A Protestant Reader is Trying to Understand Papal Infallibility

A Protestant Reader is Trying to Understand Papal Infallibility November 4, 2015

He writes:

I am a Reformed Presbyterian trending towards the Catholic Church, and I am about half way through your book By What Authority. I am enjoying very much.

Howdy!  And thank you!

I have a question for you. I have been debating a fellow Reformed friend about Infallible Tradition. He objects to the claim of infallibility outright on the grounds that there have been former popes condemned as heretics. I think Pope Honorius I is the example that he sights most frequently. First of all is that accurate?

I’m not an expert on the history of the papacy, but here’s what I know about Honorius.  Basically, he expressed opinion–in a private letter–about an obscure heresy called monothelitism and came down on the wrong side of what the Church would eventually decide was orthodox.  So he was wrong, but that has nothing to do with infallibility since he was not formally defining doctrine but just noodling a problem and giving his educated thoughts on it in private.

Infallibility is actually a very narrow protection.  It means that when a pope formally defines a doctrine for the Church, he will be protected by the Spirit from defining error as truth.  The pope can therefore be wrong or imprudent about all kinds of stuff and infallibility has nothing to do with it. (That doesn’t, by the way, means “Blow off the pope just so long as he’s not speaking ex cathedra.  My garage mechanic is not infallible, but I still do well to pay close attention to his opinion on my car as somebody with extreme competence in his field.  The same should be said of the pope.)

 Have there been popes that have been officially condemned as heretics?

Liberius is the first pope not canonized, because he cracked under duress and signed some semi-Arian document.  That’s hardly “heresy” (just weakness) and it was, again, not an exercise of the Magisterium.  Sixtus VI was fixing to promulgate a bad translation of Scripture when the Holy Spirit solved the problem by Sixtus’ sudden death.  Again, no violation of infallibility.  Other popes were rotters, but again they did not change the Church’s teaching.  Honorius is about the closest you get.  Which, given 2000 years of history is rather striking in what it does *not* show.  Newman points out (somewhere) that it’s amazingly slim pickings for 2000 years of history to have Liberius say something under duress, Honorius make a bad call in a private letter, Sixtus screw up (again in private)… and that’s it.  Beyond that you have either sinners who did not change doctrine or, even more remarkable, sinners who murder their way into the papacy with the promise to cooperate with royal heretics and who then suddenly and inexplicably refuse to play ball with the court once they have been consecrated as pope and remain orthodox.

 If so, what kind of implications does this have on the Catholic Church’s claims to teaching infallibility? He is not objecting to bad behavior by former popes, but rather that they taught something that was officially heretical.

It hasn’t happened.  That’s the point of the charism of infallibility.  The Church is prevented by the Spirit from defining error as truth and truth as error.  Here’s a little piece I wrote on that.

Do you have any good resources, from a Catholic perspective, that answers questions like this about the papacy in a substantial way?

Catholic Encyclopedia entry on Infallibility:

Jesus, Peter, and the Keys

Upon This Rock

Hope that helps!

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