Archive for the ‘Papal Infallibility’ category

Dave Armstrong on Infallibility

February 24, 2012

Today I have been going through the apologetics articles of Dave Armstrong on the doctrine of infallibility. (You can find them under this link when you scroll down to “Papal Infallibility and Supremacy”) I did not read every line (and so I might have missed something), but I read a lot (and there is a lot!), and I have a lot to comment.

First I need to give Dave credit for his wide-ranging apologetics. He has read and written a lot, and he deals with issues that other apologists don’t. Taking Infallibility as an example, he is aware of the work of Döllinger and Tierney and posts some responses. Unfortunately, however, Armstrong’s arguments aren’t so strong.

(In what follows, I will be referring to Armstrong’s writings in general without giving exact citations and links. I take the responsibility for possible inaccuracies in presenting Armstrong’s views.)

Historical positivism?

In dealing with Döllinger, Armstrong criticizes what he calls “historical positivism”, i.e., reading history without faith. Similarly, when Küng published his book, he was mostly attacked on methodological grounds. It seems the most sophisticated Catholic criticism of non-infallibilists is precisely this: calling their method rationalism, positivism, historicism, or something of the sort.

I find this strategy very telling. In Church history, when there were dogmatic quarrels, it was customary to appeal to the sources of revelation, to Scripture and Tradition. Somehow in this debate the “orthodox” side has practically given up this method and resorted to a wholly new strategy.

It would be just as easy for me to label the “orthodox” position “fideistic”, “anachronistic” or something of that sort. But that is not the way to solve doctrinal questions. It is not a question on our side of approaching history without faith. Nor is it true that non-infallibilists presuppose their position when approaching history.

As far as I know, both Küng and Tierney changed their mind during their study. They both started with faith, they both changed their mind during their study. I myself came to doubt infallibility precisely because I was approaching history with faith and trying to defend the Church’s message. It was my faith in Paul, Irenaeus and Vatican II (that is, in Scripture, Tradition and Magisterium) that forced me to abandon the infallibility of the medieval councils.

The answer, then, to Armstrong’s two main rebuttals to non-infallibilists, is clear. He asks: 1) Why, then, be Catholic? What keeps you from becoming Anglican or Orthodox? 2) What criterion do you propose for determining orthodoxy, if you reject the Church’s dogmatic teachings?

I answer: 1) Because I belong to the Catholic Church which is my home and my family, because I love the Gospel delivered to the fathers of my Church, and because I am committed to the Church in love. If my father suddenly said he was infallible, I would not tell him I’m changing fathers. Rather I’d try to talk sense to him. 2) The Gospel, the Rule of Faith/Apostles’ Creed, communion with the Church (one’s Bishop who is in communion with the Pope).

Scripture and Tradition

I remarked that theologians used to appeal to Scripture and Tradition, but in this case the strategy has changed. Although Armstrong partly follows this new strategy, he also tries to play the old game. His major Scriptural argument for infallibility is Acts 15:28. It is also the passage Theodore Abu Qurra used when he first invented conciliar infallibility in the 9th century.

But the passage does not teach the a priori infallibility of ecumenical councils. All it says is that after the Apostles had agreed on the issue, they believed that the Holy Spirit had spoken. A modern parallel would be Vatican II: to be sure, the Holy Spirit spoke through the Bishops, when they (virtually) unanimously reformed many outdated magisterial teachings (like extra ecclesiam and religious liberty). And yet Vatican II worked without claiming infallibility to back up any of its teachings.

Armstrong rejects Protestant explanations (that this was isolated and unusual and restricted to the apostolic age) of Acts 15:28 as if they were the only arguments against this passage teaching infallibility. But of course it is as simple as this: the passage does not mention infallibility, the a priori immunity from error of ecumenical councils’ dogmatic definitions.

Another point to be made is that the Council in Acts, like Vatican II, made its decisions in favor of the Gospel, removing obstacles from its way (Acts: circumcision and Mosaic Law, V2: extra ecclesiam in favor of the common witness to the salvific Gospel by all Christians and the recognition of non-Catholic Churches). By contrast, many of the so-called infallible definitions from 325 to 1950 have done the opposite: they have added new obligations and conditions allegedly necessary for salvation, making the Gospel void.

Infallibility works only if God guaranteed it, if Christ taught it and if the Apostles passed it on. This is what Vatican I claims. If and since Vatican I is wrong on this and infallibility is a medieval theological opinion that made it to a conciliar teaching, then for the sake of truth it is better to question conciliar infallibility than to abandon faith or reason.

As far as Tradition goes, Armstrong sometimes appeals to the development of doctrine, but sometimes he seems to hint that the Church believed in infallibility from the very start. Specifically, he quotes Pope Leo, Thomas Aquinas and Francis de Sales. The only one of these with a doctrine like that of Vatican I is Francis de Sales, which simply confirms the fact that the doctrine is no older than the Middle Ages.

As for the development of doctrine, Armstrong appeals to Newman. But the problem here is that Pastor Aeternus does not present its doctrine as a development but as something given by Christ and believed from the beginning. The whole Tradition from Irenaeus to Vatican I operates under the idea of doctrinal immutability. If Newman is right, the Tradition is wrong, and the Councils are not infallible.

The meaning and merit of the doctrine

With Newman, Armstrong endorses moderate infallibility and claims that the Council (V1) was actually a defeat for the Ultramontanists – the definition is supposedly very restrictive, a win for the inopportunists (like Newman). My understanding is quite different.

First of all, the Faith Commission that was in charge at Vatican I consisted of infallibilists alone, no inopportunists were allowed to it. Although the inopportunists had been going out of their way to include a phrase about the other Bishops, Tradition, or the larger Church into the definition, the only significant last-minute correction to the text of the definition was the addition of the infamous ex sese -clause, stating that the Popes’ definitions are irreformable of themselves.

Second, it was not Newman but Manning who sat in the Commission of Faith at the Council, and Manning continued to interpret papal infallibility in maximalist terms even after the Council. For him, Pastor Aeternus did not restrict papal infallibility to rare cases. The conditions could well be interpreted much more widely.

Third, in fact the “official” interpretation given by Bishop Gasser favored precisely this maximalistic view. As I quoted in my review of Gasser’s relatio, he says there have been “thousands and thousands” of dogmatic definitions, not 6-12 like some postconciliar theologians have concluded.

And this brings me to the final issue of the merits of the doctrine. In a dialogue with a Protestant, Armstrong defends the very naive position that it is clearly laid out what Catholics must believe. He says that it is irrelevant which definitions are infallible, because Catholics are bound by all magisterial teaching.

Well, first of all, the CDF conceded in 1990 that theologians can disagree with the Magisterium on non-definitive teachings after prayer and study. Many bishops’ conferences reacted similarly after Humanae Vitae. Whereas Armstrong thinks HV is infallible doctrine (whether ex cathedra or not), many doubt this, and not just dissidents but top theologians such as Francis Sullivan.

So even though Armstrong says the intricacies of “what is infallible and what not” don’t make a difference for the ordinary Catholic, it is very clear that this is a utopia. Bishops worldwide disagree on such a concrete life-affecting issue as contraception.

Armstrong also appeals to the Catechism. But Ratzinger has written that the individual doctrines in the CCC receive no other weight than that which they already have, and that the CCC can be criticized. Which takes us back into determining which teachings are definitive and which are not. And there is no definitive list.

Armstrong did well to point out that the Catholic is in a better position that the solascripturist, because the various theological issues have been dealt with at one point or another. We are not ahistorical, we need to take the history of dogma into account. But it is that very history of dogma that shows us how flawed the infallibility doctrine is.


The Nature and Mission of Theology – Ratzinger on Infallibility

February 22, 2012

In his book The Nature and Mission of Theology (Ignatius Press 1995), then Cardinal Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI) gives an interesting commentary on the CDF Instruction on the Ecclesial Vocation of a Theologian (from 1990). In it the CDF admitted a theologian could disagree with the Magisterium with regard to non-definitive teachings. But there was a point that provoked understandable criticism.

“Regarding the matter itself, it must be conceded that numbers 29 to 31 of the Instruction can be misunderstood if they are isolated from their context, especially paragraphs 25 and 26. Taken out of context, in fact, they can give rise to the impression that the Instruction allows the theologian the sole option of submitting divergent opinions to the magisterial authorities in secret and obliges him to suffer in silence if he is unsuccessful.” (p. 117)

Ratzinger goes on to give the correct interpretation: “Nevertheless, in the light of the whole text, which speaks of fruitful tensions and their value, it is quite obvious that the Instruction is not proposing ‘secret’ communications but dialogue which remains on an ecclesiastical and scientific plane and avoids distortions at the hands of the mass media. If this is ‘secret’, then all science must be called ‘secret’. In actuality, the point is precisely to use arguments instead of pressure as a means of persuasion.” (p. 117)

The only remaining problem is that this is allowed only with regard to so-called non-definitive teachings. What should be recognized is that since there is no list of such teachings and since many teachings once considered definitive have been reversed, such a distinction is not fruitful. In terms of papal infallibility, it can be questioned on the basis of the non-definitiveness of conciliar infallibility.

Ratzinger on infallibility

Ratzinger knows the problems of infallibility. He reacts in his comments to a tendency which wishes to limit obedience to Church authority solely to infallible statements, whereas the rest would rest on arguments alone.

“It seems to me that we have before us a typically Western restriction and legalistic reduction of the notion of faith which radicalizes certain one-sided developments which begin to make their appearance around the High Middle Ages.” (p. 111)

Pay attention to how Ratzinger describes the doctrine of infallibility: it is a one-sided medieval development, a far cry from the Christ-given truth-guaranteeing dogma of Vatican I. Ratzinger concedes, “as was demonstrated in the controversy with Küng”, that “infallibility first developed with such rigorous clarity in the Middle Ages” (p. 112). When faith is restricted to the “skeleton of infallibility”, “what really matters is lost”, that is, “the rule of faith and the Creed” (p. 112).

Ratzinger proposes the concept of auctoritas as more important than infallibility. States and parents are obeyed and their decisions are binding even though not infallible or irreformable. The same should apply to the Church. (p. 112-113)

All of that is exactly what I have been saying on this blog for some time already. The only thing Ratzinger doesn’t seem to see or want to admit is that the whole infallibility doctrine is the very reason why these wrong distinctions have been made and why what really matters has been lost. He says the “knowledge” of the gift of infallibility “cannot and ought not be withdrawn” (p. 112).

Supposedly the reason the doctrine of infallibility is “knowledge” and why it “cannot be withdrawn” is that it was defined by Vatican I and that magisterial dogmas are to be taken as a given in Catholic theology. However, if the sense of faith of the Church does not support the dogma (let’s say, optimistically, that 30-50% of Catholics believe it), it might be a sign of its non-infallibility.

The curious thing about this sensus fidei argument is that for Ratzinger it works only one way: “the dogmas of 1854, 1870 and 1950 became possible because of the sensus fidei had discovered them, while the Magisterium and theology followed its lead and tried slowly to catch up with it” (p. 105). But when the same phenomenon takes place in the other direction, it is called “dissent”, “principle of majority rule”, “a countermagisterium” (p. 107).

Yet Ratzinger himself was the one who, in the CDF document of 1990, allowed that “there are magisterial decisions which cannot be the final word on a given matter as such” but are a “sort of provisional policy” whose “particulars determined by circumstances can stand in need of correction” (p. 106).

Examples? “In this connection, one will probably call to mind both the pontifical statements of the last century regarding freedom of religion and the anti-Modernist decisions of the beginning of this century, especially the decisions of the then Biblical Commission.” “They were superseded after having fulfilled their pastoral function in the situation of the time.” (p. 106)

The problem here is threefold. 1) The documents in question were not always presented as prudential provisional policies but as absolute truths the opposite of which was condemned as grave sin. 2) The Church has never officially revoked these statements or explicitly declared them superseded. 3) Under the assumptions of doctrinal immutability and maximal infallibility of many of the infallibilists of Vatican I, these statements would qualify as infallible.

Conclusions? Ratzinger’s view already relativizes Vatican I, so why not be consistent and go back to “what really matters”? The Church’s authority is based on the truth it has received from the Apostles, the truth expressed in the rule of faith and the Creed. The additional doctrine of infallibility adds nothing but confusion.

Catholic Answers on Papal Infallibility

February 6, 2012

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.

The Küng debate in hindsight

February 4, 2012

Lately I’ve taken a look at the debate that Hans Küng’s book Infallible? An Enquiry caused in the early 1970s. My sources for these thoughts are Joseph Costanzo’s The Historical Credibility of Hans Kung, Küng’s memoirs in Disputed Truth as well as some German articles in Zum Problem Unfehlbarkeit, a collection of responses to Küng by top theologians (such as Rahner and Ratzinger) right after the publication of his book.

The positive outcome of the debate, as Küng sees it, is a threefold agreement among theologians. First, theologians seem agreed that the magisterium can err and has occasionally erred. Second, there is a tendency to avoid talking about infallibility and to prefer other terms. Third, there is agreement on the fact that the Church is preserved in truth despite its errors.

According to Küng the difference is only over the question whether the Holy Spirit can guarantee the a priori infallibility of propositions. This, he claims, no theologian has been able to (or even tried to) prove. But as Fr. Costanzo pointed out, it is not very clear what would constitute such proof.

The way Küng puts the questions seems to me to confuse things somewhat. The emphasis on propositions takes the debate too much toward philosophy and directs attention away from the biblical and historical data. Pastor Aeternus appeals to the Bible and to history; it does not phrase the issue in terms of propositions and philosophy.

The Bible and history do seem to be decisive for Küng as well. He lists three insights brought out by the debate: 1) The inventor of papal infallibility is the 13th century Franciscan (heretic?) Petrus Olivi, 2) The teaching authority of the councils does not rest on infallible statements but on the gospel, 3) There is no support for the infallibility of the Bishop of Rome either in the NT or in the tradition of the first three centuries.

So, we could infer that for Küng the proof would have to be clear biblical teaching and an apostolic tradition stemming from the very first centuries. This is not an unreasonable demand, in fact it is precisely what Vatican I claims. But Küng is right to say that nobody has been able to bring forth such evidence.

Instead, the dogma of Vatican I has been reinterpreted in Catholic theology along very moderate lines. Küng quotes a letter from Brian Tierney pointing out that Küng’s opponents such as Rahner never notice that their nuanced theories are incompatible with the dogma of Vatican I. One amusing insight is that according to the moderate interpretation Vatican I actually ended up defining papal fallibility.

Instead of trying to bring out evidence from the Bible and Church Fathers, Rahner’s strategy against Küng was to dispute his theological method. According to Rahner, Küng’s book posed a “deadly threat” to his Catholic faith. Rahner said this was no longer an intra-Catholic debate but a dialogue with a liberal Protestant.

It is true that Küng’s views and methods were much influenced by Karl Barth and Ernst Käsemann. But is it enough to simply denounce Küng and question his Catholicism? Unfortunately even Ratzinger takes this approach: How can one claim to be French or German or Swiss if one puts oneself against everything that constitutes one’s tradition?

I would say that as long as one had German blood and German citizenship, one would be German even if one didn’t want to speak German or sing German songs or follow German law. Similarly, as long as one is in communion with one’s bishop who is in communion with the Pope, as long as one is nourished by the blood of Christ, one is a Catholic.

Ratzinger did manage to point out many historical errors in Küng’s book (so did fr. Costanzo), but these remain peripheral in terms of the main argument of the book. Ratzinger also criticized Küng’s militant rhetoric, which was fair enough. But he had some good things to say, too: he praised Küng’s exposition (or exposal) of “Roman theology”, which is not necessarily the same as Catholic theology.

Some interesting statements by Karl Rahner include that Jesus would’ve understood nothing of Pastor Aeternus and that papal infallibility guarantees the infallibility of other dogmas, but is not itself infallible. Or, if one wants to say it was infallible on the basis of the infallibility of the ecumenical council, one simply pushes it a step back, because that will not be an infallible teaching.

In other words, the doctrines of infallibility are not what faith is based on, they are rather parts of the system that is accepted on other grounds. Küng told Rahner his book was not really a threat to his Catholic faith but to his theological method, which constantly started from dogmas in order to return to them.

In general, skimming through the contributions to the Küng debate, it seems that much of it missed the point. Whether Humanae vitae was infallible or whether it was wrong, whether propositions are true or false or both or neither, whether Küng is Catholic enough or not. But as we have seen, there were some positive and concrete results, too.

The debate died out for some decades, but now it seems it is time for it to rise from the grave, transformed, in the form of an non-polemical ecumenical dialogue. In my estimation it should systematically lay out the biblical, historical and hermeneutical problems and offer tentative solutions for the Church to work with in a future council.

“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.