Papal Infallibility: A Protestant Evaluation of an Ecumenical Issue
by Mark E. Powell
Eerdmans, 226 pages, $40
Everyone, popes included, admits that the Catholic doctrine of papal infallibility represents a major stumbling block to ecumenical relations. Paul VI, for example, said in 1967, “We are aware that the pope is undoubtedly the greatest obstacle in the path of ecumenism.” And, in his 1995 encyclical Ut Unum Sint, John Paul II invited non-Catholic Christians to suggest ways in which the exercise of papal authority could be made more ecumenically palatable.
Mark Powell, a Protestant theologian at Harding University in Memphis, has answered that call with an examination of four major Catholic theologians whose interpretations of papal infallibility range from maximalist to minimalist. Powell’s Papal Infallibility examines in particular the cardinals Henry Manning, John Henry Newman, and Avery Dulles and ends with Hans Küng’s outright denial of the doctrine.
The discussion is substantive and often illuminating. Occasional errors, however, do seep in. For example, Powell translates St. Augustine’s principle Securus judicat orbis terrarum as “Let him who is secure judge the world,” when it really means, “The world is secure in its judgment.” But much more worrisome is his idiosyncratic definition of infallibility as a “belief-producing mechanism,” a most unhappy coinage that distorts the Catholic understanding of this doctrine from the outset. Leaving aside the infelicitous analogy of the Church’s teaching office to a machine, infallibility has never been understood by Catholics as something that produces new doctrines but only as a charism of office that confirms already existing doctrine, very much including the doctrine of papal infallibility itself. Powell even quotes the Anglican historian Owen Chadwick’s A History of the Popes: 1830–1914 to that effect: “The people wanted this doctrine,” says Chadwick. “No one should think it was forced upon the simple people by the hierarchs.”
Still, Powell is surely right in his larger point: Papal infallibility does not operate in a vacuum but is connected with wider issues of religious epistemology. While most believers, one assumes, entertain doubts from time to time about their faith ( fides qua), what they have faith in must be perduringly true ( fides in).
In the first three centuries of the Reformation, Protestants located that perennial truth of revelation in the certainty of their sola scriptura principle, with its correlate that Scripture must also be perspicuous in its meaning to all believers, no matter how simple or unlettered. Catholics immediately pointed to the immense variety of conflicting interpretations of the Bible within Protestant denominations to refute that claim. John Milton, for example, when his own marriage broke down, managed the deft trick of claiming that Christ’s prohibition of divorce was really permission to divorce, which prompted the Catholic poet John Dryden to pen the mordant lines: The Book, thus put in every vulgar hand, / . . . each presumed he best could understand.
Of course, Catholics have their different interpretations about papal infallibility too, just as Protestants (and Catholics) dispute the meaning of Scripture. Contemporary Catholic debate about infallibility centers on such questions as: What is its range? When has it actually been exercised? And how are infallible statements, once made, to be interpreted? The fact that these questions have no immediately certain answers leads Powell to the conclusion that “various Catholic theologians have interpreted the doctrine of papal infallibility differently, a fact that actually supports the claim that papal infallibility cannot bring religious epistemic certainty.”
Furthermore, for Powell, the lateness of Vatican I’s decree on papal infallibility undermines the role claimed for it: “The only options, then, appear to be papal infallibility and skepticism. However, this claim is highly doubtful, especially given the relatively late definition of papal infallibility and the orthodox character of numerous Christian communities that deny the doctrine.”
Cardinal Newman, for one, would dispute these points. As he said in his last book before being received into the Catholic Church, his famous Essay on the Development of Doctrine (1845): “By the Church of England a hollow uniformity is preferred to an infallible chair; and by the sects of England an interminable division. Germany and Geneva began with persecution and have ended in skepticism. The doctrine of infallibility is a less violent hypothesis than this sacrifice either of faith or of charity.” In other words, some Protestant bodies might well be orthodox (in the broad sense of the word), but for Newman they will not be able to remain so in the long term.
Leaving aside these controversies, one feature of the intra-Catholic debate about infallibility does emerge from Powell’s careful examination. It has now become simply impossible for Catholics to take a maximalist view of the scope of the pope’s charism of infallibility. In fact, one reason the doctrine was defined so late in Church history is that the popes in the high Middle Ages (in a telling irony) opposed the doctrine as then proposed. No surprise there, really, because the version then mooted would have drastically limited the pope’s authority. For example, all prior papal stipulations in canon law would have been rendered irreformable.
Even maximalists at Vatican I eventually came to recognize the impossibility of their position. Cardinal Manning, for example, had a keen sense of social justice and was adulated by the working classes of England for his defense of their rights. Animated by that same burning zeal for justice, he vigorously supported a rent strike by Irish tenant farmers—who were living at the time in appalling conditions—against their Protestant landlords. But in April 1888, Leo XIII condemned the strike as a violation of contract, which left Manning feeling truly whipsawed.
So, in the face of this contradiction between his maximalism and his dismay at the pope’s ruling, he had no choice but to adopt Newman’s more minimalist interpretation. “The Decree of Leo XIII was absolutely true, just, and useful,” Manning said in painful embarrassment. “But in the abstract. The condition of Ireland is abnormal. The Decree contemplates facts which do not exist....Pontiffs have no infallibility in the world of facts, except only dogmatic. The [rent strike] is not a dogmatic fact, and it is one thing to declare that all legal agreements are binding, and another to say that all agreements in Ireland are legal.” This was exactly Newman’s view in his Letter to the Duke of Norfolk (1874): “But a pope is not infallible in his laws, nor in his commands, nor in his acts of state, nor in his administration, nor in his public policy. Let it be observed that the Vatican Council has left him just as it found him here.”
In fact, Manning had already abandoned his earlier maximalism, however reluctantly, when he finally came to see the hand of providence at work in the dissolution of the Papal States in the wake of the Italian Risorgimento. Part of the debate over infallibility at Vatican I was whether its decree rendered Pius IX’s Syllabus Errorum (1864) retroactively infallible. Fortunately, the answer was no, because one of the “errors” condemned by the Syllabus was that the pope does not need the Papal States in order to govern the Church. But no sooner had Vatican I decided in July 1870 to define papal infallibility as obligatory doctrine than the pope lost his Papal States that September, prompting this tart remark from Newman: “The decision of July involved the dethronement of September.”
Avery Dulles also shared Newman’s (and eventually Manning’s) moderate views but went further by placing infallibility inside the transcendence of God’s revelation over against all human formulations of doctrine, very much including infallible ones. As he said in A Church to Believe In: “Dogmas must be seen as human formulations of the Word of God, formulations not undialectically identified with the revelation they transmit.”
Moreover, the charism of infallibility is purely negative, meaning that an infallible doctrine is merely preserved from error but is still open to later reformulation, a point he made in A Resilient Church: “Infallibility does not demand that a given formulation of the truth be always and everywhere imposed, but only that it be not directly contradicted. It means that when the Church, through its highest teaching office, defines a truth pertaining to revelation, divine providence, working through a multiplicity of channels, will preserve the Church from error. But it may well be necessary, as generations pass, to reinterpret the defined dogma in accordance with the presuppositions, thought categories, concerns, and vocabulary of a later age.”
In Powell’s taxonomy, Manning counts as a maximalist and Newman and Dulles as moderates. He calls Küng a minimalist, but that seems a misnomer, as the famously liberal Swiss Catholic denies the doctrine outright. But whatever the terminology, I found it fascinating that Powell shows little sympathy for Küng’s views, and in fact he quotes favorably Karl Rahner, who called Küng a liberal Protestant for whom both Scripture and councils make no absolute claims. Thus, says Rahner, “We can no longer consider the controversy over Küng’s thesis . . . as an intra-Catholic theological controversy.”
In Ut Unum Sint, John Paul II openly proclaimed his Petrine ministry to be one of promoting Christian unity: “I am convinced that I have a particular responsibility in this regard, above all in acknowledging the ecumenical aspirations of the majority of the Christian communities and in heeding the request made of me to find a way of exercising the primacy which, while in no way renouncing what is essential to its mission, is nonetheless open to a new situation.”
In a contemporary setting in which ecumenism has, it seems, lost so much of its steam, Mark Powell has opened up new vistas in his response to the pope’s call. His book, to be sure, is hardly the last word on the topic, as I am sure the author would admit.
But through his careful survey of both the history of the doctrine and its manifold interpretations in Catholic theology, he has given an overview of the available meanings of papal infallibility from which both Catholics and Protestants will gain new vigor in the search for full Christian unity.
Edward T. Oakes, S.J., teaches theology at the University of St. Mary of the Lake, the seminary for the Archdiocese of Chicago, and is a member of Evangelicals and Catholics Together.