Omaha, Nebraska
Fall 1996
Volume 8, Number 1

The Meaning of Papal Infallibility

Thomas J. Shanahan, S.J.
Associate Professor of Theology

Infallibility, and especially papal infallibility, is one of the most misunderstood doctrines of the Catholic Church. Even intelligent Catholics can be ignorant of the real meaning of papal infallibility. My remarks are intended to clear up some of the misunderstanding about infallibility by determining what it is as well as what it is not; to understand infallibility from the perspectives of the First and Second Vatican Councils and to spell out some of the theological implications of the subject.

Papal infallibility fits into a larger framework of expressing the truth of the gospel and the basic Christian message from age to age. Papal infallibility is part of the general guidance of the Holy Spirit over the life of the church. The document from the First Vatican Council (1869-70), Pastor Aeternus, is clear in its restrictions on the doctrine of papal infallibility. Vatican I spoke of the scope of infallibility when it presented its teaching on the infallible magisterium of the Roman Pontiff. It did not express what infallibility is, but it described rather how infallibility can be exercised. The document declares the pope is infallible when he "speaks ex cathedra, that is, when, [he acts] in the office of shepherd and teacher of all Christians . . ."1 In other words, if the pope is to exercise infallibility, he must do so in a formal way with the evident intention of binding all Christians to the truth of what he is expressing. Further, Pastor Aeternus specifies the kind of church teaching that falls under the rubric of infallibility as "doctrine concerning faith or morals that must be held by the universal church."2

John T. Ford, professor of Religious Studies at The Catholic University of America and author of the article on infallibility in the 1995 HarperCollins Encyclopedia of Catholicism, notes an implied distinction between those things that "must be held by Catholics and "doctrine that must be believed." The implication of this distinction is that it allows for the possibility that infallibility might extend to "doctrine that must be held" even though that teaching is not strictly speaking a matter of divine revelation.3

This distinction between what is to be held and what is to be believed caused considerable discussion during and after Vatican I. For example, Henry Edward Manning, then Archbishop of Westminster, one of the foremost advocates of infallibility at Vatican I, considered every papal decision as potentially coming under the scope of infallibility. On the other hand, John Henry Newman advocated a principle of minimizing that included very few papal declarations within the scope of infallibility. Although their views on infallibility were very different, both Manning and Newman were subsequently named Cardinals of the church.

Such diversity regarding the scope of infallibility continued for decades after the First Vatican Council. Some theologians wanted the doctrine of infallibility to be retroactive so that issues that preceded this council (even by many centuries) were to be dealt with by way of the doctrine of papal infallibility. But other theologians noted that Pastor Aeternus did not make any retroactive judgments. However, theologians of varying views found common ground in recognizing the proclamation of the Immaculate Conception in 1854 as an exercise of infallibility by the pope in consultation with the bishops of the world. And between the first and the second Vatican Councils the single universally recognized papal exercise of infallibility was another Marian dogma, the Assumption, proclaimed by Pope Plus XII in 1950.

Vatican 1I (1962-65), in its Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, spoke about the larger topic of infallibility in the church. It is asserted that the college of bishops exercise infallibility under certain conditions:

Individual bishops do not enjoy the prerogative of infallibility. Nevertheless, when the bishops, although dispersed throughout the world, but preserving the bond of communion among themselves and with Peter's successor (the pope), authoritatively teach a matter of faith and morals and so are in agreement about a doctrine that must be held definitively, they infallibly proclaim the doctrine of Christ (emphasis mine. Lumen Gentium, n. 25).4

This statement, like that of Vatican I, describes the scope of infallibility as "doctrine that must be held" by the faithful Christian. However, the next paragraph of Lumen Gentium makes clear that infallibility is co-extensive with the "deposit of divine revelation, which must be religiously guarded and faithfully expounded."5 That is, the scope of infallibility is restricted to what must be believed. This is further corroborated by the council's statement that "when either the Roman pontiff, or the body of bishops with him, define a teaching, they make this pronouncement in accord with revelation itself."6

At issue here in Vatican II is its teaching on collegiality and not specifically the question of infallibility. However, given its teaching on collegiality (the exercise of the charism of infallibility by the college of bishops in concert with the pope) it can be considered an extension of the teaching of Vatican I. Thus, just as Vatican I defined papal infallibility, Vatican II extended the charism of infallibility to the college of bishops in communion with the pope in matters of faith and morals.

A highly publicized challenge to infallibility came on the centennial of Vatican I with the publication of Hans Kung's 1971 book, Infallible? An Inquiry.7 His challenge to infallibility, based on the slow pace of reform in the church after Vatican II, cited a litany of papal errors that supposedly demonstrated that "infallible statements" are impossible. Kung's book drew considerable controversy and theological debate. Karl Rahner wrote a sharp reply to Kung's views in which he refuted his positions as erroneous; he even suggested that Kung's positions put him outside of inner-Catholic dialogue. However, in subsequent dialogue Rahner softened his approach to Kung's positions and certainly, in practice, did not treat Kung as if he were outside of a Catholic dialogue or debate.

According to Gregory Baum in The Infallibility Debate,8 both Kung and Rahner affirm the need for the reform of church life and the renewal of doctrine. Kung's tendency is to stress the biblical witness, to see church reform as a biblical critique of present teaching and practice, and to advocate the closest possible conformity of the church today to the New Testament ideal. Although he does not deny that later developments in the church were necessary and good, he regards these developments as purely human.9 They remain for him under the judgment of the biblical norm.

Karl Rahner also regards the scriptures as normative for the entire life of the church, but he holds that the significant post-biblical, doctrinal and institutional developments of the church, while never wholly without sin or free of human failing, may nevertheless represent God's revelatory action in the church. This divine action is Cod's ongoing self-communication to the Christian community which allows the church to interpret the scriptures as God's Word addressed to the faithful in the present and to adapt its institutional life to the needs of the ongoing, historical life of the church.10

For Rahner, to reform the church does not mean to return to the biblical models of institutional life (life as it was then) and the forms of expression that they used then. What is key for Rahner is the ongoing process of interpreting scripture and the Christian tradition for the contemporary world. In this way the continuing gift of God as Word and Spirit is constantly made available to contemporary Christians so that they may embody that Word and Spirit anew for each generation.11

The debate over infallibility in the 1970s brought out an important distinction between what is to be held and what is to be believed. What is to be believed is that which is contained in the divine revelation; what is to be held are those matters that are closely related to faith--liturgical matters, approbation of religious communities, and canonizations to name just a couple of examples.

Theologians have generally acknowledged that some teachings of the church that are now to be held are so closely related to the deposit of faith that there may come a time when they will be considered things to be believed. The doctrine of the Assumption is a good example of this. Prior to 1950 the Assumption was a teaching that was held by the faith of the Christian community; in 1950 it was declared something to be believed.12

Whatever is said about papal infallibility, one needs to affirm that it does not have to do with the sinlessness of the pope--infallibility is not impeccability. Nor is papal infallibility a personal charism of the pope. Infallibility is a charism for the church, to be used in service of protecting the gospel and fostering the living faith of the Christian community.

The Catholic Church is a visible church. The New Testament shows the apostles after the death and resurrection of Christ set up a visible organization to be the locus for their faith in Christ as Messiah, Lord, and Savior. Jesus promised his disciples at the Last Supper that he must go in order that he might send the Holy Spirit, the Paraclete, to them.

As in the past, the Holy Spirit continues today to see to it that the church remains the locus for authentic faith in Jesus Christ. If the church is to do what Christ said it would do, it must be able to teach authentically, and this is where the charism of infallibility fits in. The church must prove itself to be a steady guide in matters pertaining to salvation (faith and morals). There is no guarantee that a particular pope will not miss the opportunity to teach the truth, or that he will be sinless, or that disciplinary decisions will be intelligently made. It would be nice if he were impeccable or omniscient, but despite the fact that he is not, the church will continue to be.

A steady rock is needed as the foundation for official teaching. That's why there is the charism of infallibility in general and the specific charism of papal infallibility.

1 John F. Clarkson et al. (eds.). The Church Teaches. St. Louis: B. Herder Book Co. (1955), 102.

2 Clarkson. 102.

3 John T. Ford. "Infallibility" in The HarperCollins Encyclopedia of Catholicism, Richard McBrien (gen. ed.). San Francisco: HarperCollins (1955), 664f.

4 Austin Flannery, O.P. (ed). Vatican Council II: The Concilliar and Post-Conciliar Documents. Grand Rapids: Wm. 8. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1962.

5 Flannery.

6 Flannery.

7 Hans Kung. Infallible? An Inquiry. (trans. Edward Quinn). Garden City: Doubleday & Company, 1971.

8 John Kirvan (ed.). The InfallibiIity Debate. NY: Paulist Press, 1971.

9 Kirvan 2f.

10 Kirvan 12f.

11 Kirvan 14f.

12 Ford 665.