In AD 866, Pope St. Nicholas I condemned the use of torture for extracting confessions as a violation of divine law. He was contradicted when Innocent IV (who had somewhat less rigid views on the morality of torture) approved its use by the Inquisition in 1252.

Cases like these were once grist for the mill of anti-Catholic pamphleteers—papal contradictions allegedly disproving the dogma of papal infallibility. Well catechised Catholics knew how to respond: Catholics believe the pope is infallible, yes, but only when defining dogma ex cathedra. Innocent IV was simply wrong. As Benedict XVI put it shortly after his election to the papacy, “the Pope is not an oracle; he is infallible in very rare situations.”

It’s a basic point of doctrine overlooked in a series of articles by Stephen Walford on Amoris Laetitia, published by Vatican Insider (here, here, here, and here).

Walford’s claim is that pontiffs possess a “charism” of infallibility not just when defining dogma, but in their ordinary magisterial teaching—with magisterial teaching encompassing everything said as pope, from encyclicals to private correspondence. Walford argues that Amoris Laetitia, and the reception of Holy Communion by divorced and remarried Catholics that it appears to license (as Pope Francis indicates in a letter to Argentine bishops), in fact “derives from Christ himself.”

The obvious objection to this is that if Francis intends to allow remarried divorcees to receive Communion, he contradicts what John Paul II taught in Familiaris Consortio (1981). Francis may be right, and his predecessor mistaken. Or they could both be wrong. But at least one pope is wrong; as a matter of simple logic, contradictory claims cannot both be true.

Presumably to overcome this objection, Walford invokes a theory of doctrinal development according to which “popes are guided to exercise their ministry in differing ways depending on the circumstances of each era.” Life has “changed drastically since 1981,” he opines, and therefore “what the Spirit was saying to [Francis] through that special charism of assistance” differs from what he said to John Paul.

Walford claims (through a highly dubious interpretation of a letter issued in 1975 by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith) that in some cases remarried Catholics could lawfully receive Communion during the 1970s. When the pieces of the puzzle are slotted together, Walford’s argument—a surreal burlesque of Catholic teaching—seems to be that the Holy Spirit told us in 1975 that it was acceptable for divorced and remarried Catholics to receive communion, completely changed his mind only six years later, reaffirmed that decision in 2007, and then only nine years after that completely changed his mind again, returning to something like the position he held between 1975 and 1981.

This is a long way from the traditional idea of papal infallibility. As Brian Tierney has argued in Origins of Papal Infallibility, 1150-1350, the doctrine was originally conceived as a bridle—preventing popes from contradicting their predecessors—rather than a permission to alter established doctrines and practices. Put another way, it was a way of re-affirming—against the backdrop of an increasingly powerful medieval papacy—Catholic belief in the definitive and final nature of Christian revelation, by which the papacy, too, is bound.

Walford, by contrast, follows a modern trend, transforming papal infallibility from restraint into superpower. Though it is true that infallibility is a grace that functions similarly to a “charism (in the sense that it is given to some within the Church for the sake of others), it does not enable popes, for example, actively to produce doctrine in the way the charism of prophecy empowers a prophet to bring forth prophecies. Infallibility (freedom from theological error) is not the same as divine inspiration. It is not the same as the ability to speak prudently, or teach doctrine clearly and coherently (though the Church benefits enormously if a pope also has these skills).

During debates about papal infallibility at the First Vatican Council, there was contention over how to handle the case of Pope Honorius (625-638), who had favoured the Monothelite heresy. The Third Council of Constantinople (680-681) anathematized Honorius, an anathema repeated by Pope St Leo II (682-683), the Second Council of Nicaea (787), and the Fourth Council of Constantinople (869-870).

The maximalist bishops at Vatican I—proponents of the view that all papal teaching was infallible—tried denying that Honorius was a heretic. The Greek version of Pope Leo II’s letter confirming the decrees of Constantinople III says that Honorius “did not attempt to sanctify this Apostolic Church with the teaching of Apostolic tradition, but by profane treachery permitted its purity to be polluted.” The implication, maximalists argued, was not that Honorius taught heresy, but that he had been negligent in extirpating the heresies of others.

The problem with this view was that Constantinople III cited a letter written by Honorius to the Monothelite bishop Sergius, noting that “in all respects” Honorius had “followed [Sergius’s] view and confirmed his impious doctrines.” In other words, although Honorius was not the instigator of the heresy, he adhered to it. That Leo II agreed with this version of events can be inferred not only from his letter confirming the conciliar Acts, but from the fact that he ordered the Acts themselves to be translated into Latin and signed by Western bishops.

The facts surrounding Honorius’s condemnation sounded the death knell for maximalism at Vatican I. If the maximalists had succeeded in proving that Honorius was not a heretic, it would have meant three ecumenical councils and several popes were incapable of correctly identifying heresy, and had erred dramatically. Either way, the facts of history turned the maximalist position into a self-refuting proposition.

That maximalism was not the teaching of Vatican I is shown also by the four-hour speech (the longest of the Council) given by Vinzenz Gasser, the Prince-Bishop of Brixen and spokesman for the commission which had drawn up the conciliar texts. “In no sense,” Gasser asserts, can the Pope's infallibility be “absolute,” since it has been “restricted by limitations and conditions, as set forth in the definition.” The pope doesn't teach infallibly merely by speaking “as supreme pastor and teacher”—“there must be the intention manifested of defining a doctrine, or of putting an end to controversy on some doctrine, by giving a definitive sentence.” Such an intention is manifest only when the pope speaks in such a way that “every one of the faithful can be certain of the mind of the Roman Pontiff.” Emanations of penumbras divined by liberal augurs in an obscure footnote that the Pope claims to have forgotten do not—pace Walford—clear that high bar.

After Vatican I, a few bishops who had opposed the definition, such as the Hungarian Cardinal Haynold, refused to accept the dogma without openly contradicting it. A few others, such as Archbishop Kenrick of St. Louis, submitted obediently but did not actively teach the doctrine. But most of those who had opposed maximalism—Bishop Greith of St. Gall, Archbishop von Scherr of Munich, Archbishop Melchers of Cologne, Bishop Eberhard of Trier—not only accepted the definition, but actively promoted it. They understood the final definition of papal infallibility to be categorically different from the maximalism they opposed—which Walford and others seem keen to revive.

What was it that the maximalists of the 1870s wanted? In his book Faith of Our Fathers: Reflections on Catholic Tradition, Eamon Duffy observes:

The nineteenth century Ultramontanes...yearned for history without bewilderment or tears, and looked to…the magisterium as the mouthpiece of tradition, for a living oracle which could short-circuit human confusion and limitation: it was and is the attempt to confront the uncertainties of our age with instant assurance, revelation on tap.

The problem is that locating the justification for papal infallibility in the human need for certainty, in psychology rather than theology, dispenses with the limitations that the Catholic tradition sees as intrinsic to papal authority. The gift of infallibility flows not from our need for certainty, which is as unlimited as the human capacity to create controversy, but from God’s desire that we know with certitude those truths necessary for our salvation. The gift of infallibility is the condition of possibility for the existence of a Church that continues Christ’s teaching mission. The hierarchical nature of the Church means that this gift is not exercised by all equally, but by some in a singular way. But it is not a magic spell enabling those who attain sufficient ecclesiastical rank to make true what is not already part of God’s definitive revelation in Christ—or to make untrue what is

Responding to a question about the Messianic expectations surrounding him, Pope Francis says: “I am a sinner and I am fallible, and we must not forget that the idealization of a person is always also a subliminal type of aggression.” This is kindly understatement. Those with honest concerns about Amoris Laetitia have been dubbed mentally ill and apostate. A peculiar reflection in Australia’s Catholic Weekly even attempts to draw connections between critics of Amoris and support for mass murder. Whatever the unhinged aggression of the pope’s self-appointed Praetorian Guard is, it is not “subliminal.” But perhaps—whatever he might think about Holy Communion for the remarried—the Holy Father has a more traditionally Catholic view of the limits of his own office than some of his supporters.

Aaron Taylor is a research student in theology at Oxford University.

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