Omaha, Nebraska
Fall 1996
Volume 8, Number 1

The History and Future of Papal Infallibility

Ronald Burke
University of Nebraska at Omaha

A midst various beliefs in all the world's religions, one most distinctive to Roman Catholicism is the doctrine of papal infallibility. As Cardinal John Henry Newman has said, there should be nothing closer to the heart of a truly Catholic educational institution than the discussion of such religious ideas. As shown in Newman's own work, part of that discussion must be a consideration of the continuing development of such doctrines.1

Let me begin by clarifying two terms.

From the time of the church's beginning, it has been a part of Roman Catholic faith to affirm the church's "indefectability." That is, members of the church hold an abiding confidence, based on the remembered words of the church's founder, that it is incapable of complete failure in its primary mission of spreading the gospel of Jesus Christ.

For a shorter time, only since 1870, the church has officially declared that its earthly head, the pope, in certain circumstances, is so grounded in the mission of the church that he teaches "infallibly," which means without the possibility of error. Let us direct our attention today to finding the abiding truth in this "modern" doctrine of papal infallibility.

In discussing papal infallibility, four things are of special note. This doctrine must first be viewed in the broad context of the church's long and advantageous history. Second, special review is required of the character of the modern context in which papal infallibility was first defined. Third, attention must be given to Vatican I (1869-70), the council at which the doctrine was defined. And, finally, amidst the great doubts and changes of contemporary times, an exceptional value is to be found in the proper continuation of this distinctive doctrine.

I. During the long history of Catholicism, the great Catholic advantage has been its unity. Catholicism has been the greatest transmitter to the world of the substance of Christian faith. Protestant and Eastern Orthodox churches have found flaws in Catholicism, but there is no doubt about its numerical success in spreading the gospel of Christ. More than 60% of the world's Christians call themselves Roman Catholics, while less than 35% are Protestant and less than 10% Eastern Orthodox.

A major component in Catholicism's success has been its freedom from division. There have been many controversies in the church's history, but only two great splits, one with Protestant Reformers (beginning in 1517) and the other with Eastern Orthodox believers (beginning in 1054).

Other serious disagreements in the history of Catholicism have somehow been weathered. Historians claim that many Catholics most passionately dedicated to reforming their church have had too much confidence in the basic structure of its authority to encourage division. Rather than develop new religious denominations, many have formed new religious orders, like the Society of Jesus. Hence the church's great advantage of unity continues today, although the importance of the past is sometimes overlooked.

Christianity, as a sect of Judaism, was originally born into minority status and 300 years of persecution. Until 313 A.D., Catholicism was a persecuted, counter-cultural religion. When Emperor Constantine converted to Catholicism, he gave it new authority and status. This was the beginning of the Constantinian era. Catholicism became not simply an accepted religion but the dominant religion of the Roman Empire. Indeed, as warring tribes moved south into Italy, the Roman emperor moved his capitol to Constantinople, in Turkey. But the Roman Catholic bishop of Rome, the pope, remained behind and came to function as a kind of religious and political emperor himself. He became the owner of vast tracts of land and assumed a kind of legal jurisdiction throughout Europe.2

For all the middle ages and into early modern times, this Constantinian era continued. From peasants to kings, the Roman Catholic church included as members almost all Europeans and had great economic and political power. Well into the nineteenth century, the pope had his own army and his own Secretary of War.

II. Most Catholics learn too little about the 19th century. The church's declaration of papal infallibility is part of its struggle in that century not only to centralize its authority but also to survive.3 Facing the various assaults of modernity, the church struggled to preserve some of its power amidst its withering loss of wealth, land, prominence and prestige. What cost the church its political and economic prominence in Europe was the dawning of nationalism, secularism, and democracy. This was the age of the French Revolution and its cry for liberty. The pope was so much identified with monarchy that the whole church was often seen as the enemy of democracy and freedom.

The French Revolution condemned Catholicism, expelled priests from France and sold church property to help fund the new regime. The pope himself was twice taken captive by French armies. Napoleon, in his military marches to Moscow and to Egypt, set up secular governments and turned extensive church properties over to them. France eventually eliminated the church's role in the nation's own educational system.

Similarly, Italian nationalists took more and more land away from the pope and distributed it among the people. The nationalists marched with a spirit of unity, and with a plan to make Rome the new secular capitol of a previously divided Italy. Pope Plus IX (1846-1878) had to flee from Rome in disguise after his secretary of state was shot to death. By the year 1870, Italian revolutionaries controlled all of Italy save Rome and were literally at the gates of the papal city, which now was protected primarily by French troops.

In 1870 the French troops were withdrawn. Nationalists took the city over and attempted to negotiate a settlement with the pope. Pius IX, however, confined himself to the area of the city known as "the Vatican," where St. Peter's basilica is located. There he called himself a "prisoner of the Vatican," and refused to negotiate.

In 1929, almost sixty years after the fall of Rome and the declaration of infallibility, a negotiated settlement was reached between Italian dictator, Benito Mussolini, and Pope Pius XI (1922-1934). The church received critically important tax benefits and approximately ninety-seven million dollars for all the land it had surrendered to the revolution. The Pope retained one hundred acres of property, including the area of the Vatican, and of this he was named the supreme ruler. He was no longer a prisoner, but his military, political, and economic power (so vast during the Constantinian era) was greatly lessened.4

III. The bishops of the Roman Catholic church began the meetings of the First Vatican Council in December of 1869 and continued them through the summer of 1870. As the political revolutionaries came closer to Rome, there was concern for the future and the very survival of Catholicism, as well as of the papacy. Some bishops (like England's Cardinal Manning) thought an answer would be the assignment of total infallibility to the pope. Others (like England's Cardinal Newman) thought that such action would be excessive and inopportune.

Finally the council agreed, in the Document Pastor Aeternus, on a kind of "qualified" infallibility. The council taught that the pope is himself infallible, but only when speaking in regard to matters of faith and morals, matters that lie at the heart of Catholicism. The pope does not and cannot speak infallibly on secular matters or matters of secondary importance.

Furthermore, the council taught that the pope is infallible only when he speaks ex cathedra, that is, when he speaks most officially, and from the "throne of Peter." He does not speak infallibly in casual conversation, when addressing crowds from the balcony at St. Peter's, or even when writing encyclicals (his official letters to the world's bishops). To speak infallibly, he must be speaking most officially and from the very center of his mission as earthly leader of the indefectible Roman Catholic church.

Papal infallibility, then, is, in its very definition, a seriously restricted claim.5 The church did without it for eighteen centuries and it has been exercised only twice in history. It is usually agreed that all the stated conditions of papal infallibility were met when Pope Pius IX declared the Immaculate Conception of Mary, on December 8, 1854, and again when Pope Plus XII declared the Assumption of Mary on Nov. 1, 1950.

There was, however, another concern expressed by bishops in the official records of Vatican I. That was the question of what would happen if there should be a heretical pope. Bishops recalled that the church had been required to depose some medieval popes, and at least one of these was promoting mistaken doctrine. What if such a pope were to attempt to speak infallibly today?
In part because of this problem, there has been concern that perhaps not all the conditions for an infallible papal statement have yet been made explicit.6 Perhaps another condition is that the pope has to be expressing what the whole church already believes. That would mean the Pope is not so much the monarch of the church's truth as he is its guardian.

This additional requirement, of expressing what the whole church believes, was met for Roman Catholics in the two instances of infallible pronouncements already stated. If it were agreed that this condition is another prerequisite to infallibility, perhaps completing all the sufficient conditions, it would be a tremendous step toward ecumenical accord, agreement between churches. If papal infallibility were explicitly restricted to the pope representing the universal faith of the church's members, it would, in all probability, be acceptable to Protestants and Eastern Orthodox Christians as well to Roman Catholics. Would such a development in papal infallibility be proper?

IV. The assertion of infallibility causes questions within Catholicism and division within the larger Christian community.7 But continuity in regard to this doctrine is extremely important.

The faith of Catholicism relies very strongly upon the sacredness of its developing tradition, and there are numerous points regarding infallibility about which all Catholics and other Christians do agree.

First of all, only God is absolutely infallible. That point is agreed by all Christians--Protestant, Catholic, and Eastern Orthodox alike. Even Scripture has flaws, and requires interpretation, but it does not have the kind of flaws that compromise its witness to God's revelation.

Part of all Christian faith is the claim that the church of Christ, in an encompassing sense, is indefectible. That means the church will persist in truth despite its errors. Although there have been and will be disagreements, flaws and distortions in its various memories of Christ's teachings, Christianity will continue to bring people to God in Christ. And as was agreed at the Second Vatican Council, the Catholic Church, though not identical with the Church of Christ, does "subsist" in it. In this sense, the Catholic Church, with the leadership of the pope, will continue, indefectibly--and perhaps more successfully than any other denomination--to bring people to God in Christ.

Christian churches do also agree that the dogmas taught by the early Councils are infallible. Even though these doctrines may need ongoing interpretation, the official teachings of these councils were ecumenically accepted.

Because of these agreements, even Eastern Orthodox and Protestant Christians might agree that, so long as the pope teaches only what the whole church believes, that he is in those teachings, as were the ecumenical councils, infallible. In this sense the pope would be more a guardian of the Catholic tradition, a symbol and expression of its truth, rather than its monarchical ruler.

V. Conclusion. Papal infallibility can continue to be part of the advantage of Catholicism if we recognize its limitations as well as its advantages. Words never contain the entirety of Christian faith. Not all the bibles, the study guides, and encyclicals in the world can completely contain the spirit and life of Catholic faith. Faith is a habit and language. Sometimes obvious and sometimes subtle, it is an action in the world that cannot be fully communicated by reading about it, or hearing the Pope speak about it, but only by living it.

The church of the future will become less and less a Constantinian church. As we Catholics become members of a smaller community of believers, in a larger and larger secular world, we will give greater emphasis to the three important themes of Vatican II (Lumen Gentium, ch's. 1-3):

    --that the church is filled with mystery;
    --that it is a people on a pilgrimage, a journey toward God; and
    --that it is based in collegial or shared, as well as hierarchical, authority.

Catholicism should not then surrender the notion of infallibility, the centrality of the pope, nor the assistance he receives in a collegial relationship with all other bishops. Nor should the bishops forego cooperative relationships with their priests, their theologians, and the laity. Rather, in the spirit of the Second Vatican Council, we might better build cooperative relationships in our day with the papacy, our local bishops, with all of Christianity, and with the continuation of the Catholic tradition.

1 Dulles, Avery. "Newman on Infallibility," Theological Studies 51:3 (Sep 1990), 434.

2 Tierney, Brian. Origins of Papal Infallibility, 1150-1350. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1972.

3 Aubert, Roger. The Church in a Secularized Society. New York: Paulist Press, 1978.

4 Bokenkotter, Thomas. A Concise History of the Catholic Church. New York: Doubleday/Image, 1990 (1977).

5 Ford, John T. "Infallibility I & II" Commonweal 123:2 (26 Jan 1996), 8.

6 O'Gara, Margaret. Triumph in Defeat: Infallibility, Vatican I and the French Minority Bishops. Washington, D.C. Catholic UP. 1988.

7 McKenzie, Brian Alexander. The Infallibility of the Pope and Christian Reunion. Ottawa: Canadian Theses (4 microfiches), 1990.