Saturday, September 03, 2011

Why the Pope Has to Be Infallible, Part 3

This is the third in a series of posts about Papal infallibility and its relationship to the interpretation of Scripture. See part 1, part 2, and part 2a.

In the first and second parts of this series of posts, we discussed the infallibility of the Church as a whole, and then the infallibility of an ecumenical council.

We concluded the last post with the question, Is the infallibility of an ecumenical council enough? In other words, in order to preserve the unity of the Church, and to transmit the faith with certitude to the common believer, is it enough that ecumenical councils alone be infallible?

I believe the answer is, No, the infallibility of ecumenical councils is not enough for the good of the Church.

Why? Because the councils themselves sometimes need clarification.

No doubt the ecumenical councils have done much good for the Church. They have authoritatively interpreted Scripture, resolved disputes, and articulated the Church’s faith.

However, when one reads the histories of the councils, one quickly sees that it was (and is) not a clean business.

The councils resolve controversies but also create some others. Not the least of the controversies created by councils is the very question, Which councils are truly ecumenical and therefore infallible? There were false councils that have claimed ecumenicity. History has witnessed groups of bishops gathering together and claiming to speak for the infallible Church, when they were not authorized to do so and did not truly represent the Church.

How does one discern a true ecumenical council from counterfeits?

The Catholic answer has been simple: those confirmed by the Successor of Peter are truly ecumenical. This principle is based on a concept that has its roots in the worldview of the Gospels: the gathered apostles do not make a quorum without Peter, their leader.

Before I became a Catholic, I did not think the example of the Apostles in the Gospels and Acts provided an enduring model for the government of the Church. The Apostolic age, I thought, was entirely unique. That was for then, this is now. Our Protestant model of Church government was based on other archetypes, like modern Western democracy.

Obviously, the Catholic reading of the New Testament is different. In the Catholic view, we are still living in the New Testament world. The dynamics among the Apostles are still lived out in their successors, the bishops. In fact, the ministry of the Apostles continues in the ministry of their successors. In particular, the ministry of Peter as head of the Apostles continues in the bishop of Rome.

This way of understanding the continuity between the early Church and the later Church can be found in the acts of the ecumenical councils themselves.

After Nicaea, the Council of Chalcedon is probably the most revered of the ecumenical councils. Most Christians would identify themselves with “Chalcedonian orthodoxy”—that is, with the consensus on the natures and personhood of Christ that this Council achieved.

Yet it should be remembered that the Chalcedonian consensus was achieved when Pope Leo I's “tome” (letter) was read before the council, and the assembled bishops—mostly from the East—responded in affirmation: “Peter has spoken through Leo!” [1]

Many Christians not in communion with the Bishop of Rome nonetheless would identify themselves with the councils, particularly Chalcedon. Yet the Fathers that gave us Chalcedonian orthodoxy themselves presumed the Petrine succession of the Bishop of Rome, and affirmed that the Petrine ministry continued in Peter’s successor.

To reiterate, the Catholic principle to discern the truly ecumenical (infallible) councils is: Confirmation by the Successor of Peter.

I believe—with the rest of the Catholic Church—that this principle has biblical, historical, and theological support. Obviously, however, the biblical, historical, and theological validity of this principle can be challenged and is challenged by most Christians who are not in communion with the successor of Peter.

However, what principle is proposed to put in its place? There cannot be no principle of discretion, because there clearly have been non-ecumenical councils that have claimed ecumenicity (infallibility). I suggest that the other non-Catholic criteria that are proposed to distinguish authentic Councils are more vulnerable to critique on biblical, historical, and theological grounds than the criterion they propose to replace: Petrine (papal) confirmation.

The voice of Peter, through his successor, is the final voice of the assembled apostles (bishops) which guarantees that the apostolic quorum is met and the assembly is ecumenical (infallible). [2]  One can see, then, that Petrine/papal infallibility is an aspect of the infallibility of the Church:

The Church is infallible.

The Church speaks through an ecumenical council.

An ecumenical council is distinguished by the affirmation of the Pope, the successor of Peter.

Therefore the Pope participates in the infallibility of the Church: unless his affirmation is infallible, we lack an objective and reliable way to distinguish the authentic councils.

An Unending Chain of Infallibility?

Our discussion to this point may seem to have gotten overly complex, the chain of infallibility overly long. Someone may ask: “So many infallible things: Scripture, Church, councils, Pope—what good does it do? Does adding the Pope do anything but add another layer of infallibility to an already cumbersome system?”

It is helpful, then, to step back and observe that the chain of infallibility is not interminable. It is not even very long. In principle, the situation is relatively simple: The Scriptures are infallible, and the Church interprets them infallibly. Who speaks for the Church? Only two voices: her universal (ecumenical) council or her universal pastor (the Pope). Put in biblical terms: the assembled Apostles, or Peter himself.

What Good Does Papal Infallibility Do?

One might ask, what good does it do to “add” the Pope to the chain of infallibility? What does his infallibility do that the infallibility of the Scriptures or the Councils don’t already do?

It is a fair question, but one that has a good answer. The difference lies in this: unlike the Scriptures or the Councils, the Papacy is a living voice that actively resists the misinterpretation of its words.

When I say that the Papacy is a “living voice,” please understand: I am not denying that there is a true sense in which we can say that the Scriptures are a “living voice” and even the testimony of the Councils is a “living voice.”

And yet, there is also a true sense in which the authors of Scripture and the Fathers of the Councils have walked off the stage of history and we cannot bring them back to interrogate them about the intent and meaning of their words. “Does Paul really mean what he seems to be saying here?” “If the Council Fathers were assembled today, would they still insist on this certain discipline in our contemporary context?” These are questions we cannot ask of the sacred authors and the once-assembled bishops.

The papal ministry, however, is different. The canon is closed. Nicaea has concluded and can never be called back in session. But the Pope is always with us.

After someone has left the room, those who remain at the party can talk behind his back. “What he really meant to say was ....”

But the Pope never leaves the party. It is difficult to talk behind his back, and eventually he overhears. He is always able to clarify: “That is not what I meant to say—what I meant was this: ... !” In fact, just such a ministry of clarification against continuing attempts to misconstrue Church teaching is quite visible in the series of encyclicals touching precisely on the doctrine of Scripture: Providentissimus Deus, Spiritus Paraclitus, Divino Afflante Spiritu, Humani Generis.

Papal infallibility means, among other things, that God has provided us a reliable and continuing voice able, when necessary, to clarify the truths of the Scriptures for the contemporary Church.

To summarize what we have been saying: for the sake of the salvation of mankind, God has to transmit to us the saving truth free from error (that is, infallibly). The unerring Truth is primarily found in the Scriptures, but God also needs to ensure that the Truth of the Scriptures is interpreted without error (infallibly). For this reason, he provides the Church. If the voice of the Church is unclear, the universal pastor can clarify. God protects the universal pastor from error in his teaching (infallibility). Since the universal pastor is always present with us and can always clarify his own meaning, the faithful transmission of the truth to humanity is ensured.

Of course, there is much, much more that can be said.  For example, we have primarily considered papal infallibility in relationship to conciliar infallibility.  Yet the Petrine ministry is much more than simply to confirm councils.   I may follow up with another post.


Bob MacDonald said...

Thanks for the logical sequence. I certainly am not convinced. I am convinced in the gifts given to humanity by the one who is offered as described in psalm 68.19-20
you are ascended on high
captives you have captured
you have received endowments for humanity
and also the rebellious
in the dwelling of Yah God
Blessed is the Lord
day by day he carries us
the God of our salvation

That's 'infallible' for me, but I don't have to define it. The 'gone up' = ascended = offer = the whole offering of the Akeda - Abraham and Isaac. This snippet carries me forward and backward and has no threat attached though it is fearful.

I am pleased that it includes gifts for the rebellious like me.

When I speak of threat I am thinking of the excommunication expressed in the 1870 proclamation: Constitution Pastor aeternus of the First Vatican Council. If anyone - which God forbid - should undertake to contradict this our definition: let him be excluded.

Emil Anton said...

Thanks for the trilogue, I will definitely follow up with a blog post (I didn't yet because I was abroad). Maybe you'll write your other post then:)

John Bergsma said...

Thanks for commenting, guys.

drewskibrewski said...

Hi, Dr. Bergsma.

I've been following these posts and have enjoyed them. I do have a question or two about the "stepping in" office of the universal pastor.

This office seems excellent in theory and has been excellent in practice, historically. Of course, I have a limited temporal framework from which to make observations, but it seems that the pope could take a more active role in settling controversies and righting the ship with regards to some practices within the Church. You pointed out that the papal office has been active with regards to proclamations about Scripture, and that is well-done, but I wonder where other efforts at restoration of right emphasis (on Christ and the Gospel) are. As a Protestant feeling his way towards the Catholic Church, such action would be a welcome affirmation and proof of the utility of the papal office.

That's enough editorializing, though. I do have a practical question. With regards to questions of doctrine yet undefined, such as the question of Molinism and Thomism (a popular online topic), does the pope know which of the two is the correct doctrine but withholds a definition out of prudence? Or is the doctrine truly undefined, the pope not knowing, himself? Further, if I could time travel to the first century and adequately describe the dispute to Peter, would he know the answer? That is, is the correct definition contained within the original deposit of faith, being a matter of faith?

Thanks for writing, and I look forward to keeping up with your posts in the future.

Peace and hope.


Emil Anton said...

Ok, the answer series is now ready and can be read at

Pax et bonum! Emil

The Catholic Voyager said...

Mr. Anton was refuted on this topic quite thoroughly at the Catholic Forums last December in my estimation.

I think his most recent posts can still be refuted by the responses that already exist in that thread.

Emil Anton said...

I stopped writing there because almost nobody was addressing any of the real questions. I certainly didn't feel refuted at all. It's not about refutation anyway, I'm basically just asking and searching and thinking critically and trying to find someone that sees the point. I've just started reading French Jesuit theologian Bernard Sesboué's work and he is the first one I've met that really takes up the challenge. Looking forward to getting to his conclusions. Will probably blog more after finishing his books and updating my views...

John Bergsma said...

@sam, emil, drew: Thanks for reading and commenting. It will take me a while to respond because the semester is in full swing and my blogging time is limited. I also want to speak carefully and not off the cuff on this issue. God bless.

John Bergsma said...

@drew: Concerning papal interventions to direct emphasis on the Gospel, see Evangelii Nuntiandi by Paul VI.

John Bergsma said...

@drewskibrewski: That's a really good question you raise about, for example, the Molinist-Thomist debate over predestination. I would say, with few exceptions, that the popes wish to, and indeed generally have, spoken the "mind" of the Church. For example, if one reads carefully the two documents in which the pope exercised his magisterium in the extraordinary manner--Ineffabilis Deus and Munificentissimus Deus on the Immaculate Conception and Assumption respectively--you will see that the Popes are at pains to emphasize that the doctrines they are defining have reached a consensus within the Church. Therefore, the pope is exercising his office to articulate the Church's mind. On the issue of the exact nature of predestination, there is no such consensus of the mind of the Church. In such a situation, the popes are very loathe to step in. I doubt that the Popes know the answer supernaturally. The papacy has avoided, and I think it will continue to avoid, defining this issue, since it is not considered urgent for the Church's mission. I suspect no pope is going to define this issue unless it becomes absolutely necessary, for some reason. In such a situation, I am confident that the sitting pope will have the guidance from the Holy Spirit to make the right judgment. But I doubt that every occupant of the papal throne has "known" the right answer as part of the charism of his office. I don't think we are required to think of the charism of infallibility as operating in that manner.

As to whether St. Peter would have "known" the right answer--I suspect so, but there's no way to know.

Anonymous said...

When the teaching of the Pope does not meet all of the conditions required for infallibility (taught by both Vatican I and Vatican II), then his teaching is non-infallible. Ecumenical Councils also can teach non-infallibly; not every teaching of every Council is infallible.

gerardk said...

I'm interested to know if the Pope is infallible, then how did Urban VIII get it so wrong and charge Galileo Galilei with heresy? Centuries later Pius XII, John Paul II, and Benedict XVI all accepted Galileo's theories as factual and correct, and JPII said in effect that the Vatican had been wrong.n VIII get it so wrong and charge Galileo Galilei with heresy? Centuries later Pius XII, John Paul II, and Benedict XVI all accepted Galileo's theories as factual and correct, and JPII said in effect that the Vatican had been wrong.

John Bergsma said...

ronconte is correct, of course. @gerardk, the essential judgment of the Church on Galileo was that he could not prove his case, which was correct--he couldn't prove it yet. See Dinesh D'Souza, What's So Great About Christianity (Washington, DC: Regnery, 2007), 101-111.

Emil Anton said...

It seems the series was re-posted on, although my 3-part critique is still waiting for a response. Not fair... God bless! Emil

joelherbert said...

I have a few questions:

How do we reconcile the multiple times in Church history (particularly during the High and Late Middle Ages) when there was more than one pope, great dissension among the church, and particularly in times when the pope spoke and acted in ways clearly opposed to Scripture? To put it succinctly, what do we do with the corrupt popes?

Feel free to e-mail me directly. I am genuinely curious.


joelherbert said...

And... I forgot to leave my e-mail.