Papal Infallibility debate

Call it a call to Catholic apologetics to rise to a higher level. Call it an imaginary debate on Catholic theology. Call it a critique of the dogma of Papal Infallibility. Call it what you like, but here’s an outline of the arguments.

1) The faith is one, you cannot pick and choose which dogmas to accept or reject.

– So says Irenaeus, and quoting him, the CCC. But Irenaeus gives the content, too, and there is no papal infallibility there. Same goes for Paul and basically all the Church fathers. Papal infallibility was developed in the Middle Ages, so it is a theological opinion, not a revealed dogma.

2) But Irenaeus says all must agree with Rome because Peter’s successor is there and the apostolic tradition is faithfully kept there.

– Exactly, the apostolic tradition the contents of which he has already outlined. Rome’s authority comes from it guarding the heritage of Peter and Paul. No mention of Matt. 16 or infallibility.

3) But you don’t have the authority to interpret tradition or the Bible on your own, that authority belongs to the Church.

– Here “Church” has been defined to mean the 19th century magisterium, which taught differently from both the 2nd century Church as well as the post V2 Church. The Church is the body of its members, and non-magisterial theologians have always interpreted Bible and Tradition (sometimes becoming great Fathers, like Justin). The Church encourages theologians to do theology, and theology studies Scripture and Tradition, so of course I can and should interpret them as best as I can. Often theologians’ insights get accepted by the Church later.

4) But here we’re dealing with an infallibly defined dogma. That’s outside the freedom of a theologian.

– But Hans Küng has publicly criticized infallibility and still remained a priest in good standing. Pope Benedict even had lunch with him. So in practice it’s possible to be a Catholic and be critical of papal infallibility.

5) But Jesus promised the Church that the gates of Hades would not prevail, that whatever Peter would bind would be bound in heaven, that the Holy Spirit would lead the Church to the fullness of the truth, that he would be with his Church till the end. So he can’t allow the Pope to err.

– But the Church still recognizes the Pope can err in all kinds of matters (even faith-related, just not ex cathedra statements, which are very few), so the question is how we want to understand truth and the nature of Jesus’ promises. None of the early fathers interpreted any of those passages to mean that the Bishop of Rome can make solemn dogmatic statements which cannot err. Rather, Jesus will always keep the Gospel alive in the Church till the end.

6) But there are quotes from the Fathers saying that no error can come from Rome and that the Roman See has never erred.

– Again, that as such would prove too much for the dogma, for the dogma restricts papal infallibility to solemn declarations, of which there is no official (not to mention) infallible list. Most theologians think these sorts of declarations started long after the Fathers, in the Middle Ages or as late as the 19th century. The way Rome didn’t err was by keeping the Christological faith of the universal Church, not by defining new infallible dogmas on its own.

7) But there you have it: the Roman See always kept the true Faith. The Pope was never heretical.
– This is true only from the perspective of the ones that agree. According to the Nestorians and Monophysites, the Pope was heretical. Later the Eastern Orthodox and the Protestants thought the same. After Vatican II Traditionalists and Sedevacantists think he is.

8) But Jesus prayed for Peter that his faith would not fail. God couldn’t let the Church go astray.

– The verse doesn’t talk about Peter’s successors, and again the early Christians wouldn’t have understood it that way. And we’re not in the position to say what God couldn’t do: he allowed the great schisms, heinous sins committed in the name of the Church, the Galileo affair, the Arian crisis and the Vatican II confusion. I wouldn’t like him to have allowed all that. So it’s totally possible that God would allow the Church to make dogmatic mistakes, as long as the core of the truth (the Gospel and the Apostolic faith) are preserved, as they are.

9) That’s too big of a leap, in none of the cases mentioned above did the Pope make an infallible declaration that was in error.

– This is precisely the problem: in the face of mistakes the scope of infallibility is narrowed down. But then the argument becomes futile that infallibility is needed to preserve the Church in truth, if it only concerns a couple modern definitions (such as the Marian dogmas). How did the Church manage to stay in the truth for all those centuries without infallible definitions? But take the Marian dogmas. Neither one of them is contained in the sources of revelation as the definitions claim. The Assumption first appears in the apocrypha, the Immaculate Conception in the 13th century speculations of Duns Scotus.

10) But the consensus of the Church believes these traditional dogmas, the Pope consulted the bishops and found universal agreement, it is the faith of the Church.

– The sensus fidelium isn’t enough, it has been declared to have been revealed, and general revelation is taught to have ended at the death of the last Apostle, so you have to find it in the 1st century or in the next generations as a strong tradition. And besides, in Vatican II ecclesiology the sensus fidelium doesn’t work any more, for half of the body of Christ (Orthodox, Protestants) deny these dogmas.

11) The dogmas were implicitly revealed, and you have to understand the development of doctrine.

– The development of doctrine is a modern idea. Not that it is false, but the point is that the Apostles and Fathers always denied that something could be added to the faith. Growing insight is very different from solemn declarations: we could believe the Marian dogmas as theological opinions that deepen our devotion, but we cannot require anyone to believe them as divinely revealed under the pain of anathema.

12) But St. Paul anathematized all who preach a different Gospel than the Church. So he too thought that the Church’s faith was infallible.

– A different gospel than his, that is, and his Gospel was the death and resurrection of Christ. And notice how he phrased it: even if we ourselves were to preach a different Gospel, or an angel from heaven, etc. So hypothetically even the apostles could fall into preaching a false Gospel. Perhaps that’s what happened to the 19th century Popes. Isn’t it strange that they condemned Gospel-believing Protestants to hell for denying Papal infallibility and the Marian dogmas still in 1950, whereas in 1965 these same Protestants were suddenly officially recognized as justified brothers among whom the Holy Spirit works salvifically through their ecclesial communities?

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5 Comments on “Papal Infallibility debate”

  1. Nick Says:

    I don’t think Kung is a good testimony to appeal to. Just because someone wasn’t condemned, doesn’t mean he was someone to emulate (since they could have still be in error). It’s a theological error to claim to simultaneously hold to a doctrine’s truth while also holding to it being unhistorical (e.g. Lamentabili Sane #24), so if that was Kung’s approach, it’s objectively wrong. A Christian should never believe something they also believe to be a historical fabrication.

    What I don’t understand is what is the point of Irenaeus pointing to Rome and Apostolic Succession, when you claim all that Rome was guarding was the Death and Resurrection of Jesus? If the Deposit of Faith is strictly defined as Death and Resurrection, then Creeds and other such works are superfluous (e.g. Eusebius’ Ecclesial History becomes a joke). Anyone can testify to ‘holding firm’ to Death and Resurrection. The other Patristic works on the Trinity and other doctrines would have to be relegated to ‘tangential’ and thus not worth spending so many pages upon. This ultimately makes the Ecumenical Councils excuses for Satan to damn otherwise ‘faithful’ Christians.

    p.s. I know the Church called Protestants “separated brethren” at least as far back as Leo XIII (who I saw used the term himself in an encyclical), and Invincible Ignorance was addressed even earlier than that.

    • Emil Anton Says:

      Of course Kung could be wrong, but so could some of the Church’s teachings, as they have been in other cases, whatever perspective you take.

      Irenaeus: not the Death and Resurrection, but the whole faith, most of all belief in one God and the resurrection of the flesh. And yes, according to Irenaeus later patristic speculations about the processions and generations in the Trinity are futile, he explicitly criticized such an approach, that’s what the Gnostics were doing. And yes the Ecumenical Councils often condemned people too rashly, and the Church of today recognizes it, too.

      Separated brethren and invincible ignorance don’t make a difference here at all. We’re talking about the Spirit working salvifically in communions that are well aware of the “infallible” definitions.

      • Nick Says:

        What are some examples of the Church’s teachings being wrong? To say Kung could be wrong just as the Church could be is to put them on the same footing, which cannot be.

        Also, can you quote where Irenaeus forbids theological precision and insights on the Trinity?

        As for the Protestants, invincible ignorance is key, for it’s impossible for the Holy Spirit to work among someone willfully opposing the Faith.

      • Emil Anton Says:

        1) Depends which position you take, one could write a whole book on that. For the purposes of this post, let me suggest that the “dogmatic trinity” of 1854, 1870 and 1950 is all wrong, as half of the Body of Christ (the baptized) holds. 2) Yes, with pleasure: “If any one, therefore, says to us, How then was the Son produced by the Father? we reply to him, that no man understands that production, or generation, or calling, or revelation, or by whatever name one may describe His generation, which is in fact altogether indescribable. Neither Valentinus, nor Marcion, nor Saturninus, nor Basilides, nor angels, nor archangels, nor principalities, nor powers [possess this knowledge], but the Father only who begot, and the Son who was begotten. Since therefore His generation is unspeakable, those who strive to set forth generations and productions cannot be in their right mind, inasmuch as they undertake to describe things which are indescribable.” (AH 2:28:6) 3) That is not how VII saw it. It’s not that they oppose it, it’s just that they have been separated in the past and thus have a slightly different tradition. Yet they are true local churches or ecclesial communities, almost like particular churches in communion with Rome are. That’s how the conciliar fathers saw it.

  2. Nick Says:

    1) I’m not sure how you’re defining “wrong,” since all you said was half the baptized believe it is. If simple majority is all it takes, then Arianism and Monothelitism and other heresies would have carried the day back then. Indeed, you might as well say contraception and divorce are not really sinful because half the baptized don’t believe it is. Obviously, there is a problem with making truth dependent upon majority rule, and no father would have suggested as much.

    2) I see in that quote everything that Christians have always affirmed: the ‘details’ of what it means for the Son to be “begotten” is a mystery, but there is still an affirmation that the Son is “begotten” in a special way that makes Him Divine and worthy of worship equal to the Father. I don’t see him ruling out Conciliar Christological definitions at all.

    3) The Decree on Ecumenism by the Second Vatican Council does not consider the Protestants to have a “slightly different tradition,” but rather a significant departure from historic Christianity, retaining only Baptism and most of the Canon of Scripture. The Council was very careful not to exalt Protestantism too much because it would be offensive to the Eastern Orthodox who are much closer. In Lumen Gentium, the Dogma of EENS was still maintained, so all the positive talk on Protestants still presupposes invincible ignorance. Using a strictly ‘Irenaean lens’ to evaluate Protestantism, I don’t think he’d view them as more or less on par with Catholicism.

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