Catholic Answers on Papal Infallibility

Since Catholic Answers is the largest Catholic apologetics organization, many people interested in apologetics on a popular level rely on their materials. I also used to be one of those who thought, more or less: “If it appears in the pages of C&F [Karl Keating's Catholicism and Fundamentalism], it must be true!” (That is how James White put it in this article.)

The Catholic Answers tract on Papal Infallibility is still substantially the same, decades after C&F and over a decade after White’s criticism. White did receive two responses (links provided at the end of the article), but the Steve Ray link doesn’t work, so there is really only one, by Scott Windsor.

Scott Windsor’s response is, I concur with White, in stark contrast with the scholarship provided by White. The patristic Peter-quotes are provided with no awareness of the fact that these do not necessarily need to have anything to do with the Bishop of Rome.

Also, the “three conditions” for infallible statements are not those of Pastor Aeternus, and anyway Vatican I interpreted its conditions much more widely than these modern apologists. By the standards of the intention of Vatican I, the Zosimus case is indeed a strong argument against the dogma.

The Catholic Answers Tract on Papal Infallibility

Treating the inadequacy of Keating’s patristic arguments as established by White’s article, I would like to take a look at the rest of the arguments made by Keating in favor of papal infallibility. I will also deal with Jason Evert’s article “How to Argue for Papal Infallibility“.

Keating’s article begins by saying what papal infallibility is not. Among other things, it is not only the Pope that is infallible but also the bishops in union with him (the ordinary and universal magisterium), when they solemnly teach a doctrine as true. This teaching, first taught officially at Vatican II (LG 25), Keating claims we have “from Jesus himself” in Lk 10:16 and Mt 18:18.

Jesus didn’t say anything about the infallibility of the ordinary and universal magisterium in solemn doctrinal teachings. He said that people would be hearing his voice when the 70 disciples preached the gospel of the Kingdom (Lk 10:16) and that the Apostles could forgive sin and excommunicate (Mt 18:18).

The infallibility of the ordinary and universal magisterium is a product of the Counter-Reformation, as far as we know, and it has never been dogmatically defined. The same goes for the infallibility of ecumenical councils, which was first suggested by Theodore Abu Qurra in the 9th century.

Early Church and development

Keating goes on to say that the doctrine of papal infallibility is not a doctrine that suddenly appeared in the Church. But the historical study of Brian Tierney suggests just that: it appeared rather suddenly in the Middle Ages. I am not aware of Catholic Answers materials dealing with Tierney.

Keating basically admits that the doctrine was not taught explicitly in the Bible or in the early Church, rather, it is “implicit” in the early Church and in the three Petrine texts (Mt 16, Lk 22, Jn 21). He admits that Christians “developed” an understanding of papal infallibility, and the “clear beginnings” of this development are seen in the early Church.

Here Keating cites Cyprian and Augustine, and these are the texts James White shows do nothing to show these fathers believed in papal infallibility. One might defend Keating’s tract by saying he only talks of the beginnings of a development. But Keating does not even try to justify his “development” approach which runs counter to the “doctrinal immutability” approach taken by Vatican I.

Maximalism or minimalism?

Under “Some Clarifications” Keating makes some general comments about infallible definitions, implying that there are quite many of them in the end, when you combine those of the Popes, the councils and the “ordinary magisterium” (he must mean “ordinary-and-universal”). Later, citing Knox, Keating seems to affirm that all the anathemas of the Popes throughout the centuries are infallible.

But at the same time Keating points out there are many teachings which haven’t been defined and that infallibility only applies to “solemn, official teachings on faith and morals, not to disciplinary decisions or even to unofficial comments on faith and morals”. He does not specify what he means by “solemn” and where simply “official teachings on faith and morals” would belong (these, of course, are the most common!).

This ambuguity is quite standard. The positive presentation only excludes discipline and unofficial teachings from infallibility. But when cases of erroneous official doctrine are presented, the defender retreats to the word “solemn” and restricts infallibility to only a few cases. Usually it is not asked how the distinction between doctrine and discipline has traditionally been understood and whether it was Vatican I’s intention to restrict papal infallibility to only a few cases.

The same applies to the examples from the Bible and Church history. The Gal. 2 case as well as the cases of Liberius, Vigilius and Honorius are dismissed because they do not meet the requirements for an infallible definition set out by Pastor Aeternus. It is not asked how the Council Fathers interpreted these requirements, nor is it asked whether such distinctions were recognized by Jesus and the Apostles or the early Church.

A case in point is Honorius the Monothelite. The tract cites Knox, who resolves the problem by saying that Honorius was an inopportunist who decided not to define doctrine. I wonder whether Knox and Keating are confusing two things. Honorius did not take a stand in the debate over operations, but he did write rather solemnly that we confess one will in Christ. And Ecumenical Councils and later Popes condemned him for that. This Keating ignores. Was Honorius wrong, or were those later condemnations wrong?

Speculation with unproven assumptions

Keating continues with a theological speculation about infallibility where he states the Tridentine understanding of infallibility: “[The Church] must prove itself to be a perfectly steady guide in matters pertaining to salvation.” But this can be maintained with a general indefectibility and without solemn papal additions to the deposit of the faith (such as the Marian dogmas).

A related argument goes as follows: if the Church ever apostatized by teaching heresy, then it would cease to exist; “because it would cease to be Jesus’ Church”. This is naive. As long as there are people baptized and believing in Christ and gathering in his name and as long as the Eucharist is celebrated, the Church endures.

One would need to define “heresy”, “Church”, “apostatize”, and see how these terms have been understood throughout the centuries. We would see that Keating’s logic stands on fallible ground – his assumptions are unnecessary and unapostolic.

One more time Keating commits the same mistake: “Thus the Church cannot teach heresy, meaning that anything it solemnly defines for the faithful to believe is true”. The Church is “God’s spokesman” – 1 Tim 3:15 and Lk 10:16 cited as purportedly evidencing the same mindset. Of course the Church is God’s spokesman when it proclaims Christ and his gospel faithfully. But this needn’t have anything to do with new dogmatic definitions about Mary in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Again Keating’s above sentence is initially very wide-ranging (the Church cannot teach heresy) and fits well with the idea that the Church is God’s spokesman. But the second sentence restricts this to “anything it solemnly defines”, again leaving the interpretation vague enough to help run from counter-arguments. Keating knows that there are problematic magisterial documents, that Bishops and even local councils can teach heresy, that large parts of the people of God have believed heresy, etc.

No explanation is given why “Church” should be equated with “solemn” (the meaning of which remains unexplained) definitions (also unexplained) of the magisterium (the development of which is also ignored).

Evert’s article

Jason Evert’s article adds little to Keating’s. He often confuses papal infallibility (which he is trying to defend) with the infallibility of the Church. Again 1 Tim 3:15 is cited as well as Cyprian, and, lo and behold, Robert Sungenis! But no patristic evidence is given for this intepretation of Mt 16.

The Irenaeus passage is quoted, again (as almost always) ignoring the fact that Irenaeus has presented the faith/tradition he is talking about in 1,10,1, and it doesn’t include papal infallibility. The same goes for the Sixtus quote: Rome was authoritative because it bore witness to the truth, truth was not made truth by Roman decisions. None of these quotes absolutely preclude the possibility of future error.

Evert also argues from the parallel between inspiration and infallibility. Incidentally, Scott Hahn argued similarly just recently on Catholic Answers Live. “If God could take fallible men and use them as authors of infallible Scripture, why couldn’t he make fallible Popes infallible, too?” Well, of course he could, but this is pure speculation in the absence of evidence that he did.

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