Two Instances Of Papal Infallibility?

by Jimmy Akin

in Theology

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.

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{ 19 comments }

Vincent June 27, 2004 at 11:45 am

If I understand it correctly, Bishop Gasser didn’t assert that “define” or any other specific phrase had to be used. Could you elaborate on the other ways in which we can know when papal infallibility is being exercised, besides the use of “define”?
One particular issue I’m thinking of is the ex cathedra status of Ordinatio Sacerdotalis. “Define” is not used, yet in my reading of the “Doctrinal Commentary on the Concluding Formula of the Professio Fidei“, it seems that the CDF considers the teaching that “priestly ordination is reserved only to men” to be infallible, but not ex-cathedra infallible.
Moreover, the CDF appears to confine ex cathedra pronouncements (“defining” acts) to papal judgments on “doctrine in the solemn form of a definition”. In other words, ex cathedra is predicated on solemnity. Do recall if this was discussed in Bishop Gasser’s relatio? A recent doctrinal development, perhaps?

jamie June 28, 2004 at 4:58 am

The best explanation for OS is as an extraordinary confirmation of an ordinary definition. In other words, the doctrine restricting holy orders to men is to be understood as infallible by means of the ‘ordinary’ teaching magisterium, i.e. that of the clear, consistent, and unanimous teaching of the bishops of the Church through the ages; the document OS is an extraordinary papal proclamation which is intended to simply confirm or point this out, without adding any sort of intrinsic authority to this (since no additional authority would be needed). This is the normal means by which ordinary infallibility has been confirmed through history, by a papal document of some sort.
This was the teaching of the CDF in a response to a dubium by an English bishop shortly after OS was released. The best canonical discussion of the issue is in an article by Msgr. Brian E. Ferme, whom I used to work with. I can get the reference upon request.

Ggoose June 28, 2004 at 11:09 am

Dumb n00b Catholic question …
In Ordinatio Sacerdotalis we have:
Wherefore, in order that all doubt may be removed regarding a matter of great importance, a matter which pertains to the Church’s divine constitution itself, in virtue of my ministry of confirming the brethren (cf. Lk 22:32) I declare that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church’s faithful.
… now from Catholic Encyclopedia
The pontiff must teach in his public and official capacity as pastor and doctor of all Christians, not merely in his private capacity as a theologian, preacher ar allocutionist, nor in his capacity as a temporal prince or as a mere ordinary of the Diocese of Rome. It must be clear that he speaks as spiritual head of the Church universal. CHECK
Then it is only when, in this capacity, he teaches some doctrine of faith or morals that he is infallible (see below, IV). CHECK
Further it must be sufficiently evident that he intends to teach with all the fullness and finality of his supreme Apostolic authority, in other words that he wishes to determine some point of doctrine in an absolutely final and irrevocable way, or to define it in the technical sense (see DEFINITION). These are well-recognized formulas by means of which the defining intention may be manifested. CHECK
Finally for an ex cathedra decision it must be clear that the pope intends to bind the whole Church. CHECK

I then read that this is not considered infallible. Why? Is it because it was already considered the teaching of the Church because womens ordination would conflict with scripture? Was it declared previously?
There are still a small fringe group of folks who are determined to challenge this as if some esoteric rules for infallibility were not in place as it pertains to ordinations of women. Can you clear my lack of understanding up?

jamie June 28, 2004 at 11:45 am

Ggoose,
I don’t see anyone on this blog denying that OS is infallible. I denied that it was ex cathedra infallible.
I think there could be legitimate questions as to whether your third qualification (“Further it must be sufficiently evident that he intends to teach with all the fullness and finality of his supreme Apostolic authority, in other words that he wishes to determine some point of doctrine in an absolutely final and irrevocable way, or to define it in the technical sense”) has been met in OS. If the Holy Father intended to do this in OS, he could have been a heck of a lot clearer. A solemn tone of voice doth not ‘supreme Apostolic authority’ make. Again, I think it is infallible by means of the ordinary magisterium, not ex cathedra/extraordinary papal magisterium.
That being said, I admit that a convincing case can be made the other way as well, as you have done.
I’d be interested to hear what Jimmy has to say.

Ggoose June 28, 2004 at 1:11 pm

I thought about adding a ? after the third check for the reasons you stated but went ahead and left it as is.
I brought this up on the DCF forum about 3 months ago and a big hairy discussion prompted by Protestants asking for a list of infallible doctrines erupted … and of course the fact that we cannot produce this list somehow disproves infallibility.

Vincent June 28, 2004 at 3:42 pm

Thanks for your comments, Jamie. If it’s not too much trouble, could you summarize Msgr. Ferme’s reason for OS falling short of being an ex cathedra pronouncement?
Numbers #9 and #11 of the “Doctrinal Commentary” addresses our discussion. The CDF implies that the Pope’s explicit declaration of confirmation or reaffirmation that a doctrine belongs to the teaching of the OUM is not ex cathedra. Moreover, the CDF seems to exclude non-solemn pronouncements from being ex cathedra.
On the other hand, the 1870 definition is silent on the confirmation/reaffirmation and non-solemnity exclusions. I’m hoping that Fr. James T. O’Connor’s The Gift of Infallibility, which Jimmy mentioned, will helpful to figure this out. Thankfully, it’s available at my local Catholic university.
What is clear is that the teaching that priestly ordination is reserved only to men is infallible. As you mentioned Jamie, the debate is whether it’s ex cathedra infallible. Cardinal Ratzinger and the CDF seem to say no, while Fr. Peter Pilsner and Brother Ansgar Santogrossi (and probably Fr. Brian Harrison, OS) say definitely yes.
Of course, I’d rather be wrong with Cardinal Ratzinger and the CDF, but I think it would be helpful if they elaborated on the confirmation/reaffirmation and non-solemnity exclusions in reference to the 1870 definition.

jamie June 29, 2004 at 8:15 am

Vincent,
Unfortunately I don’t know of the availability of Msgr. Ferme’s article, or even have the publishing information, though it’s in my files somewhere.
Essentially he takes for granted that OS is not ex cathedra, since this was the position of the CDF (Ferme works closely with the CDF as canonical advisor) — and it seems to me, in passing, that the CDF clarification is more than just Ratzinger’s personal opinion, but conveys the mind of the Church, due to the authority of the CDF per se — Ferme simply goes on to explain more positively wherein OS’s infallibility lies.
The idea is that the infallible teachings of the ordinary magisterium, unlike ex cathedra teachings, are very difficult to identify historically. Although, as Ggoose showed above, ex cathedra teaching has very clear and definitive ‘marks’ (although even these are not as clear as we’d like them), the ordinary teaching of the college of bishops has very vague marks — consensus, consistency, etc. Msgr. Ferme showed that, from the very origins of this doctrine, i.e. of the infallibility of the ordinary magisterium, the Church recognized that some sort of ‘marker’ was necessary to identify these teachings, and that this ‘marker’ usually came in the form of a papal teaching — either an encyclical, bull, decree, etc. This papal teaching would not necessarily have authority in and of itself, but would simply be a positive indication that a given teaching carries the weight of ordinary infallibility. This teaching would not necessarily have to utilize solemn and definitive language, it would only have to generally indicate that such a teaching has always been held definitively by the Church. Viola infallibility. Defined, in this way, it is, as you can see, rather easy to see numerous papal teachings as infallible (Humanae Vitae, OS, etc.) which do not necessarily seem to meet the Vatican I qualifications for ex cathedra infallibility.
Hope that helps.

Michael May 4, 2005 at 8:42 pm

Jamie:
I agree with your analysis, but I don’t think you take due note of either the significance or the clarity of JP’s use of “ordinary” infallibility. Evangelium Vitae 57, as well as OS, make very clear that the fullness of pontifical teaching authority is being exercised, which is infallible as precisely such an exercise. The difference between such an exercise and the more familiar definitions, such as of the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption, is that the Pope was teaching in his capacity as head of the college of bishops, not unilaterally. Ratzinger’s response to the dubium on OS suggests that he and JP2 carefully crafted the language of OS, and of EV too, both to stress the infallibility of the ordinary magisterium and to indicate thereby that infallible papal acts of teaching normally need not be definitions of the traditional sort.

Kuriakos December 14, 2007 at 7:25 am

What is the possible utility for the future ecumenical councils,concerning the ‘Relatio’ of V. Gasser?

Eddie February 19, 2008 at 4:51 pm

I’m confused, does this mean this statement is infallible? How does this statement fall in line with Vatican 2?
“Furthermore, we declare, we proclaim, we define that it is absolutely necessary for salvation that every human creature be subject to the Roman Pontiff” (Unam Sanctam [1302]; http://www.papalencyclicals.net/Bon08/B8unam.htm )

Zeno February 19, 2008 at 5:04 pm

Eddie,
Please refer to the recent passage:

58. In the face of new problems and situations and of an exclusive interpretation of the adage: “salus extra ecclesiam non est”,[88] the magisterium, in recent times, has articulated a more nuanced understanding as to the manner in which a saving relationship with the Church can be realized. The Allocution of Pope Pius IX, Singulari Quadam (1854) clearly states the issues involved: “It must, of course, be held as a matter of faith that outside the apostolic Roman Church no one can be saved, that the Church is the only ark of salvation, and that whoever does not enter it, will perish in the flood. On the other hand, it must likewise be held as certain that those who live in ignorance of the true religion, if such ignorance be invincible, are not subject to any guilt in this matter before the eyes of the Lord”.[89]

Ryan March 5, 2009 at 12:49 pm

The doctrine of papal infallibility does not have to do with a pope canonizing saints. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) mentions, canonizing saints is a solemn proclamation (CCC 828), not a solemn dogmatic definition. Akin seems aware of this even in his distinction between “infallible” dogmatic definitions and simply infallibly definitions. Papal infallibilty has to do with doctrine, not with canonizations which are not directly concerned with doctrine (i.e., teachings). This is what CCC 891 states:

“‘The Roman Pontiff, head of the college of bishops, enjoys this infallibility in virtue of his office, when, as supreme pastor and teacher of al the faithful–who confirms his brethren in the faith–he proclaims by a definitive act a doctrine pertaining to faith or morals….The infallibility promised to the Church is also present in the body of bishops when, together with Peter’s successor, they exercise the supreme Magisterium,’ above all in an Ecumenical Council. When the Church through its supreme Magisterium proposes a doctrine ‘for belief as being divinely revealed,’ and as the teaching of Christ, the definitions ‘must be adhered to with the obedience of faith.’ This infallibility extends as far as the deposit of divine Revelation itself.”

There’s no new revelation since the death of the last apostle. Papal infallibility is meant to preserve the deposit of faith handed on by Jesus to the apostles, and the apostles to the rest of the Church, just as dogmatic decisions of ecumenical councils are meant to. Declaring Francis of Assisi, or anyone else, a saint wouldn’t make sense to be part of this, since nothing like that could be considered part of the deposit of faith passed on to the apostles. The idea of saints could be, but who in the future will be declared one…how could that possibly be part of the deposit of faith????
Furthermore, the First Vatican Council’s decisions regarding the pope’s authority were meant to bring to end the questions that had been raised about where the buck stops. What happens if an ecumenical council disagrees with a pope and a pope makes a solemn ex cathedra decision? Does the Council of bishops (who, at the time were primarily appointed by heads of state, often secular anti-Catholic states…even in the “Catholic” ones) trump the pope, or does the pope trump the council. In a sense, the issue was the spiritual autonomy of the Church vis-a-vis ever-more secular European states.
Papal infallibility starts getting its juice in the medieval debate about Franciscan poverty (which was very political…. basically, the Church shouldn’t have any wealth, the wealth should instead rest in the hands of state rulers…hmmm, interesting, especially when such defenders of “poverty” like William of Ockham were being protected by such state rulers against the papacy with whom these state rulers, e.g., Ludwig of Bavaria, were in conflict). The forced suppression of the Jesuits, and exiling religious orders in the age of Enlightenment is also key.

Ryan March 5, 2009 at 1:25 pm

In looking over Ad Tuendam Fidei, and the CDF’s (Ratzinger’s et al) official notes added to JPII’s moto proprio, it does seem that there is some potential ambiguity w/ex cathedra regarding dogmatic statements prior to Vatican I. It is possible there are other ex cathedra statements floating out there, but most of the major candidates were formally incorporated into the official dogmatic decisions of Ecumenical Councils (like Pastor Aeternus”s teaching on papal infallibility itself which was written by Pope Pius IX, but promulgated by the First Vatican Council). The Magisterium has only clarified two papal statements as ex cathedra: 1854 def. of Mary’s Immaculate Conception and the 1950 def. of Mary’s Assumption into heaven. But, it does sound like there is the possibility that some prior papal dogmatic decisions from the past might also fall under that category. This is not clear, just like the infallible ordinary magisterium is not clear either. So some debate whether or not Humanae Vitae’s ban on contraception is infallible or not. On the one hand it’s clearly binding, and on the other Humanae Vitae itself is clearly not infallible. The question is does it represent the ordinary magisterium of the Church (a somewhat fuzzy idea). Same with the ban on female ordination. John Paul never made an ex cathedra statement, but is it part of the ordinary magisterium? Some (like Ratzinger and Dulles) would say yes because it was the constant teaching of the Church. Others would say no because it hasn’t been a debate long enough (1970s) for it to be considered constant teaching of the Church.

bill912 March 5, 2009 at 6:19 pm

Perhaps Jimmy’s last paragraph should be read again.

David B. March 6, 2009 at 3:15 pm

You get around blogosphere, bill912. You’re starting to remind me of Gandalf: never late, never early. :-D

Matheus March 6, 2009 at 4:57 pm

And what about you, David B. Haven’t you been absent lately or it’s just my impression? If it’s the former, good to see you.

Matheus March 6, 2009 at 4:59 pm

Hey!!!! Typepad novelties?
The new embedded word verification window is very cool.

bill912 March 6, 2009 at 6:11 pm

Thanks, David. I think it’s just that I’m going stir-crazy in this winter wonderland I’m living in. (As soon as I retire, I’m heading south).

David B. March 7, 2009 at 8:30 am

Matheus,
It’s the former, and thank you.
Bill912,
Well, I hope mother nature gives you a break from the cold like she’s giving us in my neighborhood.

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