Infallibility: The Unopened Gift

Imagine an elegant gift sitting unopened in its box because nobody in the family is exactly sure what to do with it. A century and a half after the First Vatican Council declared papal infallibility to be a matter of faith for Catholics, this charism exists largely unpacked in a theological no man’s land. Still, the very absence of controversy makes this a good time to point to some of the questions about the doctrine that remain to be answered.

On July 18, 1870 – 150 years ago – Vatican I adopted the Dogmatic Constitution Pastor Aeternus declaring the pope to be preserved from error when teaching a doctrine of faith or morals in virtue of his apostolic authority as universal pastor and teacher. The constitution passed 533-2, but 56 bishops had left Rome before that, to avoid having to vote.

Controversy continued after the council. In 1874 William Gladstone, lately prime minister of Britain and destined to hold that office three more times, published a pamphlet questioning the loyalty of Catholics to the Crown, inasmuch as they were subjects of a supposedly infallible pope. John Henry Newman had viewed Vatican I’s vote as inopportune, but now he rose to the doctrine’s defense in his masterpiece of polemical apologetics, the Letter to the Duke of Norfolk.

Despite the hopes and fears at the moment, however, only rarely has papal infallibility been specifically invoked in modern times. In 1854 Pius IX made it clear he spoke infallibly in defining the dogma of Mary’s Immaculate Conception. Pius XII did the same in 1950 in defining the dogma of her bodily assumption. Otherwise, like an unopened gift, papal infallibility has remained on the shelf.

Or has it? Questions surround other instances when, depending on your point of view, papal infallibility either has or has not been called into play. The two most notable instances concern women priests and contraception.

Speaking “in order that all doubt may be removed,” Pope St. John Paul II in a 1994 apostolic letter called Ordinatio Sacerdotalis said the Church has “no authority whatsoever to confer ordination on women and this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church’s faithful.”

A year later, questions having arisen concerning what “definitively held” meant, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith said the teaching stated by Pope John Paul was “set forth infallibly by the ordinary and universal Magisterium.”  An accompanying footnote cited section 25 of Lumen Gentium, Vatican Council II’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, which deals with the doctrines of papal infallibility and the infallibility of the ordinary magisterium of bishops teaching in union with the pope.

If that leaves the question of infallibility something less than clear as it pertains to women priests, consider how things stand with contraception.


A good case can be made that Pope Pius XI in his 1930 encyclical Casti Connubii taught infallibly that deliberate contraceptive acts are seriously wrong. Reacting to the Anglican bishops’ recent qualified approval of contraception, the pope clearly meant what he said to be taken very seriously. But infallible? Here is how Pius XI prefaced his condemnation:

“Since, therefore, openly departing from the uninterrupted Christian tradition, some recently have judged it possible solemnly to declare another doctrine regarding this question, the Catholic Church, to whom God has entrusted the defense of the integrity and purity of morals, standing erect in the midst of the moral ruin that surrounds her, in order that she may preserve the chastity of the nuptial union from being defiled by this foul stain, raises her voice in token of her divine ambassadorship and through Our voice proclaims anew. . .”

In 1963 two prominent moral theologians, John Ford, S.J., and Gerald Kelly, S.J., wrote that theologians then fell into three groups: those who thought Pope Pius had proposed the teaching on contraception infallibly, those who thought the doctrine could be so proposed, and those who considered it already infallibly proposed by the ordinary magisterium of the bishops teaching in union with the pope. Five years later in Humanae Vitae, Pope St. Paul VI said nothing one way or the other.

In 1976 Father Ford and Germain Grisez, in a carefully argued article in Theological Studies, maintained that the teaching on contraception had indeed been proposed infallibly by the ordinary magisterium of bishops in union with the pope, in the manner described by Vatican II’s Lumen Gentium. The Ford-Grisez thesis remains unrefuted, though widely ignored, up to now.

So what did Vatican II say about the ordinary magisterium? Although individual bishops do not teach infallibly, Lumen Gentium 25 states, the bishops do teach infallibly not only in an ecumenical council but also “whenever, even though dispersed throughout the world, but still maintaining the bond of communion among themselves and with the successor of Peter, and authentically teaching matters of faith and morals, they are in agreement on one position definitively to be held.”

Note that “to be definitively held” is what John Paul II later said of the doctrine on women priests. Abortion and the indissolubility of marriage also come mind in this context, and a number of other doctrines appear to fit the description. But rushing to identify doctrines taught in infallibly this way might not be a good idea since important teachings not identified as infallible might then be game for dissent: “It’s not infallible, so we don’t have to believe it.”

As this overview suggests, real questions about infallibility remain to be answered – first, tentatively, by the theological community, then with authority by those who teach authoritatively. Based on the record, however, contemporary Gladstones can set their minds at rest: while the Church retains its right to make infallible pronouncements, there is little danger of the Church becoming an infallibility factory, casually grinding out infallible definitions.


*Image: Proclamation of the Dogma of the Immaculate Conception by Francesco Podesti, 1859-1861 [Room of the Immaculate Conception, Vatican Museums]

Russell Shaw is a former Secretary for Public Affairs of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops/United States Catholic Conference. He is the author of more than twenty books, including Eight Popes and the Crisis of Modernity, and, most recently (with David Byers) Revitalizing Catholicism in America: Nine Tasks for Every Catholic.