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The Pope is not infallible

Contrary to common presumption, the Church does not teach that the Pope is infallible. At least not in the strict sense. George Wilson, an American Jesuit and ecclesiologist, explains the issue well in a recent Commonweal article, ‘It’s nothing personal’. His point, as the title suggests, is that it is not the Pope himself – the Pope’s person, so to speak – that is infallible. Rather, the protection from error which infallibility intimates “belongs in the first instance to the church as a whole”.

Wilson draws attention to the crucial phrases of Pastor Aeternus, the dogmatic constitution of the First Vatican Council which defined infallibility:

…when, in the exercise of his office as shepherd and teacher of all Christians, in virtue of his supreme apostolic authority, [the pope] defines a doctrine concerning faith or morals to be held by the whole Church, he possesses, by the divine assistance promised to him in blessed Peter, that infallibility which the divine Redeemer willed his Church to enjoy in defining doctrine concerning faith or morals.

And so Wilson concludes:

Nowhere is it decreed that the pope is infallible; indeed, the Catholic Church has never taught that any pope is infallible. Such a formulation would make the pope a sort of Superman, irrevocably inoculated against error. But the promise of infallibility is best imagined as a transient quality attributed not to the person, but only to one very narrowly circumscribed kind of action.

Put differently: the Church has the charism of infallibility by virtue of the promise of the assistentia Spiritus Sancti, the help of the Holy Spirit. It comes into play then as the Church, over time, receives and reflects on (to quote Trent) “the written books and the unwritten traditions”. It begins with the inerrancy of Scripture, of course. Beyond that we have the articles of the early creeds and the definitions of ecumenical councils. We also have (however hard it might be to discern them) the constant, common teachings of the episcopate throughout the world (the ordinary and universal magisterium). And we have, under special circumstances, the solemn definition of a doctrine by the Pope. All of these are modes of discerning the certain content of revelation. It is the acts which are infallible, not the persons who perpetrate them.

If the net effect is the same, however, why a song and dance about distinguishing between the Pope and some of the Pope’s acts? The real reason, I think, is because doing so helps to emphasise that the pope cannot act in a willful or arbitrary way when he defines a doctrine infallibly. It is not as if he is answerable to no-one. He is answerable to the Holy Spirit and to the traditions of the Church. When he declares a doctrine to be infallibly true he is saying that it belongs, without room for doubt, to the body of revealed truth.

George Wilson notes in his Commonweal article that the tradition of the Church with regard to what exactly happens when the Pope is preserved from error is strongly against the presence of any special revelation or illumination. Hence, the Pope is bound, before making an infallible declaration, to do “the same kind of research any person would have to do to determine that a doctrine had in fact always been taught by the church: pray over the Scriptures, the great Fathers, and orthodox theologians of the church”. In other words, “the theological tradition subsumed the promise of infallibility within a broader theology of general divine providence”.

In sum, infallible pronouncements are not solitary acts. They are, rather, “testimonies to the faith of the Church, and so draw on the sensus ecclesiae whose norm is scripture and the tradition which expounds scripture. They can never be isolated from the Church.” [Sacramentum Mundi, III, ed. Karl Rahner]. By extension then, “the whole people of God, including the laity, is involved in the real infallibility of the Church”. One senses that there is still a great deal for the Church to discover about the assistentia Spiritus Sancti in its life.

PHOTO: Fr Lawrence Lew OP / Flickr