The infallibility question

The renunciation of Pope Benedict, the conclave, and the election of Pope Francis are big events in the life of not only the Catholic Church but the broader Christian community. Non-Catholics watching the process have taken the opportunity to ask questions, both questions prompted by events and questions that they might have had for a while, and this has created opportunities for us to talk about aspects of the Catholic Church that are not well-understood by our separated brethren. This post concerns a particular example. In several places, I saw this question asked: “Will Benedict still be infallible after his resignation?” Some Catholics rolled their eyes, because we know the answer so well, but I thought: “What a wonderful opportunity to have conversations about the (infelicitously-named) charism of ‘infallibility’!” And so it went, because non-Catholic friends have asked me about this.

Let’s get the obvious out of the way first: Of course, the answer is no. And there are two reasons why the answer is no; they’re really different ways of expressing the same point, but I think it helps to split them up. First, because the charism attaches to particular actions by the pope, not to the man. 1  The analogous question might be this: Having left office in 2009, can President Bush still sign laws today? In that context, we intuitively know that the answer is no, because signing bills isn’t a personal perquisite of a person once elected to the Presidency, but rather a duty and power of the President of the United States qua an office, which is discharged through the individual who happens to hold that office at the time the bill is passed. So we might stretch a little and say that in that sense, the Presidency and the papacy are both ministries and not personal fiefdoms.[/ref]

The second reason may be a little more surprising. Benedict will not be “infallible” after his renunciation, I told my friends, because he wasn’t “infallible” before it. The pope is not infallible—not in the abstract. He can make dumb choices the same as the rest of us. Rather, the pope enjoys a charism that we traditionally label “infallibility” in specific circumstances and for specific purposes.

At this point, my friends’ eyebrows were usually making a beeline for their hairline—the Catholics, too—so, I said, let’s talk about the so-called “infallibility” of the Pope. And let’s start here: The classic formulation of that dogma was articulated by the first Vatican Council, which taught that “when the Roman Pontiff speaks ex cathedra—that is, when, in the exercise of his office as shepherd and teacher of all Christians, in virtue of his supreme apostolic authority, he defines a doctrine concerning faith or morals to be held by the whole Church—he possesses, by the divine assistance promised to him in blessed Peter, that infallibility which the divine Redeemer willed his Church to enjoy in defining doctrine concerning faith or morals.” 2 When I refer to it as “so-called” infallibility, I want to be very clear, I am not calling into question the truth of this teaching; rather, the point I want to make is that the terminology that we use to describe the teaching is infelicitous because it is apt to mislead people about what the teaching is actually saying. (That is, by the way, illustrative of the protection offered by the Spirit to Pope, Councils, and Church: The Spirit guarantees indefectibility of faith, not felicity of expression. It is absolutely possible for a Pope or a Council to teach something that is strictly true, but which is phrased in such a way that it is susceptible to misinterpretation. 3)

So let’s get a little deeper down the rabbit hole. When I was converting, one of the most useful things that I read about infallibility was The Church: Learning and Teaching by Ladislas Orsy, SJ. Orsy very smartly distinguished charism from label: Vatican I explained a charism that the pope exercises in some circumstances, and in describing that charism, the council used labels such as “infallibility” and “defining” doctrine. Well, complained Orsy, the problem with these labels is that they can easily be misunderstood:

  • First, they imply that the pope can’t err, but, as a careful reading of Vatican I’s definition makes clear, the pope enjoys the charism in specific circumstances—not in all things, and not as a man. That is why, for example, Pope Benedict was able to write his book Jesus of Nazareth without it being an exercise of the magisterium, as he expressly notes in the foreword thereto. If infallibility attached to the man rather than particular actions, then the man’s every action would be covered, and, contra Benedict, Jesus of Nazareth would perforce be magisterial and “[e]veryone [would not be] free, then, to contradict” it. The charism “qualifies neither a person nor collective nor a doctrine,” but rather a specific “act of judgment.” 4 Thus, the Pope “may advocate historical or scientific views that are absolutely false. He may write books which may be full of inaccuracies and misstatements. God protects him from error only when he is exercising his office of sovereign teacher and lawgiver regarding matters which are the doctrine of the Church, whether these be of faith or morals.” 5 The Mets suck; even if the Pope backs the Mets, the Mets still suck!
  • Second, they arguably imply that when the Pope speaks ex cathedra, he creates doctrine. The word “define” will usually be read (at least in English) to mean the imposition of a definition. This worry is not hypothetical; recently, Richard Posner, an extremely well-respected and smart judge on the U.S. Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, made a howler of an error by constructing an analogy to constitutional law that suggested that American constitutionalism might be more durable if the courts could periodically “update” the constitution in the same what that the pope can periodically “update” Catholic doctrine through reception of what we would call private revelation. That is utterly wrong. The pope cannot change a single doctrinal point; he cannot “update” doctrine. That is not what the charism that we label “infallibility” means. “[T]he authority of teaching and preaching the Word of God belongs to the Church by virtue of her divine constitution … [and] by reason of the continual assistance [of the Holy Spirit] promised to her by Christ, … which implies no new revelation, but [rather] a special providence keeping her free from error in the function of preserving and expounding the deposit of faith.” 6

So what does infallibility mean? What the Catholic Church believes and teaches about the extraordinary charism to which the Pope has access in specific circumstances is that when questions arise on which the community of the faithful generally—and the bishops especially—are divided on a question of doctrine, he is able to bear authentic witness to the truth that the Church has always preserved in Sacred Tradition. In exercising this responsibility, he creates nothing new; rather, he reliably and faithfully affirms what the Church has always believed, in virtue of Christ’s promise to Peter that his faith would not fail and His charge to him that he must confirm the brethren. 7 The popes “do not appeal to some special, unique revelation unavailable to the rest of the faithful”; indeed, that was precisely the heretical claim of the Gnostics. Rather, “they bear authentic witness to the faith of the whole church, as they guide the church toward the fullness of truth … [and] are charged to take serious pains to search out the faith of the church and to express it in a fitting way. And it is this process that the Holy Spirit guides and sustains and preserves from error.” 8

With this in mind, I join Orsy in suggesting that the charism might be less misleadingly-described were it given the admittedly-cumbersome label “fidelity to the revelation,” and that we might be better-served to use the term “determination” rather than “definition.” 9 I would also suggest that the lutheran David Yeago is perceptive in describing the Church’s teaching in this way:

when the bishop of Rome bears witness to the apostolic tradition ex cathedra, in his capacity as universal pastor, his testimony has a binding force that is final, and admits no appeal; and it can be relied on, by virtue of Christ’s promises to the whole Church, not necessarily to be wise or well-stated or beyond improvement, but nevertheless to represent the faith revealed to Peter, not by flesh and blood but by the Father in heaven. 10

“When you have turned back to me,” our Lord charged Peter, “confirm your brethren.” Catholics read this, in conjunction with a few other passages in scripture, as conferring a commission that we call the petrine ministry, a terrible and awesome responsibility to which Peter’s successors as bishop of Rome—the popes—have succeeded.

So, to summarize: The teaching role of the successor of Peter is a subset of the teaching role of the successors of the apostles (cf. Acts 1:8), and what we call “papal infallibilty” is a specific subset of the teaching role of the successor of Peter. 11 Although the ordinary teaching authority of the pope enjoys respect and adherence, 12 he is protected from making an error only in specific and quite rarefied circumstances—only in those circumstances. 13 And, most importantly of all, I should conclude by saying: The Mets suck no matter what the pope says.


  1. Cf. Ludwig Ott, Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma 287-88 § 8 (Lynch, trns. 1955).
  2. Pastor æternus, 6 Acta Sanctæ Sedis 40, 47 (1st Vat. Co., 1870).
  3. Cf. Avery Dulles, The Resilient Church 53-4 (1977); Richard McBrien, Catholicism 759 (3d ed. 1993).
  4. Richard Gaillardetz, Teaching with Authority 150 (1997).
  5. John Sullivan, The Externals of the Catholic Church 5-6 (1919).
  6. 6 Charles Augustine, A Commentary on the New Code of Canon Law 318, 320 (1921).
  7. Lk 22:32; cf. CCC ¶ 891.
  8. John Wright, That All Doubt May be Removed, 171 America no. 3, at 18 (1994); accord Charles Coppens, A Systematic Study of the Catholic Religion § 99 (1903).
  9. Ladislas Orsy, The Church Learning and Teaching 56, 58 (1987); see also Ott, at 298-99.
  10. David Yeago, The Papal Office and the Burdens of History in Church Unity and the Papal Office 113 (Braaten & Jenson, eds. 2001).
  11. See 1 Adolphe Tanquerey, Manual of Dogmatic Theology 114-132 §§199-229 (1959); Simon Dodd, The Catholic Proposition, 2 MPA 77, 102 (2012) (“it is the testimony of the united college of bishops, or of the Pope as the head thereof, that finally and authentically determines, through the invisible grace of the Holy Spirit, what God has made known in His divine revelation”).
  12. See Lumen gentium, no. 25, 57 AAS 5, 29 ff. (2d Vat. Co. 1964).
  13. See 1 Tanquerey, at 128 § 222(A).