“Infallible?” by Hans Küng

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.

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One Comment on ““Infallible?” by Hans Küng”

  1. Here is the problem, infallibility is also possessed by the Magisterium when they give an official pronouncement on doctrine, so says the catechism, and Vatican 1 as a Magesterium, infallibly laid down the criteria for papal infallibility. So unless you come up with a way to convince the highest ranking Catholic authorities to admit that this highly dogmatic teaching was wrong, you will never successfully open the door to ridding Catholicism of the false doctrine of papal infallibility. Those who are the most consistently dogmatic, are those who are least likely to admit error even when their error is obvious. And given how most Catholics revere the Pope, it is safe to say most catholics would rather live with the constant intellectual criticism of papal infallibility, than accept it as error and make actual change. People will kill to fight change, especially in religion.

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