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Dr. Edward Feser


Can the Pope change doctrine? It’s time for some clarity on papal infallibility

Dr. Edward Feser

Editor’s Note: The following is part of an in-depth essay on “papal fallibility” which LifeSiteNews is running in three parts. This is the second part. Find the first part, "Papal errors of the past show the ridiculousness of ‘spin-doctoring’ the pope," here. Find the third part, "When popes can be wrong: breaking down the degrees of papal authority," here.

December 4, 2015 (EdwardFeser) – Catholic doctrine on the teaching authority of the pope is pretty clear, but lots of people badly misunderstand it.  A non-Catholic friend of mine recently asked me whether the pope could in theory reverse the Church’s teaching about homosexuality.  Said my friend: “He could just make an ex cathedra declaration to that effect, couldn’t he?”  Well, no, he couldn’t.  That is simply not at all how it works.  Some people think that Catholic teaching is that a pope is infallible not only when making ex cathedra declarations, but in everything he does and says.  That is also simply not the case.  Catholic doctrine allows that popes can make grave mistakes, even mistakes that touch on doctrinal matters in certain ways.

Many Catholics know all this, but they often misunderstand papal authority in yet other ways.  Some think that a Catholic is obliged to accept the teaching of a pope only when that teaching is put forward by him as infallible.  That too is not the case.  Contrary to this “minimalist” view, there is much that Catholics have to assent to even though it is not put forward as infallible.  Others think that a Catholic is obliged to agree more or less with every view or decision of a pope regarding matters of theology, philosophy, politics, etc. even when it is not put forward as infallible.  And that too is not the case.  Contrary to this “maximalist” view, there is much to which a Catholic need give only respectful consideration, but not necessarily assent.  As always, Catholic doctrine is balanced, a mean between extremes -- in this case, between these minimalist and maximalist extremes.  But it is also nuanced, and to understand it we need to make some distinctions that are too often ignored.

First let’s get clear about infallibility.  The First Vatican Council taught that:

[W]hen the Roman Pontiff speaks ex cathedra, that is, when, in the exercise of his office as shepherd and teacher of all Christians, in virtue of his supreme apostolic authority, he defines a doctrine concerning faith or morals to be held by the whole Church, he possesses, by the divine assistance promised to him in blessed Peter, that infallibility which the divine Redeemer willed his Church to enjoy in defining doctrine concerning faith or morals.  Therefore, such definitions of the Roman Pontiff are of themselves, and not by the consent of the Church, irreformable.

What the Council is describing here is the pope’s exercise of what is called his “extraordinary Magisterium,” as opposed to his “ordinary Magisterium” or everyday teaching activity in the form of homilies, encyclicals, etc.  The passage identifies several conditions for the exercise of this extraordinary Magisterium.  First, the pope must appeal to his supreme teaching authority as the successor of Peter, as opposed to speaking merely as a private theologian, or making off-the-cuff remarks, or the like.  An exercise of the extraordinary Magisterium would, accordingly, typically involve some formal and solemn declaration.  Second, he must be addressing some matter of doctrine concerning faith or morals.  The extraordinary Magisterium doesn’t pertain to purely scientific questions such as how many elements are in the periodic table, political questions such as whether a certain proposed piece of legislation is a good idea, etc.  Third, he must be “defining” some doctrine in the sense of putting it forward as official teaching that is binding on the entire Church.  The extraordinary Magisterium doesn’t pertain to teaching that concerns merely local or contingent circumstances.

But there is a further, crucial condition on such ex cathedra statements.  The First Vatican Council emphasized it in a passage that comes several paragraphs before the one quoted above:

For the Holy Spirit was promised to the successors of Peter not so that they might, by his revelation, make known some new doctrine, but that, by his assistance, they might religiously guard and faithfully expound the revelation or deposit of faith transmitted by the apostles.

Papal teaching, then, including exercises of the extraordinary Magisterium, cannot contradict Scripture, Tradition, or previous binding papal teaching.  Nor can it introduce utter novelties.  Popes have authority only to preserve and interpret what they have received.  They can draw out the implications of previous teaching or clarify it where it is ambiguous. They can make formally binding what was already informally taught.  But they cannot reverse past teaching and they cannot make up new doctrines out of whole cloth. 

Along the same lines, the Second Vatican Council taught, in Dei Verbum, that the Church cannot teach contrary to Scripture:

[T]he living teaching office of the Church… 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…

Pope Benedict XVI put the point as follows, in a homily of May 7, 2005:

The Pope is not an absolute monarch whose thoughts and desires are law.  On the contrary: the Pope's ministry is a guarantee of obedience to Christ and to his Word.  He must not proclaim his own ideas, but rather constantly bind himself and the Church to obedience to God's Word, in the face of every attempt to adapt it or water it down, and every form of opportunism…

The Pope knows that in his important decisions, he is bound to the great community of faith of all times, to the binding interpretations that have developed throughout the Church's pilgrimage.  Thus, his power is not being above, but at the service of, the Word of God.  It is incumbent upon him to ensure that this Word continues to be present in its greatness and to resound in its purity, so that it is not torn to pieces by continuous changes in usage.

Though the pope’s exercise of his ordinary Magisterium is not always infallible, it can be under certain circumstances.  In particular, it is infallible when the pope officially reaffirms something that was already part of the Church’s infallible teaching on the basis of Scripture and Tradition.  For example, in Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, Pope St. John Paul II reaffirmed traditional teaching to the effect that the Church has no authority to ordain women to the priesthood, and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith thereafter confirmed that this teaching is to be regarded as infallible.  The reason it is to be regarded as infallible is not that the papal document in question constituted an exercise of the extraordinary Magisterium, but rather because of the teaching’s status as part of the constant and universal doctrine of the Church. 

Now, what makes some constant and universal teaching of the Church infallible is itself an important topic, but one that is beyond the scope of this post, which is concerned with the teaching authority of the pope, specifically.  Suffice it to emphasize for present purposes that, precisely because exercises of the pope’s ordinary Magisterium are infallible when they merely reaffirm the Church’s own constant and universal teaching, they too do not involve either the reversal of past teaching or the addition of some novelty. 

Papal infallibility, then, is not some magical power by which a pope can transform any old thing he wishes into a truth that all are bound to accept.  It is an extension of the infallibility of the preexisting body of doctrine that it is his job to safeguard, and thus must always be exercised in continuity with that body of doctrine.  Naturally, then, the pope would not be speaking infallibly if he taught something that either had no basis in Scripture, Tradition, or previous magisterial teaching, or contradicted those sources of doctrine.  If it had no such basis, it could be mistaken, and if it contradicted those sources of doctrine, it would be mistaken. 

It is very rare, however, that a pope says something even in his ordinary Magisterium that is manifestly either a sheer novelty or in conflict with existing doctrine.  Popes know that their job is to preserve and apply Catholic teaching, and thus when they say something that isn’t just a straightforward reiteration of preexisting doctrine, they are typically trying to draw out the implications of existing doctrine, to resolve some ambiguity in it, to apply the doctrine to new circumstances, or the like.  If there is some deficiency in such statements, then, it will typically be subtle and take some careful thinking to identify and correct.  There is in Catholic doctrine, therefore, a presumption in favor of what a pope says even in his ordinary non-infallible Magisterium, even if it is a presumption which can be overridden.  Hence the default position for any Catholic must be to assent to such non-infallible teaching.  Or at least that is the default position where that teaching concerns matters of principle vis-à-vis faith and morals -- as opposed to application of principle to contingent concrete circumstances, where judgments about such circumstances are of their nature beyond the special competence of the pope.

Reprinted with permission from Dr. Edward Feser’s blog.

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