It may be time to rethink papal infallibility

by Bill Tammeus

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The idea of papal infallibility has both baffled and amused Protestants at least since the First Vatican Council formally adopted the idea nearly 150 years ago (though the notion existed informally before that).

I have heard Protestants insist that it means one or more of these ideas: The Catholic church believes it is right about everything; every word the pope says is infallible; whoever is pope is sinless; and no Catholic can tell a lie. Well, wait. I've never heard the last claim, though because of the wild confusion about infallibility among Protestants (to say nothing of many Catholics), it wouldn't surprise me if somewhere someone did believe that.

Even when Protestants understand that papal infallibility is limited to the extraordinarily rare times a pontiff speaks ex cathedra about matters of faith and doctrine, there remains in the Protestant mind (if there is such a thing) a deep suspicion that the infallibility idea is simply arrogant nonsense.

It's Protestants, after all, who often emphasize human sinfulness and fallibility, sometimes dragging out the Apostle Paul as a witness by quoting Romans 3:23, "... all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God." If Paul is right, why does any pope imagine he's exempt?

Because of the challenging work of theologian Hans Küng and others, the idea of papal infallibility is at least provisionally being reconsidered in certain corners of the Catholic church, not without the tacit approval of Pope Francis himself.

And as Georgetown scholar Gerard Mannion argues in this "Sightings" piece from the Martin E. Marty Center at the University of Chicago, it's time to find another way to talk about whatever ideas the doctrine of papal infallibility is meant to convey.

"Out of fear, ignorance or confusion," he writes, "theologians and Church leaders alike have tip-toed around the issue of infallibility and missed countless opportunities for honest and open discussion and debate on Church matters of fundamental importance. The result: much Catholic theology and even Church teachings all too often became timid and at times seemed irrelevant to the needs of today's world."

This is true, he argues, in part because the doctrine of infallibility "is largely misunderstood by the vast majority of Catholics -- even among all too many theologians and scholars."

And if that's true of Catholics, imagine how true it is of Protestants.

There are many issues still dividing Protestants and Catholics -- from how to explain what happens in the Eucharist to whether females should be ordained as pastors to apostolic succession. I suppose papal infallibility should just take a number and get in line.

And yet in some ways the matter of infallibility sets a tone that resists open, honest ecumenical discussion leading to principled compromise about any of the other issues. It is, after all, hard to talk about things and seek to change them when one of the parties at the table imagines scenarios in which its leader speaks the inerrant, holy word of God perfectly.

Quoting Küng, Mannion suggests that "the time has come to 're-vision' this doctrine. Indeed, I would suggest that the time has come to reimagine and to re-envision the entire system of ecclesiastical magisterium -- how Catholic teaching authority is understood and practiced."

That's a large undertaking and is likely to run into plenty of resistance within the Curia and elsewhere. But it's why the church universal should consider itself less an institution and more a movement. A movement, after all, is much more interested in its goals and mission than it is in its structure or in its traditions being preserved for the sake of preserving traditions.

Even if most Protestants can't articulate an accurate description of papal infallibility, many of them are suspect of it because of what it reveals about the insecurity of an institution that requires it. For that reason alone, it may be time to rethink it.

[Bill Tammeus, a Presbyterian elder and former award-winning Faith columnist for The Kansas City Star, writes the daily "Faith Matters" blog for The Star's Web site and a column for The Presbyterian Outlook. His latest book is Jesus, Pope Francis and a Protestant Walk into a Bar: Lessons for the Christian Church. E-mail him at]

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