The Infrequency of Infallibility

The pope exercises no authority on his own, all authority having come from Christ. He is not, therefore, above the Church’s Doctrine of the Faith, but rather he is its custodian and protector.

There was a time, not so very long ago, when it was widely assumed among Catholics, never mind the diversity of their political views, that when the pope spoke on matters of faith and morals, what he said mattered; that owing to the majesty of his Office as Universal Pastor, as the one who could speak in the very accent of Jesus Christ, the faithful were expected to listen and obey. He was the Chief Shepherd, after all, and the sheep instinctively understood this, which is why belonging to the Church included, as an axiom of membership, a necessary assent of mind and heart to all her teachings. 

The Church has been very clear and consistent about this, by the way, especially since the First Vatican Council (1870), which formalized the matter with its dogmatic decree “De Romani Pontificia infallibili magisterio” (“On the infallible teaching office of the Roman Pontiff”). Here is the relevant passage: 

The Roman Pontiff, when he speaks ex cathedra, that is, when, exercising the office of pastor and teacher of all Christians, he defines…a doctrine concerning faith and morals to be held by the whole Church, through the divine assistance promised to him in St. Peter, is possessed of that infallibility with which the Divine Redeemer wished His Church to be endowed…and therefore such definitions of the Roman Pontiff are irreformable of themselves, and not from the consent of the Church.

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Should we not then be surprised, therefore, given the sheer sweep of the statement, that it really hasn’t gotten much of a workout in the century and a half since it was promulgated? In fact, only once perhaps has the pope seen fit to invoke it, and that was way back in 1950 when, presumably, most of those reading this essay were not even alive. It was Pius XII, that most magisterial of modern popes, whose presence hovered about everything in that long-ago halcyon age, who solemnly declared Our Blessed Lady to have been assumed body and soul into heavenly glory.

But that, dear reader, was pretty much it. Ordinary papal teaching, of which there has been no end in recent years, does not qualify; the charism of infallibility simply will not apply. Which should be good news indeed to those of us trying to survive the current silly season. How it lingers on and on, too. But unless you were cut from the same ultramontanist bolt of cloth as poor old W.G. Ward, who looked forward to the day when papal bulls would be served up with the same regularity as his morning cup of tea, along with a copy of The Times, you’re probably grateful for the infrequency of its exercise.

So, what does qualify as an infallible utterance? If each time the pope thinks or speaks it does not automatically follow that here is God himself thinking or speaking, then when does it follow? The answer, of course, is only when what comes out of his mouth is an ex cathedra pronouncement, meaning “from the chair,” and thus invested with the full authority of Almighty God himself. 

It has got to be a most solemn and extraordinary utterance indeed; which is to say, on a matter of faith and morals, not on the outcome of an election or the state of the economy. The pope’s views, say, on climate control or immigration policy, may be interesting and worth hearing, but they are hardly infallible, which means it is not obligatory for Catholics to believe them. Unlike the Law and the Prophets, they have not been issued from on high.

And, more to the point, they ought not to be uttered unilaterally, as though the pope were himself the Church and not the chief witness to her faith. The definition laid down at the Council did not authorize the pope to teach apart from or over against the Church but precisely alongside her. Not to believe that had been the extreme ultamontanist position, in which the pope need not consult or take counsel with anybody.  

The very title given to the decree codifies, and not incidentally, that very distinction. When the draft decree first bore the working title, “On the infallibility of the Roman Pontiff,” it was at once challenged on the grounds that while the teaching of the pope may be infallible, and thus irreformable, the teacher is not; the Council thus rejected the fanciful notion that it is an inspired pope in his very person who manifests the charism of infallibility not the Office.

And why is this such good news? Because it keeps papal pretensions fairly modest, which is always a good thing. Just because bishops and popes occupy holy offices doesn’t mean that their actions are equally holy. The pope exercises no authority on his own, all authority having come from Christ. He is not, therefore, above the Church’s Doctrine of the Faith, but rather he is its custodian and protector. His principal job is to confirm the rest of us in a Faith which he did not himself discover but is now charged with defending; and he will answer for that on the other side when the judgment of God will settle matters forever.  

In the meantime, however, he may not pick or choose which doctrines to defend as if he were no different than the usual cafeteria Catholic faced with an array of choices, not all of them equally agreeable. Telling divorced couples in a second marriage without benefit of an annulment that it’s all right to receive Holy Communion is no doubt more agreeable than upholding the integrity of the sacrament. But can it ever be honorable or right in assuaging the feelings of others to set aside the teachings of Jesus Christ?  

Or to advocate for civil unions when same sex couples wish to marry, which amounts to a validation of sinful behavior? Or when bishops and cardinals urge that the strictures in the Catechism of the Catholic Church concerning the inherent immorality of homosexual acts be removed, and the pope appears unwilling to do or say anything about it? At the end of the day, the highest honor we can pay to the pope is to tell him the truth. Most especially, one would think, when he is not speaking it himself. But, as always, to do so in charity.

I am not St. Catherine of Siena, nor am I likely ever to deploy her persuasive gifts, but I certainly do agree with her that the time to be silent is past. “We’ve had enough exhortations to be silent.” Instead, she tells us, the time has come to “Cry out with a thousand tongues—I see the world is rotten because of silence.”

[Photo Credit: Vatican Media]


  • Regis Martin

    Regis Martin is Professor of Theology and Faculty Associate with the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at the Franciscan University of Steubenville. He earned a licentiate and a doctorate in sacred theology from the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome. Martin is the author of a number of books, including Still Point: Loss, Longing, and Our Search for God (2012) and The Beggar’s Banquet (Emmaus Road). His most recent book, published by Scepter, is called Looking for Lazarus: A Preview of the Resurrection.

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