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  • Disputed Questions on Papal Infallibility
  • John P. Joy


The First Vatican Council solemnly defined that the pope is infallible when he speaks ex cathedra, that is, from the chair of Saint Peter, which is the chair of truth:

Therefore, faithfully adhering to the tradition received from the beginning of the Christian faith, for the glory of God our Savior, for the exaltation of the Catholic religion, and for the salvation of Christian peoples, with the approval of the sacred council, We teach and define that it is a divinely revealed dogma: that the Roman Pontiff, when he speaks ex cathedra, that is, when, exercising 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, possesses, by the divine assistance promised to him in blessed Peter, that infallibility with which the divine Redeemer willed his Church to be endowed in defining doctrine concerning faith or morals; and therefore, that such definitions of the Roman Pontiff are irreformable of themselves, and not by the consent of the Church. But if anyone, which God forbid, should presume to contradict this Our definition: let him be anathema.2 [End Page 33]

With this definition the question as to whether the pope is able to speak infallibly at all has been finally settled; since then, theological discussion has centered on the subsidiary questions as to how often and under what conditions he does so.

There are two errors to be avoided here. On the one hand, we must avoid the very real phenomenon of "creeping infallibilization,"3 according to which almost every utterance of the pope is regarded as being at least practically infallible. On the other hand, we must beware the equally dangerous tendency to interpret arbitrarily the conditions for papal infallibility so restrictively as to render the dogma almost meaningless. Paradoxically, these opposite tendencies seem to be almost equally widespread amongst Catholics in general. For one constantly encounters the idea that the pope has only ever spoken infallibly twice (in defining the dogmas of the Immaculate Conception and Assumption of Mary) and yet it is also everywhere assumed (often by the very same people) that no pope could possibly teach anything false in any of his official teaching on faith or morals. As is so often the case, the truth lies in between.

There are many questions involved here that need to be untangled and so I have chosen the format of the medieval Scholastic disputation in an effort to bring some measure of greater clarity to the topic. There are two main questions to be considered concerning the infallibility of the pope: the first concerns the extension and limits of papal infallibility in general; the second concerns particular cases of papal teaching. Here we are concerned only with the first question.

Question I: On the Extension and Limits of Papal Infallibility

Concerning this first question, there are seven points to be considered: (1) whether the essential conditions for speaking ex cathedra are rightly enumerated as three; (2) whether the pope is able to teach any error at all in the exercise of his authentic magisterium; (3) whether the infallibility of the pope is limited to the exercise of his extraordinary magisterium; (4) whether the pope is able to speak infallibly when he confirms or reaffirms a doctrine already infallibly taught by the ordinary and universal magisterium; (5) whether the infallibility of the pope is limited to defining dogmas of divine and Catholic faith; (6) whether the infallibility of the [End Page 34] pope extends to the canonization of saints; (7) whether the pope is able to speak infallibly without explicitly addressing the universal Church.

Article 1: Whether the Essential Conditions for Speaking Ex Cathedra Are Rightly Enumerated as Three?

Objection 1. It seems that the essential conditions for speaking ex cathedra are not rightly enumerated as three. For Saint John Henry Newman enumerates four conditions, saying: "He speaks ex cathedra, or infallibly, when he speaks, first, as the Universal Teacher; secondly, in the name and with the authority of the Apostles; thirdly, on a point of...


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