I need help from an informed Catholic. As a Methodist looking at a bit of Roman Catholic theology that I do not understand, I need someone to tell me where I am going wrong on my interpretation of Papal infallibility. I may well be confused, but if so I need to be told where and I even suspect others might share my puzzlement.
I must make it clear I am not speaking for the Methodist Church, no doubt some of my colleagues are much better informed on such matters. And yes, what follows is deliberately provocative in the hope I might be able to encourage some informed reaction. I don’t mind being put right. Others too might learn from the answer.
What I think I know about the statements the Pope makes on matter of doctrine concerning faith or morals is that some ( a very few) of the Pope’s statements are considered infallible and true for all time. I also believe that this doctrine of infallibility has gradually shaped up through the centuries, taking its present form surprisingly late with Pope Pius IX.
According to Vatican II not everything the Pope says is supposed to be regarded as infallible, but when certain conditions are met infallibility is deemed to be demonstrated. According to my understanding, there are five conditions for a Papal statement to be infallible.
The statement has to come from:
1. “the Roman Pontiff”
2. “in virtue of his office, when as the supreme shepherd and teacher of all the faithful, who confirms his brethren in their faith (cf. Lk 22:32),”
3. “by a definitive act, he proclaims”
4. “a doctrine of faith or morals” (“And this infallibility…in defining doctrine of faith and morals, extends as far as the deposit of revelation extends”)
5. “in accordance with revelation itself, which all are obliged to abide by and be in conformity with” (Lumen Gentium, n. 25).
When the teaching of the Pope meets these five criteria, then the teaching falls under Papal infallibility. All such teachings must be accepted as certainly true. All such teachings are considered the very same truths found, at least implicitly, in Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture. All such teachings are held to be the teachings of the Holy Spirit, who guarantees the truth of all infallible teachings of what they call the Magisterium. And all infallible teachings are irreformable; they are expressions of eternal truth and so cannot change.
This is where my problems start. When I look back in history I find some frankly dubious Popes and although they certainly expected that others would hear their statements as infallible, not all of the Popes who followed agreed.
I can follow why Catholics believe the Pope is infallible when he is following the correct procedures for making such statements from the Papal throne, but again as a non Catholic looking from outside, that previous errors of the so called infallible statements of Popes have been sometimes then contradicted by later Popes, surely this casts doubt on the divine right of the Pope to be right with such statements in the first place and even may cause us to wonder at the process by which papal infallibility came to be declared. In short the historical record makes the plausibility of the infallible claim seem difficult to defend.
In 1864, Pope Pius IX “infallibly” condemned the idea that people have a right to freedom of conscience and freedom of worship claiming it to be insane, depraved and evil. He also declared that non-Catholics who live in Catholic countries should not be allowed to practice their religion in public. In 1888, Pope Leo XIII also “infallibly” declared freedom of thought and freedom of worship are wrong. Let’s leave aside Pius IX’s personal reputation for which some Church historians challenge even his right to call himself infallible in the first place and accept for the present his infallible edict on freedom of worship.
Well, how come the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) produced a document entitled “Declaration on Religious Liberty” stating that all people have a right to freedom of religion. I happen to agree, not I hasten to add, because I am infallible, I just like the idea. Yet surely if the Catholic Church believes its own statements on Religious Liberty they are living a lie if they also say that the earlier Popes (Pius IX and Leo XIII were giving infallible statements on the same subject. I understood that to question the infallible statements of a previous Pope made the questioner a heretic and I guess in the eyes of a good number of the faithful that disqualifies the heretics from entering heaven. So do we have everyone who agreed with the Second Vatican Council a heretic? – including the Pope of the time who signed off the statement?
But the confusion deepens. Then we see that in 1988 Canon Law (no 1366) says that Catholic parents are to be punished with a “just penalty” if they allow their children to be baptised or educated in a non Catholic religion. What happened to freedom of religion from 1965? I hope the “just penalty” wasn’t the same one authorised by a previous Pope in the Inquisition or does a Papal Bull have a use-by date.
I can think other instances where Popes’ rulings were challenged by Popes who followed. For example prior to November 1, 1950, I understood any Catholic who believed in the Assumption of Mary would have been a heretic (because of “infallible” declarations of earlier Popes). For example Pope Gelasius decreed in 495 that this teaching was heresy and anyone caught promoting the idea should be treated as a heretic. Pope Hormisdas in the sixth century also condemned as heretics those authors who taught the doctrine of the Assumption of Mary. But after November 1, 1950, any Catholic who failed to believe in the Assumption of Mary was a heretic (because of the “infallible” declaration of Pope Pius XII). There are logical implications. I hope St Peter got the new orders in time for the next bunch waiting at the Pearly gates. And don’t get me started on Galileo and Darwin. I understand that in the 1990s the Pope had them forgiven for their heretical ideas.
What have I missed? I strongly suspect I must be leaving something important out. If so please tell me. Over to the experts.