"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Papal Infallibility and Authority (Updated)

More than four years ago, on a now-defunct blog, I was asked for some recommendations on books about papal infallibility, a topic so often grossly misunderstood even (perhaps especially) by Catholics themselves--most hilariously in the oafish character Rex Mottram in Brideshead Revisited. (Brideshead is, of course, the best-known novel of Evelyn Waugh, but here and here I discuss his other works in considerable detail.)

More recently, within the past few months, I have been repeatedly approached on Facebook and elsewhere by people asking for books about these matters. These requests are occurring in the context of heated discussions getting recently hotter over papal authority and the magisterial status of Amoris Laetitia, and the notion being bandied about rather carelessly of an errant pope being publicly corrected by some cardinals for what they regard as errors in that document. In such a context, it seems opportune to revisit some thoughts first posted on here in 2011, but with updates. Now is the time, perhaps more than ever before in Catholic history, to be extremely clear about the limits of papal authority, as I argued just over a year ago. (For more general thoughts on synodal authority, see here and here.) Now is the time, moreover, to be equally clear about appeals to "history" and to questions of historical "development," whether of doctrine or pastoral practice.

Just before getting into that, however, let me, as a footnote as it were, offer here a notice of a book I read almost 20 years ago, and found enormously valuable: The Abuse of Casuistry: A History of Moral Reasoning, by the philosophers Albert R. Jonsen and Stephen Toulmin. Some have suggested that what is happening in, and as a result of, Amoris Laetitia may be something of a revival of casuistry in Catholic moral theology, which Jonsen and Toulmin suggested was often unfairly criticized and unhelpfully thrown out by the twentieth century. In rubbishing casuistry, they suggest (and Stanley Hauerwas has echoed this), Catholic tradition lost some valuable tools for dealing with complex issues in, e.g., modern bioethics.

To the task at hand: A book that offers very sobering judgments in all three areas--historiography, development, and papal authority--is Francis Oakley's deeply disturbing The Conciliarist Tradition: Constitutionalism in the Catholic Church 1300-1870 (Oxford, 2008). This was the last time of open, and multiple, schisms in the Western Church over papal authority, and this massive crisis was resolved only by the controverted Council of Constance asserting itself over the three rival claimants to the papal throne and ultimately not just "correcting" them but in fact dismissing them all and proceeding with someone new, viz., Martin V.

In Oakley's judgment, which I share, Catholic tradition has never adequately dealt with this, and papal historiography especially so. The too-tidy narrative, and chronological list of popes one finds in, e.g., the Annuario Pontificio, conveniently trace all modern popes to Martin V, and rubbish the others as "anti-popes," which is bad enough, but it is the shameful way that Constance is treated, with its infamous decree Haec Sancta being so selectively treated, that must give one pause, as I argued here at some length.

Part of what Oakley shows is that the theories of papal infallibility and authority which triumphed at Vatican I were not the only ones on offer. Though often misunderstood, papal infallibility, as Vatican I claimed, is actually a very simple, very narrowly defined, "negative" charism not nearly so opposed to other Christian traditions, especially in the East, as some may think. See, e.g., the book by the Greek Orthodox hierarch and theologian, Stylianos Harkianakis, The Infallibility of the Church in Orthodox Theology (St. Andrew's Orthodox Press) (ATF Press, 2008). I reviewed the book for an academic journal in Europe (the newly revived One in Christ) and there remarked that this was a strange book whose publication more than a half-century after it first appeared in Greek as a doctoral dissertation was not explained. The author's foreword acknowledges this question, but offers an unconvincing rationale for ignoring decades of far-reaching scholarship: “the theme as such would not allow any serious alterations, at least in terms of Orthodox Ecclesiology.”

I grant the author’s point that not much recent work on Orthodox understandings of infallibility has been done; but so much work has been done on Orthodox ecclesiology (not least by the author’s compatriot, John Zizioulas—to say nothing of Christos Yannaras, and many, many others, some of whom are discussed here) that readers should know that this section of Harkianakis’s book is very outdated. The twentieth century was widely recognized as the "century of the Church" or the "century of ecclesiology," and this was true in Orthodox, Protestant, and Catholic circles so that to ignore fifty and more years of ecclesiological development is a massive omission.

Where the book is truly outdated is from the fourth chapter onward, but leaving that aside, let me stress that the first three chapters are still very valuable, offering as they do a lucid understanding of Orthodox understandings of the infallibility of the Church, defined thus: “that attribute of the Church which, by the power of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, safeguards the faith entrusted to it from all error, and at the same time rightly teaches the word of truth.” In his extensive reflections on infallibility, Harkianakis presents very little if anything that a Catholic, properly understanding what Pastor Aeternus says and means, could or should object to. 

Harkianakis's argues that infallibility “refers only to matters of faith and morality” (as Catholics would unhesitatingly agree), it only “covers these articles of teaching in themselves…but not the concrete form in which they appear” (as Catholics would agree), and it is “first and foremost understood negatively” (as Catholics would again readily agree), merely keeping doctrinal pronouncements free from error.

Where Catholics and Orthodox differ is in the manner in which infallibility is demonstrated or invoked. Harkianakis argues that it needs to be more clearly seen as an ecclesiological and pneumatological exercise of the episcopate as a whole and not the prerogative of one man. That is precisely the point that I made in my Orthodoxy and the Roman Papacy: Ut Unum Sint and the Prospects of East-West Unity.

It is at this point that Harkianakis argues forcefully that “if at any time the Church were to reject from its life, even for a moment, the idea of the synodical system, it would cease automatically to be a Church.” The synod, according to the author, “constitutes the instrument by which the voice of the Church is declared and is accordingly the instrument of infallibility of the Church.”

This emphasis on the centrality of synodality for the life of the Church has been made repeatedly and with greater force by Zizioulas, especially in his two essays delivered at symposia in Rome in 1997 and 2003 on the papacy. Those essays may be found in James Puglisi, ed., Petrine Ministry and the Unity of the Church and in Walter Kasper, ed., The Petrine Ministry: Catholics and Orthodox in Dialogue.

Synodality, as the Catholic world has been discovering for two years now, is messy. But councils are also messy, and what is condemned or accepted at one period may fall into desuetude in another or may come to be more widely accepted. All the panic in parts of the Catholic world just now over last year's synod, and this year's resulting document, seems to me at least partly misplaced, and continued harping on it can serve nobody well, least of all those who regard the exhortation as mistaken. The trick to papal history is, in part, to quietly ignore things and soon enough they will disappear.

Turning to more general studies, for those who are interested: Jean-M. Roger Tillard, The Bishop of Rome remains very influential. Tillard (on whom a recent study has been published: Communion, Diversity and Salvation: The Contribution of Jean-Marie Tillard to Systematic Ecclesiology,) in this book and in others, as well as numerous scholarly articles, stressed that part of the problem with Vatican I is that an inoffensive doctrinal declaration has often been given an offensive interpretation leading to still more offensive practice. As he put it, Pastor Aeternus has often been given an extreme ultramontane interpretation that the fathers of the council themselves clearly rejected. This has led to all kinds of problems, not least for Catholics themselves.

Other studies of note include the attempt by Peter Chirico to see if infallibility can be understood via the categories of modern philosophy: Infallibility: The Crossroads of Doctrine; and Richard Costigan, The Consensus Of The Church And Papal Infallibility: A Study In The Background Of Vatican I.

Francis Sullivan has written several important books treating magisterial authority and infallibility. These are good accessible introductions, including The Magisterium: Teaching Authority in the Catholic Church. See also his Creative Fidelity: Weighing and Interpreting Documents of the Magisterium.

Other general overviews may be found in the work of Richard Gaillardetz, including By What Authority?: A Primer on Scripture, the Magisterium, and the Sense of the Faithful. See also his Teaching With Authority: A Theology of the Magisterium in the Church.

For the historical context of Vatican I, which is crucial to understanding not merely the doctrine but also the council and Pope Pius IX, there are several European historians whose work one must read. Not surprisingly, at least two of them are German Jesuits continuing in their long and venerable history of Dogmengeschichte: Klaus Schatz, Papal Primacy; and Hermann Pottmeyer, Towards a Papacy in Communion: Perspectives from Vatican Councils I & II (Ut Unim Sint); and his Le rôle de la papauté au IIIe millénaire.

The Belgian Gustave Thils' work remains important: Primauté et infaillibilité du pontife romain à Vatican I, et autres études d'ecclésiologie (Bibliotheca Ephemeridum Theologicarum Lovaniensium).

Dom Cuthbert Butler's The Vatican Council, 1869-1870. Based on Bishop Ullathorne's Letters is a helpful little book, and reminds one that any serious attempt to understand the council must also attend to biographies and other studies of such hugely important figures and movements as Cardinal Manning, Joseph Ignaz von Döllinger, Cardinal Newman, Bishop Ullathorne, Giuseppe Garibaldi, Lord Acton, W.E. Gladstone, Otto von Bismarck, the Oxford Movement, the Kulturkampf, the fall of the Second French Empire and advent of the Third French Republic, the movement for Italian unification, and not least the Franco-Prussian War whose outbreak caused Vatican I technically to be suspended sine die and never re-convened.

Much of the work of Yves Congar is extremely important, starting in this instance with Eglise et papaute: Regards historiques (Cogitatio fidei).

For an English view from a leading scholar, Owen Chadwick's A History of the Popes 1830-1914 remains utterly invaluable--a dense history lucidly and compellingly written, which I have very often recommended most warmly. (I paid wider tribute to both Chadwick brothers here.)

For a longer and much more critical historical view, see Brian Tierney, Origins of Papal Infallibility, 1150-1350: A Study on the Concepts of Infallibility, Sovereignty and Tradition in the Middle Ages. Tierney is a major medievalist and his work here and elsewhere is very important--along with that of Francis Oakley, as I have mentioned previously, and Kenneth Pennington.

There are other works that could be mentioned, but this should be enough to get anyone started. Finally, it would be very helpful I think to have further reflection on infallibility picking up the point that the late Tomas Spidlik made in referencing a conversation he had with Romania's greatest theologian of the twentieth century, Dumitru Staniloae:

I went to see a dear Romanian friend of mine, the great Orthodox theologian Staniloe, shortly before his death. He told me he could not understand the infallibility of the Pope.

I then replied: You and I are also infallible. He was amazed at my answer, so I explained: When I say during the Mass: "This is my body ..., this is my blood ..." or when I say: "I absolve you from your sins," these are infallible words and this is also the Pope's infallibility, nothing else.

Then Staniloe said: If infallibility is understood in this way, then it is easier to comprehend. Not only is the Pope infallible when he speaks in the name of the Church, but so is the Mother when she tries to speak of God to her child. The priest is infallible in the sacraments and the Pope is also infallible when he speaks in the name of the great sacrament, of the whole Church.


  1. That's a great quote from Spidlik and Staniloae. Thank you.

    Of course, that definition of infallibility seems to confuse the ability to speak infallibly with the belief the Pope will always speak infallibly (when speaking of faith or morals, ex cathedra, etc.)

    Thanks for all of these resources!

  2. About Brian Tierney’s book you mention, is there more that you can say about it? From what I gather, he argues that infallibility came about due to the Spiritual Franciscan controversy. Although, others like Heft have argued against him. What do you make of this argument? Thanks.


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