03 April 2013

A Right Understanding of Papal Infallibility

Everyone knows what Papal Infallibility is, right?  Well, yes and no.  Times are confusing enough that it is good for Catholics to brush up on the definition.  The Remnant has just posted an excellent and timely article on this issue, written by Robert Siscoe.  

We must stay in the realm of reality, between minimism and, oh, maximism.

From the intro:

Most Catholics realize that the scope of infallibility is limited to papal teachings on matters of faith and morals, but they often err by extending it beyond its boundaries; understanding infallibility as if it were a habitual active charism that prevents a pope from erring when he speaks on the subject of faith or morals.  This misunderstanding on the part of Catholics in recent decades has resulted in two opposite errors. 

On the one hand, we have those who erroneously believe that whatever a pope says, regardless of how novel it is and how far it deviates from Tradition, must be accepted as an infallible truth, since “the pope is infallible”.  On the other hand, there are some who see apparent errors in the documents of Vatican II and believe that Papal Infallibility would prevent a true pope from ratifying such documents.  In both cases, the error is a result of extending Papal Infallibility beyond the limits determined by the Church.

Before proceeding, it should be noted that the purpose of this article is not to assert that Catholics are only bound to accept what has been infallibly defined by a pope or ecumenical council.  The late Msgr. Joseph Clifford Fenton referred to this error, which was condemned by Pius IX, as minimism.  Catholics must give assent to all that the Church teaches, either by virtue of a solemn pronouncement or by the teaching of the ordinary and universal Magisterium.  Yet at the same time, Catholics are not bound to give assent to novelties and apparent errors, even if such novelties or apparent errors come from a pope who is not exercising his infallibility.   In the chaos that has followed the Second Vatican Council, it is necessary that the faithful have a correct understanding Papal Infallibility, as well as its limitations, lest the understandably confused or scandalized Catholic be led into error in one direction or the other.


Thomas said...

Isn't this exactly the position of the SSPX? "Not that there's anything wrong with it."

The problem, as I see it, is that conciliar teachings, such as religious liberty, the new ecclesiology, etc., which the SSPX claims to be erroneous, have been taught consistently by the post-Conciliar Magisterium. And those in positions of authority understand themselves to be teaching with Magisterial authority, at least as far as I can tell. You can argue that the Council did not invoke infallibility, but it is much harder to make this argument with respect to recent Magisterial teachings (which repeat Conciliar teachings). I grant, however, that these teachings remain so ambiguous as to make it virtually impossible to know what exactly we are bound to believe.

St. Corbinian's Bear said...

Too bad lay Catholics have to study such things, but we do. I have been studying Lumen Gentium for weeks for my blog. The tools I have are a lawyer's tools, which aren't too bad for examining documents. What I see is a lot of verbiage waxing rhapsodical and an almost complete absence of clear statements of positive doctrine. No anathemas, of course.

So I fail to see, for example, how extra Ecclesiam nulla salus, which some of the language would seem to challenge, can be considered changed, especially since it is so a well-established. Even Lumen Gentium cites it, but in a highly qualified way that only applies to actual Catholics (as opposed to all those non-Catholic Christians who just don't know they're in the Church by virtue of one thing or another).

The only infallible statement I could find in Lumen Gentium was the restatement of papal infallibility :-)

I don't think you even have to get the the "only a pastoral council" argument unless you can find clearly defined teachings.

Similarly, pick Spe Salvi. We don't imagine that is infallible when it suggests only a few historically evil people don't go to Heaven, do we?

long pants said...

All of my understanding of the church has come from this blog, so I'm pretty sure that a pope is only infallible if he's wearing a mozetta at the time of his pronouncement. Anything else can be passed off as simply "thinking out loud."

thetimman said...

long pants,

Very droll. But I think that is likely the depth of the thought process most of your prog buddies would give the issue. Peace out, man.