Sunday, October 14, 2012

Historian Brian Tierney on Papal Infallibility

"If the popes have always been infallible in any meaningful sense of the word--if their official pronouncements as heads of the church on matters of faith and morals have always been unerring and so irreformable--then all kinds of dubious consequences ensue. Most obviously, twentieth century popes would be bound by a whole array of past papal decrees reflecting the responses of the Roman church to the religious and moral problems of former ages . . . To defend religious liberty would be 'insane' and to persecute heretics commendable. Judicial torture would be licit and the taking of interests on loans a mortal sin. The pope would rule by divine right 'not only the universal church but the whole world.' Unbaptized babies would be punished in Hell for all eternity. Maybe the sun would still be going around the earth. All this is impossible of course. No one understands the fact better than modern theologians of infallibility. If past popes have always been infallible--again, we must add, in any meaningful sense of the word--then present popes are hopelessly circumscribed in their approaches to all the really urgent moral problems of the twentieth century, problems involving war, sex, scientific progess, state power, social obligations, and individual liberties . . . Real infallibility has regrettable implications. In the years since 1870, therefore, theologians have devoted much ingenuity to devising a sort of pseudo-infallibility for the pope, a kind of Pickwickian infallibility" (Tierney, Origins of Papal Infallibility: 1150-1350, pages 2-3).

5 comments:

aservantofJehovah said...

"Other people wonder how infalliblity could exist if some popes disagreed with others.This,too,shows an inaccurate understanding of infallibility,which applies only to solemn,official teachings on faith and morals,not to disciplinary decisions or even to unofficial comments on faith and morals.A pope's private theological opinions are not infallibility,only what he solemnly defines is considered to be infallible teaching"Catholic.com.I find this an interesting spin on the issue.The crux of the matter then is finding an objective manner for determining what is/is not an official pronouncement,unless this can be achieved,there is going to be much shifting of the goalpost.At the risk of sounding cynical 'shifting the goalposts'might be the idea.

Edgar Foster said...

Technically, infallibility only applies to pronouncements that involve doctrines or morals, as your source notes. These are so-called ex cathedra utterances. This has the effect of greatly limiting what counts as being infallible speech from the papal chair. But it's still a high bar to meet. See the Vatican statement of 1870 for more on papal infallibility.

Edgar Foster said...

Tierney has also been called a "professed Catholic historian" by his critics. He is a staunch critic of papal infallibility.

aservantofJehovah said...

Is there some standard by which official pronouncements are distinguished from(as the passage put it)'a pope's private theological opinions'?

Edgar Foster said...

The only standards I know are that the pope must be speaking ex cathedra ("from the chair") which means that he is making pronouncements in his official capacity as universal shepherd. Official pronouncements also involve statements concerning faith and morals. Here is how the Catholic Encyclopedia states matters:

The First Vatican Council has defined as "a divinely revealed dogma" that "the Roman Pontiff, when he speaks ex cathedra -- that is, when in the exercise of his office as pastor and teacher of all Christians he defines, by virtue of his supreme Apostolic authority, a doctrine of faith or morals to be held by the whole Church -- is, by reason of the Divine assistance promised to him in blessed Peter, possessed of that infallibility with which the Divine Redeemer wished His Church to be endowed in defining doctrines of faith and morals; and consequently that such definitions of the Roman Pontiff are irreformable of their own nature (ex sese) and not by reason of the Church's consent" --Infallibility at the Catholic Encyclopedia [1913]