An epistemological objection to papal infallibility

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.

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.

If a conservative bishop challenged Pope Francis as pope, I would not follow him. Even if I was more comfortable with some of his views. Just because someone claims to be pope doesn’t make them so, no more than someone claiming to be the Messiah. If God expects us to recognize false prophets then it must not be impossible to do.

Well, this is going to be an interesting discussion, I’m sure. I hope you get better answers from Catholics than, “Well, you Orthodox have the same problem.” :wink:

Even as a non-practicing Catholic, you must know that we recognize more Ecumenical Councils than the Orthodox. Now, the Nicene Creed was the product of a couple of Ecumenical Councils which sought to distill the essence of our Christian faith into a single statement based upon the long-held beliefs of the Church.

The Creed itself, of course, is not contained verbatim within the pages of inspired Scripture, but each point contained in the Creed can be supported from Scripture or Tradition.

Similarly, the doctrine of papal infallibility was defined by what is for us an equally authoritative Ecumenical Council, Vatican I, and confirmed and clarified at a second Ecumenical Council, Vatican II. So, for the Catholic, the doctrine of papal infallibility was defined by an infallible Ecumenical Council based upon the long-held beliefs of the Church…

But it was not created by a Council; the seeds of infallibilty are found within the pages of Scripture in the verses with which you are familiar. Those seeds were watered and nurtured within the Early Church as seen in the writings of the Fathers and only reached maturity as the needs of a maturing Church required it.

So, to your first question, “Is papal infallibility the sure anchor for such religious assent that it is supposed to be?”, I answer, “Absolutely.”

(But the proper metaphor is “rock” not “anchor”. ;))

More to follow.

All the bishops have never defined that the majority of bishops have infallible authority, therefore the orthodox have just as little absolute assurance of the councils they support as well. And how do they know that the bishops were free from all coercion? These questions cannot be known. Its just faith

It is only infallible when they use ‘ex cathedra’…not every single thing they say is infallible.

The problem with sola scriptura is that it does not cover every moral issue and also everyone can interpret the bible the way they want to. For example something like invirto fertilization did not exist 2000 years ago. We need an authority that isn’t solely the bible to inform us if that is okay or not (it’s not) . I do not know about "receptionism " so I can not say anything about that.

The Holy Spirit is aiding the pope when he uses the infallible seal. It is not the just the pope saying this is infallible, but The Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit has knowledge of moral certainty. He (the pope)cannot lie under the infallible seal.

My question to you is how are you sure that Orthodox teachings have absolute certainty?

No Pope has ever said “I define this infallibly”. The only times it appeared to be certainly infallible was by Pius IX and Pius XII. Christianity hasn’t be lead well by Popes. And Catholics have to interpret the Bible in order to believe that the Pope is infallible, and that interpretation is not infallible nor founded on definite arguments. A position is only as strong as its weakest link

John Paul the Second used the ‘ex cathedra’ (infallible seal=all Catholics have to believe it) that women can not be priests.

The pope was the one to officially define that Christ was the was the same substance as the Father at the Council of Nicea.

More popes than those two used the seal.

Are you sure you are Catholic if you do not believe in papal infallibility?

I find that very hard to believe, especially considering the Pope was not even present at the council.

No one has responded to my point on the other thread about when and how those councils suddenly became elevated to the status of Ecumenical, when they were not considered so until very late. Perhaps you could explain?
Are you sure? This link implies it. I know the Nicene Creed is infallible so how could they make it infallible and prove Arius wrong if the pope was not there?

The Pope ratified the council and subsequent councils, but no he wasn’t present. An ecumenical council exercises the Church’s infallibility with or without the Pope’s presence (though for a council to be ecumenical it must be recognized as such by the Pope).


I get the problem; actually, IIRC, this was one reason no one wanted to use some of the previous used pope and antipope names - there is still a great deal of confusion about which popes were popes and which were antipopes.

If I may say so, though, the seat of the Office of Peter is not merely a matter of moral certainty; it is a doctrine which we can know and which we must believe in. And there is evidence for that (the old verse, Matthew 16:18ff). Consider that only Simon is renamed. That ought to be a sign to anyone familiar with the patriarchs - Abra(ha)m, Jacob(Israel). A change of name is a change of status.

I think there were certain times when the right Pope could be a matter of question or confusion. But as a general principle, the Seat of Peter is a visible and knowable sign of unity - just as the Patriarch of Constantinople is for the Eastern Orthodox. Ours simply happens to be theological rather than merely practical.

But that doesn’t seem to solve the issue at hand. The matter of who is pope is seemingly something which can only be known with moral certainty, even if belief in the office of the papacy is a matter of religious assent.

One thing we need to emphasize is that the infallible magisterium is NOT the pope alone. It is the pope and the bishops in union with him. Ecumenical councils are infallible in their own right. This is clear in our catechism. The Church’s infallibility can be exercised by the pope (in extremely rare cases) but even then he also does so in consultation with his brother bishops. The vast majority of infallibly defined dogmas were promulgated by ecumenical councils. In an ecumenical council the entire college of bishops, with and under the pope, collectively exercises the Church’s infallibility. Furthermore, the ordinary magisterium (that which the popes and bishops have consistently taught in every time and place) is also considered infallible- and we as Catholics simply live and breathe the teachings of the ordinary magisterium. It comes down to faith…the Holy Spirit protects the Church. Orthodox, Protestants and even many Catholics try to reduce these great mysteries of faith to a simple equation. It simply doesn’t work that way.

Regarding papal elections, Ratzinger classified them as “dogmatic facts”, along with the canonization of saints and the recognition of ecumenical councils. Essentially, the Holy Spirit will not allow the Church to fail. If the Church has recognized a council as ecumenical, a papal election as valid, or a person as a saint, these are dogmatic facts that we accept on faith.

Just what I was going to post. Yes, he wasn’t even there. Something that many if not most Catholics don’t even know apparently.

The Bishops present at the council declared it. The pope when presented with what the council declared, agreed. And I’ve asked that same question many times myself, and still haven’t gotten what I consider to be a logical answer.

The book The First Seven Ecumenical Councils (325-787): Their History and Theology by Leo Davis covers this subject.

The essence of infallibility is to serve the Church, not have it run by a dictator.

The dilemna is already there…when Christ appointed Peter as head of His Church and of the apostles…and moments later, Christ referred to him as Satan, following the thinking of men, when Peter attempted to talk Christ out of His Passion and death.

So the Church has had good popes and bad popes…the former, those who caved in to the opinions of men…and likewise never wrote anything on faith and morals during their pontificate.

The Nicene Creed sums up our faith. The dogmas of Mary reflect the faith and conviction of the believers going back to the beginning who considered Mary conceived without sin and not deserving the wages of sin.

Prior to the declaration of Infallibility, the pope would teach, provide financial support to emerging local churches, and discipline…with the universal assent of believers throughout the world, this the working of the Holy Spirit in the office of Peter.

The need for infallibility came about with the changing conditions of mankind, starting with the French Revolution, and people in general wanting to the right to determine their own lives…not the monarchy or anyone else for that matter. The Church needed clear and irrevocable leadership but the Vatican I Council concluded the pope must first reflect on the faith of believers, consult with the bishops, and if they assent, the pope is then authorized to declare dogma.

Today what is in use are papal encyclicals and not all carry the same weight of truth and/or application. The bishop of the local church would be responsible for teaching this document.

The bottom line is not control, but service to the universal Church. We are one, holy, Catholic, and apostolic to this day.

The Holy Spirit prevented any bad popes from teaching, most likely on morals…and it is evident they were quite lacking…

He does not have to be there he just has to approve it,

The decisions of the Council of Nicea were just as true before the Pope agreed with them as they were after. They did not suddenly take on their infallible quality the moment the Pope said yes.

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