On Papal Infallibility
Question 1: Why so late?
Question 2: What else must we believe?
Question 3: Is canonization infalllible?
Question 1: Wasn’t it a bit much to expect that papal infallibility would be accepted by Catholics so late in the history of the Church? If the Pope is infallible, why did the Church wait until 1870 to say so?
Answer: Like all dogmatic definitions of the Church, the definition of papal infallibility was made only when the Church perceived a need for it. All divinely revealed truths have been known (at least implicitly) since the time of the Apostles. Only after an error contradictory to faith or morals gains currency will the Church solemnly define the truth.
Over the centuries God has taken care to see that His people were aware of the things necessary for salvation. At first, through Noe, Abraham and Moses, and later through the Prophets, God told us quite specifically about Himself and the way He wanted us to conduct ourselves in this life.
“In the fullness of time, He sent His only begotten Son,” not only to redeem us, but to teach us more about Himself, and to set up the mechanism by which future generations would receive His teaching. That mechanism is His Church, for to It He has assigned the duty of “baptizing [all nations] ... teaching them to observe all that [He] had commanded,” promising to “be with [It] all days, even unto the consummation of the world.” “He appeared to the eleven [Apostles],” telling them to “Go into the whole world and preach the Gospel to every creature. He who believes and is baptized shall be saved, but he who does not believe shall be condemned.”
God’s teaching was so important that men would either be saved or condemned by it—so they had to receive it accurately—to which end, God promised to be with His preachers “even unto the consummation of the world.” He would send the Holy Ghost, “another Advocate to dwell with you forever, the Spirit of Truth.” He gave the Apostles, and particularly Peter, discretionary power: whatever they would “bind on earth shall be bound also in heaven”; whatever they would “loose on earth shall be loosed also in heaven”
Clearly, God gave His Church power to teach in His name after our Lord’s Ascension into Heaven. Equally clearly, He Church was based upon Peter, the one who most often is named first among the Apostles:
Simon Peter answered and said:
About 96 AD, Pope Clement I (90-99), wrote to the Corinthians to quell a sedition against the lawful clergy of that city. It was Clement of Rome—rather then John of Ephesus—even though the latter was an Apostle, still living—who took the initiative to correct the erring Corinthians.
Ignatius of Antioch, himself a successor of Saint Peter in that city, wrote to the Church at Rome, expressing the primacy of that City in glowing terms.
Irenæus, the great theologian of the second century, wrote:
Saint Augustine, in the fifth century, declared the matter of the Pelagian heresy to be closed, for “Rome’s [Saint Innocent I’s] reply has come: the case is closed—causa finita est.” And, of course, the reply came from Rome because a goodly number of bishops, acknowledging the Roman primacy, requested it of Pope Innocent I.
It is recorded that Council of Chalcedon (415) received Pope Leo I’s condemnation of Eutyches saying, “Peter has spoken through Leo.” Likewise the Third Council of Constantinople (680) wrote to the Emperors about the condemnation of Monothelitism:
The Council of Florence (1439)defined for the Greeks, returning to unity with Rome:
A testimony to papal infallibility is found even in a writing of Cornelius Jansen who “at the time of his promotion to the doctorate in 1619, had defended the infallibility of the pope in a most categorical thesis, conceived as follows: «The Roman Pontiff is the supreme judge of all religious controversies, when he defines a thing and imposes it on the whole Church, under penalty of anathema, his decision is just, true, and infallible.»”
The Vatican I definition in 1870 was quite narrow:
When speaking to all Christians as head of the Church, defining a matter of faith or morals which all must believe, the Pope is protected from erring. Not really different from what the Church had been saying all along.
[Continued from previous month]
Question 2: Given the truth that the Pope is infallible in making ex cathedra pronouncements about faith or morals for the whole Church—ex cathedra pronouncements seem so few and far between—are they the only things Catholics must believe?
Answer: No. The ex cathedra pronouncements are but one way in which the Church defines and teaches Her doctrines. Somewhat more common are the pronouncements made by ecumenical councils—gatherings where all of the bishops of the Church meet under the presidency, or at least with the approval, of the Pope. Such councils are also rare, averaging about one per century in the history of the Church, being called only when serious doctrinal errors threaten the well-being of Christians, and authoritative definitions of Christian doctrine are needed.
The word “ecumenical,” properly used, refers to all the bishops who hold the true Faith which has come down from our Lord and His Apostles. The modernist use, making the word refer to a gathering of people with widely differing beliefs is extremely misleading, for the objective of an ecumenical council is to define truth, not to make posturing statements indifferent to the theological errors held by the crowd.
In Christianity, an ecumenical council or general council is a meeting of the bishops of the whole church convened to discuss and settle matters of Church doctrine and practice. The word is from the Greek Οικουμένη/Oikoumene, which literally means "inhabited", and was originally a figure of speech referring to the territory of the Roman Empire since the earliest councils were all convoked by Roman Emperors. In later usage it was applied in a more general way to mean all places that are inhabited by human beings, therefore "world-wide" or "general."
Very often, the ecumenical councils have worded their pronouncements rather pointedly in order to make it clear that these definitions must be accepted by all who claim to be Catholics. Often, after giving a general description of some Catholic belief, the councils have provided a list of “canons”—“κανονες—kanones”=“rules” which must be beleved under pain of “anathema—Ανάθεμα,” which in Christian usage is more or less equivalent to “excommunication or” even self incurred “damnation.” The canons might then take the form: “If anyone believes (a specific error fills in these parentheses), let him be anathema—anathema sit.”
The dogmatic canons of the ecumenical councils of bishops in union with the Pope, together with the ex cathedra pronouncements made by the Pope alone, are said to be an exercise of the Church’s “extraordinary magisterium”, or “extraordinary teaching authority.”
We also speak of the Church’s “ordinary magisterium”—this is simply the common teaching of the entire Church over all of the years it has been in existence. Here is Donald Attwater’s definition of what, exactly, that means:
There is, as Attwater points out, some difficulty in know exactly which truths are taught with the Church’s ordinary authority—it is at least as much a difficult historical question as it is theological. When some article of the Faith that has been taught by this universal ordinary magisterium is called into serious question or otherwise increases in importance, it may become the subject of an extraordinary pronouncement.
For example, the Real Presence of our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament has been taught since the Apostles. Only in response to heretical theories to the contrary did ecumenical councils like Constance (1414-18), Florence (1435-38) and Trent (1545-63) spell out the doctrine with their extraordinary magisterial authority.
Another example would be the belief in the bodily Assumption of the Blessed Virgin into heaven. We have evidence of this doctrine being taught as early as the second century, and none opposing it. Since time immemorial, both the Eastern and Western Churches have observed the liturgical feast day of the Assumption on August 15th—and have continued to do so for almost a thousand years since their separation. Yet, perhaps because of the incredulity of the modern world, Pope Pius XII made an extraordinary pronouncement of the doctrine as recently as 1950.
Occasionally, someone will question the authority of a particular Church document: “Was such and such a pronouncement issued with the extraordinary infallible authority of the Catholic Church?” In modern times the Church has answered this question in Her Code of Canon Law: “No doctrine is understood to be infallibly defined unless this is manifestly demonstrated.” That is to say that if a reasonable person can question whether or not the pronouncement intended to invoke the extraordinary authority of the Church, then it did not—not much point in having infallible authority if reasonable people cannot figure out when it is being used. In practice, Popes and councils employ phrases like “such and such must be believed by all the faithful,” or “if anyone believes such and such, let him be anathema.”
Although an infallible pronouncement may be contained in a large document, it will be short enough—a line or two—to preclude any confusion as to exactly what must be believed. The documents of Popes Pius IX and Pius XII defining the Immaculate Conception (Ineffabilis Deus, 8 December 1854.) and the Assumption (Munificentissimus Deus, 1 November 1950) both run to about twenty-five pages in pamphlet form, but the infallible pronouncements are each but a sentence long.
The student interested in reading the
more important pronouncements of the Church is directed to
[Continued from previous month]]
Question 3: Isn’t the canonization of saints an infallible exercise of the Church’s teaching authority? It doesn’t seem directly related to faith or morals, but more to the fact that a person is or is not in heaven. Do the canonizations of recent years have the same force as those declared years ago?
Answer: There are a number of ways in which the Church is said to teach about secondary objects of Her infallibility. Canonization is one of them. The Catholic Encyclopedia (edited somewhat) says:
As the Encyclopedia says, there is some disagreement among the theologians as to which are the indirect objects of infallibility. J.M. Hervé and G. Van Noort seem identical, and claim theological certainty in adding to the list given by the Encyclopedia: “ecclesiastical laws passed for the universal Church for the direction of Christian worship and Christian living,” and “the approval of religious orders.” Adolphus Tanquerey is similar to Hervé and Van Noort, but lists things in a different order and makes much briefer work of universal laws and religious rules, which he puts together under a single head with no claimed degree of certainty. Ludwig Ott’s list of secondary objects includes historical facts associated with revelation, but says nothing about laws and the statutes of religious orders; censures are implied in the lead in paragraph and the introduction of the book, but are not on the list. He attributes the same degree of certainty to all of the secondary objects (including canonization).
In all of these indirect objects of infallibility there seems to be a need for great diligence on the part of the authorities. “Theological conclusions” must be formulated with the most careful logic. Censors must be educated in the topic, fluent in the language, careful, and unbiased in their reading. The myriad consequences of religious life must be considered in the approval of an Order. The Catholic Encyclopedia suggested this same diligence is exercised, “when canonization takes place according to the solemn process that has been followed since the ninth century.”
That last idea—that canonization depends on the process—can be expressed as a question: To what degree are the Church authorities held to due diligence when making a pronouncement about one of the secondary objects?
For the censure of books, how well does the censor have to understand the topic at hand? how well does he have to know the language in which it was written? What steps must he take to avoid bias if the author is a member of a different religious order, a foreigner, a graduate of a different university, or out of favor with the religious or civil authorities for reasons not associated with the book?
For canonization, just how much process is required? is there some minimum below which there is no guarantee that the decision is made with infallible authority—do we have to read the candidate’s writings? all of them? — could six miracles be reduced to four? to two? to one? or to reduce the question to absurdity, could saints be selected out of a century old telephone phone book? What about biases that might cause one to overlook the flaws of a countryman, or of one sharing the same private errors? What if the authority just wants to pile up large numbers?
All of the secondary objects involve human reasoning, knowledge, and perhaps experience as part of the decision—to what degree does the Holy Ghost protect those who approach the task with less then a hundred percent effort? That may not have been a question that needed to have been asked in centuries past—indeed it would probably have been considered indiscreet before 1958—but it is germane today. The answer can come only from competent authority in the future.
 Matthew xxviii: 19-20.
 Mark xvi: 14-16.
 John xiv: 16-17.
 Matthew xviii: 18 (the Apostles in general); Matthew xvi: 16 (Saint Peter in specific).
 Matthew xvi: 16-19.
 Augustine, Sermon cxxxi, x.
 “Consideranti mihi.” Denzinger, Editio XXXIII, Nos. 542-545.
 “Lætentur cæli,” Denzinger 694 (1307 in newer editions)
 D Attwater, A Catholic Dictionary (NY: Macmillan, 1958), s.v. "Magisterium," p 301
 Old Canon 1323 §3; New Canon 749 §3.
 J.M. Hervé, Manuale Theologiæ Dogmaticæ (Westminster: Newman, 1946) Vol. I, p.503-518.; Ad. Tanquerey, Synopsis Theologiæ Dogmaticæ (Tornaci: Desclée, 1922) T. I, p. 540-555; G. Van Noort, Dogmatic Theology, Volume II, Christ's Church, ch. III, art. I, sec IV; Ludwig Ott, Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma (Rockford: TAN, 1960 reprint), introduction, 297-300.