Catholicism is the only religion that formally claims infallibility for its leaders. Infallibility is defined as being “exempt from error in judgment, knowledge, or opinion.” The term derives from Medieval Latin, dates from the early fifteenth century, and was claimed for the Pope by the Church in 1870 at the first Vatican Council. It suggests that popes cannot be wrong in their pronouncements and therefore what they say is not open to correction. But its meaning is more complicated than that.
To begin with, the Church’s claim is heavily qualified. The exemption from error is said to occur only when popes speak officially on “faith or morals,” and it does not derive from their inherent perfection but instead from the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Here is the relevant passage from the Vatican Council (italics and bold type added):
“Faithfully adhering, therefore, to the tradition inherited from the beginning of the Christian Faith, we, with the approbation of the sacred council, for the glory of God our Saviour, for the exaltation of the Catholic religion, and the salvation of Christian peoples, teach and define, as a Divinely revealed dogma, that the Roman pontiff, when he speaks ex cathedra, that is, when he, in the exercise of his office as shepherd and teacher of all Christians, by virtue of his supreme Apostolic authority, decides that a doctrine concerning faith or morals is to be held by the entire Church, he possesses, in consequence of the Divine aid promised him in St. Peter, that infallibility with which the Divine Saviour wished to have His Church furnished for the definition of doctrine concerning faith or morals; and that such definitions of the Roman pontiff are of themselves, and not in consequence of the Church’s consent, irreformable.”
Note the further qualification that infallibility applies only when the pope speaks “as shepherd and teacher of all Christians, by virtue of his supreme Apostolic authority.”
Given these stringent qualifications, it is not surprising that few papal teachings have met the standard for infallibility. In fact, in all of history, only two teachings have been said to meet that standard: “[Mary’s ] Immaculate Conception (declared by Pope Pius IX in 1854 and grandfathered in after the First Vatican Council’s declaration of papal infallibility in 1870) and her bodily Assumption into heaven (declared by Pope Pius XII in 1950).”
All the above is complicated but not befuddling. So where exactly is the befuddlement? Let’s see. The following passage is in Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Lumen Gentium, Paragraph 25 (all emphasis is mine).
“[Bishops] are preachers of the faith, who lead new disciples to Christ, and they are authentic teachers, that is, teachers endowed with the authority of Christ, who preach to the people committed to them the faith they must believe and put into practice, and by the light of the Holy Spirit illustrate that faith . . . Bishops, teaching in communion with the Roman Pontiff, are to be respected by all as witnesses to divine and Catholic truth. In matters of faith and morals, the bishops speak in the name of Christ and the faithful are to accept their teaching and adhere to it with a religious assent . . . Gathered together in an ecumenical council, [bishops] are teachers and judges of faith and morals for the universal Church, whose definitions must be adhered to with the submission of faith . . . The infallibility promised to the Church resides also in the body of Bishops, when that body exercises the supreme magisterium with the successor of Peter.”
Here we have Pope Paul proclaiming that the (other) bishops have the authority of Christ, are guided by the Holy Spirit, speak in the name of Christ, and their teachings are to be accepted with the submission of faith. What is more, they possess infallibility and exercise the supreme magisterium. But all this comes with one condition that I have underlined in the quoted passages—that the Bishops agree with the Pope! This is befuddling. Pope Paul bestows great honor with one stroke of the pen and then withdraws it with the next stroke.
Between the lines lies the unavoidable conclusion that if the bishops disagree with the Pope, they don’t have the authority of Christ, are not guided by the Holy Spirit, do not speak in the name of Christ, are not to be accepted by their flock, are not infallible, and do not exercise the supreme magisterium.
The befuddlement increases when we consider that the historical record reveals that many popes were not only demonstrably fallible, but also intellectually and/or morally deficient, as Garry Wills and other historians have pointed out. Here are some examples:
Honorius, Vigilius, Pelagius, Liberius, and Gregory embraced heresies. Innocent IV (1195-1254) conspired to murder, sanctioned inquisitions, and “sold privileges shamelessly.” Paul IV (1476-1559) created Jewish ghettos in Rome and forced Jews to wear yellow badges. Gregory XIII (1502-1585) celebrated the murder of thousands of Huguenots. Leo XII (1760-1829) denounced democracy. Gregory XVI (1831-46) called liberty of conscience “a ridiculous and false claim—better described as lunacy—that anyone at all should exercise and defend freedom of opinion.” Pius IX (1846-78) in an address to Catholic women, called Jews “dogs [that] we hear barking in all the streets and going around molesting people everywhere.”
Many other popes declared Jews guilty of Deicide and not only accepted slavery, but owned slaves. Lord Acton noted that numerous popes assassinated non-Catholic rulers, suppressed other religions, banished and even killed heretics. Perhaps the most absurd action of any pope was that of Stephen VI, who reigned from 896 to 897 and is best known for the “Cadaver Synod” in which he had the body of his deceased predecessor Formosus exhumed and put on trial for usurping the papacy. (Stephen was later imprisoned and strangled).
In all these cases we can conclude with confidence that the popes were wrong and those who disagreed with them were right. It is therefore clear that their elevation to the papacy did not free them from the imperfection that characterizes all human beings. More on this later.
Defenders of the doctrine of papal infallibility could argue that the papal behaviors mentioned above were not done in “the exercise of [the pope’s] office as shepherd and teacher of all Christians, by virtue of his supreme Apostolic authority,” and none reflected a decision “that a doctrine concerning faith or morals is to be held by the entire Church.” But that would be a distinction without much of a difference. Shepherding and teaching about faith and morals are not done only by words but even more powerfully by actions.
There is only one other argument that defenders of the infallibility doctrine might offer in its defense—that the Holy Spirit chooses to guide popes at certain moments but not at others, or disapprove later what was approved before. For example, that the Holy Spirit either remained silent for centuries while popes accused Jews of Deicide, burned heretics at the stake, and endorsed slavery; or endorsed them earlier and then condemned them later. This argument is not only absurd but sacrilegious as well, for it makes the Holy Spirit either undependable or, worse, complicit in evil!
To say the concept of Infallibility is befuddling may be an understatement.
I noted earlier that elevation to the papacy does not free anyone from the imperfection that characterizes human nature. History has made that fact so clear as to challenge forcefully the idea that popes are “exempt from error in judgment, knowledge, or opinion,” or in other words, infallible.
To say that the notion of human infallibility is implausible in no way denies that the Holy Spirit can communicate truth and wisdom to popes or anyone else, regardless of their gender, age, educational level, economic or social status, or religious station. It merely acknowledges that humans have clouded intellects, weakened wills, and a tendency toward error (and sin). It also affirms that human beings have free will to choose truth or falsity, foolishness or wisdom, good or evil. Accordingly, they can choose between following or not following the promptings of the Holy Spirit!
To be sure, Jesus promised to be with his followers, “even to the end of the world.” (Matt 18:20.) He also promised that the Father would give those followers “another Helper so that he may be with you forever; the Helper is the Spirit of truth.” (John 14: 16-18) But Jesus and the Holy Spirit being with us is not the same as our being with them. We can ignore or reject their counsel and even their presence in us. Jesus refers to this reality by quoting Isaiah, “You shall keep on listening, but shall not understand; you shall keep on looking, but shall not perceive; for the heart of this people has become dull, with their ears they scarcely hear, and they have closed their eyes . . . “(Matt 13:13)
Is it possible that the dogma of Papal Infallibility, affirmed again and again over the last century and a half, is in fact mistaken, as the above analysis suggests and (more importantly) as some theological scholars have long argued? If the dogma is in fact mistaken, the Catholic hierarchy face a challenge seldom equaled in the Church, and it is occurring at a particularly inopportune time. They will be morally obligated to publicly admit the error, with the knowledge that doing so will will humiliate them personally, cause the Church to be ridiculed and scandalized, and test their own faith and that of millions of Catholics around the world. I have no doubt that the Holy Spirit will provide the guidance needed for meeting this challenge successfully. My question is, will the hierarchy have the necessary courage and humility to follow that guidance?
Copyright © 2022 by Vincent Ryan Ruggiero. All rights reserved