As recent threads have shown, some Roman Catholics will argue that the RCC alone has a definite unshakeable authority (the papacy, along with councils in union with the papacy) to appeal to in matters of doctrine, as opposed to Protestant sola sciptura or Orthodox “receptionism”. And indeed RCs are expected to give “religious” assent, the highest form of assent possible, the same assent given to the Creeds and to scripture properly interpreted, to infallible declarations. But is papal infallibility the sure anchor for such religious assent that it is supposed to be?
While religious assent is required to papal declarations which meet Vatican I’s criteria for infallibility, there is authority that in matters of fact, the most that can be given, and therefore the most that can be required from a believer, is belief with moral certainty. This is much lower standard than that required for religious assent. And it makes sense; not being omniscient, ordinary human beings cannot be expected to know matters of fact with absolute certainty, other than matters of fact which have become part of the faith (e.g. the Resurrection of Christ). Believe it or not, this was a matter of controversy in the RCC in the seventeenth century. No papal or conciliar definition on the matter was ever given, but there was a general consensus that matters of fact could not command absolute certainty, as makes sense. This is discussed in Owen Chadwick’s From Bossuet to Newman. Unfortunately I don’t have a copy handy, so I can’t give a page citation.
But the matter of the valid election of a pope is a matter of fact. As the papal selection process has developed, there must be an election of a pope by the college of cardinals, free of any coercion whether internal or external. Whether a given papal election is free of coercion is of course a matter of fact, and one which cannot be known with certainty outside the college of cardinals.
But, again, once a “pope” has been elected, his “infallible” proclamations must command religious assent, and herein lies the problem. To make an “infallible” proclamation somoeone must, of course, be the (one, true) pope, validly elected as such. But, as we have seen, the most that can be given to the issue of whether a putative pope has been validly elected is moral certainty. So if the infallibility of a statement depends on whether it is made by a validly elected pope, and the valid election of said putative pope is a matter only of moral certainty, it follows logically that the highest assent that can be required of an “infallible” papal declaration is moral certainty. But RCC teaching requires that such declarations receive an assent higher than moral certainty. A contradiction.
It may be argued that this is a merely theoretical objection. Well, maybe not. We have the prior precedent of the Great Western Schism, in which first two and then three individuals claimed to be the true Pope, and each received a large number of followers. It is undisputed that, during the schism, the followers of each antipope could have made their allegiance in good faith; i.e. such followers could have moral certainty that they were obeying the true pope. The deadlock between competing “popes” was only broken by a council (which itself is problematic for papal supremacy, but that’s another thread). As it happened, none of the competing players made an ostensibly “infallible” pronouncement, but there is no reason why any of the three could not have done so. Then the problem I have outlined would be more than just theoretical.
And it could still happen. Suppose a conservative bishop challenges Pope Francis’ election? He gains a significant following of both lay and clergy, is elected pope himself, and then makes an “infallible” pronouncement. Very unlikely, but not out of the realm of possibility.
My point with all this is that any attempt to locate ultimate authority in the Church in any one office, even the papacy, does not give the absolute certainty that is sought for.