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Overcoming the History and Failings of Papal Infallibility

Infallibility was a “nineteenth-century novelty” gone wrong

Illustration of swan in bondage

Saint Swan by Betony Coons

In March of this year, the Swiss Catholic theologian Hans Küng wrote an open letter to Pope Francis asking the pontiff to allow “a free, unprejudiced and open-ended discussion in our church of all the unresolved and suppressed questions connected with the infallibility dogma.” This is not the first time that Küng has sought to encourage open and frank discussion of the doctrine of papal infallibility. He did so in a famous 1971 book and, in large part due to this book, was eventually deprived of his license to teach as a Catholic theologian by the Vatican. This year is different. A month after he sent his open letter to the pope, Küng reported that Francis responded both personally and positively to his appeal. This led Küng to say that he would take up the debate on infallibility once again, but in the spirit of collaboration, collegiality, and freedom that Francis has made possible. Could it be that Küng’s lifelong efforts to encourage constructive and ecumenically oriented reforms in the Catholic Church are finally getting the serious attention they merit? And why does this matt …

Dr. Mannion holds the Joseph and Winifred Amaturo Chair in Catholic Studies at Georgetown University. This piece was adapted from Sightings, a publication of the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.

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