It is well-known that the Catholic Church teaches that popes are infallible when they speak ex cathedra or exercise their extraordinary magisterium. What that means is that if a pope formally presents some teaching in a manner intended to be definitive and absolutely binding, he is prevented by divine assistance from falling into error. The ordinary magisterium of the Church, and the pope when exercising it, are also infallible when they simply reiterate some doctrine that has been consistently taught for centuries. (Elsewhere, I’ve discussed the criteria for determining whether some such doctrine has been taught infallibly.) Even when papal teaching on faith and morals is not presented in a definitive and absolutely binding way, assent is normally required of Catholics. (The rare exceptions are something I’ve also addressed elsewhere.)
Is papal teaching on faith and morals always infallible, even when not presented either ex cathedra or as a mere reiteration of teaching independently known to be infallible? The Church has not only never claimed this, but deliberately stopped short of claiming it when affirming papal infallibility at the First Vatican Council (despite the fact that some at the time were pushing for this stronger claim). Hence, that popes are not infallible when not teaching in the manner I’ve described is commonly acknowledged by theologians and churchmen (and, it is worth noting, by traditionalists, conservatives, and liberals alike). Yet in recent years, some overenthusiastic admirers of Pope Francis, keen to defend his more controversial remarks, have argued for the stronger claim. For example, Stephen Walford and Emmett O’Regan have asserted that all papal teaching on faith and morals is protected from error, even when not presented in a definitive manner.
But there are two problems with this view. First, there are no good arguments for it. Second, there are decisive arguments against it. Let’s consider these points in turn.
Walford’s and O’Regan’s confusions
In defense of the stronger claim, Walford appeals to several papal statements. But none of them shows what he claims it does. For example, he cites a passage from a homily of Pope Benedict XVI that describes papal authority in a very general way, but does not even address the question of whether a pope always speaks infallibly. He cites a passage from Pius IX that affirms that Catholics ought to submit to papal teaching even when it is not presented in a definitive manner, but Pius too does not there even address the question of whether a pope always speaks infallibly. Whether a teaching is infallible and whether it is owed assent are, again, separate questions.
The closest Walford gets to a papal remark that might seem to support his case is Pope Innocent III’s statement that “the Lord clearly intimates that Peter’s successors will never at any time deviate from the Catholic faith.” But Walford himself immediately goes on to admit that it cannot literally be the case that popes “will never at any time” teach error, and cites the famous example of the medieval pope John XXII’s having taught error vis-à-vis the particular judgment. Walford emphasizes that John held these erroneous views in his capacity as a private theologian (though it is important to note that John did express them publicly in sermons).
What matters for present purposes, though, is that by Walford’s own admission, Pope Innocent’s remark needs qualification. Now, as already noted, the standard qualification would be that popes can err when neither speaking ex cathedra nor, in their ordinary magisterium, merely reiterating teaching already independently known to be infallible. And Walford gives no argument for qualifying it in some other way.
Walford also cites this remark from Pope St. John Paul II:
Alongside this infallibility of ex cathedra definitions, there is the charism of the Holy Spirit’s assistance, granted to Peter and his successors so that they would not err in matters of faith and morals, but rather shed great light on the Christian people. This charism is not limited to exceptional cases.
But this passage too simply fails to show what Walford thinks it does. John Paul merely says that infallibility can extend beyond the exceptional case of ex cathedra statements, and as I have already acknowledged, a pope’s exercise of the ordinary magisterium can also be infallible when it involves reiterating doctrines consistently taught by the Church for centuries. But John Paul II did not say, and it does not follow, that infallibility extends to absolutely every statement a pope makes about faith or morals.
O’Regan’s case is, in anything, even weaker than Walford’s. His opening paragraph appears to suggest that popes are “protect[ed]… from erring in matters pertaining to faith and morals” even in “non-definitive, non-infallible teachings of the ordinary Magisterium.” This would amount to the thesis that non-infallible teaching is infallible, which is, of course, a self-contradiction. Not a promising start.
O’Regan’s argument is that even if the Church’s explicit teaching on papal infallibility does not by itself entail that absolutely every papal statement pertaining to faith and morals (even non-ex cathedra ones) must be free of error, this conclusion nevertheless follows from another Catholic doctrine, namely the teaching on the indefectibility of the Church. He quotes from the Catholic Encyclopedia’s exposition of this doctrine, which says, among other things, that the Church “can never become corrupt in faith or in morals” and that “the Church, in defining the truths of revelation [could not] err in the smallest point.”
But, like the passages cited by Walford, this one simply does not show what O’Regan thinks it does. What the Catholic Encyclopedia says is that the Church cannot err when “defining” a truth of revelation. What this means is that it is protected from error when it puts forward some teaching in a solemn and definitive manner (as it does in the decrees of an ecumenical council, or through an ex cathedra papal definition). The claim is not that absolutely every magisterial statement, including those of a less solemn and definitive nature, will be free of error. Nor does the doctrine of the Church’s indefectibility imply that. Certainly O’Regan does nothing to show otherwise (as opposed to merely asserting otherwise).
Like Walford, O’Regan draws fallacious inferences from the passages from Innocent III and John Paul II referred to above. And like Walford, O’Regan quotes at length from various magisterial passages that expound on papal authority in a general way, but simply do not address the specific question at hand, viz. whether papal statements on faith and morals must in absolutely all circumstances be free of error. Worse, O’Regan’s rambling article also contains remarks that undermine his case. He writes:
It is necessary for the ordinary Magisterium to be ready to meet the ever-changing needs of the Church throughout the vicissitudes of history… As such, the ordinary Magisterium is permanently open to refinement and doctrinal development, and is not limited to merely repeat judgments which have been fixed firmly in the past. This confusion seems to arise from a failure to distinguish between the infallible teachings of the extraordinary and ordinary and universal Magisterium (which are in themselves irreformable), and the everyday non-infallible teachings of the ordinary Magisterium, which by their very nature, must remain reformable in order to meet whatever different circumstances may arise throughout the constantly shifting environments of Church history. (Emphasis added)
Now, if a teaching is “reformable,” then it must be possible for it to be erroneous. In which case, O’Regan is here acknowledging that errors in at least some kinds of magisterial teaching are compatible with the Church’s claim to indefectibility. But in that case, the appeal to indefectibility can hardly by itself show that papal statements pertaining to faith and morals are guaranteed to be free of error in absolutely all circumstances (rather than only when a pope speaks ex cathedra or reaffirms traditional teaching independently known to be infallible).
The actual teaching of the Church
So, Walford and O’Regan fail to make their case. Meanwhile, the case for the contrary view – to the effect that it is possible for popes to err when neither teaching ex cathedra nor reiterating the consistent teaching of centuries – is, I maintain, decisive. There are three main sets of considerations that show this:
The qualifications on infallibility:
When the First Vatican Council solemnly proclaimed the dogma of papal infallibility, it confined itself to asserting that popes are infallible when teaching ex cathedra, specifically. It did not go beyond that, even though some at the time favored its doing so. Similarly, the Second Vatican Council, in Lumen Gentium, says that popes are infallible when putting forward some teaching in a definitive way. Some might note that the relevant passages don’t explicitly deny that papal teaching on faith and morals is infallible even apart from ex cathedra or definitive statements, but that is beside the point. What matters is that the Church does not herself teach the extreme position that Walford and O’Regan affirm. It is at best a theological opinion, rather than a doctrine in any way binding on Catholics.
Moreover, taking the view that papal error is indeed possible outside of ex cathedra statements is permitted by the Church, and is explicitly taught in approved theological works of undeniable orthodoxy from the period before Vatican II. For example, Van Noort’s Dogmatic Theology, Volume II: Christ’s Church, after noting the qualifications on papal infallibility, says:
Thus far we have been discussing Catholic teaching. It may be useful to add a few points about purely theological opinions – opinions with regard to the pope when he is not speaking ex cathedra. All theologians admit that the pope can make a mistake in matters of faith and morals when so speaking: either by proposing a false opinion in a matter not yet defined, or by innocently differing from some doctrine already defined. Theologians disagree, however, over the question of whether the pope can become a formal heretic by stubbornly clinging to an error in a matter already defined. The more probable and respectful opinion, followed by Suarez, Bellarmine and many others, holds that just as God has not till this day ever permitted such a thing to happen, so too he never will permit a pope to become a formal and public heretic. Still, some competent theologians do concede that the pope when not speaking ex cathedra could fall into formal heresy. (p. 294, emphasis added)
Similarly, Ott’s Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma states:
With regard to the doctrinal teaching of the Church it must be well noted that not all the assertions of the Teaching Authority of the Church on questions of Faith and morals are infallible and consequently irrevocable. Only those are infallible which emanate from General Councils representing the whole episcopate and the Papal Decisions Ex Cathedra… The ordinary and usual form of the Papal teaching activity is not infallible. Further, the decisions of the Roman Congregations (Holy Office, Bible Commission) are not infallible.
Nevertheless normally they are to be accepted with an inner assent which is based on the high supernatural authority of the Holy See… The so-called “silentium obsequiosum,” that is “reverent silence,” does not generally suffice. By way of exception, the obligation of inner agreement may cease if a competent expert, after a renewed scientific investigation of all grounds, arrives at the positive conviction that the decision rests on an error. (p. 10, emphasis added)
Some will no doubt respond by pointing out that works like Van Noort’s and Ott’s are not themselves official magisterial documents. That is true, but beside the point. What matters is that such works were ecclesiastically approved and widely used for the education of priests and theologians in an era when the Church’s emphasis on papal doctrinal authority was perhaps stronger than it ever had been. Yet they explicitly reject the extreme position later defended by writers like Walford and O’Regan. They could not have done so if the Walford/O’Regan view really were the teaching of the Church.
(It is worth adding, by the way, vis-à-vis Van Noort’s remarks about Bellarmine and Suarez, that those eminent theologians did in fact allow that a pope’s falling into even formal heresy when not teaching ex cathedra could at least in theory occur. They simply judged this too extremely improbable to consider it a live possibility.)
Magisterial teaching that contradicts the Walford/O’Regan view:
As it happens, though, it isn’t just that the Church does not teach what Walford and O’Regan say it does, and that the opposite view is permitted. There are also magisterial statements that positively conflict with the view defended by Walford and O’Regan.
For example, Donum Veritatis, issued under Pope St. John Paul II, explicitly allows that there can be cases where non-definitive magisterial statements “might not be free from all deficiencies” and in some cases may even be open to respectful and tentative criticism by theologians. (I have discussed this document in detail elsewhere and won’t repeat here what I’ve already said there.)
We saw above how Walford and O’Regan appeal to a statement by Pope Innocent III in defense of their position. But that particular pope also taught something that points in precisely the opposite direction, when he said: “Only on account of a sin committed against the faith can I be judged by the church” (quoted in J. Michael Miller, The Shepherd and the Rock: Origins, Development, and Mission of the Papacy, at p. 292). Now, to sin against the faith would be to teach error on some matter of faith or morals. Hence Innocent III was teaching that it is possible for such error to occur (when a pope is not teaching in a definitive way). Here Innocent was simply acknowledging a principle already recognized in Gratian’s codification of canon law, and as Christian Washburn has noted in a recent article, two later popes (Innocent IV and Paul IV) made similar statements.
Now, if Walford and O’Regan accept this teaching of Pope Innocent, then they will have to give up their position. But suppose they hold instead that Innocent was simply mistaken about this. In that case too, they will have to give up their position. For if Innocent was wrong to hold that a pope could err when teaching non-definitively on some matter pertaining to faith and morals, then this would itself be an error on his part on a matter pertaining to faith and morals! In which case, Walford and O’Regan will have to admit that popes can commit such errors when speaking in a non-definitive way. So, whether they accept Innocent’s teaching or reject it, either way they will have to give up their own position.
There’s yet more irony. Pope Francis teaches in Gaudete et Exsultate that “doctrine, or better, our understanding and expression of it, is not a closed system, devoid of the dynamic capacity to pose questions, doubts, inquiries.” Now, if it can sometimes be legitimate to question and doubt doctrines or expressions of doctrine, then that entails that there can be at least some cases where doctrine or its expression could be in error. For how could it ever be legitimate to doubt or question it otherwise? But then Pope Francis’s own teaching contradicts the extreme position Walford and O’Regan put forward precisely in his defense! Hence, if they accept that teaching, they will have to give up their position. But suppose that Walford and O’Regan were instead to judge that Pope Francis was mistaken here. In that case too, they would have to give up their position. For if the pope is mistaken here, then it is an error pertaining to faith and morals. And in that case, Pope Francis’s teaching would itself be an instance of a pope teaching such error when not speaking ex cathedra. Either way, then, Pope Francis’s own teaching refutes the position taken by Walford and O’Regan.
Historical examples of erroneous papal statements:
But it gets even worse than that for Walford and O’Regan. For it’s not just that popes might, in theory, err on a matter of faith or morals when not speaking ex cathedra. It’s that this has in fact happened, albeit in only a handful of cases. As already noted, even Walford admits that John XXII erred (and Walford fails to explain why the qualification this requires him to make to his position does not entirely undermine it). But the most spectacular example is that of Pope Honorius, whose ambiguous words at the very least gave aid and comfort to the Monothelite heresy. And two papally-approved councils of the Church accused him of worse than that, insofar as they condemned him for holding to this doctrinal error himself. (I have discussed the case of Honorius in detail here and here.)
Now, if Walford and O’Regan accept these councils’ characterization of Honorius’s views, then they will have to give up their position, since that would be to acknowledge that popes can err when not speaking ex cathedra. But suppose instead that Walford and O’Regan were to claim that the councils in question erroneously characterized Honorius’s position. Then, in that case too, they will have to give up their position. For, again, the councils in question were ratified by popes. The popes in question thus implicitly affirmed that a pope (such as Honorius) could err when not speaking ex cathedra. If these popes were wrong about that, then they erred. Either way, then, Walford and O’Regan will have to give up the position that popes cannot err even when not speaking ex cathedra.
So, not only are there no good arguments for the extreme position defended by Walford and O’Regan, but it turns out to be incoherent. To get around the various pieces of counterevidence I’ve set out, Walford and O’Regan would have to attribute error to popes precisely in the course of trying to show that popes can never err.
(Editor’s note: This essay originally appeared on Dr. Feser’s blog in a slightly different form and is reprinted here with the author’s kind permission.)
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