Understanding Papal Infallibility

Compared with our infallible democracies, our infallible medical councils, or infallible astronomers, our infallible judges, our infallible parliaments, the Pope is on his knees in the dust confessing his ignorance before the throne of God, asking only that as to certain historical matters on which he has clearly more sources of information open to him than anyone else his decision shall be taken as final.                                      – George Bernard Shaw

A thought-experiment: Let us put ourselves in the shoes and the mindset of those who first heard the pronouncement of infallibility at the First Vatican Council in the nineteenth century. Many Catholics then did not already believe in papal infallibility. Could and should the new pronouncement generate belief in this group? And was the pronouncement of infallibility itself infallible?

At present, we understand the infallibility of the pope and ecumenical councils to consist in definitive pronouncements regarding faith or morals, binding on the universal Church. But “infallibility” seems to be concerned with truth and certainty – epistemological matters, to use the technical philosophical vocabulary. Did the pronouncement jar or reassure the faith of Catholics?

The initial announcement of infallibility makes sense in the context of long-standing philosophical and theological currents. In medieval metaphysics, the ideal was to begin with self-evident first principles, and derive conclusions methodologically from these; this approach carried over also to natural-law ethics, starting with principles like “good is to be done and evil avoided.”

St. Thomas and other scholastics admitted that secondary and tertiary rules derived from this principle were sometimes not crystal-clear. Protestant reformers, diffident about the legitimacy of authority in the Church, put their emphasis on the Bible as a source of certainty. In philosophy, Descartes, dissatisfied with Aristotelian-scholastic “first principles,” and encouraged by what seemed to be a mandate from Our Lady in a dream, sought to lay the foundation for a new philosophical system in the experience of self-consciousness (“I think, therefore I am”).

British empiricists subsequently continued the Cartesian subjective quest with an emphasis on “clear and distinct ideas” from which more complex ideas could be inferred. In the meantime, Newtonian physics was becoming the model of certainty, and philosophy began to play second fiddle to scientific method. Finally, Darwinistic belief in chance selection and survival of the fittest not only challenged traditional philosophical notions about purposefulness in nature, but allegedly dethroned the Bible as the authoritative explanation for human origins, and the notion of a Creator.

It was in this cultural environment that the proclamation of papal infallibility took place. Clearly, it was meant as a beacon of certainty for guidance amid the growing doubts about inerrant philosophical and theological foundations.

Possibly one of the most important things about this proclamation is that it leads us to reexamine the nature of faith. Could infallible definitions about doctrines really be beneficial to faith, increase faith, or help preserve faith?

The First Vatican Council

          There is a long-standing tendency in Catholicism to equate faith with intellectual assent – not just to the Virgin Birth and the Incarnation and other doctrines of the Apostle’s Creed, but to the Assumption of Mary and, according to the 1995 interpretation from the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, even to the exclusion of a female priesthood.

We notice a strong difference between the concept of faith behind these pronouncements, and the notions of faith developed in the Bible. In the Gospels, the only “intellectual” thesis one can find is the belief that Jesus is the Messiah and the Son of God (Jn. 20:31). This faith is rooted in the Old Testament promises to Abraham and the patriarchs and Moses (Jn. 5:47) and belief in the promises of a Messiah by the prophets (Lk. 24:25) One might see Incarnation, Virgin birth, etc. as corollaries to this.

Other, non-intellectual usages predominate in the Gospels: Jesus characterizes the faith of the Roman centurion – surely not based in Messianic traditions – as greater than any faith in Israel (Lk. 7:9). The faith that can “move mountains” or cause a fig tree to whither (Mt. 21:21; Mk. 11:23; Lk. 17:6) designates a source of supernatural internal powers, and also the faith that allows disciples to cast out devils and speak with new tongues (Mk. 16:17).

The faith that will cause us to receive whatever we pray for (Mk. 11:24), and the faith in God’s providence, to feed and clothe us (Lk. 12:28) designate a loving union with the Father, and an unwavering trust that results from this.

John promulgates a more mystical notion of faith when he writes about having faith in “the light” (Jn. 12:36). And in the many cases where faith was a prerequisite for a healing (Mt. 9:2, 9:29, 15:28; Mk. 5:36, 10:52; Lk. 5:20, 8;48; Jn. ll:40) faith is an openness to receiving the effects of God’s merciful intervention.

It would be difficult to pin down a meaning common to all these usages; but perhaps the author of Hebrews comes closest when he says that faith is the “evidence for things unseen” (Hb. 11:1): it leads us to believe in God’s existence and to trust that God will reward our search for Him (Hb. 11:6).  He seems to be talking about an inner illumination from the Spirit, a gift that enables us to transcend the visible and fallible. This illumination may lead Christians to believe in the indefectibility of the Church (Mt. 28:20) and Catholics to believe that the power of “binding or loosing” (Mt. 16:19, 18:18) resides in the pope as the successor of Peter.

In tandem with this power of transcendence granted through faith, the declaration of infallibility is best understood not as some newly promulgated doctrine, but simply as a restatement, for the Catholic faithful, concerning the sure guidance offered by the Bark of Peter, in an era when all traditional certainties were being challenged  – an era in which we still find ourselves.


Howard Kainz, Emeritus Professor at Marquette University, is the author of twenty-five books on German philosophy, ethics, political philosophy, and religion, and over a hundred articles in scholarly journals, print magazines, online magazines, and op-eds. He was a recipient of an NEH fellowship for 1977-8, and Fulbright fellowships in Germany for 1980-1 and 1987-8. His website is at Marquette University.