When is it infallible?

When is it infallible?

John Young

There is a claim that the First Vatican Council, in 1870, may have been wrong in declaring the Pope infallible, because many of the bishops had left before the vote was taken, leaving insufficient to make a definitive decision.

On the same principle it could be argued that some of the most fundamental dogmas of Christianity should be questioned because the councils that taught them didn't have enough bishops in attendance for their decisions to be infallible. As Frank Mobbs noted (AD2000, December 2007-January 2008, p. 8), most General Councils had only a minority of the world's bishops present.

A related question is: Did Vatican II teach anything infallibly? Letters in recent issues of AD2000 have disagreed about that.

We can get light on the above difficulties by considering the infallibility of the ordinary universal Magisterium. The Second Vatican Council described this form of infallibility in these words: 'Although the individual bishops do not enjoy the prerogative of infallibility, they nevertheless proclaim Christ's doctrine infallibly 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 as definitively to be held' (Lumen gentium, n. 25).

This manner of teaching infallibly is often overlooked when infallibility is considered, with people concentrating particularly on ex cathedra pronouncements of the Pope, and secondly on solemn decisions by General Councils. But the infallibility of the ordinary universal Magisterium is of great importance.

It's the way infallibility operates most of the time. The bishops and Pope are guided by the Holy Spirit in their everyday teachings on faith and morals, and this guidance can be such that they can't be wrong. When is that? Vatican II gave the answer in the words quoted above. It is when they are in agreement that a position must be held definitively.

We can't express it mathematically, as though infallibility locked in when a certain percentage of the bishops are in agreement. I once asked a good theologian his opinion and he tentatively suggested the following.

Suppose two-thirds of the bishops agree that a doctrine of faith or morals is certainly true, while some of the other third disagree and some are uncertain. Suppose further that the first group tend to be better theologians, while the others may be good administrators but with their theology often leaving a lot to be desired.

The theologian suggested that scenario as being about the minimum consensus needed for a teaching to be judged infallible. (The assumption is that the Pope was with the majority.)

A further consideration is that although at a particular time there may not be sufficient agreement, a consensus may be clear if the bishops' teaching over many centuries is taken into account.

When the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith was asked about the status of the decision that the Church has no power to ordain women to the priesthood, it replied that it is infallible by the infallibility of the ordinary and universal Magisterium (Reply to dubium, L'Osservatore Romano, English edition, 22 November, 1995). In other words, the consensus among bishops and Popes was such that the decision couldn't possibly be wrong - the Holy Spirit would not allow the Church to be led astray.

Other examples

Other examples of this form of infallibility were given by Cardinal Ratzinger and Archbishop Bertone in a statement of the CDF published in the L'Osservatore Romano of 15 July, 1998. Euthanasia is one example: here they cite Pope John Paul II from the encyclical Evangelium vitae, where he says the sinfulness of euthanasia is '... taught by the ordinary and universal Magisterium' (Evangelium vitae, n. 65).

They also cite as guaranteed by this form of infallibility, 'the teaching on the illicitness of prostitution and fornication.'

In light of the above let us look at the difficulties noted at the beginning. What of the claim that Vatican I may have been wrong in declaring the Pope to be infallible?

A sufficient reply, although not the only one, is that the world's bishops taught it as certainly true. Within a short time after Vatican I the pronouncement was clearly accepted by the episcopate throughout the world. In other words, it was guaranteed by the infallibility of the ordinary universal Magisterium.

We have the same guarantee for those dogmas where only a minority of bishops was present at General Councils. For instance, if it were suggested that the first of the General Councils, Nicaea, might have been wrong in the creed it issued (declaring among other things that Jesus Christ is 'God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God'), the universal acceptance of the Nicene Creed by the world's bishops, at least after the controversy settled down, is an infallible guarantee of its truth.

Now what of the dispute about whether Vatican II taught anything infallibly? Attention to the form of infallibility we are discussing provides the answer. Vatican II issued no solemn definitions: that is, it did not exercise the extraordinary Magisterium. But it did exercise the ordinary universal Magisterium.

It did this whenever a matter of faith or morals was definitively taught by the council, with unanimous, or nearly unanimous, agreement among the bishops, and the ratification of the Pope. If that doesn't constitute an infallible teaching, what does?

Among other statements, Vatican II speaks definitively about the inerrancy of Scripture, about the obligation to belong to the Catholic Church, about the evil of abortion, about the obligation of the State to allow religious liberty.

What I have said may seem to be contradicted by the three quotes, respectively from John XXIII, Paul VI and Cardinal Ratzinger, given by Anthony Bono in his letter in the February 2008 AD2000. But they are speaking of decisions of the extraordinary Magisterium.

Pope John said, 'There will be no infallible definitions.' Pope Paul said the council 'avoided any extraordinary statements of dogmas endowed with the note of infallibility.' Cardinal Ratzinger said Vatican II 'defined no dogma at all ...'. All these statements, which use the appropriate technical terms, refer to pronouncements of the extraordinary Magisterium.

In the quote from John XXIII, the term 'infallible definitions' shows he is speaking of the extraordinary Magisterium, for that term is not rightly used of teachings by the ordinary Magisterium. Paul VI speaks of 'extraordinary statements of dogmas', and Cardinal Ratzinger uses the expression 'defined no dogma'; expressions that can only be correctly used of the extraordinary Magisterium.

John Young, who has a B.Th., is a Melbourne-based lecturer and writer on philosophical and theological topics.

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