I am formulating a post related in part to apologetics of papal infallibility, but got side tracked on a long explanation of infallibility per se. I’m posting that explanation here so that if and when I post the other argument, I can simply refer back to it.
Infallibility is a very strict thing, though the term “infallibility” technically applies to three different things.
In its most proper sense, “Infallibility” simply means that a pope cannot make a mistake in matters of faith and morals. It does NOT mean that a pope can’t make a mistake in terms of his personal faith or morals. Protestants point to the immorality of the Borgia Popes; radical traditionalist Catholics point to the questionable ecumenical behaviors of John Paul II. Both claim that the alleged sins of the Popes negated their office. Yes, my radtrad readers will no doubt object, as they often do in online debates, that the alleged acts of John Paul II (kissing the Koran, alleged participation in pagan rituals, etc.) constitute apostasy or defection from the faith or de facto heresy. However, I don’t see how kissing a Koran as a sign of politeness could be an act of apostasy but murdering people and keeping mistresses isn’t.
In any case, infallibility has nothing to do with the Pope’s actions, and it has nothing to do with his every day comments. Benedict XVI has even made a point of distinguishing things he writes as “Benedict XVI” from things he writes as “Josef Ratzinger”, to distinguish his personal opinions from his papal teachings. I think he does this, in part, because of the way people have exalted all the writings of Karol Woytyla to merit the authority of the pope.
Infallibility means that the Pope can’t make an error in matters of faith and morals, but his personal opinions are just that. If the pope expresses an opinion on sports or a *particular* political issue (i.e., whether a particular war was “just” or not), that isn’t “covered” by infallibility. That’s called prudential judgement. A Pope *is* infallible when he states the principles a Catholic should follow in making political decisions.
Another aspect of infallibility pertains to what Dietrich von Hildebrand calls “incomplete truth.” Sometimes, a particular aspect of Catholic teaching might be emphasized to deal with a particular issue, such as when social justice was emphasized to fight the horrible working conditions of the Industrial Revolution era, or how abortion is emphasized today. This is also shown in the history of the ecumenical councils: one council would define a truth to denounce one heresy, but then another heresy would arise at the opposite extreme, claiming the previous council as its validation (i.e., Vatican I’s definition of papal infallibility is one of the major legs of those who reject Vatican II; after the notion that Jesus was two persons consubstantial in one body was denounced, those who denied there was any difference between Jesus’ human and divine natures came to the forefront, and the Church said, “No, He is two natures in one Person”, and so on0.
So a particular papal document may emphasize the obligation of the state to listen to the Church on matters of Natural Law, denouncing “freedom of religion,” but then another pope comes along later and promotes “freedom of religion”: an apparent contradiction, but both are attacking the same problem from both ends. The Communists call for “freedom *from* religion”, and that is what Popes Pius IX and Leo XIII spent so much time denouncing–usually in documents condemning socialist governments in particular countries. On the other hand, Leo XIII preceded John Paul II in praising the kind of liberty promoted in the United States: again condemning the notion that the government should be totally free from the Church but praising the notion of not coercing people to adopt a religion. Then Vatican II comes a long and promotes “freedom of religion,” as a way of fighting the efforts of Communism, Islam and Western Secularism to crush such freedom altogether.
This is the same thing that happens with the Bible: when passages in the Bible seem to “contradict” each other, it’s almost always because a different audience, issue and historical context are involved. So in one passage, for example, St. Paul says it’s OK to eat meat sacrificed to idols, but in another passage he advises against it if it’s going to cause scandal.
So even on matters of faith and morals, the Popes must be understood in their historical contexts, and the audiences they were addressing.
The second sense of “infallibility” is what’s called “assent of religion.” This speaks to the Pope’s authority in matters of Church discipline, such as clerical celibacy or fish on Fridays. It also speaks to the matters of personal opinion mentioned above: even though a Pope’s personal opinion is not infallible, Catholics are obliged to follow the Evangelical Counsel of Obedience, so great care and caution should be taken before questioning a Pope’s judgement.
The third meaning of “infallibility” is when the Pope speaks “ex cathedra,” “from the Chair.” The Hebrew religion had the same principle. The New Testament, particularly Acts, makes reference to it in various places where the High Priest’s words are given a special authority, and the High Priest is shown as being sometimes inspired by the Holy Spirit in spite of his opposition to the early Christians.
The power of the Pope to speak ex cathedra means that he can define a matter of faith or morals as dogmatic and binding on all Christians without the need for a Council. This “power” has only been exercised a maximum of four times by Popes since Vatican I, and two of those are disputed: Blessed Pius IX’s definition of the Immaculate Conception; Venerable Pius XII’s definition of the Assumption; Bl. JPII’s definition of life beginning at conception; and Bl JPII’s definition that women cannot be ordained.
The last one has been debated mainly because an early Church Council already defined that dogmatically, and the Pope was just reiterating what they said, but he was using the formulations that Vatican I & II require for an ex cathedra statement. It is also unclear whether he was calling for a dogmatic definition or a matter of “assent of religion”; in any case, Avery Dulles’s elevation to Cardinal is often accredited to his defense that the Apostolic Letter _On the Ordination of Women_ was infallibile. However, even if the encyclical was not “ex cathedra,” it was certainly “infallible,” precisely because it was restating something a Council defined.
Similarly, there is debate about _Humanae Vitae_ because Paul VI came close to officially making it ex cathedra, and there are two arguments given why he didn’t. The so-called “Catholic Left” tries to insist that Vatican I & II said something they didn’t say: ex cathedra is precisely the power of the Pope to speak unilaterally. However, liberal Catholics try to insist that it’s only permitted if the Pope conducts a sort of “long distance Council.” So liberals try to say that Paul VI consulted all the bishops, and since the theological commission set up to investigate the “Pill” had found in favor of it, and since most of the bishops were in favor of it, liberals argue that Paul VI wasn’t able to speak ex cathedra. On the other hand, conservatives argue that the same principle as _Ordinatio Sacerdotalis_: contraception in all forms (herbal contraceptives having been used in all cultures throughout history) has been clearly condemned by the Church throughout history. Natural Family Planning, usually referred to as “selective abstinence” in Church documents, had been officially approved already in Pius XI’s _Casti Connubii_, so that wasn’t new, but he broadened its permission. The only thing novel in Humanae Vitae was the definition of marriage has having both a unitive and procreative purpose, where the prevailing Thomistic view had limited it to procreative (there’s that “incomplete truth” thing again).
One of the issues with both Catholic “Left” and “Right” is an inability to see the big picture of the Church: there are tons of documents produced by hundreds of Popes and dozens of Councils over the centuries, most of them buried in archives at the Vatican and other places, and most of them written in Latin and never published. Most of us don’t have any idea what the historical teachings of the Church are, so questioning the judgement of a Pope and saying it contradicts Church teaching (on the one hand) or that the Pope’s teaching is not dogmatically binding (on the other) is to claim that you’ve read *all* that, plus all the Doctors, early Church Fathers, etc., whose writings help make up the Magisterium. It’s a complex matter.