitive statements was intended to teach the Church on faith or morals.
Definitive declarations on faith or morals are to be found in his many encyclicals, published in many languages, intended for the whole world. An excellent example of an infallible teaching of a pope can be found in the Apostolic Constitution Fidei Depositum, item 3, The Doctrinal Value of the text, to be found in the front of every Catechism of the Catholic Church. It is addressed to the whole world. In it, John Paul the Great invokes his Apostolic authority, and then declares the new Catechism to be a true norm for the teaching of Catholic Doctrine, and calls on all the Church’s pastors and the Christian faithful to receive it in a spirit of communion and to use it assiduously in fulfilling their Christian mission.
This is an infallible pronouncement.
An excellent example of Papal Infallibility, it tells us that we can absolutely depend upon the new Catechism as a sure and authentic reference text for teaching Catholic doctrine. Now, if only the Catechism would be recognized as a true norm by all the so-called Catholic teaching institutions in America . . .
One example of papal infallibility would be a papal pronouncement intended as a teaching regarding faith and morals addressed to the universal Catholic Church.
Another example of papal infallibility would be a papal definitive statement intended to settle a dispute regarding faith and morals addressed to the universal Catholic Church.
A third example of papal infallibility would be a papal confirmation of a universal teaching on faith and morals by one or more bishops in (or not in) a Council.
The important thing is this: without the assent or affirmation of a pope, there is no infallibility in the Catholic Church.
My daily prayers always include the pope; I suspect that his always include me, in a collective way. So we both pray for the Church. There are many men and women who have my respect, but few that I listen to without some level of skepticism. When the Holy Father speaks on issues of fishing, or hiking, or current events, he is seen by me as an equal.
But whenever he speaks on faith or morals or doctrine, I then rise to my feet in obedient silence and listen intently, with my very soul. For I know that he does not guide this Sacred Ship alone. That is the true nature of Infallibility: Divine Guidance.Viva il Papa.
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