Exaggerating papal infallibility

I can remember a time when Protestants would criticise Catholicism for believing that the Pope was always infallible. One would resist the temptation to roll one’s eyes, and then very patiently explain that no, that is not the doctrine of Papal infallibility.

Then came a conservative Pope and I noticed that some conservatives started talking as if this protestant caricature were actually correct.

After that we had Pope Francis, and conservatives started backpedaling furiously, while liberals started singing the infallibility tune.

And lately, now that the Pope has distanced himself from the Amazon Synod document and from Father Martin, I notice yet another change in opinion about papal infallibility.

And all this time, the doctrine is what it always has been. The Pope is mostly fallible except in very rare circumstances.

Is it too much to hope that both sides will stop trimming the infallibility concept to suit themselves? It is intellectually and spiritually dishonest to do so.

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As in so many areas of life, the ditch lies to the left and right of the path. This video, by the brilliant and animated Fr. Spitzer (ask him about the shroud!) greatly helped me to understand the enigmatic Holy Father.

I do think that the pontificates if St JP II and Benedict XVI led to a certain modern version if ultra-montane views, and the pontificate if Francis ended this, I do not recall many who exaggerated papal infallibility. Certainly the Holy Father’s exhortation regarding the Amazon Synod has not led back to any exaggeration if the doctrine. If you have evidence if either one, I will consider it.

Historically, there were certainly bishops going into Vatican I, who wanted a broader definition of the doctrine and advocated strongly for it, Cardinal Manning of England was one.

There is one reason for this: the scope of papal infallability is as clear as mud. Different people say different things, and it is very hard to get to the correct answer.

This is somewhat true. The typical answer is when he speaks ex cathedra, but what does that mean? The council’s definition of ex cathedra:

when in discharge of the office of pastor and doctor of all Christians, by virtue of his supreme Apostolic authority, he defines a doctrine regarding faith or morals to be held by the universal Church

is a bit if a mouth full.

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If only it had. But in fact if you express doubts about anything he may have said off-the-cuff, or if you question the correctness of (say) a certain footnote in Amoris Laetitia, you will instantly be accused of Protestantism, on the grounds that you cannot possibly be Catholic if you disagree with the Pope on any point.

Ok, perhaps I should have said the neo-ultra-montanism (just made that up, I kind of like it), shifted to the progressives.


This sort of “ microscopical research” into what is fallible and what infallible at every word a Pope says is at times hilarious. A flawed approach and a means to find a excuse not to listen to it all, I think…
It is like dissecting the food one eats on the plate…when one needs to eat!
Who knows where this originated. I ve always thought it is here online. In real life I’ve personally not heard of this “ system” of straining what Popes say or write. Here comes the “ colander” :roll_eyes: I say to myself as I read…
Not very relevant what I say, but it did call my attention for sure.

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Francis hasn’t said anything new that binds the faithful. He’s affirmed infallible teachings that have been previously defined, and then there’s just a lot of extra stuff that is in no way binding.

(Edit: I don’t mean to say that if it’s not “ex-cathedra” we can just ignore it.)

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You need to be very cautious here. Your qualification if “new” probably makes you correct, but you seem to be inching pretty close to the position that we are only bound by infallible dogma.

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This sounds like a very North American phenomenon. In my 57 years of Catholic life I can say that I never heard the word infallible spoken of until the internet came along. Obedience and submission to the Pope was accepted based on Scripture and Tradition. There was never any debate about what was fallible and what was infallible teaching. I knew people that didn’t like Pope St John Paul II during his pontificate but that was never ascribed to him teaching fallible teachings.

Maybe that was your experience in the US but that is not the experience of Catholics outside the US.


I don’t mean to say that if it’s not “ex-cathedra” we can ignore it. I’m going to add that to my initial post in this thread. I apologize if my post sounded like that.


This kind of talk is very strange to me, since I find it to be very simple and clear, and very easy to get to.


Yeah, that’s like saying that the First Vatican Council is clear as mud!

Anyone can read the Documents of the First Vatican Council on Papal Infallibility - and Fr. Ripperger has sermons and a book that is very helpful.

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What I mean is this. Take at random any statement made by the Pope. Tell me if it is or is not infallable. You probably won’t be able to tell. Ask ten different people for their view, and you will get ten different answers.

Yeah. I think that’s because a lot of people think the Pope is infallible when he’s giving an interview on an airplane.

I see what you’re getting at.

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There is a legal standard:

Canon 749. §3. No doctrine is understood as defined infallibly unless this is manifestly evident.

Yves Congar op, a great theologian from the Council, coined the term “creeping infallibility” to describe the tendency to include more as infallible than Vatican I defined. Before he was Pope, Benedict XVI essentially added a whole new category of Church statements to the list of infallible doctrines, so this concern had a real basis in reality.

This creeping tendency is what we see in the OP. There is a legitimate respect that should be given to every papal teaching, from airplane chatter to formal declarations. Intensity varies the situation and the way the idea is presented. But there is a tendency to turn any demand for respect into a claim of infallibility. That the airplane chatter deserves some respect is true, but that does not mean that opinion should be written into a catechism. The footnote in AL deserves more respect than the airline chatter, but that does not mean it is infallible. Disagreement may be legitimate without being disrespectful.

There are problems with seeing everything as infallible. For conservatives it means that legitimately disagreeing with the pope somehow makes the pope an heretic. That path leads to disrespect. I am inclined to say that is less of a temptation for progressives, because they believe things can be changed. But the temptation to disrespect when you disagree is always strong.

The middle path, showing respect but knowing disagreement is allowed in most circumstances, is difficult, but is chosen by the vast majority of Catholics.

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I’m still struggling for an answer to one question… what if the pope renders something decreed as infallible, but it contradicts something that was already infallible?

This is a tricky part, which is why it’s been so controversial. A papal apostolic exhortation is considered part of the magisterium if the Church. It falls in that third category of non-infallible, but we owe it our religious assent. In other words, theologians and such may be able to debate such matters, but we ordinary Catholics are to follow the teaching even if we are not sure we understand or even agree with it. Now, does this include footnotes, which are typically supplied by an author to help interpret the meaning if a passage? Not clear.

Then the gates of hell will have prevailed, which . . . well, you know.

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