The term "infallibility" means an incapability of error or erring. While in an absolute sense, infallibility belongs to God alone, in a derivative sense, infallibility can be viewed as a gift of the Holy Spirit assisting the post-apostolic Church in knowing and teaching Christ's revelation without error. This divine assistance is indicated in the New Testament by Christ's promise to send the Spirit to lead His disciples to all truth and to enable them to remain in the truth. Infallibility is more than a simple, de facto absence of error. It is a positive perfection, ruling out the possibility of error and entailing necessarily a central fidelity to the Christian revelation in the doctrine taught and accepted by the Church.
Infallibility is to be distinguished from both revelation, God's communication to man, and scriptural inspiration, God's guidance of the writers of the Bible. Like the term "inerrancy," which indicates that the scriptures teach "firmly, faithfully, and without error that truth which God wanted put into the sacred writings for the sake of our salvation" (Vatican II, Constitution on Revelation 11), "infallibility" indicates that the Church continues to believe and teach without error those truths that are necessary for salvation.
Doctrinal Formulation. While the Church from its beginning has been characterized by a continual concern for the truth of the Gospel, the relationship between revelatory truth and ecclesial teaching has been formulated in various ways depending on particular historical circumstances and theological perspectives. While the term infallibility first emerged in medieval theology, Christians eventually ascribed some type of infallibility to the Church, though with considerable divergence about its implications and implementation.
A definite teaching on the "infallible magisterium of the Roman Pontiff" was formulated by vatican coun cil I (Pastor Aeternus, July 18, 1870): "The Roman Pontiff, when he speaks ex cathedra, that is, when discharging the office of pastor and teacher of all Christians, and defines with his supreme apostolic authority a doctrine concerning faith or morals that is to be held by the universal Church, through the divine assistance promised him in St. Peter, exercises that infallibility which the divine Redeemer wished to endow his Church for defining doctrine concerning faith or morals" (H. Denzinger, Enchiridion Symbolorum 3074). Given the complexity of this statement, it is not surprising that considerable misunderstanding occurs in its interpretation, particularly concerning the following: (1) The Council, while speaking of doctrinal infallibility as an endowment of the Church, did not explain the meaning of infallibility nor indicate whether there are other types of infallibility (e.g., infallibility in believing, as well as in teaching). (2) The Council did not state that "the pope is infallible," rather that the pope "exercises" infallibility. Thus infallibility is not a personal quality, but an ecclesial endowment which the pope on specific occasions exercises on behalf of and in communion with the Church. In addition, Vatican I left undecided the question whether others in the Church can also exercise infallibility. (3) The "object" of such an exercise of infallibility was ambiguously described as "doctrine that is to be held," thus leaving open to further consideration what can or cannot be defined. While theologians generally agree that revelatory truths are a "primary object" of infallibility, there is considerable difference of opinion regarding the inclusion of "secondary objects" (matters of natural law, canonizations, etc.) under the aegis of infallibility.
Finally, the Council concluded that such "definitions of the Roman Pontiff are, of themselves, not by the consent of the Church, irreformable." This rejected the position adopted at a 1682 assembly of French bishops, the so-called Gallican Articles which postulated further appeal or ratification in order for definitions to be binding. Definitions, then, are "irreformable" in a juridical sense, but are not said to be "infallible" (in a philosophical sense), as if they were absolutely incapable of further development.
The topic of infallibility reappeared in vatican II's Lumen gentium (Nov. 21, 1964), which emphasized that the exercise of infallibility must be "in accord with revelation" and "extends as far as the deposit of revelation extends" (25). While reiterating Vatican I's teaching on the papal exercise of infallibility, Vatican II taught that "the infallibility promised to the Church also resides in the body of bishops." This episcopal exercise of infallibility may assume two possible forms: (1) when the bishops are "gathered together in an ecumenical council" or (2) "even when they are dispersed around the world, provided that while maintaining the bond of unity among themselves and with Peter's successor, and while teaching authentically on a matter of faith or morals, they concur in a single viewpoint as the one which must be held conclusively" (25).
The Object of Infallibility. The object of infallibility is limited, according to Vatican II, to those truths which form a part of the deposit of faith (LG 25). In a generic sense, the object of infallibility may be said to include doctrines of "faith and morals," a traditional couplet that was first used in a major Church document by the Council of trent.
Studies of the word "morals," or mores in Latin, show that at the Council of Trent the word was employed in both a moral and a religious sense, that is, to refer to teachings about how people should conduct their relationships with one another (mores, in the plural, was regularly used in this instance) and to refer to teachings about religious practices and ceremonial rites (mos, in the singular, used typically in this sense). Thus at Trent, disciplina morum included more than teaching about morals; it included as well matters of custom and ecclesiastical and liturgical discipline.
When at the First Vatican Council the bishops attempted to define papal infallibity in matters of "faith and morals," they encountered considerable difficulty in agreeing on what precisely was to be included in "morals." At the Council, Bishop gasser explained, in the name of the Deputation of the Faith, that infallibility had both a direct and an indirect object: the direct object included those truths which are revealed, and the indirect object those which are not directly revealed but which are necessarily connected to revelation. Some bishops, however, wanted to broaden the secondary object to include "those things connected with the deposit of revelation." The bishops finally agreed, however, to a more restricted view, concluding that the secondary object included only those truths necessarily connected to revelation. They never reached agreement, however, as to just which truths were necessarily connected.
The Second Vatican Council did not attempt any clarification of the content of the secondary object of infallibility, except to say that infallibility "extends as far as the deposit of revelation extends" (LG 25). The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith's Mysterium ecclesiae (1973) restated the secondary object of infallibility in slightly different terms: "things without which the deposit cannot be properly safeguarded and explained." This teaching is echoed in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (2035).
The Subject of Infallibility. The Church. An unflawed Christian faith is an unfailing dowry of "those who are one family in the faith" (Gal 6.10), i.e., the whole Church, comprising all the faithful, lay and clerical alike, who constitute one Body in their one faith (see Eph4.4–5). This unerring faith of the believing Church (see Mt 16.18b; Jn 14.16–17) is a basic created bond (see Denzinger 871) of the true and indissoluble community of life between the Lord Christ and His bride the Church (see Denzinger 3020). The Church returns a luminous pledge of faith and fidelity to Christ, "the holy one and true" (Rv 3.7), "full of grace and of truth" (Jn 1.14), who has "made known everything which I have heard from my Father" (Jn 15.15). The whole Church of all time is the destined hearer of the Word and of His message, the appointed bearer in the sanctity of its heart of the mystery of Christ's kingdom, the steadfast confessor of the truth of Christ's mystery. The Church's faith is a total faith, i.e., one destined under the Spirit to an ever true realization, homogeneous to its apostolic origin (see Acts 2.42) and open to its final fullness (see Eph 4.13), precisely because the Spirit of Christ always holds the Church's faith in an integral fidelity to Christ. This indefectible faith is an incarnational grace, inward-outward in its radical purity, held holily in the heart and confessed unswervingly on the tongue (see Rom 10.10). It is an infallibility of sanctity in life, proper to the Church as the communion of the saints, distinct from and served by the infallibility of the hierarchical ministry of teaching.
If the individual believer is to keep his faith from being adulterated by "strange varieties of teaching" (Heb 13.9), he must live his faith as a true part of the whole company of believers; his faith must be congruent with the faith of the Church. But the sense of faith of the whole Church infallibly adheres to the integral Christian revelation because the Spirit of Truth, residing in the heartland of the holy believers, moves the whole Church to a discerning obedience of faith in the apostolic revelation infallibly presented by those whom Christ has appointed to be His authoritative witnesses and to whom He has pledged the aid of His Spirit to fulfill their teaching mission. Christ's Spirit, the only interior teacher mandated by Christ to guide the whole Church, ensures the vital correspondence between the infallible communication of the message by the Church's teaching authori ty and the infallible adherence to it on the side of the whole Christian people.
The welcome acceptance that the believing Church gives to the faith taught by those accredited as the successors of the apostles is not to be misconstrued as a monotonous repetition or a mechanical playback of what has been received. "The eyes of the heart illumined" (Eph1.18) by faith vitally penetrate into and assimilate the riches of the apostolic message and transpose them into gestures of prayer, worship, and Christian living. The teaching Church is critically regulative of the sense of faith of the whole Church; it directs, fosters, and finally sanctions the consensus in faith of the whole Church. Whenever there is a maturation of faith in the total mind of the Church, it is always under the prime tutelage, interior and exterior, of the Spirit, and under the ministerial leadership in the sociojuridic sphere of the teaching Church.
The College of Bishops. When the corporate episcopate defines a doctrine, it can in practice follow two procedures, not essentially different one from another. (1) It can act solemnly in ecumenical councils: Denzinger 2923; Lumen gentium 25, 22 [Acta Apostolicae Sedis 57 (1965) 29–31, 25–27]. Or (2) it can also act with what Vatican I called its "ordinary and universal magisterium": Denzinger 3011; see Denzinger 2879; Lumen gentium 25.2 [ Acta Apostolicae Sedis 57 (1965) 30]. In ecumenical councils the episcopal college, or a competent representation of it, is assembled in one place for common counsel and for joint decision; hence its collegial act of teaching acquires an especial clarity and efficacy. In their ordinary and universal magisterium, however, the same bishops, without coming together in one assembly, and with each remaining at his post, exercise consciously a collegial act of teaching, definitively setting forth some doctrine for the absolute acceptance of the entire Church. In practice it is not always easy to ascertain whether or not the magisterium in a given case is exercising its infallibility through this second procedure. In both procedures, however, the episcopal body stands fundamentally in the same vicarial relation to Christ, in the same ministerial service of Christ's revealed word in His Body the Church, and under the same protecting aid of Christ's Spirit. There can be no supreme collegial act of teaching, and hence no infallibility, unless the pope, the head of the college, contributes his specific role to the collegial act; see Lumen gentium 22.2 [ Acta Apostolicae Sedis 57 (1965) 26]; "Nota explicativa praevia" 3–4 (ibid. 74–75); Codex iuris canonical c. 227.
The Pope. The Church's teaching office finds a special and eminent realization in the mission of the Roman pontiff, "true Vicar of Christ and head of the whole Church and father and teacher of all Christians" (Denzinger 3059). When the Roman pontiff, "in discharge of his office as shepherd and teacher of all Christians, in accord with his supreme apostolic authority, defines a doctrine concerning faith or morals to be held by the whole Church" (Denzinger 3074), he teaches infallibly by reason of the Spirit's aid proper to his special role as "the center of ecclesiastical unity (V. Gasser; Mansi 52:1213B). In order to give further precision to the ambit of papal infallibility—over and beyond affirming generically that its competence extends to "doctrine concerning faith and morals"—Vatican I compared the infallibility of the pope with that of the Church, understanding thereby that the scope of papal infallibility is exactly the same as that of the corporate episcopate in its definitions (see V. Gasser; Mansi 52:1225D–28A).
In its concern to dissipate any residue of doctrinal gallicanism, Vatican I decisively rejected any effort to make the collaboration or consent of the episcopate (or of the whole Church) an indispensable juridic condition either of the pope's infallibility (see V. Gasser; Mansi 52:1208C; 1317A–B) or of the pertinent information needed by the pope in order prudently to go forward to a definition (see V. Gasser; Mansi 52: 1217B–C). Nonetheless the Council did not look on the pope in the exercise of his infallible magisterium as withdrawn from the common life either of the episcopate or of the whole Church (see V. Gasser; Mansi 52:1213B–14A; 1228C). The pope's juridic autonomy does not entail discommunity or isolation; his juridic independence is never a solitary independence. He always acts as part of the Body, in the sense that he acts from within a metajuridic community of life, based on the fact that the Spirit assures a continuum of faith both lived and taught between the Roman pontiff and his fellow believers in the Church and his fellow bishops in the episcopate. This community of living faith is a fundamental Christian reality, always there and always to be there, incapable of any fundamental dislocation, even though the precisions of the object of faith that the pope is privileged to make are not always at the moment of definition explicitly shared by many members of that community. This symbiosis of faith is a great datum of Church life about which the Roman pontiff, while remaining juridically independent in his plenary act of definition, cannot be incurious as an irrelevancy, but which he must acknowledge and honor as capable under the Spirit of significantly enriching the religious worth of his act of definition.
In a similar way the pope should be duly attentive to the common mission that as chief bishop he has with the rest of the bishops, particularly in the matter of faith. The episcopate is an indispensable part of the Church's life and order, not obtrusive or competitive, but complementary and contributory, capable of giving a measure of light and strength, not available elsewhere, to the total religious excellence of the pope's act of definition, even though not constituting an essential component of the papal pronouncement as infallible. It remains within the pope's discretion how and in what measure to use these helps that the Church's communion of life affords him in the discharge of his office.
Contemporary Discussions. In the decade or so following Vatican II, three studies prompted special interest in the debate on papal infallibility in the U.S.: Hans kÜng's Infallible? An Inquiry (New York 1971), Brian Tierney's The Origins of Papal Infallibility: 1150–1350 (New York 1972), and August Hasler's Pius IX (1846–1878), päpstliche Unfehlbarkeit und 1 Vatikanisches Konzil: Dogmatisierung und Durchsetzung ether Ideologie (Stuttgart 1977).
Küng argued that indefectibility rather than infallibility is sufficient for the life of the Church; that is, the whole Church will continue to abide in the truth of Christ despite the errors contained in the official teachings of popes and councils. According to Küng, there have been too many errors in papal teaching—the most recent being the papal teaching on birth control, Humanae vitae —to allow for a doctrine of papal infallibility, a doctrine which mistakenly presumes that it is possible to formulate propositions that are a priori infallible.
Critics of Küng have pointed out numerous historical errors in his study, not the least of which is his assumption that Humanae vitae is an infallible teaching. Moreover, many critics have noted that although indefectibility assures that the Church will exist until the end of time, it alone does not assure that the Church will have the capacity to witness to the truth of the gospel message. Finally, most critics agree that Küng is mistaken to identify infallibility with propositions, which are a priori infallible. The infallibility of popes and councils is based upon the infallibility which, as Vatican I states explicitly, the Lord intended the Church to have, and in that sense is actually a posteriori rather than a priori.
Küng welcomed Brian Tierney's 1972 study on the origins of papal infallibility as an important contribution that filled in gaps in his own argument. Tierney, a historian of medieval canon law, argued that before the 14th century no one defended a doctrine of papal infallibility. Before that time, canonists argued, sometimes in extravagant terms, for papal sovereignty, but never for papal infallibility. Popes, they taught, could be either sovereign, that is, free to revoke the decrees of their predecessors, or infallible, that is, capable of making irrevocable decrees and therefore binding on their successors; they could not be both. For Tierney, papal infallibility consists in the power to create new non-Scriptural articles of faith.
Where then did the modern doctrine of papal infallibility come from? Tierney explained that it can be found first in the writings of the enigmatic Franciscan theologian peter john olivi (d. 1298) who in 1280 wrote up a question about the infallibility of the pope. Olivi was interested in investing the pope with the authority to make irrevocable decisions precisely in order to protect the particular notion of poverty approved in 1277 by Pope Nicholas III which was dear to the Spiritual Franciscans, but still under attack by the rest of the Order. In 1323, relying on his canonical sovereignty and, says Tierney, rejecting any notion of the irrevocability of papal decrees, Pope John XXII condemned that doctrine of poverty and revoked the decree (Exiit ) of Nicholas III. Shortly thereafter, however, John began to defend himself against charges of heresy by claiming that he had not revoked a decree of faith and morals. John's claim, according to Tierney, left the door open to the idea that a pope could in such matters make irrevocable decisions. Papal theologians soon rushed through that open door and created the modern idea of papal infallibility to strengthen the hand of the pope against conciliarists. Tierney concluded that papal infallibility does not belong to the "ancient and constant faith of the Church," but is rather "the sudden creation … of a novel doctrine at the end of the 13th century" (273).
Tierney's study forced theologians to take the history of the doctrine more seriously. Tierney criticizes the idea of papal infallibility defended today by ecumenically minded theologians as "Pickwickian," that is, one so highly qualified that it ends up unreal in any practical and meaningful sense. Most scholars recognize that Tierney correctly located in the late 13th and early 14th centuries the first discussions of papal infallibility. Many, however, have criticized his work for overstating the opposition between sovereignty and infallibility, for not attending to the relationship between ecclesial infallibility and papal infallibility, and for overlooking the ways in which many of the elements of doctrine were present earlier than 1300, as, for example, may be found, in Yves congar's judgment, in the writings of Thomas Aquinas. Finally, it has been pointed out that throughout his study, Tierney writes a history of a highly ultramontane idea of papal infallibility, that is, one that emphasizes the power of the pope to define apart from the faith of the Church and without grounding in Scripture. Tierney responded to the criticisms of his work and the discussion continues.
The bitterest attack on the validity of papal infallibility was launched by August Hasler who from 1966 to 1971 worked for the Vatican Secretariat of Christian Unity. His two-volume work, published in 1977, was followed in 1979 by a shorter English version under the title of How the Pope Became Infallible: Pius IX and the Politics of Persuasion (New York 1981). Hans Küng contributed a provocative introduction to the English version. Hasler contended that the standard histories of Vatican I were written from the viewpoint of the "victors," those who supported the definition. Hasler's intention was to write a more comprehensive history of the Council, one that featured the viewpoint of the minority.
Hasler divides his work into two sections. The first section deals with history, which, in his opinion, shows clearly that the only reason for the passage of the definition of papal infallibility was Pius IX's manipulation and intimidation of minority bishops before, during, and after the Council. Moreover, according to Hasler, Pius was the victim of epilepsy, given to supernatural visions, and chronically manifested psychological imbalances. So much did Pius IX control the proceedings of the Council that, in Hasler's view, the Council lacked due freedom and therefore was not valid. In the second section of the book, the theological argument, Hasler could find no Biblical or theological basis for the doctrine, and concluded that the definition dethroned history by ideology.
Most critics appreciate the extensive new material which Hasler provides, such as the private notes of Archbishop Darboy of Paris and of Bishop Maret, rector of the Sorbonne. But his orchestration of his sources betrays a double standard: he subjects to relentless criticism those who supported the definition, often ascribing to them the worst of motives, including psychopathology, and presents without any critical comment the views of those who opposed the definition. As one Vatican I scholar put it, "Hasler's presentation is repeatedly flawed by partisan allegation, unsubstantiated conjecture, and biased analysis" (J. T. Ford). Küng, Tierney and Hasler, have each been criticized in different degrees for over-stating the intent and extent of the definition formulated at the First Vatican Council; and for denying, a priori, a legitimate development of the doctrine through history.
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In Islam, infallibility (Arab., ʿiṣmah) is predicated by all Muslims of the Prophet Muḥammad when mediating God's revelation (i.e. the Qurʾān), though otherwise he is an ordinary human, subject to error, etc.; by Sunni Muslims of the consensus of the community (ijmaʿ), and by Shiʿa Muslims of the Imāms.