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With the death of Pope John Paul II, a lot has been said and written concerning the variety of ways in which American Catholics, in particular, disagreed with his views and chose not to follow his recommendations. This is most often seen in the arena of sexual ethics, “artificial” means of birth control, and the ordination of women to the priesthood. It has raised the question in both Catholic and Protestant minds: “When and to what extent do Catholics affirm the infallibility of the Pope?”

I’ve addressed this issue in several different places on the website, but I thought it might be helpful to bring them together in one brief response.

In Roman Catholic theology, infallibility may be expressed in one of three ways.

First, the church as a whole is considered infallible when it recognizes and concurs upon some truth of faith or dictate of morality:

“The body of the faithful as a whole, anointed as they are by the Holy One (cf. 1 John 2:20,27), cannot err in matters of belief. Thanks to a supernatural sense of the faith (sensus fidei) which characterizes the people as a whole, it manifests this unerring quality when ‘from the bishops down to the last member of the laity,’ it shows universal agreement on matters of faith and morals” (Lumen Gentium, 12).

Second, Rome believes truth can be stated infallibly by the bishops when they are in union with the pope. Whereas individual bishops may certainly err, infallibility will obtain when the whole college of bishops formally defines a doctrine of faith or morals:

“Although the individual bishops do not enjoy the prerogative of infallibility, they can nevertheless proclaim Christ’s doctrine infallibly. This is so, 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. This authority is even more clearly verified when, gathered together in an ecumenical council, they are teachers and judges of faith and morals for the universal Church. Their definitions must then be adhered to with the submission of faith” (Lumen Gentium, 25).

Third, in certain circumstances, the pope alone can speak with an infallibility by virtue of a gift (charism) allegedly bestowed by Christ and passed down through apostolic succession:

“The Roman Pontiff, head of the college of bishops, enjoys this infallibility in virtue of his office, when, as supreme pastor and teacher of all the faithful – who confirms his brethren in faith – he proclaims by a definitive act a doctrine pertaining to faith or morals” (Lumen Gentium, 25).

This concept was formally defined at the First Vatican Council (1869-70) in the decree Pastor Aeternus where it was determined that for a statement of the pope to be considered infallible it must meet these three conditions:

(1)            The Pope must be speaking ex cathedra (lit., “from the chair” of Peter), or in the capacity as chief shepherd and teacher of the universal church.

(2)            The Pope must explicitly declare (“by a definitive act”) that this doctrine is a truth of faith and so define it.

(3)            This doctrine must pertain to either “faith” or “morals”.

Such “infallible” statements are found in apostolic constitutions and decrees issued by the pope. These documents are an expression of the magisterium or the official teaching office of the papacy and, as legislative documents, are binding on all Catholics everywhere. Examples include:

Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent (16th century)

Documents of the Second Vatican Council

The Catechism of the Catholic Church (a product of the apostolic constitution Fidei Depositum in 1992)

The Code of Canon Law (1983)

The papal decree on the Immaculate Conception of Mary in 1854 by Pope Pius IX

None of this is meant to suggest that the Pope is always infallible in everything he says or that he cannot sin or make serious mistakes in judgment. The charism of infallibility does not necessarily extend to papal encyclicals, apostolic exhortations, letters and/or exhortations, or other informal communications that come from the papacy motu proprio, i.e., “by one’s own initiative”. As for these documents:

Encyclical (or encyclica epistola, lit., “circular letter”) – These are formal apostolic letters sent out by the pope to both clergy and laity. E.g., Humanae vitae, sent by Pope Paul VI, addressed the issue of birth control and other matters of human sexuality (1968).

Motu proprio – These are decrees or legislative documents issued by the pope at his own initiative rather than in response to a question that has been asked of him.

Apostolic letters (apostolica epistola) are not dogmatic definitions of church doctrine but are papal teaching documents designed to help the church understand points of doctrine that require additional explanation and application to the changing circumstances in society and culture. Apostolic exhortations likewise serve to provide papal reflection on particular topics and are generally addressed to bishops, clergy, and all the faithful of entire church. These are not legislative documents.

Although such documents are not regarded as necessarily infallible and therefore morally binding on the conscience of all Catholics, Vatican II did make the following important statement:

“this religious submission of will and of mind must be shown in a special way to the authentic teaching authority of the Roman Pontiff, even when he is not speaking ex cathedra. That is, it must be shown in such a way that his supreme magisterium is acknowledged with reverence, the judgments made by him are sincerely adhered to, according to his manifest mind and will. His mind and will in the matter may be known chiefly either from the character of the documents (in which the teaching is presented), from his frequent repetition of the same doctrine, or from his manner of speaking” (Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, no. 25).

In other words, when the magisterium “teaches” ordinarily it is to be received with “religious assent” or “religious submission of will and of mind” but not necessarily with the “obedience (or assent) of faith” which is required for all infallibly defined doctrines.

Often Congregations, with papal approval, will issue formal Instructions (instructio) that explain Council documents or decrees. An example of this would be the Instructions on the Implementation of the Council’s Constitution on the Liturgy (Sacrosanctum Concilium).

Included here are such documents as a Declaration (declamatio), which may be a simple statement of an already existing law; a Decree (decretum), which is a statement concerning church law, precepts, or judicial decisions on some specific matter (a decree often announces that a given document or legislative text is in effect); or a Promulgation (promulgatio) which is the process by which the lawmaker communicates the law and its effective date to those to whom the law has been given).

There are various other documents of the church such as those issued by a national conference of bishops (e.g., the recent declaration, or “pastoral letter”, by the U.S. conference of bishops on how they intended to handle the sexual abuse scandal). Such documents must be consistent with already existent church teaching and law. An individual bishop can issue a document that has authority within his own diocese.

Finally, a brief word of explanation concerning the Magisterium is in order. The Magisterium is the official teaching office of the Roman Catholic Church. It is composed of the bishops of the church in union with the pope:

“This teaching office is not above the word of God, but serves it, teaching only what has been handed on, listening to it devoutly, guarding it scrupulously, and explaining it faithfully by divine commission and with the help of the Holy Spirit; it draws from this deposit of faith everything which it presents for belief as divinely revealed” (Dei Verbum, 12).

Fundamental to Catholic belief is that the Holy Spirit enables the bishops and pope to recognize divine revelation (distinguishing it from the spurious), to define official dogmas of the church (which all are required to believe), and to interpret infallibly those truths/dogmas. This office of the church has “the task of authentically interpreting the word of God, whether in its written form or in the form of tradition” (Dei Verbum, 10).

Thus the Magisterium’s task is “to preserve God’s people from deviations and defections and to guarantee them the objective possibility of professing the true faith without error. . . . To fulfill this service, Christ endowed the Church’s shepherds with the charism of infallibility in matters of faith and morals” (Catechism, 890). The Magisterium exists to provide the faithful with an authentic interpretation of the text and tradition. “This means that the task of interpretation has been entrusted [not to individual believers but] to the bishops in communion with the successor of Peter, the Bishop of Rome” (Catechism, 85).

I hope this brings some clarity to how the Roman Catholic Church functions and to what extent the Pope is believed to be “infallible”.