I don’t normally read political sites and blogs, but this weekend I was surfing around the Web and ran across an exchange between several folks (Stephan Kinsella, Scott P. Richert, Thomas Storck, Thomas Fleming, and Thomas Woods) regarding different economic theories and the extent to which they correspond with authentic Catholic social teaching.
In the course of the discussion, one of the participants (Stephan Kinsella) claimed that the others believed papal encyclicals on economics are infallible. This provoked and objection and a subsequent retraction of the claim. So far so good. They’re not infallible. In fact, the subject matter of such encyclicals is only indirectly related to the deposit of faith, and thus they have less relative weight compared to encyclicals whose contents are directly related to the deposit of faith.
Unfortunately, in the course of the discussion one one of the participants (Scott P. Richert) said the following:
Papal infallibility is widely misunderstood by Catholics and non-Catholics alike. Infallibility has been invoked by popes only twice: by Pius IX, in defining the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin in 1854 (16 years before papal infallibility itself was actually defined at Vatican I), and by Pius XII, in defining the dogma of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin in 1950. That’s it: Leo XIII, in Rerum novarum, and Pius XI, in Quadragesimo anno, did not invoke it [source].
It is certainly true that papal infallibility is widely misunderstood, but I regret to say that this statement falls into a common misunderstanding of it: namely, the idea that it has only been exercised twice. This claim is commonly made by dissident Catholics who wish to minimize the practical impact of the doctrine of papal infallibility, and the claim has been so commonly made that even many orthodox Catholics have absorbed it and repeat it in good conscience.
But it isn’t true.
Papal infallibility has been exercised far more than two times. In fact, it had been used many times prior to 1870, when it was defined by the First Vatican Council. This was the clear understanding of the council, as shown–for example–by reading the later Archbishop Gasser’s relatio to the council fathers. This was a briefing given to the bishops at Vatican I to ensure a common understanding of the proposals regarding papal infallibility they were voting on. It is reprinted in the excellent book The Gift of Infallibility (which is the best book on the subject), and in the course of the relatio, Gasser alludes to the numerous times papal infallibility had been used before the Council.
Papal infallibility continues to be widely used. In fact, the current pontiff has used it more than any of his predecessors. The reason is that papal canonizations of saints are infallible. In the course of performing a canonization, the pope states “we declare and define that Blessed N., is a saint” (example). This triggers the Church’s gift of infallibility, which Vatican I teaches “the divine Redeemer willed his Church to enjoy in defining doctrine concerning faith or morals” (source). Consequently, the verb “define” has come to be used as a trigger word for infallible papal statements. If you see a pope say “we define” or “I define,” it is a signal that he is making a definition and thus exercising the Church’s gift of infallibility. (This is not the only way in which he can do this, but it is the standard way.)
The Immaculate Conception and the Assumption thus are not the only two exercises of papal infallibilty in history. They are arguably the only two dogmatic definitions (i.e., definitions of dogmas; saint canonizations being definitions of what are known as dogmatic facts rather than dogmas per se) in the last hundred and fifty years, but they are far from the only two in history.