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A Conversation with a Former Lutheran Pastor on Papal Infallibilty

May 31st, 2007
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I recently had an interesting exchange with a former Lutheran pastor, now a Roman Catholic layman, on the issue of Papal infallibility. Here is our conversation.

David, where would one find a comprehensive list of all
infallible pronouncements by the Popes? And, would this list of
infallible statements by Pope have to be, itself, infallible?

Wednesday, May 30, 2007 9:04:00 PM



           Schütz    said…    

  Ah, chuckle, chuckle, Pastor McCain. What a wag you are.

can give you a list of those papal pronouncements which are recognised
by all Catholics to undeniably meet the requirements for an infallible
definition of doctrine.

It is a disappointingly short list,
Paul. And to be precise, they are "declarations" of the "definition" of
dogma rather than "pronouncments".

The first was in the
Constitution Ineffabilis Deus of 8 December, 1854, when Pius IX
pronounced and defined that the Blessed Virgin Mary "in the first
instance of her conception, by a singular privilege and grace granted
by God, in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Saviour of the human
race, was preserved exempt from all stain of original sin."

second case was when Pope Pius XII dogmatically and infallibly defined
the teaching of the Assumption of Mary on 1 November 1950 in his
Apostolic Constitution Munificentissimus Deus.

This list can be
considered "infallible" because each case on the list "infallibly"
meets the requirements set out by the decree of the First Vatican which
defined the conditions under which such definitions must be considered
infallible. Identifying such cases is not difficult given the clear
requirements, and so there is unanimous consensus upon it. Even
non-Catholic (in fact, atheistic) historians agree on this list. It is
what you call an historical "fact".

Note that the 1854
definition was made before the 1870 definition of the dogma of Papal
Infallibility by the First Vatican Council, which proves that the dogma
is meant to define (ie. make definite and clear) already existing
teaching in the revealed deposit of faith, not make up new stuff.

Note too that the Pope himself did not define the doctrine of Infallibility, but an ecumenical council.

the teaching of the Catholic Church, Ecumenical Councils of Bishops,
when conducted in communion with the Bishop of Rome, share the same
ordinary infallibility as does the pope. A list of infallible
"pronouncements" of ecumenical councils would be much, much longer than
a papal list.

Then there are many other levels of magisterial
authority requiring different levels of assent by the faithful,
including the ordinary teaching of the local bishop. Bishops exercise
this authority whenever they preach, teach or basically open their
mouths. So I won’t try to give you a full list of such pronouncments



           Paul T. McCain    said…    

I’m not trying to be a smark alek when I ask this, but…given your
response to my request for a list of infallible declarations, is it
true then that the Popes did not speak infallibly before Vatican I. I’m
sincerely confused about this point.

Thursday, May 31, 2007 5:32:00 AM


           Schütz    said…    

  Dear Pastor McCain,

I defined the exact circumstances when the faithful were required to
regard a papal statement as "infallible". It was a very narrow and
precise definition. From the list I gave you, it is clear that exactly
HALF of the undisputed cases of infallible papal definitions occured
BEFORE Vatican I, so you see, the Vatican Council did not "create"
papal infallibility, but rather recognised that under certain
circumstances such was the case.

Between the Ancient and the
Modern eras, sad to say, we really didn’t have a great run of "Teaching
Popes". Just look at the list of papal Saints and you will see that
they peeter out at about the beginning of the Middle Ages and only
really come to life again after the abolition of the Papal States.
There is a thesis there somewhere. The Ancient Popes tended to exercise
their infallibility in their general teaching magisterium (a different
kind of exercise from the role of defining doctrine outlined by Vatican
I) and in their approval of the definitions of the Ecumenical Councils.
The modern situation is quite unique in the history of the Church in
terms of the number of disputed issues the Church is facing at once.
Short of having an Ecumenical Council in continual sitting, there has
to be some guidance of the Church from day to day. The papal
magisterium provides this.

I was thinking overnight about
cases in which popes and councils have erred–not in their actual
teaching, but rather in their judgement. For instance, and this answers
Dave’s (318@Nice) question, I believe that the 2nd Vatican Council made
a dreadful error of judgment in their overly optomistic estimation of
Western Society. Put it down to the fact that they were teachers of the
faith and not sociology! In the same way, I would say that Pope Paul VI
made a dreadful error of judgement in the 1969 Humanae Vitae. Not that
his doctrine was wrong–he was just defending what had been the
teaching of the Church for 1900+ years afterall–but his judgement was
wrong in that he thought he could just make a pronouncement and the
post-’68 Church would take it without any further explanation. We had
to wait for JPII and his "Theology of the Body" for a proper exposition
of the reasons behind Humanae Vitae–reasons that are only just
beginning to sink in now 40 years later.



           Schütz    said…    

Regarding Past Elders post on the Wiki article, it is generally
helpful. However it is important to note that there isn’t an automatic
NOT-IN-THE-SLIGHTEST-AUTHORITATIVE. There’s a clear gradation, and the
various terms employed by the Holy See for papal documents (eg.
Encyclical, Definition, Motu Proprio, Declaration, Constitution,
Homily, Interview etc.) all carry different levels of magisterial

And example of the use of such magisterial authority
is in John Paul II’s 1994 document "Ordinatio Sacerdotalis". This
document is interesting, because its final paragraph says:

in order that all doubt may be removed regarding a matter of great
importance, a matter which pertains to the Church’s divine constitution
itself, in virtue of my ministry of confirming the brethren (cf. Lk
22:32) I declare that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer
priestly ordination on women and that this judgment is to be
definitively held by all the Church’s faithful."

In saying that, it doesn’t say much more than the Lutheran Church of Australia said in its Theses of Agreement back in 1966:

women prophets were used by the Spirit of God in the Old as well as in
the New Testament, 1 Cor 14:34,365 and 1 Tim 2:11-14 prohibit a woman
from being called into the office of the public ministry for the
proclamation of the Word and the administration of the Sacraments. This
apostolic ruling is binding on all Christendom; hereby her rights as a
member of the spiritual priesthood are in no wise impaired. (Theses of
Agreement VI – Thesis on the Office of the Ministry VII, paragraph 11)

Synods of the LCA however decided not to count that statement as
infallible, ie. it was not binding upon them to observe this apostolic
ruling and it was allowable to vote on the issue (even though on both
occasions the vote was narrowly defeated).

To come back to Pope
John Paul II’s declaration, he clearly said that the position he
outlined was a "declaration" which was "to be definitively held by all
the Church’s faithful". Although it is an "Apostolic Letter" the use of
the terms "declare" and "definitive" are important. Moreover (and this
is the really good bit), this definitive declaration (which by its
nature includes a corresponding rejection or anathematising, Dave) is
not declaring the Pope’s AUTHORITY to do something, but rather his LACK
OF AUTHORITY to do something. In other words, what could look to some
as hubris (in the act of declaring and defining) what he is really
doing is humbly serving the very same "apostolic ruling" that the
founding fathers of the Lutheran Church of Australia sought to uphold.

in that sense we see the teaching authority of the Pope at its very
best: not in "making up new doctrines" (which was never and is never
the intention of a papal definition) but in "confirming the brethren"
in the faith of the Apostles.

I hope that makes things clearer for all. 

Thursday, May 31, 2007 12:16:00 PM



           Paul T. McCain    said…    

Thanks Dave. Even though I, obviously, can not concur with the claims
for Papal infallibility, I do very much appreciate understanding how
Roman Catholics understand it. Hope that makes sense. Would you say
your view represents the magisterium’s teaching on this?


           Schütz    said…    

  Dear Paul, my cherished brother in Christ,

has never been my intention to try to draw anyone away from their own
faith to the Catholic Church. But I do desire that all who voice
objections to the Catholic Faith have as clear as possible an
understanding of what the Church actually teaches, so that their
objection is based on fact rather than fiction. It may be that they are
as much in disagreement with the fact as the fiction, but it is my
guess that we will have moved a little closer to mutual understanding
and away from mutual ridicule.

Yes, I believe the position as
I have outlined it is faithful to the magisterium. As my blog title
says, it is my desire to "think with the Church" and therefore to
represent as best as I possibly can what is actually the magisterial
teaching of the Church rather than my personal opinion.



           Paul T. McCain    said…    

  Fair enough Dave. Thanks. 

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  1. May 31st, 2007 at 09:55 | #1

    Let us face it Pr. Paul, Dave’s exposition is not sunctioned by the infallible Magisterium so where to go? You got to hear it from the horse’s mouth (in a manner of speaking), right?. He believes it is faithful but, well,….
    The issue of authority in which he quoted the LCA’s struggle with women’s ordination boils down to this…
    Which is better, to be wrong but united (through the Pope) or to be right but divided (through conscience)?

  2. Josh S
    May 31st, 2007 at 11:52 | #2

    Schultz, according to Vatican IV.4.5, ecumenical councils are a function of the teaching office of the pope. Lumen Gentium reaffirms this teaching as well. Thus, it is simply inaccurate to say “the Pope himself did not define the doctrine of Infallibility.” The pope himself perhaps did not write the doctrine with his own pen, but the doctrine is established upon papal authority.
    Also, there certainly is no unity in Catholicism on what constitutes an infallible pronouncement. Is it only the revelation of new doctrines, or does it capture other instances of dogmatic definition as well? In a landmark decision on Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith ruled that yes, indeed, the claim that the Catholic Church cannot ordain women was couched in the language necessary for it to be the infallible discharge of the papal office. A council of Swiss bishops in 1871 also wrote that it does in fact cover all doctrinal definition in a pastoral instruction that Pius IX endorsed. Thus we can note that Ineffabilis Deus is not the first papal bull to use this kind of language. For example, in Unam Sanctam, Boniface VIII writes,
    “Furthermore, we declare, we proclaim, we define that it is absolutely necessary for salvation that every human creature be subject to the Roman Pontiff.”
    This language of declaration and definition is the same terminology that is generally regarded as giving Ineffabilis Deus ex cathedra status. There is no doubt that Boniface VIII considered himself to be doing the exact same sort of thing that Pius IX regarded himself to be doing: defining a doctrine to be held by all the faithful.
    It would seem to me that the Magisterium has the supreme right of interpreting what’s infallible and what’s not, not Catholic laymen or even university theologians.

  3. May 31st, 2007 at 23:24 | #3

    I am the Past Elder referred to in the exchange. (There’s a switch — posting under my real name, giving my screen name.)
    In the Wikipedia article I recommended both there and here, it points out there is no Vatican list of all infallible pronouncements. It mentions two lists, however. One is by two Curial officials, one of them now Benedict XVI, from 1998, but also points out the list itself does not hold itself to be complete but simply a list of clear instances of such promouncements. The other is a list by church historian Klaus Schatz in 1988, which has no official weight.
    Infallibility itself, like anything else held to be infallibly pronounced, from a Catholic viewpoint is not the creation of a new doctrine, but a clarification of something already in the Apostolic Deposit of Faith, brought into formal binding doctrinal clarity as a response to an urgent matter of faith at the time. In other words, infallibility itself is not new, but the doctrinal clarification of it is. Therefore, statements before the clarification in 1870 exist but will have to be identified retrospectively by applying the criteria defined to them, as well as their presence in other pronouncements that bear the infallibility of the Church, such as those of the ordinary teaching authority (magisterium) or councils of the entire (ecumenical) church.
    As an example, the proclamation of the Immaculate Conception of Mary in 1854 by Piux IX. It does not declare that Mary uniquely was not in need of a Saviour, but the she was by the special grace of God pre-redeemed by the merit of the Son she would bear, so that she came into the world without the stain of original sin and would therefore be able to bear a Son who was indeed sinless, not in need of a Saviour being the Saviour himself. This is held to be not a new doctrine, but an elevation to formal declaration of something already in the Faith that comes to us from the Apostles. And why would this only then be made clear in 1854? Because at the time ideas were gaining ascendancy that Man was not a creation of God who fell into original sin and therefore needs salvation, which would culminate but not originate with Darwin’s On the Origin of the Species in 1859, and that Man is not a sinful creature incapable of his own salvation but is perfectible over time, through especially the historically inevitable principle of class stuggle, given classic expression in the Communist Manifesto of Marx in 1848. In other words, God in his wisdom waited until the emergence of ideas that, so to speak, everyone is immaculately conceived, to use the charism of infallibility to formally define that no, only one person was immaculately conceived, and even she by the application in advance of the same merit than anyone is saved, that of her Son Jesus.
    Or as Bishop Sheen used to put it more jocularly — I don’t know why anyone would find the Immaculate Conception of Mary so hard to understand since we all naturally think we are immaculately conceived ourselves.
    As a Lutheran, I find it interesting that a similar line of argument was used by my pastor when I was in WELS to explain the difference between WELS and LCMS on the Office of Holy Ministry in the work of the Wauwatosa theologians — that they did not teach anything new, but provided new and needed clarity to what was already believed. (Which of course as an LCMS layman I do not accept either.)

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