Archive for January 2012

“Papal Infallibility” by Mark Powell

January 27, 2012

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.


“Infallible?” by Hans Küng

January 19, 2012

Today I finished reading Hans Küng’s book Infallible? (SCM Press LTD, 1994 New expanded edition with additional documents from 1979, which eventually resulted in the removal by Rome of his license to teach) I must say it was one of the most inspiring books I’ve read in a while.

Küng’s argumentation is strong but charitable, he truly respects the Pope but calls for a critical examination of the claims of the Magisterium on the basis of the original Christian message, the gospel. He thinks the Petrine primacy is a good idea in the Church, if it is understood as a primacy of service.

But he is, as the title suggests, critical of the doctrine of infallibility and suggests it would be better for the Church to drop it altogether. In this post I would like to summarize Küng’s arguments and suggested solution to the main problem.

Fallible infallibilities

Küng starts out by asking why the progressive majority of the birth control commission failed to convince Paul VI to modify his predecessors’ teaching on contraception. He shows that the arguments of the commission (new historical context, the fact that Casti Connubi was not ex cathedra) failed to graps the real issue: the Roman theory of infallibility of the ordinary and universal magisterium.

The conservative minority had a good case for the fact that the immorality of contraception had been universally taught by Popes and bishops as definitively to be held. According to preconciliar textbook theology (eg. L. Ott), in such cases the ordinary and universal magisterium is infallible. What was not realized is that this doctrine itself should be questioned.

Küng shows that this doctrine is based on two false assumptions: first, that the Apostles believed themselves to be infallible, second, that the Bishops are historically and exclusively the successors of the Apostles. The Apostles did not present themselves as infallible, nor are the bishops exclusively the successors of the apostles (rather, the hierarchy is a result of a complex doctrinal development).

A similar argument is used in the criticism of the definition of papal infallibilty at Vatican I. Both sides of the debate at the council shared the presupposition that the promises of Christ to the Church are linked with infallible propositions. But this assumption is false, the Church can remain in truth without any infallible propositions.

Fundamental objections

Küng’s criticism seems to boil down to two points, biblical-traditional and philosophical-linguistic. First, the doctrine of infallibility is without any support in Scripture or early tradition. None of the usual passages, Mt 16, John 21, Luke 22, John 14-16, Mt 28, 1 Tim 3, say anything about infallible propositions or definitions. They only speak of the Church’s maintenance in truth.

Vatican I’s only explicit text for papal infallibility, Lk 22:32, was never interpreted as infallibility of the Bishop of Rome by the fathers of East or West or even the medieval canonists. Mt 16 wasn’t quoted at all in the first 2 centuries (significantly Irenaeus doesn’t appeal to it in his polemics), it was first quoted by Tertullian and not applied to the Bishop of Rome but to Peter. Later it was used to argue for the primacy or authority, but the doctrine of infallibility developed only in the Middle Ages.

In terms of councils, Küng points out that Nicea did not see itself as a priori infallible, its authority derived from the fact that it had the gospel truth behind it. Later, ecumenical councils corrected each other, contradicted each other, some councils started as ecumenical but weren’t received as such, some started as particular councils but ended up being received as ecumenical.

Therefore Küng denies it is possible to say that a priori ecumenical councils are infallible. But perhaps even more fundamental is the point that propositions as such are subject to the laws of propositions: they never wholly capture the truth/reality, they can be misunderstood, they are not always translatable, words have fluid and different meanings. Language is not a static structure but a dynamic event. It remains totally unproven that faith is dependent on infallible propositions.

Küng also wisely points out that negative propositions such as polemical condemnations are often half-truths. There is always some truth in each heresy, and the danger is that condemnations overlook the truth mixed with the error and condemn them both. Half-truths are also half-errors, and Küng says this sort of thing has happened over and over again in Church history.

It is not all purely speculative. Küng does provide numerous examples of magisterial errors, past and present. The excommunication of Photius (causing the Eastern schism and lifted by Paul VI), the ban on lending money at interest, the condemnation of Galileo, the upholding of the Pope’s temporal power even with excommunications, the condemnations of the application of the historical-critical method, the condemnations of so-called modernism (freedom of religion and conscience, ecumenism), and Humanae vitae.

Küng does not explicitly deal with the Marian dogmas, but sometimes states in passing that the definitions were dubious and without a basis in Scripture or early tradition. He also points out that infallible articles such as the Extra ecclesiam have been turned into their contradictions.

Some other doctrines or dogmas not supported by Scripture or (authentic, early) tradition (and thus magisterial errors) include the contraction of original sin through procreation, the “indelible mark on the soul” of ordination, the theological-dogmatical distinction between priest and bishop, and a number of statements in the Syllbus of Errors.

It is irrelevant to debate which of these points were infallibly defined and whether Küng is not wrong on some of these points. In any case we have to deal with the reality of magisterial error and the problem that the doctrine of infallibility has no firm foundation in the sources of revelation.

Truth, error and infallibility

So how does Küng deal with the problem of error? What has happened to the promises of Christ to his Church? Küng suggests that we speak rather of the indefectibility or indestructibility of the Church, meaning that the Church will always remain in truth even despite its errors.

This approach is an approach of faith, whereas the obsessive need to prove the truth of the system in every point lest the whole thing fall is lack of faith. The Christian does not believe in a Church or in the Bible or in Tradition, but in God and Jesus Christ and his gospel. The Bible, Tradtion and the Church witness to that truth and must be interpreted in its light.

The truth is not a set of infallible propositions, the truth is Jesus Christ. Despite its darkest centuries, the Church has always survived, there have always been believers, and there will always be believers. A dogmatic error in the mind of a believer or a papal document does not prevent the Spirit of God from working in the Church. This approach finds support in Scripture, where the promises of Jesus and the failures of the Apostles coexist side by side. It is also supported by Tradition and history.

Finally, Küng called for an ecumenical commission, along the lines of the birth control commission, to investigate the doctrine of infallibility. In fact, he alluded to leading Catholic theologians (Congar, Kasper, Von Balthasar) who have called for a re-evaluation of the doctrine of Vatican I, or even suggested that it was a terrible accident. So the question did indeed seem to be urgent.

However, Rome replied by taking away Küng’s license to teach and by simply reiterating the traditional teaching of Vatican I and II, at best with slight modifications. His arguments were not answered. But appealing to Vaticans I and II is begging the question, for precisely their doctrine is the issue. It is not enough to say “we are infallible because we’ve said we’re infallible”. However, I am aware of at least two books in response to Küng, and I am looking forward to reading and commenting on them soon.

Still Catholic?

Küng also answers the question whether one can remain Catholic with such opinions. Küng answers in the affirmative, saying that it is not un-Catholic to oppose the Roman system, it would be un-catholic to separate and “fall victim to a ‘Protestant’ radicalism and particularism which has nothing to do with authentic gospel radicalism and concern for the community”. The infallibility of propositions is more “part of the curialist system than of the Catholic Church as it has understood itself from the beginning”. (p. 221)

I tend to agree with Küng, but I think a solution must be found in the system itself which will allow the doctrine of the infallibility of propositions to be reshaped into a more credible form. I agree with Küng that the Church would gain and not lose credibility by admitting its errors, but the Church can’t simply drop the teaching with no good explanation. After all, Vatican I excludes from the Church those who dispute its dogmatic definition.

I suppose this is something Küng would’ve wished the commission to do, but since there is no commission so far, let me repeat the suggestion I made in my previous post. The fact that the infallibility of the Church (in ecumenical councils) has never been defined by any council or Pope, nor has it been taught by the ordinary and universal magisterium, nor is it believed by the whole people of God, allows us to believe that ecumenical councils are in fact not infallible.

Once it is granted that it is possible for the Church to grant the possibility of error in a definition of an ecumenical council, then it will also be possible to say (using the gospel, Scripture and Tradition as criterion, as the Magisterium should) that the Church fallibly (and in fact erroneously) defined papal infallibility.

Having granted this, it will be no problem for the Church to revise its teaching (in LG 25) on the infallibility of the ordinary and universal magisterium as well as of the people of God as a whole. A new wording will emphasize indefectibility and indestructibility, God’s fidelity, the Church’s preservation in truth, the presence of Jesus Christ and a community of believers in him in this world until the end of time.

“The Gift of Infallibility”

January 17, 2012

Today I finished reading The Gift of Infallibility – the relatio of Bishop Vincent Gasser at Vatican I and the commentary by Fr. James T. O’Connor (Ignatius Press 2008). It confirmed me in my desire to write a doctoral dissertation on the subject, which, God willing, will be a part of a process in which the Church will make its teaching on infallibility ever more clear and credible.

Vatican I’s arguments

Bishop Gasser’s relatio is of supreme importance in understanding the mind of Vatican I. Half of the references of Lumen Gentium 25, the key Vatican II chapter on infallibility, are to Gasser’s relatio. It is a lengthy presentation of the way the Deputation de fide at Vatican I understood papal infallibility.

Gasser presents the arguments for papal infallibility from Scripture and Tradition. Two things especially struck me. First, the seriousness of the argument that this is indeed nothing new but something given by Christ to Peter and the Apostles and always believed from the beginning. There is absolutely no talk of any “development of doctrine”. Second, the weakness of the arguments.

As far as Scripture goes, Gasser simply asserts that infallibility was given to Peter together with the primacy. So the well-known primacy passages (Mt 16, Lk 22, Jn 21) also prove papal infallibility. How come? Here Gasser resorts to unconvincing speculative arguments: If the Pope could fall into error, the “Church would dissolve”. Or: how could the Pope fulfill his mission if he did not have an authority which all other would recognize as unassailable?

Easily. There are plenty of examples of people correcting the Popes throughout history. There are examples of Popes correcting each other. If the Pope makes one mistake, but the Church still proclaims the Gospel and celebrates the liturgy throughout the world, there need be no talk of the Church dissolving. One day that mistake will be corrected, by the sensus fidelium or another Pope.

Gasser doesn’t support his philosophical-theological-speculative argument by Scripture or Tradition. Evidently the Apostles and Fathers thought you could have the Church and truth without an infallible Pope. Bishop Gasser does provide some arguments from Tradition, though. But these are “indirect” testimonies, to the effect that one must stick with the Church of Rome. As some council fathers pointed out, they do not prove anything more than the primacy.

One comment merits mention, though. My earlier intuitions, evidenced by earlier posts on this blog, that St. Irenaeus plays a key role in the discussion, were confirmed. Gasser’s first argument from Tradition was AH 3:3:2. But amazingly enough he sets this up as a “more secure rule” than the rule of faith which all the Churches agree to. He fails to cite the rule Irenaeus himself lays out in AH 1:1:10 or discuss the implications of laying it aside in favor of a “more secure rule” of the Church of Rome.

Gasser also deals with the arguments of the official text, i.e. the ecumenical councils of Consantinople IV, Lyon and Florence. Of these, only the last one really supports infallibility, if one reads the interpretations behind the original text. But if infallibility comes up only in the middle ages, then the argument is totally undermined that this is something coming from Christ and the Apostles.

Minimalism vs. maximalism

And now we come to the most astonishing part. To my suprise, Bishop Gasser’s relatio makes clear that the nowadays prevailing “minimalist” interpretation of papal infallibility (only 1-2, or even 6-10 instances), is totally foreign to the intention of Vatican I. According to Bishop Gasser, there have been “thousands and thousands” of such dogmatic judgments. How can this be?

An important detail here is the meaning of the word “define”. It was specifically clarified at Vatican I that this is not to be interpreted in a restrictive juridical sense. It requires no formula and is not limited to ending disputes. It refers broadly to any definitive judgment by the Pope on matters of faith and morals.

Whenever he has condemned something as heretical, whenever he has proclaimed something about faith or morals, no error has ever come from the Roman Pontiff. In addition, the “secondary object of infallibility” is also taught as certain, i.e. not only revealed truths but also things that are necessary to guard the deposit of faith.

Now it should be abundantly clear that this understanding of papal infallibility won’t hold. Not only would the Honorius and Galileo arguments as well as other old issues go through, but the preconciliar and postconciliar encyclicals would prove papal infallibility false by disagreeing with each other on many issues relating to faith and morals.

That is probably why most favor a minimalist approach to papal infallibility: to be able to say in the face of errors, contradictions and changes: “that was not an infallible definition”. They like to quote the canon law (which, remember, comes after Vatican I, after the definition and its interpretation had become increasingly problematic) where it says that no statement is to be understood as infallible unless it is manifestly clear.

But this is a dead end. First of all, “manifestly clear” is very subjective, and I could even argue that Ineffabilis Deus does not meet all the criteria of Vatican I for an infallible definition, maybe even Munificentissimus Deus (after all, the words “infallible” or “ex cathedra” are not used). Even granting these two cases, and perhaps a few others, the point is that now we have totally departed from the understanding of Vatican I itself, and this is very problematic.

The problem is that in the Vatican I scheme there is still a link (though imaginary) between Jesus, the Apostles, the Fathers and modern definitions. But if we adopt a minimalist view, or a “development of doctrine view” (like granting papal infallibility comes from the Middle Ages, following Tierney), there is a gulf between the supposedly revealed, Christ-given gift and the much later application of it.

What is the point in a “charism of truth” given to Peter which almost none of his successors would ever use, most of them not even being aware of it? Did Christ really think he is attaching to the promises to Peter a special gift to be discovered and used only in the 19th century? Why keep the Vatican I definition if we reject the “thousands and thousands” paradigm, where papal infallibility is absolutely central to the preservation of the Church in the truth?

Future perspectives

So what would be the way out of this mess? One insight is the Divine Providence that kept Vatican I from defining the infallibility of the Church in defining dogma. The infallibility of the Magisterium gathered in a council in matters of faith and morals is taught in Vatican I and Vatican II, but it has never been defined as a revealed dogma of faith. Thus, it is possible to disagree with this teaching after prayer and study.

Now, if it is possible that the teaching on conciliar infallibility is wrong, then it is also possible that Pastor Aeternus as a conciliar definition was not infallible, i.e., it could also be wrong. If it could be wrong, then all papal declarations could also have some errors in them. This is a criticism that seems to me is possible to make while being a fully faithful Catholic.

Vatican III will need to rethink infallibility. My suggestion is that it would be possible to keep the language about the Pope and the Bishops teaching infallibly when guarding the deposit of faith. But this should be defined to mean the real deposit of faith received from the Apostles, i.e. the Irenaean Rule or the Apostles’ Creed. Later dogmatics could still be taught, but it would be recognized as not entirely immune to error.