The Strict Conditions for Papal Infallibility Yield 2 Options – Recognize & Resist or Safely Adhere to Papal Errors

Just after the 1st Vatican Council (1870), a German Professor of Canon Law at the University of Prague wrote a rather lengthy pamphlet seeking to show the falsity of the conciliar definition of Papal Infallibility. His name was Johann Friedrich von Schulte (1827-1914) and title of that pamphlet is almost the length of a very long sentence:

The Power of the Roman Popes over Princes, Countries, Peoples, and Individuals examined by the Light of their Doctrines and their Acts since the Reign of Gregory VII, to serve for the appreciation of their Infallibility, and set face to face with contradictory doctrines of the Popes and the Councils of the first Eight Centuries. [available in German]

Schulte wrote this pamphlet to show that the definition of Papal Infallibility was wrong because it contradicts so many statements of the past made by Popes. In response to this, the very Secretary-General of the 1st Vatican Council, Dr. Joseph Fessler, bishop of St. Polten (Austria), took up his pen to write his own pamphlet refuting Schulte. This pamphlet was translated into English and can be find online: The True and the False Infallibility of the Popes: A Controversial Reply to Dr. Schulte. Notably, Blessed Pius IX gave his own personal approbation to Fessler’s book as a worthy book to dismantle the error of those like Schulte who ascribe infallibility to all of the Pope’s teaching. Fessler’s reply, in short, is that the infallibility of the Pope does not pertain to any and all teaching acts of the Pope. While Schulte tries to go through almost every teaching act of the Pope in history, especially those concerning the temporal authority of the Pope (Unam Sanctam), and makes it seem like the Vatican 1 definition on Papal Infallibility necessarily entails that all these teaching acts, in their entirety (from the first to last word), are infallible. Fessler simply cuts the ground upon which Schulte stands by showing that the ex cathedra teaching action of the Pope is a rather fine and specific set of conditions which render it a rare occurrence in history. For those reading who are not aware, the dogmatic constitution on the church at Vatican 1 specified the Pope’s infallibility to be active during these conditions:

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.

Thus, we can only expect the Pope to be infallible during these conditions. Such is standard and well-known by Catholics today. Fessler’s clarification of Vatican 1’s definition on Papal Infallibility has served to be the status quo of all Papal apologists going forward against those who would like to appeal to any Pope’s “erroneous” teachings in the past as an attempt to defeat Vatican 1.

But my concern here is not to repeat the status quo. My aim here is to look at what the limiting conditions on the Pope’s infallibility entails for the current debate among Catholics on what obedience is owed by the faithful towards the magisterium of the Pope. There is no shortage of those upholding the Recognize & Resist principle and similarly with their opponents who hold to the binding obligation of submitting to everything the Pope teaches in his authentic magisterium (at least, how Donum Veritatis gives detail for). As my listeners and viewers are aware, my thinking of these difficult matters has been in development. When I appeared on The Meaning of Catholic with Timothy Flanders, I had to confess my difficulty with all the views currently in the market. Here I will summarize some of the difficulties expressed there and add some more detail for those who might have been confused. This will also be a small crash course on the debate between R&R (Recognize & Resist) and ASME (Adhering Safely to Magisterial Error).

Allow me to state clearly what I think needs to be said in the order of logical sequence:

(1) The limiting conditions of the Pope’s infallibility means that not all of his magisterial/teaching acts are infallible.

(2) Not being infallible is equivalent to being fallible.

(3) The result of (1) and (2) is that the majority of the Pope’s magisterial teaching is delivered in a fallible mode.

Next segment:

(4) A fallible teaching mode leaves the possibility of teaching errors

(5) If the Pope teaches in a fallible teaching mode, then it is possible for the Pope to err in his magisterium

(6) In consideration of (4) and (5), it is possible that the faithful of the Church will be faced with a Pope who attempts to teach an erroneous doctrine from his teaching office.

Next segment:

(7) There are only two likely consequences (for there are many that we could speculate upon) that would yield from the sequence of thought in (1) to (6):

(8) Either it is lawful for the faithful to recognize the Pope’s office (and its limitations) and to also resist assenting to the erroneous doctrine coming from his fallible magisterium

(9) Or it is not lawful to do so, and the faithful are obliged to always give the assent of mind and will (religious assent), at least, to anything the Pope teaches that is manifest from his magisterial office, even when this means the faithful will be obliged to give assent to erroneous doctrine that contradicts the gospel and divine revelation.

In other words, I think it is the most logical to understand there to be 2 options (excluding sedevacantism) for the Catholic faithful in light of the limiting conditions of Papal infallibility clearly specified at Vatican 1 when and if the Pope were to magisterially teach erroneous doctrine: (1) Recognize & Resist or (2) adhere safely to magisterial errors. [briefly, ASME means that when the Pope teaches errors in his magisterium, the faithful are bound to accept them , but they won’t be held accountable before God for holding to errors since the fault would be to the Pope in this matter].

What defenses can be put forth for R&R and ASME (Adhere Safely to Magisterial Errors)? For starters, I will be candid in saying that throughout the 1st millennium, I do not know of a single instance (I am eager to learn of any) where someone perceived the Pope to be clearly espousing an erroneous doctrine while also recognizing that the Pope lawfully holds office (jurisdiction) over the universal church. The only exception to this I can think of is Pope Hadrian II’s words at the Roman Synod (869) which served as a preliminary to the Council of Constantinople IV (869-70) which were read aloud during the 7th session of the latter:

This effrontery is intolerable, beloved, and, I confess, the hearing of my heart cannot endure it. Who of you, I pray, ever heard of such a thing or encountered such immense presumption, at least in reading? Although we have read of the Roman Pontiff passing judgment on the prelates of all the churches, we have not read of anyone having passed judgment on him. For even though Honorius was anathematized after this death by the easterners, it should be known that he had been accused of heresy, which is the only offence where inferiors have the right to resist the initiatives of their superiors or are free to reject their false opinions, although even in this case no patriarch or other bishop has the right of passing any judgment on him unless the consent of the pontiff of the same first see has authorized” (7th session, Constantinople IV 869; Eng. Trans. Richard Price, The Acts of the Council of Constantinople of 860-70 (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2022), 314.)

Quite an astonishing statement to make. Here, Hadrian II (792-872) makes it clear that “inferiors” to the Pope have the “right to resist” and are “free to reject” whatever erroneous “initiatives” come from the Pope’s teaching office. This is what he understands to have taken place between the Greeks at the Council of Constantinople III (681) against the memory of Pope Honorius (625-638). Historically, the 2 letters of Pope Honorius to Sergius does constitute an exercise of the Pope’s magisterial authority.

And so, while there is a relative absence (to my knowledge) of a R&R event in the 1st millennium, there is this unmistakable witness to it by no less than a Pope during a conciliar session of a Roman synod as well as being rehearsed at a session of an Ecumenical Council.

ASME certainly does not have any precedent (to my knowledge) in the 1st millennium. From my vantage point, whenever the Pope was perceived to be delivering erroneous teaching, the bishops would either remove the Pope’s name from their liturgical diptycha or they would see to it that the Pope would be judged and deposed. Pope Hadrian II says that he was unaware of any historical instances where the Pope is judged, but how could he say this knowing what occurred during the Council of Constantinople II (553) during the Three Chapters Controversy with Pope Vigilius? I’ve written elsewhere that this is probably due to the fact that the suspension of Vigilius from Papal office by the Emperor Justinian and the Council was scrubbed from the Acts before Vigilius left Constantinople en route to Rome (he died in Sicily, and never made it back home). In any case, the historical record remained clear. The point here is that the Episcopal College of the 1st millennium did not perceive there to be any kind of “safety” in adhering to Papal errors, despite their being delivered magisterially. If one reads the decree of the Council of Constantinople III (681), the bishops made it clear that there can only be fatal consequences to adhering to doctrinal errors:

we find that these documents are quite foreign to the apostolic dogmas, to the declarations of the holy Councils, and to all the accepted Fathers, and that they follow the false teachings of the heretics; therefore we entirely reject them, and execrate them as hurtful to the soul.” (Session 13)

That last bit, “execrate them as hurtful to the soul” sounds as far from “adhere safely to magisterial errors” as you can get. Now, lest we be totally unfair, we must make some qualifications. If we consider Hadrian II’s words, we should recognize that he is referring to what occurred when bishops assembled in a Council did against Honorius, and not just any lay person. Nevertheless, his principle seems to cut across all inferior vis-a-vis superior relationship since he is appealing to the general idea. Also, when the bishops condemned the writings of Honorius as “hurtful to the soul” they judged it this way in the context of a council. But who could say that these same bishops would have thought it was bad for laity to reject Honorius’s writings? I think they would have supported the idea.

As it stands, then, the record of R&R vs ASME in the first millennium is 1-0. Nevertheless, because there are some dangerous implications from R&R, Catholic theologians have tended, over time up to the present, tended to support the ASME side of things. For starters, what are the limits of R&R? Can we go hundreds of years with an erring Papacy while we R&R all throughout that time? That seems to be unfitting with the See of Peter as the principle of unity and the guardian of tradition, as Gasser taught in his relatio read at Vatican 1. Can it exist for 5 years? 10 years? 50 years? Pretty soon, we see that the SSPX perspective gets defended, whether directly or indirectly, with this R&R principle. Perhaps one might disagree with the specific decisions of the SSPX, but their basic view on authority would thereby be defended (when it comes to resisting magisterial “errors”). This is ultimately the problem with the R&R movement – what are its limiting conditions and parameters? That seems to be ill defined, leaving it open for people such as Taylor Marshall (who is basically SSPX in mindset but in full communion with the Church), Bishop Bernard Fellay (former superior general of the SSPX), and the regular traditionalist such as Dr. Peter Kwasniewski or Patrick Coffin, to all have the right principles when it comes to Papal authority and the obligations of the faithful to that authority. Even so, one can still say that there is at least some precedent for this view from Hadrian II onward (especially in the theologians of the 2nd half of the 2nd millennium), and that those who resist are simply trusting God who will not allow the extremities of the magisterium to err even when it is the resistance of the faithful that serves as a providential means to bring the magisterium back into proper order.

As for those who support the ASME position, they at least have some magisterial support from the latest pronouncements on the issue. Donum Veritatis, for example, does not welcome the faithful to resist the Papal magisterium, but urges them quite forcefully to submit with religious assent to all of the Pope’s teaching. This was also taught by Pope Pius XII (and many others within the last 150 years) in Humani Generis – although the Pope does not utilize his supreme magisterium, whatever he teaches is to be submitted to in light of the rights of the apostolic office (he who hears you , hears me). Errors may not have rights, but pastors do. What ASME secures is the absolute adhesion to Papal unity and avoids any kind of tension between the Pope and the members of the Church, thereby completely cuting off any injury to the visible unity of the Church. With that being said, it comes with some costs.

Final Thoughts

We can see here that the R&R principle is directly traced back to the fact that the Papal magisterium has limiting conditions for its immunity from error. If there are conditions where the Pope’s magisterium can be erroneous, then the above support for R&R seems to be within logical rationality in light of the fact that baptized Christians should not be bound to submit to errors which harm the soul. Even while not having great historical precedent, there is at least the force of Hadrian II and the forthcoming rationale by the Church’s canonists and theologians. The major hurdle is trying to explain how this position doesn’t puncture the credibility and functionality of the Papacy as the principle of unity and the perpetual guardian of the Apostolic tradition. The ASME position, while maintaining the visible unity of the Church at the cost of adhering to errors (inculpably), has to deal with the fact that there is almost no precedent for this view in neither the Scriptures (Gal. 1:5-7) nor the Church Fathers (c.f. condemnation of Honorius).

I wrote this article in order to illustrate one of the major tensions that exist today between Catholics in light of the concerns that are raised by statements and teachings from the 2nd Vatican Council up to the present day with Pope Francis. I think it should serve to humble Catholic apologists in their endeavor to make for a triumphalist posture against Eastern Orthodoxy and Protestantism. I do not mean to shy away from proclaiming the truth, but what I mean is that there needs to be a recognition that the apologetic for the Papacy is understandably difficult for studious minds to accept. Just this distinction between a fallible-magisterium in the Papacy and an infallible-magisterium in the Papacy can almost seem like a post ex facto artificial cheat (kind of like the gameshark for young kids who played Nintendo 64 in the 90s) that allows the Catholic Church to manipulate where she can be excusably wrong and where she has to be inexcusably right. It appears as if the Catholic Church is taking to herself the artificial power of cherry-picking those decrees of the past which are supposed to be inexcusably unquestionable while tossing out the bad fish of those decrees which are excusably negligible. Heck, with such a power as this, any criminal, heretic, or scholar can furnish for himself an immaculate record! For all he must do is take this artificial power and run through that which he thinks have past the test of time and deny those things everyone now knows is false. Therefore, the outward triumphalist attitude of people who think the power to decide between these conditions is a highway to clarity should rethink the matter.

On the other hand, the distinction between fallible and infallible magisteria isn’t as far fetched as it might seem at first. The Episcopal College, which succeeds to the Apostolic College, is infallible only upon certain conditions (i.e., when they agree in an ecumenical council between head and members). Otherwise, each bishop individually, or even assembled in a council, are not necessarily infallible. And yet the Scripture promises infallibility to the Apostolic hierarchy when Christ said, “I will be with you always, even unto the end of time” (Matt. 28:18). The Apostles, too, were conditionally infallible. St. Peter could make mistakes, as he did in Antioch. And yet, we know that he did not make a mistake (doctrinally) in either of his 2 epistles. Nor do we believe the Apostles could err when they agreed as assembled in the Council of Jerusalem (49). And so we can see that there is precedent for fallible versus infallible modes . The problem facing Papal apologists today is that we have to make this distinction within the Pope’s own magisterium. While it might be easy to say that the Bishops are individually fallible in their private capacity or that the Apostles were fallible in their private capacity, but that in their official capacity they were infallible, today we more generally have to extend the infallible vs fallible distinction to the Pope’s official teaching capacity, and that is what makes things extremely difficult at times.

9 thoughts on “The Strict Conditions for Papal Infallibility Yield 2 Options – Recognize & Resist or Safely Adhere to Papal Errors

  1. Erick, Fantastic piece. I am almost done with my own book on the subject, The Pope and The Prayer of Christ. May I send you the draft for your feedback? God Bless, Dr. Ed

  2. In my limited intellect,
    I thought this was a wonderful debate….at least in my understanding of it. I appreciate your writing and learn from every one I read. Thank you!

  3. Good article. For me, the R&R position does serious injury to the credibility of Catholicism and doctrine of the Papacy particularly as it has been annunciated in the last couple of hundred years by the Popes themselves. How can this be the institution Christ established to ensure unity and guard tradition if it has, according to R&R proponents, been utterly failing for decades on end, Pontificate after Pontificate. R&R might make logical sense in light of the broader ecclesiological principles if it was reserved for exceptional cases, rare occurrences and the like of Papal error. But resisting the whole general direction or program of multiple Pontificates which in turn has been informed and guided by no less than an ecumenical Council, this stretches its credibility to breaking point in my opinion.

  4. Erick, great post! As a laymen, I struggle with the implications of R&R or ASME. Apart from joining an independent or SSPX parish, I can’t see any practical way to “resist.”

    Likewise, apart from internal assent, there really isn’t a visible sign of my affirmation (or lack thereof) of problematic teaching (for instance, the new papal position regarding the death penalty).

    Is this essentially a matter of interior disposition then? I also think historically it would’ve been a tall order for most individuals to discern magisterial error.

  5. A great attempt to bring clarity to a most opaque situation. Many people who were educated after the breakdown in catechesis during the mid-to-late ’60s and early ’70s have the ASME frame of mind. The blinders were cleverly placed.

  6. Thank you for your honesty about how perplexing this all is. I am grateful that I am not a scholar or a theologian, so no one is demanding to know what I believe about these issues!
    A picky correction –
    In the last sentence of the first paragraph under “Final Thoughts,” I think you need to say “There is almost no precedent in either … or….” rather than “neither nor,” or else leave out the “almost no” and say “there is precedent in neither…nor” .

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