I have been writing a series about taking care when claiming, “The Bible says…” So far I have written about
The Septuagint (LXX)
Hebrew vowel pointing
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.