Monday, May 21, 2007

Papal Infallibility Raises more Questions than it Answers

Suppose papal infallibility is true as a theory. How can we use it?

A strictly theoretical infallibility is pretty useless, it is just an idea one keeps in one's head until one applies it. When we try to apply papal infallibility and development of doctrine, it seems they cannot go together. To wit, if I cannot know what the pope teaches infallibly, how can I really know what the pope teaches and hence what the truth is? A good example is Unam Sanctam and Lumen Gentium which seem contradictory on their face. I know there are harmonizations online, but I think even if the harmonizations are true there are still a lot of issues.

Unam Sanctam stated that unless one is in fellowship with the pope, one is outside the Church. Lumen Gentium states that e.g. Protestants are separated brethren, with defective fellowship with the pope. Now, assuming that these can be reconciled, I have the following questions:

1) Were all those RC theologians and believers wrong when they took Unam Sanctam as meaning what is says for 700 years, that those not in fellowship with the pope are outside the Church? If they were not wrong, where are the theologians from the middle ages who said those not in fellowship with the pope have a real though defective relationship with him, and were they widely accepted if they did say so?

2) If so many got this infallible document wrong because the pope really mean the e.g. EO are in the Church, but are "true particular churches" with a defective fellowship with the pope, and that the Prots are really "separated brethren", how can we be sure we really understand what the pope's teaching is now, that it will not "develop" into something quite the opposite of what we believe today based on his teaching tomorrow, given what Unam Sanctam states, to wit "herefore, if the Greeks or others should say that they are not confided to Peter and to his successors, they must confess not being the sheep of Christ, since Our Lord says in John 'there is one sheepfold and one shepherd."?

3) If certain parts of Unam Sanctam are infallible while others are not, how do we separate the infallible wheat from the fallible tares?

These are honest questions BTW.

If we try and pick out this or that particular tare, we will raise questions about other tares--whether they are really wheat or not. And if questions are raised more word chopping will occur, until we cannot be sure of what the words mean without an infallible interpreter. And I suppose we have come full circle. In a way, the justification for papal infallibility requires the same concept of an infallible interpreter it attempts to justify. If the words ""Therefore, if the Greeks or others should say that they are not confided to Peter and to his successors, they must confess not being the sheep of Christ, since Our Lord says in John 'there is one sheepfold and one shepherd'" really somehow mean the Greeks have only a defective fellowship with the pope, why couldn't an infallible interpreter simply say that?

I believe this is a real problem with how the RC presents itself as an authority, because ultimately the authority is not clear as to what it teaches, things can develop no matter how clearly worded. Just read Unam Sanctam and see what I mean. Its meaning seems clear, and the Medieval Church seemed to take the view that the pope really did have temporal authority over the princes, the spiritual sword over the profane sword--just ask the German Emperor who's vassals' vows were unilaterally revoked by the pope. If this was not the true Tradition of the RCC, were are the contrary views, and if they exist, why didn't a pope or two say "Yes, that is what we really meant!"?


Eric said...

To the best of my knowledge, there is no infallible list of infallible "Ex Cathedra" statements. There is not even a fallible list of infallible statements that everyone in the RC church agrees with!

It seems that RC theologians disagree with each other in regards to how many statements have been made.

This leaves the individual RC Christian in quite a bind. How does one know which statements are infallible and which are not?

The individual RC Christian can't compare a Pope's statements with Scripture because only the Magisterium can correctly interpret Scripture. The same for the unwritten Traditions - not only is the Magisterium the only body who can interpret Church Tradition, but it is the only body with access to it. I am not aware of some book that contains all of the "Tradition" that the RC has access to. The Catechism would have most of it, one would assume, but older Catechisms did not contain some of the newer RC teachings on Mary or the Pope. These teachings were “a part of the deposit of faith” and were included in the Traditions, just not released yet. I wonder what other Truths (that are a part of the Tradition) will be released in the future!

So, if Truth in the RC world is determined by the Pope/Magisterium, Church Tradition & Scripture, the individual RC Christian is really at a loss to know what is and is not true. There is no way to “cross check” or make sure of what one is being taught.

This is why the RC is really teaching “Sola Ecclesia” – Truth is whatever the RC church says is Truth at this time (and history is clear that it could change in the future).

Therefore, RC Christians must end up simply having faith in the RC church. Faith that what they are being taught is correct and the Truth. Faith that there is no error or heresy being taught. Faith that, if they follow the directions given, they have a shot at purgatory and, eventually someday, Heaven.


Edward Reiss said...

Hello Eric,

Of course I agree re: there is no list if infallible statements or dogmas. There are some which are obviously dogmatic, such as the Marian dogmas. I like the idea that there is no corrective to any part of the Tradition, so that the Catholic is left to say in effect "I believe what ever the pope says I should believe".

"This is why the RC is really teaching “Sola Ecclesia” – Truth is whatever the RC church says is Truth at this time (and history is clear that it could change in the future)."

And that, Eric, is the real danger isn't it? If nothing ois a corrective to what the Majesterium teaches, and doctrines can "develop" in ways that seem to make what was said in the past irrelevant or shall we say wrong, what doctrines are finalized? Could e.g. Chalcedon "develope" into something which we would not recognize as Chalcedon? I don't see what can stop that.

Eric Comstock said...


Here is a link to an article on the Catholic Planet website. According to this author, there are 10,000 truths that are still undiscovered within the ancient Deposit of Faith.

There must be a huge collection of books in the Vatican with all this info. Or, several Bishops who have learned amazing memory techniques:)

Here is the link:

Eric Comstock said...


One more comment. Jimmy Akin, who is a Roman Catholic Apologist, has given his direction on how to know if a Pope's statement is infallible. Here is his advice from an article on

"We must look also at the conditions regarding papal infallibility. According to Vatican I, which defined the doctrine, "The Roman pontiff, when he speaks ex cathedra . . . possesses through the divine assistance promised to him in the person of blessed Peter, the infallibility with which the divine Redeemer willed his Church to be endowed in defining the doctrine concerning faith or morals" (Pastor Aeternus 4). The passage in the ellipsis explains that the pope speaks ex cathedra "when, acting in the office of shepherd and teacher of all Christians, he defines, by virtue of his supreme apostolic authority, a doctrine concerning faith or morals to be held by the universal Church."

The key word is "defines." Defining something is not the same as stating, teaching, declaring, condemning, or what have you. The meaning of this term is explained in a relatio on Pastor Aeternus 4. (A relatio is an official interpretation of the text that is presented to the council bishops by a man called the relator so that the bishops will know the official sense of the text on which they are voting. Thus, what is said in a relatio is key to resolving queries about the meaning of a conciliar text.)

On July 16, 1870, Vincent Gasser, the relator for Pastor Aeternus 4, gave a relatio that explained "the word ‘defines’ signifies that the pope directly and conclusively pronounces his sentence about a doctrine which concerns matters of faith or morals and does so in such a way that each one of the faithful can be certain of the mind of the Apostolic See, of the mind of the Roman Pontiff; in such a way, indeed, that he or she knows for certain that such and such a doctrine is held to be heretical, proximate to heresy, certain or erroneous, etc., by the Roman Pontiff" (Gasser & O’Connor, The Gift of Infallibility [Boston: St. Paul Editions, 1986], 74 n.).

This means that, in order for him to define a doctrine to be held by the universal Church, the pope must express himself in such a way that the faithful can know with certitude that he holds a particular proposition to have a particular doctrinal note (de fide, certain, false, proximate to heresy, heretical, et cetera). The faithful are then required to regard it likewise. If the faithful cannot know from what the pope says that a particular proposition is to be regarded in a particular way, then the pope has not defined the matter for the universal Church and thus has not spoken infallibly."

Does this clear it up for you?

Edward Reiss said...


That site is really pretty wild, if you ask me. I mean, now Mary was "virginally conceived" etc. What is really fascinating is the speculation piled upon speculation. To be fair though, this i snot Roman dogma, but I can see why they could make it one at a later time, if it "develped" that way.

But why all this speculation about peripheral figures, not St. Ann has a special conception too?

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