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A Return to Infallibility, with Help from Newman

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Apr 16, 2013

It’s a small matter I suppose. But for years I’ve been taking flak from those who object to my explanation of the clear meaning of the First Vatican Council’s definition of the infallibility of the pope. I’ve said again and again that the pope is infallible whenever four specific conditions are fulfilled, that is, whenever he (1) intends to teach (2) by virtue of his supreme authority (3) on a matter of faith or morals (4) to the whole Church.

Those, whether on the left or the right, who want to find wiggle room where there is none have frequently objected that, no, the pope must express something in the form of a “definition” for it to be infallible. Or he must use the most solemn of language. Or he must promulgate a certain kind of document. Or he must specifically state that he is teaching infallibly. The decree, of course, uses the Latin verb definire, and those with little Latin may find this confusing. The word often simply means “explain”, and in fact the decree refers back to whatever the Pope has explained ex cathedra as “definitions” which are to be held by all the faithful.

In other words, it is not some specific form of expression or type of document which creates the infallible utterance; rather, it is the infallible utterance which creates what we might call a definition, that is, something which has been now definitively set forth.

As I say, it is a small thing, but one finds one’s support where one can. And sure enough, in another gem from Dave Armstrong’s The Quotable Newman, we have Blessed John Henry’s own explanation, in English, of the teaching of Vatican I on infallibility, just after it occurred. Newman, you may recall, was opposed—not to the concept that the pope was infallible, which he believed—but to the manner in which the aggressive ultramontanists (who had no love for Newman) sought (but did not get) a decree which would make the pope infallible nearly every time he opened his mouth to sneeze.

Anyway, Newman was one of the great living Latinists of the 19th century. He understood every word, every nuance of the language. Newman pointed out that it is not enough for the Pope to do something (such as excommunicate someone) to be infallible; it is not enough that his words should be contained in this or that type of document (whether an allocution, a homily, a bull, an encyclical); it is not enough that his words should have some specific rhetorical form; it is not enough that he should be holding forth on any subject whatsoever, or making a prudential judgment; it is not enough that he should utter the most solemn of truths to this or that group only.

Rather, what must be manifest is the Pope’s intention to fulfill four special conditions. Here, then, is how Newman explained the meaning of Pastor Aeternus at Vatican I with respect to the infallibility of the pope:

He speaks ex cathedra, or infallibly, when he speaks, first, as the Universal Teacher; secondly, in the name and with the authority of the Apostles; thirdly, on a point of faith or morals; fourthly, with the purpose of binding every member of the Church to accept and believe his decision. [Letter to the Duke of Norfolk, 1975; Armstrong, p. 299]

Some details are spelled out in Newman which are merely implied in my formulation, but the four conditions are exactly the same. No matter what the venue or the form, whenever the intention of the pope to fulfill these four conditions is clear, based on the context and meaning of the words he has chosen to use, we can be certain that what he has taught is infallible. Usually he is not speaking or writing in this way. But when he is, no matter how we may rail against his words, the truth he explains will still be held by the Church in a thousand years.

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