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The pope says?

I have been writing a series about taking care when claiming, “The Bible says…” So far I have written about
Textual Criticism
The Septuagint (LXX)
Hebrew vowel pointing
The canon
In the background, many will have been aware, is the presence of Roman Catholicism with its solution to issues arising. So this might be a good moment to pause and address some issues with “the pope infallibly says…”

Some Protestants are well known for circular arguments: God exists because the Bible says so; the Bible is inspired because the Bible says so; the Bible cannot be added to because the Bible says so…

The pope’s infallibility can end up with similar circularity: the pope is infallible because the pope says so; the pope is infallible because the Bible decided on by the pope in council says so; the pope is infallible because a council (only valid when affirmed by the pope) says so;…

But the issues are deeper. Let’s be clear when the pope is infallible. He is not infallible when he looks out the window and says, “It is going to rain”. The pope is infallible when he speaks ex cathedra (ie. in his role as pope) defining a teaching on faith or morals for the whole church.

So ordinarily, even when he is teaching and preaching, the pope can make mistakes. There are strict conditions when he is infallible and when not. The infallibility of the pope was formally defined in 1870 at the First Vatican Council.

Now here’s the problem: there is no infallible list of which teachings are infallible and which are not. Ie. no pope has made an infallible declaration about which papal teachings are infallible.

Most would agree that Pope Pius IX’s 1854 definition of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception of Mary is infallible (prior to the 1870 Vatican 1). Similarly, most would agree that Pope Pius XII’s 1950 definition of the dogma of the Assumption of Mary is infallible. But what of Leo XIII’s 1896 Apostolicae Curae (that Anglican orders are “absolutely null and utterly void“), Paul VI’s 1968 Humanae Vitae (declaring the immorality of artificial contraception), John Paul II’s 1994 Ordinatio Sacerdotalis (that women are not able to be ordained)? In all of these, the requirements of infallibility appear to me to be fulfilled. But what would I know? I’m only fallible.

And that is the point. Fallible people are making the judgements on what to regard as infallible or not. Which is no help whatsoever. A significant number of Roman Catholics have certainly decided that Humanae Vitae is not infallible, and many would see that as a point at which Roman Catholicism changed. Humanae Vitae can be seen as a significant watershed of “Cafeteria Catholicism” in which Roman Catholics pick and choose amongst inherited teachings which they will accept and follow and which they will not. If you regard Humanae Vitae as open to question, the tapestry unravels, and one is in similar epistemological quandaries to the rest of Western Christianity.

There are constant attempts to shore up the problem. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (previously called, the Supreme Sacred Congregation of the Roman and Universal Inquisition) has stated, at least three times, that Ordinatio Sacerdotalis is not an ex cathedra teaching of the pope but that it is infallible. But, of course, they are not infallible. They might be wrong about that.

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2 thoughts on “The pope says?”

  1. The situation isn’t quite as bad as you make out. There is at least a core of teachings which are known to be infallible (it’s not just “most would agree”, as you say above) – although you’re right that theologians disagree about the full number of declarations to be included. And there are plenty of ways for the Catholic Church to make infallible statements without an ex cathedra proclamation, so that’s not quite so inconsistent either.

    Most importantly, Catholics don’t believe this is a situation in which “fallible people” are deciding what counts as infallible – the whole point of the doctrines of infallibility is that there are certain clear situations in which decisions become infallible. The argument is not circular.

    What WOULD be circular, for Catholics or Protestants, would be an attempt to prove infallibility to an outsider by relying on infallible evidence. It’s the purpose of the argument that makes it circular, and the premises shared or contested with the audience. I haven’t ever seen the doctrine of papal infallibility used or defended in that way by a Catholic.

  2. My first reaction was “How fortunate I am to be an Anglican,and not have to worry about infallibility!”, but then the thought struck: what if Anglicans are sometimes infallible and they don’t know it? Being fallible, we cannot say for sure that this decision by a committee or that sentence in a Nania book isn’t infallible.

    More seriously, the essence of the notion of infallibility surely is mostly concerned with the response from the hearer, rather than the utterer… and that is still an important aspect of how people accept (for example) one person’s explanation of a part of the Bible. A bit like we cannot easily verify for ourselves a lot of modern particle physics (we have to take somebody’s word they had isolated antiparticles for a tiny fraction of a second when we weren’t looking – science may be experimental but who is going to have the time and money to build their own equipment?). We have to take the word of experts because other people we trust seem to be suitably impressed with them. Maybe only a few parts of the Bible have meanings that rely on knowledge of circumstances that only an expert would know applied at the time of writing, but we very often accept the emphasis or “spin” or extension of a phrase or idea from someone that sounds like they are passing on the “real” intention of God. Hence the dangers in combining somebody with a talent for oratory with television. Perhaps a better forum for any claims like “The Bible says…!” would be the gates of ancient cities, with deep discussions rather than emotive soundbites without feedback.

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