Overcoming the History and Failings of Papal Infallibility

Overcoming the History and Failings of Papal Infallibility

Infallibility was a “nineteenth-century novelty” gone wrong

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 matter?

As Küng has stated, the doctrine of papal infallibility has overshadowed and impacted many key challenges and issues that have divided the Catholic Church. In the nineteenth century, this doctrine became the bedrock of papal power and of ecclesial centralization in Rome. However, this helped bring about a situation where some popes became fearful of being seen to contradict their predecessors, and some Church leaders became reluctant to admit that Church teachings (doctrines) undergo development and change over time.

Out of fear, ignorance, or confusion, theologians and Church leaders alike have tiptoed around the issue of infallibility and have missed countless opportunities for honest and open discussion and debate on Church matters of fundamental importance. The result: much Catholic theology and even Church teachings all too often became timid, and at times seemed irrelevant, to the needs of today’s world.

This forced and misleading sense of timeless continuity has particularly straitjacketed much Church life and theological inquiry in the decades since Küng’s 1971 book. It has led to the persecution and isolation of scholars and pastoral servants of the Church and to a period dominated by fear and control. It has led to generations of Catholics growing up with an erroneous understanding of aspects of their faith because they were told that modern innovations and glosses were actually centuries-old “traditional” components of Catholicism. It has also been a major stumbling block for ecumenical relations.

And yet the doctrine of infallibility is largely misunderstood by the vast majority of Catholics—even among all too many theologians and scholars.

During the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the Roman Catholic Church experienced a loss of its temporal power. Revolutions in intellectual, social, and cultural life also impacted the Church’s authority and influence (including from internal movements and theological ideas, as well as from the advance of liberalism and secularism beyond the Church). To counterbalance these challenges, key Church authorities decided to emphasize the spiritual and doctrinal authority of the pope and Rome in stark and uncompromising terms.

But the manner in which papal infallibility came to be understood was, in many ways, a nineteenth-century novelty. Even at the First Vatican Council (1869 to 1870), the bishops who attended were deeply divided over the issue of papal infallibility. Nonetheless, even that council framed its final understanding of the doctrine in the most guarded and qualified of terms.

Yet, in the century that followed, many people erroneously confused infallibility either with qualities enjoyed by the person of the pope himself, and/or by the Church teachings themselves. From there it was a short step to thinking that everything a pope said had to be accepted without challenge, and that teachings could never be questioned or modified.

Küng is surely right that the time has come to “re-vision” this doctrine. Indeed, I would suggest the time has come to reimagine and reenvision the entire system of ecclesiastical magisterium—how Catholic Church teaching authority is understood and practiced. Revisiting and reimagining the notion of infallibility will form a vital part of such an overhaul of the entire magisterial system—something necessary in order for the Church to flourish in its global and constructive gospel mission today and long into the future.

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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