“Papal Infallibility” by Mark Powell

Recently I finished reading a very illuminating book: Papal Infallibility – A Protestant Evaluation of an Ecumenical Issue, by Mark E. Powell. Powell investigates four Catholic theologians on papal infallibility, analyses and critiques their positions and offers some constructive suggestions to Catholic theologians. Here’s a summary.

Epistemic criteria, methodism and particularism

Powell’s work takes an epistemological approach, in other words it asks whether papal infallibility works as a method of knowing the truth of things. This means he is not so interested in the historical and biblical issues behind papal infallibility, although they are sometimes mentioned.

Powell expresses his disillusionment with sola scriptura – it is not a sufficient method to prove classical orthodox christology, for the Bible is open to a variety of interpretations. Powell critiques the idea that biblical inerrancy guarantees right doctrine or than Christianity stands or falls with biblical inerrancy as an epistemic method.

Powell finds the Catholic solution of papal infallibility equally problematic: he denies that Christianity stands or falls with papal infallibility. We will soon see why. Powell insists that instead of a method, “methodism”, we choose “particularism”, which means that the truth of things is arrived at by giving various arguments for particular beliefs.

Powell also suggests, in the footsteps of William Abraham, that what he calls ecclesial canons (scripture, councils, papal teaching, liturgy) are better viewed as belonging to the field of soteriology than to the field of epistemology. So bishops, scriptures, etc, are better viewed as “means of grace” than as epistemic criteria for truth.

In other words, though the Bible and Tradition can be quoted to argue for the truth of particular beliefs (which he finds in the “canonical theism of the undivided Church”, whatever that means), Christianity is primarily about salvation, not epistemology.

Manning and Newman

With this in mind, Powell shows what four important Catholic theologians believed and taught about infallibility. These theologians are Cardinal Manning, Cardinal Newman, Cardinal Dulles and Hans Küng. The first he labels a representative of “maximal infallibility”, the next to of “moderate infallibility” and the last one of “minimal infallibility”. The “minimal” here actually refers to a rejection/denial, whereas “moderate” refers to what is sometimes called “minimal”.

Cardinal Manning was Archbishop of Westminister and one of the key proponents and architects of the definition of papal infallibility at Vatican I. He held to a maximally broad understanding of papal infallibility, similar to what I earlier noted about bishop Gasser. Both before and after the council, Manning held a wide array of papal documents to be infallible, including encyclicals and the Syllabus.

Manning wanted to secure epistemic certainty with the doctrine of papal infallibility. A convert from Anglicanism, he thought the Pope provided the answer to the problem of private interpretation in Protestantism. Scripture and Tradition needed interpretation, and so an infallible judge is needed. And the Pope himself was also to be the infallible interpreter of infallible papal pronouncements.

Manning also held to the idea of doctrinal immutability, claiming that all Catholic doctrines have always been believed by the Church from the very start. This view became increasingly difficult to hold in the face of historical studies (eg the development of the Marian dogmas). But Manning simply disparaged historical studies as “rationalism”: his only options were Catholicism and skepticism.

Manning’s position runs into many problems. First, historical problems, such as Honorius, which he didn’t know how to deal with but left open. Second, epistemological problems, for his strong foundationalism has become very questionable in later epistemology. Third, hermeneutic problems, for there is in fact no infallible list of infallible pronouncements, and even infallible interpretations need to be interpreted by the fallible believer.

The problems in Manning’s position were seen early on, and it was not shared by another convert Cardinal contemporary to Vatican I, John Henry Newman. Newman’s more moderate view has come to predominate in later Catholic theology. As is well known, Newman developed the idea of doctrinal development.

Newman was first opposed to the definition of papal infallibility, which he held to be too new to be defined. Dogmatic definitions should not be a “luxury”, but something done in the face of the gravest necessity. Newman held papal infallibility to be a theological opinion not sufficiently developed for becoming dogma.

When the definition came, Newman accepted it, because he believed the Church is an infallible judge in deciding which doctrinal developments are authentic and which are not. His theory allowed Catholic theology to embrace infallible dogmas even though they were not found explicitly in the Bible or early Tradition. Newman interpreted Vatican I moderately, holding that in modern times there have been only two infallible papal definitions (the Marian dogmas).

Newman believed that ultimately the infallibility of the Church resides in the sensus fidei, the consensus of the Church. If a papal teaching wasn’t received in the Church, that would be an indication of its non-infallible nature. Newman also mentioned drinking to conscience first and to the Pope second, and he stressed the role of theologians as interpreters and identifiers of infallible statements.

Newman’s view solves some problems but creates new ones. First, his theory of doctrinal development was initially looked upon with suspicion as a novelty, for the assumption of the bishops of Vatican I was rather doctrinal immutability. On the other hand, his theory could be used against him, and in fact he heard some bishops appealed to it in favor of the definition of papal infallibility, which he didn’t want to happen. Third, the Pope’s authority becomes much more relative when the final arbiters of infallible doctrine are the theologians or the faithful at large.

So even in the time of Vatican I there could be Cardinals disagreeing with each other over the range of papal infallibility. Papal infallibility does not solve the problem of private interpretation but simply pushes it a step backwards. Now you need to identify and interpret infallible papal pronouncements.

It seems Vatican I started with maximal assumptions about infallibility, but added restrictive conditions to satisfy the “inopportunists” (the minority of bishops opposing the definition as inopportune), which in turn allowed for a more moderate interpretation. But now epistemic certainty was not gained but lost: the infallible definition was left too vague to secure anything.

Dulles and Küng

When we come into more modern times, we see how Catholic theologians increasingly recognize the difficulties in the doctrine of papal infallibility. Avery Dulles with his “symbolic realism” affirms that doctrinal statements are obscure, always historically conditioned and relative, never reaching truth fully and always being open to reinterpretation.

Dulles takes a moderate view where infallible definitions are very rare. He wants to minimize the burden of the doctrine, because he sees it is a significant ecumenical problem. On the one hand he firmly believes the Pope can issue infallible definitions and has done so (eg the Marian dogmas), but on the other hand he is for lifting the anathema following the Vatican I definition and thoroughly reinterprets the dogma.

Dulles sees Vatican I as primarily concerned with Gallicanism and affirming the supreme teaching authority of the Pope. He questions many of the historically conditioned assumptions the fathers of Vatican I held about philosophy and theology, and even suggests it might be possible to say infallibility itself is one of those historically conditioned erroneous assumptions.

Dulles himself is not willing to go so far, though. But still he makes the astonishing claim that papal infallibility and the Marian dogmas are rather peripheral and secondary in the hierarchy of truths and thus should not be required for reconciliation with non-Catholic Christians. He also says that the word “infallibility” would not be used if the doctrine was defined today and that the Church might have erred in some of its most solemn acts.

Dulles’ position seems to have the advantage of being able to deal with problems while still affirming Catholic belief. He is moving in the right direction in recognizing that the Marian dogmas would not be necessary for ecumenical union. Yet it is clear that Dulles’ position is fraught with problems. It seems somewhat dishonest to claim to believe in infallibility while granting mistakes and contradicting the intention of Vatican I and the preconciliar Popes with such audacious reinterpretation.

It is even less credible to argue, as Dulles does, for the necessity of an infallible teaching authority, while at the same time having to reinterpret and effectively deny the import of the concrete infallible teachings. This is why Hans Küng was led to change his mind on the subject and reject papal infallibility altogether.

Küng’s concern in “truthfulness”, refusing to call changes and contradictions “development”. Küngs book and his main arguments I have already summarized in an earlier post. What Powell points out is that Küng laid the foundations for the program at the II Vatican Council with his book on the Council and reform. What started out according to the spirit of Küng, ended up in a different spirit – Vatican II was sort of a mirror image of Vatican I – this time the conservatives got to shift the direction of the council towards the end. Again the Church was left with vague statements open to very different interpretations.

Although Küng is to praised for his honesty in the case of the historical problems, Powell criticizes Küng’s argument about propositions, suggesting he confuses propositions and sentences, the former being either true or false. Powell also criticizes the fact that Küng simply opts for another problematic epistemic method: liberal Protestantism (influenced by Barth and Käsemann), or the gospel of Jesus as discovered through historical-critical exegesis of the Bible.

Orthodoxy without infallibility

Powell ends by restating his case for orthodoxy without infallibility. He found that all of the four Catholic theologians treated the canons of the Church as epistemic criterion, and a clear commitment to “methodism” was seen in many cases.

Powell suggests that Catholic theologians take into account his ecumenical and epistemological proposal. According to the ecumenical proposal ecumenical unity should be based on the theism found in the canonical heritage of the undivided church, and no single epistemology should be canonized. According to the epistemological proposal ecclesial canons should be viewed primarily in the arena of soteriology, not epistemology, and particularist commitments should be adopted instead of methodist ones.

Based on this, papal infallibility could be viewed either as a local epistemological proposal of the Catholic Church that is not binding within the larger ecumenical union. Other canonical theists could be part of this union without confessing papal infallibility.

But even more preferably, some of Dulles’ moves could be used to relocate Pastor Aeternus outside the field of epistemology. A supreme teaching function in the Catholic Church could be admitted for the papacy without making the Pope an infallible belief-producing mechanism.

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