Infallibility, Ideology, and the Road to Ecclesial Harmony

Vatican I infallibly defined papal infallibility, and given some of its side-effects, one might be forgiven for thinking that St. John Henry Newman was looking forward to our own day, not lamenting his own, when he wrote his famous “Letter to [Bishop William Bernard] Ullathorne”:

When we are all at rest, and have no doubts, and at least practically, not to say doctrinally, hold the Holy Father to be infallible, suddenly there is thunder in the clear sky, and we are told to prepare for something we know not what to try our faith we know not how. No impending danger is to be averted, but a great difficulty is to be created . . . . What have we done to be treated, as the faithful never were treated before? When has [the] definition of doctrine de fide been a luxury of devotion, and not a stern painful necessity?[1]

Newman had no issue with the truth of the doctrine. In fact, he had already publicly embraced it. But he had many concerns about how the faithful might falsely exaggerate its scope out of misguided piety. W.G. Ward, one of Newman’s most zealous followers, and later one of his most aggressive critics, would do precisely that, extending the scope of infallibility to include encyclicals and even papal addresses and speeches. “I would like a new papal Bull every morning with my Times at breakfast” he once declared.[2] (When Newman was made a cardinal by Leo XIII, he would write to an Anglican friend that “the cloud has been lifted from me forever . . . . Poor Ward can no longer call me a heretic.”[3]

“Omniscience cannot be limited to a restricted group of questions; in its very nature it implies the knowledge of all, and infallibility means omniscience.”[4] This false allegation of the nineteenth-century anti-Catholic propagandist Andrew Dickson White might seem to far too many Catholics of the twenty-first century to be an obligation of Catholic orthodoxy. Far too many educated Catholics strive to preserve their orthodoxy by treating all papal announcements as infallibly defined, with “infallibly defined” understood in a way that is “rigid, documentary and static.”[5] No distinction is made between Vatican II’s obsequium religiosum, a “religious submission of mind and will” (understood by Francis Sullivan and Avery Dulles as “an honest and sustained effort to overcome any contrary opinion I might have, even when that effort is unsuccessful”) and the “obedience of faith,” as if such distinctions are nothing more than dangerous niceties. What looks like robust doctrinal adherence becomes, at the worst, quasi-schismatic ideology.

As a theologian who believes in infallibility (and I do, wholeheartedly, because I believe in Christ and the Holy Spirit[6]), it is clear to me that the only way back to orthodox ecclesial unity of mind and heart is to take the hard road of delving more deeply into two important magisterial texts. The first and most important is an oft-neglected Vatican I document, buried deep in the acta but unearthed by the Daughters of St. Paul in 1986 and then again by Fr. James T. O’Connor in 2008. It is the official relatio of Bishop Vincent Gasser on what the definition of papal infallibility means (and does not mean). The definition of papal infallibility at Vatican I was one of the most hotly contested matters at the Council, and it was Gasser who broke the deadlock. His speech was cited four times by Vatican II when it repeated the doctrine of papal infallibility in Lumen Gentium, the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church.

The second is more recent: the 1973 document Mysterium Ecclesiae of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith responding to the rejection of papal infallibility by Hans Kung in his 1971 book Infallible? An Inquiry. This document explains how to read dogmatic definitions in such a way that they are not frozen wells in which theological reflection is paralyzed and no more needs to be said, but vital wellsprings which, when carefully interpreted and properly understood, lead forward to deeper insight.

A Calming Interlude: The Infallibility of the Church

For many within the Church and outside, the Catholic doctrine of infallibility is something that has to do with the pope and he alone. But actually, it has only a little to do with the pope, a lot to do with the episcopacy, and everything to do with the Church herself. We should first ask not “Why an infallible Pope?” but “Why an infallible Church?” We believe, and the Church teaches, that Christ gave his truth—divine revelation—to the Church as a corporate body, not as individuals scattered across the globe, but as a people. We also believe that, having received this truth, the Church’s responsibility is to hand it on, to explain it, and to defend it.

One of the central biblical loci for the doctrine of infallibility is Matthew 16:18: “And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it.” But the most important part of that verse is not the first half, but the second: “The gates of the netherworld will not prevail against my Church.” What is the second half promising? It is not promising that God’s inexhaustible truth will somehow become finite and conditioned, capable of being perfectly grasped by us. Rather, it is a promise that there will always be a true community of faith on earth that will invade and destroy all the strongholds of evil and untruth; that the Church will never cease to be a community of true faith grounded in a truth that she can never fully comprehend, but which she will never lose communion with. Thanks to the promised assistance of the Holy Spirit, the Church as a whole, not simply the pope or the Magisterium, is preserved from errors that would mutate the Gospel into something that it is not. It does not mean that the faithful or the Magisterium can stick the mystery of God in their pockets, but that the Church’s expression of divine truth will be faithful and fundamentally correct in its finitude, and that the Church’s faith will remain pure. It is the Church as Christ’s Body, not simply her pastors, that has the gift of infallibility in believing, though not all of the members of the Church, not even individual bishops, not even the pope in his ordinary teaching, have the gift of infallibility in teaching.

Antidote the First: The Definition of Papal Infallibility and Gasser’s Relatio

With this in mind, we can consider the actual definition of papal infallibility given by Vatican I, in Chapter 4 of Pastor Aeternus, the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church of Christ:

Therefore, faithfully adhering to the tradition received from the beginning of the Christian faith, to the glory of God our savior, for the exaltation of the Catholic religion and for the salvation of the Christian people, with the approval of the Sacred Council, we teach and define as a divinely revealed dogma that when the Roman Pontiff speaks ex cathedra, that is, when, in the exercise of his office as shepherd and teacher of all Christians, in virtue of his supreme apostolic authority, he defines a doctrine concerning faith or morals to be held by the whole Church, he possesses, by the divine assistance promised to him in blessed Peter, that infallibility which the divine Redeemer willed his Church to enjoy in defining doctrine concerning faith or morals. Therefore, such definitions of the Roman Pontiff are of themselves, and not by the consent of the Church, irreformable.

So then, should anyone, which God forbid, have the temerity to reject this definition of ours: let him be anathema (Pastor Aeternus 4:9).

On July 11, 1870, one week before the definition, Bishop Vincent Ferrer Gasser addressed the bishops of Vatican I in the name of the deputation elected by the bishops at the Council in order to draft the document. In conciliar terminology, Gasser’s speech is called a relation—the official presentation of a document explaining what was meant or not meant by the drafting committee. Since Gasser’s speech concerned the final draft which was actually solemnly adopted by the Council, it represents the best guide to what the bishops of Vatican I were offering the Church and the world in the definition. He makes three points:

Infallibility is Peter’s, Not Simon’s

Gasser begins by telling the bishops that the definition does not establish the infallibility of the Pope as a private person. His infallibility can only be called personal in the sense that he is “a person bearing the Church within him”—that is, as the universal shepherd of the Church:

Infallibility . . . does not belong to the Roman Pontiff inasmuch as he is a private person, nor even inasmuch as he is a private teacher, since, as such, he is equal with all other private teachers . . . . Hence we do not speak of personal infallibility, although we do defend the infallibility of the Roman Pontiff, not as an individual person . . . but as head of the Church.[7]

So, the pope is not infallible as Simon, but only as Peter; not as Karol Wojtyla, but only as John Paul II. If he is not defining, he is not infallible, for infallibility describes an action more than a person. Popes are not infallible as persons, but in their solemn defining; the definitions are then to be termed definitive. There is no such distinction in God, who is personally and always infallible, because he is Truth itself. This is not the case with the pope, because the pope’s infallibility entirely depends on the assistance of the Holy Spirit preserving him from error. His is not a habitual gift, nor even a positive charism, but a negative one. His magisterial actions are infallible under very specified circumstances, but he is not. This helps us understand what Gasser had to say about the conscience of the pope and infallibility:

With great care our Lord Jesus Christ willed that the charism of truth [including infallibility] depend not on the conscience of the Pontiff, which is private—even most private—to each person . . . but rather on the public relation of the Pontiff to the universal Church (Gasser, 46)

Infallibility is Relational, Not Separate

Next Gasser explained that the pope’s infallibility is not separate. That is, the pope does not define doctrines infallibly in a way that bears no relationship to the rest of the faithful:

We do not separate the Pope, defining, from the cooperation and consent of the Church.

The purpose of this prerogative [of infallibility] is the preservation of truth in the Church. The special exercise of this prerogative occurs when there arise somewhere in the Church scandals against the faith, i.e., dissensions and heresies . . . we do not exclude the cooperation of the Church because the infallibility of the Roman Pontiff does not come to him in the manner of inspiration or revelation but through divine assistance. Therefore the Pope, by reason of his office and the gravity of the matter, is held to use the means suitable for properly discerning and aptly enunciating the truth. These means are councils, or the advice of bishops, cardinals, theologians, etc.[8]

Gasser notes a variety of means by which defining popes can discern and enunciate the truth, and although they are not bound to what means they choose, they are bound to call upon some means, and not to act alone. As the definition says, the pope does not need the consent of the Church for him to exercise his infallible Magisterium. But he does need to rely on the Faith of the Church to do so. In this regard, Gasser notes that the pope is not infallible because he is inspired by the Holy Spirit, as were the authors of Sacred Scripture, but because he is assisted by the Holy Spirit. Only the Scriptures are said to be inspired, the pope is not inspired. If he were inspired, he could promulgate new truths that constitute revelation. In other words, the pope is not a source of revelation, and must rely on Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition, the sources of revelation in the order of discovery.

Non-Absolute Infallibility

Perhaps Gasser made his most important point for theological sanity in our own day in his emphasis on the contingent, non-absolute nature of papal infallibility. As we have seen, it is neither personal nor separate. But when those conditions are met, should we then say that, in that case, the pope’s infallibility is absolute? Gasser gives a very clear answer that is the most helpful for our time—some keywords to notice are “in no sense,” “God alone,” “limits and conditions”:

Note well. It is asked in what sense the infallibility of the Roman Pontiff is absolute. I reply and openly admit: in no sense is pontifical infallibility absolute, because absolute infallibility belongs to God alone, who is the first and essential truth and who is never able to deceive or be deceived. All other infallibility, as communicated for a specific purpose, has its limits and conditions under which it is considered to be present. The same is valid in reference to the infallibility of the Roman Pontiff.

Gasser outlines the non-absolute nature of papal infallibility in detail. First, he has infallibility only in relation to the Universal Church. Outside of this relation, he does not enjoy this charism. He teaches infallibly only when he speaks from the chair of Peter using his full apostolic authority (which he has from Peter as his successor), and only when his teaching concerns a matter of faith or morals. Finally, he is teaching infallibly only when he is defining what must be held as a matter of faith by all members of the Church. In one fell swoop, Gasser knocks all encyclicals, homilies, speeches, general catecheses, and apostolic exhortations off of the list. If the content of these are definitive, it is only because they were previously defined as such.

Antidote the Second: Century Later: Mysterium Ecclesiae

A century after Vatican I, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith would further clarify and condition papal infallibility in the document Mysterium Ecclesiae. Responding to a rejection of papal infallibility by the German theologian Hans Küng, the document gives us a fuller understanding of the difference between the definitive statements of the pope and the Episcopal Magisterium and the absolute mystery of God:

The transmission of divine Revelation by the Church encounters difficulties of various kinds. These arise from the fact that the hidden mysteries of God “by their nature so far transcend the human intellect that even if they are revealed to us and accepted by faith, they remain concealed by the veil of faith itself and are as it were wrapped in darkness” (Mysterium Ecclesiae §5).

In this regard, the CDF said, every infallibly defined doctrine remains limited:

The meaning of the pronouncements of faith depends partly upon the expressive power of the language used at a certain point in time and in particular circumstances. Moreover, it sometimes happens that some dogmatic truth is first expressed incompletely (but not falsely), and at a later date, when considered in a broader context of faith or human knowledge, it receives a fuller and more perfect expression. In addition, when the Church makes new pronouncements, she intends to confirm or clarify what is in some way contained in Sacred Scripture or in previous expressions of Tradition; but at the same time she usually has the intention of solving certain questions or removing certain errors.

All these things have to be taken into account in order that these pronouncements may be properly interpreted. Finally, even though the truths which the Church intends to teach through her dogmatic formulas are distinct from the changeable conceptions of a given epoch and can be expressed without them, nevertheless it can sometimes happen that these truths may be enunciated by the Sacred Magisterium in terms that bear traces of such conceptions (Mysterium Ecclesiae §5).

As a logical consequence, it is safe to conclude that even infallible, Spirit-assisted solemn definitions remain able to be deepened, clarified, and even refined, in what is called the development of doctrine. To understand even papal and episcopal definitions, we need to understand the nature of the language used at that time, how it might be incomplete, and how it might have later been deepened and/or specified. We need to consider what errors were being addressed and what assumptions might have been necessary for it to be understood in its day, assumptions we might no longer share. Mysterium Ecclesiae envisions an ever-deepening grasp by the faithful of mysteries which by definition will always transcend their full comprehension, which was celebrated in Dei Verbum §8 in its famous recognition of the development of doctrine.

This ever-deepening understanding is not merely a firmer grasp of divine truths, but the Church being grasped more firmly by the Truth. When we believe infallibly defined doctrines, we are not putting God in our pocket, ceasing theological reflection, and switching to memorization. As St. Thomas Aquinas said, when we receive the doctrines derived from revelation authentically, then our faith terminates not in the words themselves but in the mysteries they make known to us. Even in infallibly defined doctrines, more can be said, and what is said can always be said more perfectly. And ultimately, even the Church’s dogmas will become wisps of smoke—as in the smoke of incense—when we see God face-to-face: their holy aroma will rise and dissipate.


What implications does the true nature of papal infallibility have for our life and practice as faithful Catholics? We can say the following.

First, the Church has a confident humility about papal infallibility. On the one hand, we believe that the Church does understand and declare what is true. On the other hand, we also believe that verbal formulations of divine truths, even the infallible formulations, are not the Truth per se, but limited, conditioned expressions of the truth.

Second, it is the real truths that are infallible, not the verbal formulations that contain them. An infallible statement is not at all wrong, but the way it might be said, even in an infallible definition, might not be perfectly adequate.

In the end, every Catholic can say with Augustine, “If you comprehend it, it is not God,” and with Vatican I, that the pope possesses infallibility. Thanks to the gift of infallibility of the Church exercised by the Magisterium, we worship him who is beyond our comprehension in spirit and in truth.

Conclusion: From False Certitude to Humble Confidence

In his helpful book, How to Go from Being a Good Evangelical to a Committed Catholic in Ninety-Five Difficult Steps, the convert Christian Smith gives this as Step 80: “Do not become a Catholic because you think it will give you certainty.” To me, it seems that it is a sense of insecurity and overemphasis on certainty that drives otherwise excellent, earnest Catholics into doctrinal ideologies like the ones I lamented above. His exhortation is timely and marvelous:

Some Evangelicals find Catholicism attractive because they think it offers them certainty about Christian beliefs. Previously, they thought an inerrant Bible alone provided certainty . . . . Looking to Rome, some decide that the . . . Magisterium provides the [cognitive] certainty that conservative Protestantism taught them to desire . . . it seems to provide that absolute certainty.

Don’t do that. Don’t think that way. Establishing certainty is a distinctively modern secular project, not a Christian one. It was [modern philosophy] who taught us to . . . search after an indubitable and universal foundation of certainty in human knowledge . . . Christ, by contrast, calls us to drop what we want and expect, to believe, and to learn the truth from and follow him.

. . . Managing feelings of insecurity is not what Christian faith is about. So don’t replace an old foundationalist Protestantism with a new (falsely) foundationalist Catholicism . . . forget about that. Learn, have faith, seek understanding, and be prepared to give an account. Be forgiven and forgive. Be formed by the sacraments and practices of the Church, particularly the Eucharist, and learn Christian love for God and neighbor. That’s it.[9]

[1] The Letters and Diaries of John Henry Newman, ed. Charles Stephen Dessain et at., vols. i–vi (Oxford, 1978–84), xi–xxii (London, 1961–72), xxiii–xxxi (Oxford, 1973–7),

[2] David Nicholls, “Conscience and Authority in the Thought of W. G. Ward,” Heythrop Journal 26:4 (October 1985): 417.

[3] C.S. Dessain et al (eds), The Letters and Diaries of John Henry Newman (31 volumes plus supplementary volume 32, 1961– 2008), vol. 29, 72, to Richard Church, March 11, 1879. Duffy, Eamon. John Henry Newman: A Very Brief History, SPCK, 2019.

[4] John William Draper, History of the Conflict Between Religion And Science (New York: D. Appleton, 1874), 277.

[5] Yves Congar, The Meaning of Tradition (San Francisco, Ignatius Press).

[6] John 16:13.

[7] Vincent Gasser, The Gift of Infallibility: The Official Relatio of Bishop Vincent Gasser at Vatican Council I (Boston: Pauline Books, 1986), 41–42.

[8] Ibid., 43.

[9] Christian Smith, How to Go from Being a Good Evangelical to a Committed Catholic in Ninety-Five Difficult Steps (Cascade Books, 2011), 151–152

Featured Image: Holy Spirit mosaic; Source: Pxhere, PD.


Christopher Baglow

Christopher Baglow is Director of the Science & Religion Initiative of the McGrath Institute for Church Life at the University of Notre Dame. He is the author of Faith, Science and Reason: Theology on the Cutting Edge and is the co-recipient of the 2018 Expanded Reason Award in the Teaching category.

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