Rethinking papal infallibility

  • October 16, 2008
{mosimage}TORONTO - For 138 years the dogma of papal infallibility has inspired waves of harsh condemnation and deep suspicion from other Christians. The irony is that the church approved this teaching in the name of church unity.

Margaret O’Gara, president of the Catholic Theological Society of America and professor of systematic theology at the University of St. Michael’s College, has been thinking about papal infallibility more than 30 years. She thinks it’s time to rethink what the dogma means, and how Catholics put it into practice.
"From inside Catholic theology itself, infallibility needs rethinking," O'Gara told an audience at the University of Toronto's Newman Centre chapel Oct. 1. "It needs rethinking as well for the sake of ecumenical dialogue."

By rethinking papal infallibility, O'Gara doesn't mean getting rid of it.

"Infallibility, suitably rethought  and re-understood, is an important teaching about God's assistance to the church in preserving the core of the Gospel," she said.

But non-Roman Catholics don't think the church needs papal infallibility to learn this lesson.

"The notion that one of the bishops had a degree of power over the others was something that is felt was not part of the tradition we have received," said Orthodox professor of Eastern Christian studies Rev. John Jillions at Saint Paul University in Ottawa.

The Orthodox already believe that the Holy Spirit is there to help the church preserve the core of the Gospel. Why that should translate into a system that has one bishop replace the consensus of bishops thinking, acting and praying together mystifies and unsettles Orthodox believers, from ordinary lay people to professors of theology, said Jillions.

"There is a certain suspicion," he said.

For a strongly traditional Anglican like Scripture scholar Rev. Gregory Bloomquist, also at Saint Paul University, papal infallibility turns the Tiber into razor wire.

"Church history has led us to believe there are some questions about a single person's leadership. I believe in the college of bishops at one, in unity with the Apostles," he said. "I have some question about what that would look like if there were only one, given human weakness."

While the 1870 declaration of papal infallibility at Vatican I may have made it seem the pope was replacing the authority of councils, Vatican II makes it clear that was not the case, according to O'Gara.

"Vatican II taught that the whole church is infallible because all the members are anointed by the Holy Spirit," she said. "The whole church eventually recognizes whether or not a teaching by the pope or bishops or a council is really an announcement of the Gospel."

When she talks about the whole church, O'Gara doesn't mean just Catholics.

"Taking reception by the whole church seriously also means taking seriously the perspectives and criticism of Anglicans, Protestants and Orthodox," she said.

Theologian and Cardinal Avery Dulles has argued that the development of papal infallibility over the last two centuries is the reasonable response of the church to an increasingly globalized Christianity. It is logical that God's gift of infallibility to the whole church should come to expression in the person of the pope expressly because he is the sign of church unity, according to Dulles.

"The contemporary world situation, as I understand it, demands a successor of Peter who, with the divine assistance, can teach and direct the entire people of God. The Petrine office, as it has developed since Vatican II, has a unique capacity to hold all local and regional churches in dialogue while reaching out in loving service to all," Dulles wrote in America,the Jesuit magazine, in July  2000.

The separated brethren have heard the Vatican II talk about collegiality and reception, but they're waiting for more than just words, said Jillions.

"Vatican I is a problem," he said. "The Catholic Church has shown itself at least able to reinterpret. It has a difficulty with having Vatican I still on the books. How it deals with that, the Orthodox are going to be watching very carefully."

A past member of the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission, a member of the Lutheran-Roman Catholic International Commission on Unity and a contributor to various other official ecumenical dialogues, O'Gara is well aware of how pope-centred Catholicism makes non-Catholics nervous. O'Gara believes the problem is not the dogma of infallibility but its confusion with the pope's role in governing the church.

Confusing the two has led to an "infallibilizing style" and "creeping infallibility," O'Gara said. When Catholics try to apply the category of infallibility to every theological statement or opinion that falls from Rome they create problems, she said.

"We risk making the church and its teachings into an object of derision. It becomes unbelievable."

For the Anglican Bloomquist the infallibilizing style has made the whole question of papal primacy opaque.

"There's an apostolic identity there, but it does not accrue to one (individual). It accrues to the college, the collegium, to the co-readers who are called bishops in God's holy catholic church," said Bloomquist. "I don't exactly know what that entails for belief " primacy of the pope."

On the Orthodox side believers are quite comfortable with the historical precedents for  papal primacy.

"Rome definitely had primacy in the ancient church. That was recognized in the East. So that is not the issue," said Jillions. "The issue is the form which it later took. From the Eastern point of view, it neglected the conciliar element."

A philosophical shift took place at Vatican II which hasn't quite found a concrete form in how the Catholic church behaves, said O'Gara. While Vatican I ignored history and held fast to a classicist ideal of immutable truths, Vatican II recognized that in the course of history language, culture and circumstance all change. That doesn't mean that there aren't immutable truths to which the church must hold fast, only that those truths will have to find new language and new ways of being applied from time to time.

"Words and formulations are not infallible," said O'Gara. "We often read about infallible statements or infallible teachings, but actually I think these are both misnomers. Even Vatican I in the 19th century does not speak of infallible statements. It does not use the words ‛infallible teachings.' It rather speaks of infallible persons."

But recognizing this doesn't get around the problems of "erzatz infallibility," and a "papal style (that) seems infallible even when papal teaching is not."

"How can the pope or others with pastoral responsibility teach with authority without always invoking or seeming to invoke infallibility?" O'Gara asks.

She doesn't claim to have a final answer, but O'Gara believes any serious answer starts with an examination of how the church receives papal teaching.

"Reception is part of the process of infallibility," she said.

On the sidelines of the Catholic discussion, Orthodox and other non-Catholic Christians are waiting to see how such a process plays out.

"There is a wait-and-see " let's see what happens on the ground," said Jillions. "How far that trickles into the Vatican and actual church life."

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