In his book “The Ecumenical Councils” by Fr. Francis Dvornik, there is a section entitled “The Vatican Definition and Orthodox Belief in Church Infallibility” in the chapter on the 1st Vatican Council. In this section, Dvornik seeks to show how the Catholic doctrine of Papal Infallibility can possibly be calibrated to match what the Eastern Orthodox believe about ecclesial infallibility. He first states how the promise of Christ of infallibility was first and foremost to the catholic church as a whole. Christ spoke to all the Apostles when he said, “All authority has been given to Me on heaven and earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations…baptizing them…teaching them all things I’ve commanded…and I will be with you always, even unto the end of the age” (Matt 28:18-20). Therefore, the charism of infallibility, according to Dvornik, resides primarily in the Church as a whole, and the ministry of Peter’s successor is a unique organ to effect this charism, as is the ministry of Ecumenical Councils, and then also of the universal episcopate, spread abroad in their own respective realms, when they teach on a doctrine of faith and morals in perfect agreement in and with the Pope’s communion. One part of his explanation, however, was particularly interesting and thought-provoking. Taking ideas from a treatise entitled “Infallibility” (London, 2nd ed., 1927) written by a prominent English Dominican theologian, Fr. Vincent McNabb, Dvornik writes, :
“But even when the Pope alone should proclaim a doctrine ex cathedra he can do so only after having examined the mind of the Church in this matter. After declaring that ‘infallibility is a divine assistance enabling the teaching Church to declare or expound the deposit of faith possessed by her‘, Fr. McNabb (p. 92) compares such a declaration of the Pope, the head of the teaching Church, with a judge sitting in the judgment seat. Before making his declaration ex cathedra on the case in process, the judge is bound to hear all the witnesses. ‘In the same way, the ex cathedra judgment of the Pope (or Council) needs the mind of the Church as its necessary preliminary material‘. These interpretations of the Vatican decree [on infallibility] comes very near to the Orthodox belief in the infallibility of the Church. Even the stipulation that a declaration ex cathedra does not need confirmation by the Church should not be irreconcilable with Orthodox belief. The comparison with the judge’s definition after hearing the witnesses again helps. ‘It would be false to say that the official ex cathedra judgment of the judge’s,’ says Fr. McNabb, ‘needs the consent of the witnesses to make it binding. The evidence of witnesses gives the necessary material for the official judgment , but does not give the necessary sanction‘. In the case of the Pope’s definition, the witnesses are Scripture and tradition guarded by the infallible Church which have to be examined to find out what is the mind of the Church. The best and most natural means to do so should be an assembly of bishops in a Council, but even the Orthodox tradition accepts, instead of a convocation of a Council, the practice of a referendum, a consultation of the bishops by writing. It was done by Byzantine emperors because they were regarded as guardians of the Orthodoxy. The place of the Emperors is now taken by the First Patriarch, the Bishop of Rome. In the two instances in modern times when such a definition was made, namely, the dogmas of the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption, a referendum to bishops in communion with Rome was chosen in preference to a Council” (p. 108-09)
That portion of Fr. McNabb’s treatise which says that the evidence of witnesses gives the necessary material for the official judgment, but does not give the necessary sanction, appears to be the best description of what the Vatican decree on Papal infallibility means when it says that the Pope’s ex cathedra decree does not obtain its authority by the consent of the Church or the Episcopate. While that, in and of itself, might be true, it can be said there is still a material necessity of consulting with the “mind of the Church”, which is animated by the Holy Spirit principally in the confession of those duly ordained to the Church’s magisterium (i.e. the Bishops), prior to enforcing a judgment upon the whole Church. This would also perfectly describe the action of the Apostles during the dispute concerning whether Gentiles must be circumcised in order to obtain membership in the Abrahamic oaths given by the Lord. St. Paul, who was perfectly capable of appealing to his direct apostleship from God, and not men (Gal 1:1-2), traveled to Jerusalem to appeal to the mind of the Apostles. Subsequently, the Apostles themselves had the capacity, each one individually, to resolve this conflict by themselves. And yet St. Luke records, “Now the apostles and elders came together to consider this matter” (Acts 15:6). So the Apostles, who were the doctrinal norm for all of Christian society (Acts 2:42), convened a Synod consisting not just of themselves, but also of the other men duly ordained to the Church’s magisterium, then called “elders” (πρεσβύτεροι/presbyters). After much “dispute” (Acts 15:7), the assembly of both Apostles and elders wrote a letter wherein it states, “…For it seemed good to the Holy Ghost, and to us” (v28). This is important since we know that the Apostles were especially ordained by the Lord with the promise of infallibility in their teaching (Acts 1:8), and yet they are here submitting themselves to the normal means of obtaining the best judgment on a matter before releasing officially authoritative decrees. I suspect that even Protestant historical theologians would venture to say that this is unexpected of the Apostles. After all, it is Protestants, if no one else, who are adamant to speak of the infallibility and inerrancy of the Holy Scriptures, and that means the personal infallibility of the authors of each book, which also entails the carrying of the utmost supreme authority. How often is it, interestingly enough, that we hear from Protestant and Eastern Orthodox theologians, that if the Papal dogmas were, in fact, true, then the history of doctrinal controversy would have merely been a letter to the Pope in every instance to individually solve the matter, as if he could know, answer, and resolve the dispute in between a bite of toast and a sip of coffee. In other places, I have called this misconception Papal automation and Papal isolationism, both of which are alien to a properly understood Papal primacy.
It is to no surprise, therefore, that we see the ideas of Dom Vincent McNabb, as delivered to us through Dvornik, bearing out in the history of the Church. During the 7th-century Monothelite controversy, we read some of the most astounding statements of the Greek representatives during the Council of Lateran (649). When Bishop St. Stephen of Dor, the Vicar representative under the Jerusalemite Patriarch St. Sophronius, attended the Council, his letter was read aloud in the 2nd Session, and in it he argues that the See of Peter, i.e. Rome, was consulted because the Peter, head of the Apostles, was found worthy to be entrusted with the keys of the kingdom to both bind and loose, and that, because our Lord told him to “strengthen thy brethren” after his brief fall out under pressure, it was because he “possessed more than all others, in an exceptional and unique way, firm and unshakeable faith in our Lord, [he was deemed worthy] to turn and strengthen his comrades and spiritual brethren…since providentially he had been adorned by the God who became incarnate for our sake with power and priestly authority over them all” (Price 2014, p. 144). When the devout monks who followed St. Maximus the Confessor were given their plaint to be read aloud during the same session, we read them addressing the following to Pope St. Martin: “…since the hearts of all rely on you (after God), knowing that under Christ you are the supreme head of the churches...” (ibid, p. 153). Likewise, still in the 2nd session, the appeal of Archbishop Sergius of the island of Cyprus was read aloud, which, addressing the Pope, states: “Christ our God founded your apostolic see, O sacred head, as a divinely fixed and immovable support and conspicuous inscription of the faith. For you, as the divine Word truly declared without deceit, are Peter, and on your foundation the pillars of the Church are fixed; to you he committed the keys of the heavens and decrees that you are to bind and loose with authority on earth and in heaven…Therefore, my father, do not overlook the faith of our fathers…” (ibid, p. 158). When the appeal of the Africans was read aloud (again, same session), we read: “..it was laid down in ancient regulations that nothing, even if raised in remote and far distant provinces, should first be treated or accepted until it had been brought to the notice of your bountiful see, so that the sentence pronounced might be confirmed by her just authority, and the other churches might take from there, as from their native source, the origin of their preaching, and there might abide through the various regions of the whole world, unsullied in their purity, the mysteries of the saving faith..” (ibid, pg. 162)
And yet, in the final Encyclical of the Synod, addressed to all the churches throughout the world, Pope St. Martin describes the synodal process as an imitation of “the holy fathers who preceded us, who in sincere unanimity and a common accord…refuted every heresy…since what results from the sacred concord and spiritual harmony of holy fathers possesses a power against its opponents that is strong and invincible. For… ‘by the mouth of two or three witnesses will every statement be established’…’a threefold cord will not easily be broken, and brother aided by brother is like a city secure and lofty, and is as strong as a well-founded palace’” (ibid, p. 402).
Even more interesting is that these three citations of Holy Scripture which speak of the superiority of synodal procedure for the arrival and confirmation of truth were cited in the Sentence of the Synod of Constantinople (553) against Vigilius who refused to take part in the proceedings of the Council (Acts of Constantinople 553, Price, VIII.111)
If the above can be considered true and descriptive of what the Catholic Church means by the infallibility of the Pope, namely, that while the authority of his ex cathedra decrees do not receive the cause of their authority by the consenting of bishops or the Church, but nevertheless requires the deliberation and investigation of the “mind of the Church” as a necessary material cause for said decrees’ content, then I think this is a major olive branch towards the Eastern Orthodox in the current dialogue. For this insight, I give all the credit to McNabb, from whom Dvornik pieced his thoughts together. I’d be curious, nevertheless, to test and see whether the above really can be considered as a valid interpretation of the 1st Vatican Council.
* Extracts from Councils taken from (1) The Acts of Lateran of 649 and (2) The Acts of the Council of Constantinople 553 by Richard Price*