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

Howard Kainz

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.

  • Manfred

    In my opinion, the greatest act of Papal Infallibility in our time was Paul VI’s issuance of Humanae Vitae in 1968. Even dissident Hans Kung admitted this document had the mantle of infallibility. As we know, many (most?) in the Church had adopted the practive of contraception with the tacit understanding that the Church had “changed” Its teaching on this subject. Now, some forty years later, Cdl Timothy Dolan is admitting that the teaching against contraception is among the “neglected catechetics” the Church has not taught for decades.

  • Frank

    As a new Catholic and a Protestant of man years, the subject of papal infallibility was at best a perplexing issue and at worst, a point of visceral contempt. I can assure you that Protestants sneer at this one and behind the doors of Protestant Christian education from teenagers to adults, the issue of papal infallibility is a hot button issue that Protestant clergy love to debunk to their audience. The problem is two fold. First the Protestants have absolutely NO idea what papal infallibility is and the Catholics don’t know how to explain it…until now.
    Father Robert Barron provides IMHO the best explanation of the Holy Father’s infallibility in the last part of Episode 6 on the Church. From Peter’s declaration of Matthew 16:13-19, Fr. Barron states that, “The Pope is infallible because he knows who Jesus is.” In thinking about this, Fr. Barron provides an insight to Peter and his 265 successors. Of the 12 Apostles, Peter knew the Jesus the best with respect to his divinity and understood the full implications of the person of Jesus. Thus, in this category, Peter was first among the equals of his peers. Thus, I would posit the argument that when a Pope is elected in Conclave, it is primarily the conclusion (we would at least hope) that among his peers in the College of Cardinals, the elect demonstrates a knowledge, understanding, and divine charisms of who Jesus is better than his colleagues and therefore will lead the Church given this special knowledge and insight. Given this, I can accept and support without equivocation, the infallibility of the Holy Father and I think when explained to Protestants in such a context, the burden to refute will not be upon the Catholic in the conversation.

  • Michael Paterson-Seymour

    The definition of the doctrine of papal infallibility, as opposed to belief in the infallibility of general councils, or the indefectibility of the church, as a whole, was, I believe an answer to a renewed and growing interest, throughout the 19th century, in church history.

    By what standard do we judge the Nestorian churches wrong and the rest of Christendom right? Or the Churches that follow Chalcedon, as against the Monophysites? The West, as against the East, at the time of the Great Schism? Is it simply a question of counting heads? And how do we meet the challenge of the Reformers?

    There is a danger of falling into tautology – “The true church is that which teaches the true faith” and “The true faith is what the true church teaches.”

    Against this, as Mgr Ronald Knox pointed out, Vatican I gave a clear answer: The faithful, be they many or few, be their doctrine apparently traditional or apparently innovatory, be their champions honest or unscrupulous, are simply those who are in visible communion with the see of Rome. This alone furnishes us with a test for defining the faithful without the question-begging preliminary of ascertaining who the faithful are, from an examination of their tenets.

    I accept this test for three reasons: firstly, it really is a test, secondly, it is the only one on the market and thirdly, it is remarkably easy of application; just what one would expect of the criterion of a divine message, intended for all, regardless of learning, capacity or circumstances.

  • DS

    Papal infallibility is a complex subject, and Professor Kainz’s column leaves out important distinctions between Papal infallibility as defined by Vatican I (“ex cathedra”), the infallibility of councils, and infallible teachings of the ordinary and universal magisterium (the ban on supporting or discussing women’s ordination falls into the last category). Glossing over these distinctions has led to the oft-repeated criticism of “creeping” infallibility: the impression that all pronouncements by the Pope or a Vatican congregation are of equal importance and are all infallible.

    Fr. Ladislas Orsy, SJ, in various writings, unpacks these theologically dense issues in a manner readable for lay people.

    I do agree with Professor Kainz about recognizing the historical and cultural context of Vatican I, and also about the unique value of the Petrine ministry in the context of today’s world.

    For inspiration, I observe how two recent popes exercised their authority with both charity and humility:
    – Blessed John XXIII, who said “I am only infallible if I speak infallibly, but I shall never do that, so I am not infallible.”
    – Blessed John Paul II, who invited non-Catholic Christians to enter into a dialogue about how the Petrine ministry could better serve the cause of Church unity.

  • Achilles

    Professor Kainz,

    This is an excellent essay and a very useful perspective on Papel Infallibility with the long view. Such intellects as Lord Acton fell for the same error as GBS in missing the forrest for the tree, thank you very much.

  • Manfred

    Was it not St. Ambrose,who said “Ubi Petrus, ibi Ecclesia, ibi Deus” (Where Peter is, there is the Church, there is God)? Was this not what the Anglican heresy was about- A king with Catholic (at that time) Bishops as his Council? Is this not why Thomas More and Bp. John Fisher chose martyrdom rather than accept a secular “pope”? Remember that it was the Anglican “church” which broke with 5,600 years of Mosaic Judaism/Roman Catholicism in 1930 and allowed married couples to contracept. The Reformation “churches” today have become irrelevant.

  • Manfred

    A very important footnote:
    When Paul VI issued Humanae Vitae, he did so without the need for an Ecumenical Council (In fact, by that time, most bishops might have opposed it). The reaction, from both the ecclesial as well as the secular worlds, was so overpowering (so many Catholics were benfitting from the two-income families which contraception allowed), that Paul VI never wrote another encyclical, dying ten years later (1978). This had to have an effect on his successor. Why did Paul write and issue it? The Holy Ghost guides the Church-we merely serve it.

  • Alvin Steingold

    I once read that when Cardinal Spellman was asked about Papal infallibility he replied, “I’m not sure but he keeps calling me Spillman.” Whether true or not it’s an amusing story.