Whatever happened to papal infallibility?

The Atlantic has a “flashbacks” feature, where the magazine highlights previous pieces. One of the more recent ones was a reflection on what the magazine had written about Pope John Paul II. Here’s the set-up:

Exactly two years following the death of Pope John Paul II, the Catholic Church put forward its case for his beatification and canonization as a saint. Though John Paul was a controversial figure throughout his tenure–taking strong stands on divisive issues (inspiring some to hail him as a bulwark against degeneracy and others to repudiate him as a reactionary)–he was indisputably a force to be reckoned with. Three Atlantic articles about John Paul, one written early in his career, one in the mid-1990s, and the third several months before he died, offer insight into the man, his leadership style, and his far-reaching influence.

After excerpts from an early PJPII profile, we’re told:

It soon became clear, however, that despite his personal warmth and charisma, when it came to Church dogma he was stern and intractably conservative–reviving the doctrine of papal infallibility, and censuring Church officials he perceived to be excessively liberal.

Now, we’ve had a few recent examples of some pretty poor papal media coverage. But this shows the problem is not new. We’re supposed to believe that Pope John Paul II “revived” the doctrine of papal infallibility. Hunh? I mean, formally that dogma has a relatively recent vintage. It wasn’t that long ago that Lord Acton said, on the topic, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” The teaching didn’t originate during the Vatican Council of the 1860s, although that’s when it was defined. But has this teaching changed at all since then? When did it die? What does it mean for Pope John Paul to have “revived” it? Was the teaching not the same when he assumed the papacy as when he died?

It’s also funny to note the language in the above excerpt. How are “charisma” and being “theologically conservative” at odds? It’s just interesting to see how the writer is unsettled or surprised that someone could retain church teaching “despite” being warm and charismatic.

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  • Pete S. S.

    Title… infallibility?

    And it is true that the doctrine was not “revived”, but the author of the piece may have meant something about the frequency of its applicability increasing during his time as pope–more “infallible statements/claims”.

  • Julia

    More infallible statement/claims?
    More such statements than who?
    Which statement/claims are being counted as “infallible”?

    re: “stern and intractably conservative”

    His almost-immediate predecessor, Paul VI, issued the much criticized encyclical on birth control and the pill in the late 1960s, but followed that by radically changing the ancient Mass.

    John Paul II is criticized for turning a blind eye to the innovations introduced into the Mass that even Paul VI had not envisioned.

    Most Popes are a mix of what the secular world calls conservative and liberal.

  • joye

    I love that phrase, “intractably conservative.” It makes me want to start humming “How do you solve a problem like JPII?”

    I did not know that Lord Acton’s famous quote was about this issue. I have often pondered the wisdom of the quote, but it’s fascinating how, well, dead wrong it turned out to be about the popes with the power of infallibility. No matter how you feel about the popes since then, I think everyone can agree that they don’t even come within radar distance of the corruption of, say, Alexander VI.

    I shall have to ponder this issue more. I have a lot to say about it, but I don’t think it fits the GetReligion sphere.

  • Jerry

    reviving the doctrine of papal infallibility

    Did he really make more ex cathedra statements than his predecessors? And I was surprised to read in Wikipedia that

    The number of infallible pronouncements by ecumenical councils is significantly greater than the number of infallible pronouncements by popes.

    But that article also said that the documentation was pretty limited so does anyone have an idea if that number has changed over time?

  • Ed Mechmann

    The notion that Pope John Paul “revived” a dogma of the Church is just laughable in its ignorance.

    Since the dogma of Papal Infallibility was defined in 1870, there has been one — one — such declaration. It was in 1950, the Dogma of the Assumption. That was by Pope Pius XII.

    Pope John Paul never made such a pronouncement.

    Even a few minutes on Wikipedia could have told them that.

  • Martha

    Pete, I have to say that if that was what the piece meant (he invoked papal infallibility more/defined “ex cathedra” more doctrines that must be held by the universal Church as a matter of faith and morals than his predcessors), then it’s incorrect.

    He didn’t even – according to some critics who felt he was insufficiently conservative on matters – proclaim with the full force of infallibility on the impossibility of the ordination of women within the Catholic Church; it was “only” an Apostolic Letter (Ordinatio Sacerdotalis).

    (Myself, I think that level of nit-picking is the same as arguing that the consecration of Russia to the Immaculate Heart of Mary has still not been done correctly, despite two different popes having a go at it) :-)

    Off-topic, but I’ve not seen anything on here about a topic that surely falls within the remit of this fine site: it’s got journalism, it’s got religion, it’s got religion in journalism – it’s Seymour Hersh’s claim (in amongst other things) that Opus Dei and the Knights of Malta were (are?) behind the invasion of Iraq and that yep, it’s yet another Sinister Roman Catholic Global Domination Conspiracy!


    Can anyone tell me if he really did say what he’s alleged to have said?

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Interestingly enough Pope Benedict XVI appears to be concerned that some Catholics and some in the media, think that every word the pope utters is infallible. However, as Ed pointed out, the doctrine of infallibility has only been invoked once. An infallible teaching must be on faith and morals and be rooted in the Faith of the Church which is, Catholics believe, guided by the Holy Spirit on such issues.
    So there would be no misunderstanding Pope Benedict has repeatedly said that, for instance, his books on the life of Jesus are his personal ruminations.
    Of course, the ruminations of a scholar-pope rightly hold the greatest weight in the minds of Catholics (and even many non-Catholics).

  • John Pack Lambert

    I was under the impression that the last time that the Pope made a statement ex Cathedra, which is the only time infalibility applies, was with Paul VI’s statement on birth control.

    If I am right, than it would seem that John Paul II did not revive Papal infalibility, because he never fully even used it.

    I am guessing what the Atlantic is aiming at is something like emphasizing the authority of the Pope to decide what is Catholic Doctrine, and to remove theologians from teaching positions in Catholic colleges for teaching theology at odds with the central teachings of the Church. Curran at the Catholic University of America is coming to mind, although how much his removal has to do with John Paul II and how much it has to do with the Archbishop of Washington is a question that needs to be considered.

    It may also relate to the actions of various congregations based in Rome, and how much these congregations are in-line with the goals and desires of the Pope is a question that needs to at least be asked.

  • John Pack Lambert

    I guess I misspoke. If Mechmann is right, than even Paul VI’s encyclical on birth control and such does not fall under the heading of “Papal infalibility”.

    There could also be an issue of the Pope supporting excommunications and other penalties for actions of various priests, theologians or who ever found out of line with previous statements under the heading of infalible statements of the Pope, however it seems more that the Atlantic figures any belief that there are any beliefs that are not acceptable for Catholics is “intractible, conservative dogma”. They probably think people should be able to worship Ashterah in groves with full fertility rites and still be considered Catholic.

  • Julia

    I may not be using the exactly correct word theologically, but here goes a comment on something else news reports get wrong.

    Re: infallible statements and dogma: a Catholic is required to give assent, i.e. accept that it is an article of faith. There is no requirement to believe, although that’s desirable. You can’t force belief or control people’s minds.

  • Truth Unites… and Divides

    “Since the dogma of Papal Infallibility was defined in 1870, there has been one — one — such declaration. It was in 1950, the Dogma of the Assumption. That was by Pope Pius XII.”

    Good thing he issued that declaration. There was a lot of rebelling against Assumption in those days and he quelled all the ruckus and hullabaloo going on with his ex cathedra declaration of the Assumption.


  • Julia

    Truth Unites:

    Lots of Catholic theologians agree that it was unnecessary since the ancient church has believed this for a very long time. In the East it’s known as the Dormition with a bit of a different flavor to the particulars.

  • http://paul.carey@att.net paul

    perhaps infallibility was defined formally in 1870, but thought this didn’t preclude the fact that a pope could decree an infallible statement, or one that is devinely inspired when it concerns faith and morals. For instance; Pope Agatha in 680 discussing the two wills of Christ, Pope Benedict the 12th in 1336 and the Assumption of Mary, Pope Leo the 1rst in 1449 discussing th two natures of Christ, Pope Innocent the 10th in 1653 condeming the Jansonists five propositions, Pope Popius the 7th 1794 again discussing the Jansonists as heretics, Popius the 12th in 1950 defining the Assumption of Mary, and again Popius the 9th and the Immaculate Conception of Mary.

  • Bain Wellington

    There are three sources of infallible teaching:- dogmas proclaimed by ecumenical councils and confirmed by the pope, papal teaching “ex cathedra”, and the ordinary and universal magisterium exercised (informally, even) by the bishops in communion with the pope. Thus, the pope is at the centre of all three.

    In the last one and a half centuries we have had examples of all of them:- papal infallibility was defined by the First Vatican Council in 1870 (presided over by Blessed Pius IX); the dogma of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary was proclaimed by Venerable Pius XII in 1950; and the “ordinary and universal magisterium” was invoked by Venerable (soon to be Blessed) John Paul II at least three times (presumably the source of the allusion in the piece that Mollie critiqued). Of course, the existence of a teaching does not suddenly arise only when it is defined – Blessed Pius IX, for instance, had already exercised papal infallibility in 1854 with the dogmatic definition of the Immaculate Conception.

    The “ordinary and universal magisterium” is often overlooked, but it was discussed by the Second Vatican Council in the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen gentium, n.25) along with the two other sources of infallible teachings:-

    “Although the individual bishops do not enjoy the prerogative of infallibility, they nevertheless proclaim Christ’s doctrine infallibly whenever, even though dispersed through 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.”

    The three occasions I have in mind when John Paul II invoked the ordinary and universal magisterium are:- (1) the prohibition of abortion (Encyclical “Evangelium vitae”, n.62); (2) the prohibition of euthanasia (ditto, n.65); and (3) the impossibility of ordaining women to the priesthood (Apostolic Letter “Ordinatio sacerdotalis”, 1994, read with the responsum ad dubium of 28 October 1995 issued by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith as approved by John Paul II).

    It is for the pope to discern when and to what extent the ordinary and universal magisterium has been exercised, and in so doing he does not not (as the quote from Lumen gentium above strongly implies) take a poll among the world’s bishops, for the exercise is diachronic not synchronic (if I may express it thus pithily).

  • Bain Wellington

    Oh, and another thing, if I may (on that much abused word “charisma”): papal infallibility is a charism deriving from the extraordinary assurance given by Our Lord to Peter (Lk.22:32). An extended discussion of the topic can be found in the papal audience of 17 March 1993 http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/john_paul_ii/audiences/1993/documents/hf_jp-ii_aud_19930317_sp.html (Spanish) English translation at http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/john_paul_ii/audiences/alpha/data/aud19930317en.html