Papal infallibility, as declared at the First Vatican Council (and the Second reaffirmed, Lumen Gentium 25), invites a host of practical questions. John Henry Newman, while accepting the teaching, envisioned difficulties in application. Are all papal utterances “infallible”? (Clearly not.) What magisterial authority do various papal documents carry? What level of obedience do we owe the pronouncements and documents of a given pope? How are the limits of authority defined, and grasped by the faithful?
I can’t provide definitive answers to all these questions here. (Even LG 25 merely provides a sketch.) Instead, I offer some reflections that may bring a deeper understanding – and may encourage Catholics to remain confident in the Faith as traditionally understood, especially in view of the new document on marriage.
Jesus teaches, “call none your father upon earth; for one is your father, who is in heaven.”(Mt. 23:9) Many Protestants insist Catholics violate the Lord’s teaching by calling priests “father.” If so, how could we call our own fathers “father”? Clearly, God Himself defines “fatherhood.” All genuine fatherhood participates in God’s fatherhood. A father, therefore, relinquishes his right to be called “father” when he doesn’t behave like one (beating wife and kids, for example, or a priest teaching heresy).
Analogously, there is only one “pope” – Peter. When Christ prayed that Peter’s faith would not fail, He was praying for Peter specifically, and in all likelihood the Petrine Office. (Whether His words apply to succeeding popes or to Peter and his Chair alone is a question for theologians. Either way, we know the gates of hell will not prevail.)
On the doors of Saint Peter’s, there’s a carving of Peter lending his keys to his successors, for return to him upon completion of their ministry. Every succeeding “pope” participates in the Petrine ministry – the Chair of Peter. Peter’s “chair” is not honorary. The “chair” at once reinforces papal authority, but also suggests a pope is obliged to exercise authority within the parameters of the Petrine Office.
In the Gospels, even Jesus’ authority was not allowed to stand alone, but participated in the revelation before Him. He and the evangelists repeatedly said, “So that the Scriptures may be fulfilled.” On the road to Emmaus the risen Christ Himself reveals His ministry is the fulfillment of God’s revelation: “‘How foolish you are, and how slow to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Did not the Messiah have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?’ And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.” (Lk. 24:25-27) In a sense, He humbled Himself to be bound by tradition.
Christ again links His teaching to salvation history commenting on divorce and remarriage: “the hardness of your heart permitted you to put away your wives: but from the beginning it was not so.”(Mt. 9:8) He links the authority of His pronouncement to the revelation in “the beginning,” Genesis. Hence, Christ’s authority is also a participation in scriptural tradition.
Paul demonstrates how Christ fulfilled the Scriptures, harmonizing the entirety of God’s revelation to the Jews with the teachings of Christ. (Acts 13) So does Hebrews. Today, the Magisterium cannot be simply disassociated from Scripture and Tradition. There can be development and deeper understanding, of course, but not doctrinal contradictions. The dogmas of the Immaculate Conception and Assumption are good examples. These definitive pronouncements do no violence to traditional Church teaching.
The “sense of the faith” (sensus fidei) by the faithful can identify and reject violations of the “principle of non-contradiction” that holds together the entirety of revelation – Magisterium, Scriptures, and Tradition. Most faithful Catholics understand that the Church can adjust and in some cases overturn the disciplines, but not doctrine. So for example, the Church has permitted bacon and sausage with our eggs on Friday, allowing us to witness to the Cross in our own way. But Church authorities have no authority whatsoever over the dogma of the Good Friday Sacrifice.
As Romano Guardini observed:
. . . [dogma] confronts man with the demands of the Faith, enables him to practice obedience, to renounce the claims of his natural “psychological structure.”. . .Thus it may happen that a Christian encounters, in person or a book, a mind far superior to his own in mental ability, but which he feels he transcends by his Christian consciousness. . . .he realizes it not as a sense of personal superiority of which he can in any way be proud, but as something produced by the Faith, determined and directed by dogma – more exactly, the consciousness of the Church penetrating to him. . . .It can cause one to say, “I am inferior to that man, he is stronger, more gifted, more creative than I am – nevertheless I judge him and not the reverse.” That feeling can reach the point of making one realize how inadequate, indeed how stupid, the greatest human mind can be when it lacks the gift of divine light.
A pope’s participation in the Petrine teaching authority means he not only embraces and is informed by the entirety of revelation without contradiction; the exercise of his authority must also resonate with the divine light of the orthodox sensus fidei.
In this age of instant communication, where ill-advised or mistaken teaching can metastasize, the sensus fidei may even provide an adjunct to the Magisterium (just not in the destructive way envisaged by the post-conciliar dissidents). With the armor of Faith, despite media reports about “changes in Church teaching” concerning marriage, we can remain firm: “What therefore God hath joined together, let no man put asunder.” If someone does and remarries, we simply say: Don’t approach the Communion rail.
When the sheep, then, call on their shepherds – even the Church’s Chief Shepherd – to imitate the Good Shepherd in clarity of thought and teaching, they cannot be faulted.