The Infallibility of the Church and the Pope

Catholic teaching holds that the Church is indefectible.  She can never fall away into error, but will forever hold fast to the true faith.

Here is my summary of how the infallibility of the Church works, according to Catholic doctrine:

The teaching authority of the Catholic Church resides in the “Magisterium,” which is simply the body of bishops who govern the Church in communion with the Bishop of Rome, the Pope.  God has given what I’ll call the “gift of reliability” to the teachers of the Church, so that what they teach in terms of the doctrine of the church (whether of “faith” or “morals”) is accurate and does not lead into error.  This gift is not given to individual bishops acting alone, but only to the body of bishops as a whole–so it is possible that individual bishops, or even bishops in groups smaller than the whole of the body of bishops, might teach error, but the body of bishops as a whole can never do so.  Also, the Pope, as the head of the church, has the gift of reliability given to him in his own unique office as well, so that he can never teach error when he is exercising his teaching office.

Sometimes the Church teaches a doctrine definitively–that is, she teaches a doctrine as certainly and irrevocably the correct opinion.  This might happen when the bishops come together in an ecumenical council and make definitive decrees or statements, or it might happen as all the bishops in the ordinary exercise of their office agree in teaching a doctrine definitively throughout the world.  The Pope might teach a doctrine definitively either by formally defining a doctrine as a dogma (this is the famed ex cathedra declaration) or simply by affirming that a doctrine is the definitive teaching of the Church.  When the Church teaches something definitively, since she has the gift of reliability, Catholics are obligated to receive and accept it definitively.  Sometimes, however, the Church might teach a doctrine non-definitively–that is, she might teach a doctrine in such a way that it is claimed to be true, or accurate, or good to believe or hold or practice, etc., but not in such a way that it is claimed that the final, unchangeable word on the subject has been given.  The doctrine is not claimed as definitely certain or true or unchangeable in its current form.  For example, the bishops or the Pope might say, “X is the best way to think about this right now,” or “We should think X right now,” or “So far as we can see at this point, X appears to be true,” or “We should do things in this way right now,” etc.  There could be lots of ways such a non-definitive teaching could be given and a variety of degrees of certainty in such pronouncements–context would determine how to interpret any particular statement or teaching.  A non-definitive teaching must be accepted and adhered to by Catholics as well.  It must be accepted in the way and to the degree it was intended by the Church–again, interpreted by context.

Here is a little bit more on the distinction between definitive and non-definitive Magisterial teaching and the difference between the two:

The teaching of the Catholic Church is that the Pope, and the bishops as a whole, can teach with various levels of definitiveness, but that Catholics are bound to submit with mind and will to all magisterial teaching according to the intention of the magisterial teacher.  So if the Pope teaches something and intends it to be a definitive pronouncement, Catholics are to submit to it as the final word on the subject and irreformably and forever true.  If the Pope teaches something which he intends the people to believe, but it is not intended as necessarily the final word on the subject, then Catholics are bound to accept that teaching, but not necessarily as the final word on the subject.  All magisterial teaching is to be regarded as inherently reliable, for it all comes with the authority of Christ and the guidance of the Holy Spirit.  We can never be led astray by following magisterial teaching, although non-definitive teaching can lead us to provisional conclusions that may later turn out to be augmented or even corrected.  The fact that non-definitive teaching is not necessarily irreformable is not contrary to its reliability, for the reformable nature of such teaching does not come from any unreliability in the teaching but in the non-definitiveness of the magisterial intention.  If the Pope teaches us that X is the best position to hold right now and that we ought to hold position X, but that this is not necessarily the final word on the subject, if later on we find that X is false we cannot be said to have been led astray by the Pope’s teaching, for that teaching did not teach us that X would never be overturned.  But the reliability of the Pope’s ordinary teaching obviously precludes that teaching from including heresy–that is, from including ideas that contradict what the Church has previously affirmed definitively to have been revealed by God.  For we already know that such teachings cannot be true and that we should not hold them.  It would be contrary to the justice and truth of God for legitimate authority appointed by him to legitimately bind us to teaching that it would be wrong to hold.

With regard to definitively infallible teaching, the Code of Canon Law tells us that we are not to assume that any teaching of the Magisterium has been defined infallibly “unless this is manifestly evident” (Code of Canon Law #749.3

To see the foundations of the above summaries in the Church’s own testimony, see here (the shorter version) and here (the longer version).

In this article and some subsequent articles, I am going to address some classic historical challenges that have been made to the Catholic doctrine of papal infallibility.  We will start with Pope Vigilius and the affair of the Three Chapters.

The Three Chapters Controversy

In the sixth century, a controversy arose in the Church over the proper response to some writings alleged to be heretical.  Pope Vigilius was intimately involved in the whole affair, and critics of Catholic ideas about papal authority and infallibility have often alleged that his actions in this controversy provide historical evidence against those ideas.

This is a subject I’ve wanted to write about for a long time, but I’ve somewhat dreaded approaching it because the history here is very convoluted and complex and difficult to follow and explain.  Following especially Dom John Chapman’s account of the affair in his Studies on the Early Papacy (London: Sheed and Ward, 1928) as well as Bishop Hefele’s account in his History of the Councils of the Church, Volume IV (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1895), two excellent and well-respected resources on early Church history, I will try to give a succinct and accessible account of the main outline of what happened and how it relates to papal infallibility.

The Council of Chalcedon had occurred in 451 and had condemned Monophysitism (the idea that Christ did not have truly distinct human and divine natures).  The previous Ecumenical Council, that of Ephesus in 431, had condemned Nestorianism (which exaggerated the distinction of the two natures and, in effect, divided the person of Christ).  There were some in the Church who felt the condemnation of Nestorianism needed to be advanced a little further by the condemnation of writings from three men of the previous century who were felt by some to have had some Nestorianizing tendencies.  The three men were Theodore of Mopsuestia, Ibas of Edessa, and Theodoret of Cyrus.  Both Ibas and Theodoret had been accepted ultimately by the Council of Chalcedon as orthodox (not guilty of Nestorianism), but some since that time had raised questions about the orthodoxy of some sections of their writings.  So the Emperor Justinian, in 544, condemned extracts from the writings of these three men–the extracts became known as the “Three Chapters”–while adding that no disrespect was intended towards the Council of Chalcedon or its decrees.

Justinian pressured the bishops to sign this condemnation, and, under some protest, the leading Eastern patriarchs did so.  Justinian wanted Pope Vigilius to sign as well, but the Western Church strongly opposed the condemnation.  Like the Eastern bishops, they saw it as an affront against Chalcedon.  Pope Vigilius refused to sign the condemnation, so Justinian had him kidnapped and brought forcefully to Constantinople.  (The relationship between the Byzantine emperors and the popes is a complex one, full of many contradictions.  The emperors recognized the authority of the Pope as head of the Church, but they often acted in ways that were inconsistent with that recognition.  But it is beyond my scope to go into this now with any thoroughness.)  After a year and four months of much pressure, as well as further opportunity for studying the issue, Pope Vigilius changed his mind and wrote a document called the Judicatium in which he moderately condemned the Three Chapters.  This was in 548.  This document has been lost, but, according to Hefele, fragments of it are found in other documents.  Vigilius agrees to condemnations, but he insists that all condemnations be consistent with continuing to affirm all the decrees of Chalcedon.  Three years later, commenting on the Judicatium, Vigilius said that “in order to remove present offense, he had condescended, in order to quiet men’s minds, he had relaxed the severity of right, and in accordance with the need of the time had ordered things medicinally” (Hefele 257-258, emphasis in original).  This seems to suggest that Vigilius didn’t really want to condemn the Three Chapters, but that he had come to the conclusion that, in order to deal with the present controversies and concerns, he could concede to their condemnation provided that they were condemned in a way that avoided any criticism of the decrees of the Council of Chalcedon.

Part of the problem here is that the writings of the Three Chapters could appear somewhat ambiguous, with some reading them in a more Nestorian sense and others reading them in a more orthodox sense.  Also, in some cases, the writers had affirmed the condemnation of Nestorianism at and in response to the Council of Chalcedon and had perhaps rejected some of what they had previously said.  So there is also a distinction between what is in the writings themselves, considered by themselves, and the overall orthodoxy of the writers.  Justinian, accordingly, in his condemnation of the Three Chapters, had been willing to condemn the person of Theodore of Mopsuestia (who had not been dealt with at Chalcedon) as well as his writings, but he had not condemned the persons of Theodoret or Ibas, but only a fragment of their writings.  A great deal of the confusion in the Three Chapters controversy, and a great deal of Vigilius’s hesitating and waffling in particular, was owing to these nuances and the difficult question of how to best respond to the writings themselves and the men who wrote them (considering that they had died in full communion with the Church).

Vigilius’s Judicatium caused much controversy, especially in the West.  It led to a number of Western churches withdrawing from full communion with Vigilius under the concern that by his Judicatium he had failed to defend Chalcedon.  Some of these schisms lasted for many years.  But the state of schism did not imply that these Western churches had abandoned their sense of the authority of the papacy.  The Illyrian Church, for example, rejected communion with Vigilius on the grounds that “they obeyed St. Leo and the former Popes, and ‘must ever hold with the Apostolic Church of the Romans'” (Chapman 236).  Sometimes Protestant and other critics of Catholic doctrine regarding the papacy try to use historical examples like these to argue that the early Church did not accept the doctrine of the papacy, but they fail to take into account the inconsistencies of human beings and how their actions do not always line up with their own principles.  Even today, there is an entire organization, the Society of St. Pius X, which, in theory, is very committed to papal authority and infallibility, but which, inconsistent with this, refuses openly and defiantly to accept the papally-ratified teachings of the Second Vatican Council and most of the teaching of popes subsequently.

Meanwhile, Vigilius remained imprisoned in Constantinople.  Two years after issuing his Judicatium, he withdrew it.  He had once again rethought his response to the controversy.  He decided that no one should make a ruling on the Three Chapters until a General Council could meet to discuss the issue.  During this period, Vigilius continued to endure much persecution, but Justinian did agree to call a General Council.  But this did not end the strife.  Pope Vigilius said he would need to go back to Italy to consult with the other Western bishops before the Council, and he also demanded that an equal number of Westerns as well as Easterns should be allowed to sit at the Council.  Justinian denied both requests, and so Vigilius refused to come to the Council.  Justinian went ahead and had the Council anyway (in 553), but it was mostly attended by Easterns without much Western presence or support.

The Council, while it was going on, continued to summon Pope Vigilius to come, but he continued to refuse.  He agreed, however, to submit something in writing, and eventually he submitted a document that has come to be called the Constitutum.  In this document, Vigilius “refused to condemn the persons of Ibas, Theodoret or Theodore of Mopsuestia, but he does condemn 60 propositions taken from the writings of the latter” (Chapman 234).  Vigilius decided that, in accordance with the previous practice of the Roman See, people who had died should not be posthumously condemned, which is why he refused to condemn Theodore of Mopsuestia.  He noted that Theodoret had repudiated Nestorianism completely at Chalcedon, and so decided that it would be inappropriate to condemn a man for anything in his writings which he himself had condemned and abjured.  He did agree, however, to condemn Nestorian tendencies in any writings in general in which they might be found, without condemning anything in the writings of Theodoret by name.  With regard to Ibas of Edessa, Vigilius noted that the Fathers at Chalcedon had read Ibas’s letter and vindicated it and Ibas himself as orthodox, and so he decided that no one should oppose Chalcedon’s decision on this matter, noting that Pope Leo previously had condemned the idea of altering anything in the decrees of Chalcedon.  Vigilius closes his Constitutum with these words:  “We ordain and decree that it be permitted to no one who stands in ecclesiastical order or office, to write or bring forward, or undertake, or teach anything contradictory to the contents of this Constitutum in regard to the three chapters, or, after this declaration, begin a new controversy about them.  And if anything has already been done or spoken in regard of the three chapters in contradiction of this our ordinance, by any one whomsoever, this we declare void by the authority of the apostolic see” (Hefele 322-323).

Pope Vigilius sent this Constitutum to the Emperor, who refused to look at it, saying, “If it condemns the Three Chapters, it is useless, as the Pope has already condemned them.  If it defends them, then he is contradicting himself” (Chapman 234).  The Emperor then declared that, by contradicting himself and refusing to go along with the full condemnations of the Three Chapters, the Pope had excommunicated himself, and so he removed the Pope’s name from the list of those bishops who are in communion with the Church (the diptychs).  “We have decided that it is not proper for Christians to recite his name in the diptychs, lest we should be found thus to be in communion with Nestorius and Theodore. . . .  But we preserve unity with the Apostolic See, and we are sure that you will preserve it” (Chapman 235, emphasis in original).  The reply of the bishops of the Council:  “The Emperor’s view is in harmony with the labours he has undergone for the unity of the holy Churches.  Let us therefore preserve unity with the Apostolic See of the holy Church of Rome according to his letter” (Chapman 235).  Once again, we see the inconsistency of those who opposed Pope Vigilius.  They wanted to have their cake and eat it too.  They wanted to oppose Vigilius, but they knew they could not sever their communion with Rome because it is the head of the churches, so they tried to split a difference that didn’t exist (indeed, again, like some dissenting Catholics do today).

The Council then concluded with the condemnation of the Three Chapters:  “We now condemn and anathematise, with all other heretics who have been condemned and anathematised at the four holy Synods, and by the holy Catholic and Apostolic Church, also Theodore, formerly bishop of Mopsuestia, and his impious writings, likewise that which Theodoret wrote impie against the true faith, and against the twelve anathematisms of Cyril, against the first Synod of Ephesus, and in defense of Theodore and Nestorius.  Besides this, we anathematise the impious letter which Ibas is said to have written to Maris, in which it is denied that God the Word became flesh and man of the holy Godbearer and perpetual Virgin Mary.  We also anathematise the three chapters named, i.e. the impious Theodore of Mopsuestia with his mischievous books, and what Theodoret impie wrote, and the impious letter which Ibas is said to have composed, together with their defenders who declare the three chapters to be right, and who sought or shall seek to protect their impiety by the names of holy Fathers or of the Council of Chalcedon” (Hefele 328).

After this, the Emperor exiled the Western bishops, including Pope Vigilius, who refused to submit to the Council’s conclusions.

“Alone, seriously ill, after six years of banishment and coercion, all [Vigilius’s] attempts at compromise had failed.  Was it best to placate the Emperor and stop the persecution?  After six months he had found a way of explanation.  He had already condemned Theordore of Mopseuestia, but had refused to condemn Ibas and Theodoret.  He issues a long document on February 23th, 554, condemning the extracts from Theodoret and not his person, and arguing diffusely, but not convincingly, that the letter of Ibas was a forgery, and was neither written by him nor approved at Chalcedon.  By this ingenuity he is finally able to condemn the Three Chapters and satisfy the Emperor” (Chapman 235-236).

Vigilius described his change of mind in various letters:  “The enemy of the human race, who sows discord everywhere, had separated him from his colleagues, the bishops assembled in Constantinople.  But Christ had removed the darkness again from his spirit, and had again united the Church of the whole world. . . .  There is no shame in confessing and recalling a previous error; this had been done by Augustine in his Retractations.  He, too, following this and other examples, had never ceased to institute further inquiries on the matter of the three chapters in the writings of the Fathers. . . .  Finally, we subject to the same anathema all who believe that the three chapters referred to could at any time be approved or defended, or who venture to oppose the present anathema.  Those, on the contrary, who have condemned, or do condemn, the three chapters, we hold for brethren and fellow-priests.  Whatever we ourselves or others have done in defense of the three chapters we declare invalid” (Hefele 347-348).

“He further, in the new edict, pronounces a full anathema on the letter in question [the letter to Maris purported to be from Ibas], and on all who maintain that it was declared orthodox by anyone at Chalcedon; he then proceeds to Theodore of Mopsuestia, whom, together with the writings of Theodoret against Cyril, he declares worthy of condemnation, and finally closes with an anathema on all the three chapters together, on their defenders, and on everyone who should maintain that that letter was declared to be orthodox by the Synod of Chalcedon, or by any member of it” (Hefele 351).

Vigilius died before he could ever return to Rome, and his successors in the papacy continued to uphold the validity of the Emperor’s Council and its conclusions, which came to be recognized as the Fifth Ecumenical Council.

Do Pope Vigilius’s Actions During the Three Chapters Controversy Contradict the Unfailing Reliability of Papal Teaching?

I think the answer to this question must be no.  The main argument that is usually made is that Pope Vigilius contradicted himself and waffled around a lot during the course of the controversy, and that this is incompatible with papal infallibility.  But it isn’t.  Remember that the Catholic doctrine is that while all papal teaching is reliable as far as it goes, it is not all definitive or unchangeable.  If the Pope presents a position on something as the final word for all time, then it is to be accepted as precisely that.  But if a Pope presents a position, or makes a decree, and does not communicate that it is the final answer for all time, then no one is obliged to accept it as such (in fact, it would be wrong to accept it as such, because it would violate the Pope’s intention in teaching it).  Non-definitive teachings and decrees are to be accepted and followed by Catholics to the extent and in the form required by the Pope, but there is no guarantee that they will not be augmented or even corrected in the future by reconsideration, further information, etc.  In the case of Vigilius and Three Chapters controversy, although at every step of the way Pope Vigilius issued statements with strong language in them, requiring people to submit to them, he never indicated that those statements were intended as definitive.  In fact, we know he didn’t intend them as definitive, because, reflecting back upon them at the end of the controversy, he admits that he had learned a lot along the way and thus had changed his mind on some things, and he indicates that this is no more surprising or problematic than it was when St. Augustine did the same thing.  He indicates that throughout the course of the controversy he had “never ceased to institute further inquiries on the matter.”

There is a reason why current canon law specifies that “no doctrine is understood as defined infallibly unless this is manifestly evident.”  If the Pope commands us to accept or to obey something, we must submit, but, unless he clearly indicates otherwise, we are not thereby warranted to assume that we have the final word on the subject.  Even today, after millennia of reflection on how papal authority works, the Church still tells us not to rely on rigid formulas (like “he used the word ‘anathema’, or “he used strong language,” or “he published his statement in a certain kind of document,” etc.) for determining the degree of authority or definitiveness in papal teachings, but instead to rely on common sense and contextual reading (and to seek clarification if it is needed).  If we are to exercise caution in attributing definitive infallibility to the Pope’s teaching today, how much more caution do we need when trying to evaluate papal statements we read about in reports made 1,500 years ago in a very alien cultural and historical setting, especially when we know from the benefit of hindsight that a number of those statements could not have been definitive?  For critics to try to latch onto Vigilius’s statements during the Three Chapters controversy, insist that they must be understood as definitive, and then assert that by showing how Vigilius changed his mind papal infallibility has been disproved is really to make a spectacularly weak and question-begging argument that ignores all the relevant nuances.

“But,” the critic may respond, “Isn’t it obvious that Vigilius intended his statements and decrees to be accepted and obeyed, at least at the time that he made them?”  Yes, I think that’s right.  Vigilius certainly intended his decrees to be accepted at the time they were made.  It was the duty of Catholics during that time period to follow Vigilius’s take on the controversy.  However, since it is clear that Vigilius himself was continuing to learn and reflect throughout the course of the controversy and that he didn’t intend his statements as the final word on the subject but rather as a reflection of how things looked to him to the extent of his current knowledge, I don’t think we need to assume that the submission required to his decrees would have ruled out intelligent researchers and observers during the time period continuing to reflect upon how best to view what was going on and even to contribute new information and new interpretations to Vigilius if they thought they had something worth considering.  Without rebelling against Vigilius or refusing to assent to his decrees, such observers could have aided the process of Vigilius and all the bishops coming to a more complete understanding of the subject of the controversy and thus a more adequate final conclusion.  In fact, this is no doubt what actually happened.

In conclusion, then, I think we can rule out the Three Chapters affair as constituting any kind of substantial objection to the Catholic doctrine of papal reliability or infallibility.

Originally Published on the feast of St. James the Greater, Apostle and Son of Zebedee


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Mark Hausam lives in Columbia, MO, with his wife Desiree and his nine children, where they are members at Our Lady of Lourdes parish. Mark teaches Theology at Fr. Tolton Catholic High School as well as Philosophy at State Fair Community College in Boonville, MO. He runs a blog at https://freethoughtforchrist.blogspot.com/ and is the author of Why Christianity is True and No Grounds for Divorce: Why Protestants (and Everyone Else) Should Return to the Unity of the Catholic Church.

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