December 7, 2006


On the weekend of November 25th and 26th, one of our New York newspapers ran an article entitled "Pope Shocks Theologians by Suggesting He May Be Fallible." The occasion of the "shock" was a statement by Pope Benedict XVI that a book about the life of Christ that he was writing would not entail the exercise of his infallible teaching authority. It would be religious. It would express his views about matters spiritual. It would be the result of years of study and prayer. But infallible it would not be.

One theological "expert" quoted in the newspaper article was sure that nothing of this sort had ever happened before. Another opined that Pope John Paul II would never have approved his successor’s statement. And a third alleged that by his declaration Pope Benedict XVI was somehow "seeking to have his cake and eat it too."

What theological training any of these "experts" might have had the newspaper does not reveal. This much, however, should be clear to any Catholic with even the most elementary catechetical formation: The "experts" quoted in the article knew nothing about papal infallibility.

Actually, the doctrine of papal infallibility is not at all complicated. If a Pope asserts that it will rain tomorrow, he may be right; but his assertion would not be, and could not be, infallible. Similarly, if a Pope were to insist that the Roman soccer team known as "Roma" is superior to the Roman soccer team known as "Lazio," he may be right; but again, that upon which he insisted would not be, and could not be, infallible. For from the crystal-clear statements of two ecumenical councils (cf. Vatican Council I, Session 4, Chapter 4, and Vatican Council II, "Dogmatic Constitution on the Church," n. 25) and numerous authoritative declarations of the Popes, we understand that the following conditions must be fulfilled for the exercise of papal infallibility.

First, the Holy Father must be acting in virtue of his authority as the supreme shepherd and teacher of the Church. It is not enough that he is saying what he holds to be true as an ordained clergyman or even a bishop. He must be speaking as the Roman Pontiff who uniquely succeeds in the office of St. Peter, the Prince of the Apostles.

Second, the Holy Father must be addressing the entire Church. Thus, a retreat for a group of religious, a homily at a parish Mass in the Diocese of Rome or a book about the spiritual life would not entail infallibility. All would be listened to or read with attention and respect, of course. However, to be infallible teaching, they must be clearly intended for all of the faithful without exception.

Third and finally, the Holy Father must be treating matters of faith (what we believe) and morals (how we are expected by our God to act). Statements about other issues are outside the parameters of infallible teaching. The forecast about the weather and the opinion about the soccer teams are obvious examples. Divine assistance protecting the Successor of St. Peter from error in teaching is limited to the realm of what we believe and what the law of God requires of us. Declarations about other matters may be expressions of great insight and wisdom, but they have nothing to do with infallibility.

Is the book on the life of Christ that is to be authored by Pope Benedict XVI, who has meditated that life for years and plumbed its meaning with intense study, an expression of papal infallibility? Not at all. And this is clear not only because the Holy Father in question has stated that it is not such an expression, but also because it does not fulfill the conditions specified above. It is not an exercise of the supreme teaching authority of the Supreme Teacher in the Church because that Supreme Teacher has not willed to make it so. It is not addressed to all of the faithful, though all who wish to read it and be inspired by it are most welcome to do so. And it is not a pronouncement as to what we must believe or what before our God we must do. Indeed, if someone were to suggest it is infallible, that would be "shocking."

Oe of the great blessings of my life is the theological education that I was given in Rome on my way to the priesthood. As a seminarian, I lived, prayed and was prepared for pastoral service in a college near the Vatican, the Pontifical North American College, and took the bulk of my classes at a university on the other side of town, the Pontifical Gregorian University.

At the Gregorian, literally hundreds of us sat together in huge classrooms called "aulas" hearing some of the most noted theologians of the day (the early 1950s!). We listened to the lectures in the morning and returned to our colleges in the afternoon where tutors or, as we said in those days, "repetitors" reviewed and drilled what we had heard.

The professor who taught the tract on the Church to my classmates and the other seminarians in the aula from across the world was Reverend Timotheus Zapelena, S.J. He was recognized as an expert regarding papal infallibility and thus his lectures were regularly attended by guests who sat in a balcony high above our heads.

In great detail, Father Zapelena recounted the history of the First Vatican Council during which in July of 1870 the doctrine of papal infallibility was declared to be a teaching of the Church to be held by all who count themselves followers of Jesus Christ. He analyzed each of the conditions for the exercise of papal infallibility mentioned above and then turned himself to explaining each of the texts from the New Testament that sustained the doctrine, among them the section from the Gospel of St. Matthew in which Peter is named the rock upon which the Church is built, is given the keys of the kingdom of heaven and is authorized to bind and loose on earth what will be bound and loosed in heaven, and the section from the Gospel of St. John in which Peter is appointed to feed the lambs and sheep of the Lord. However, he became most animated when treating a text that is less familiar to most Catholics but was clearly of great power in the mind of our distinguished professor, a text from the Gospel of St. Luke.

Even now I can see the old Spanish Jesuit in my mind’s eye. His face is covered with disappointment as he reports that the Apostles were arguing among themselves as to which of them was "the greatest." He takes off his birettum (a hat with three flaps on top that the clergy wore in that era) and with head bent and great solemnity recites the words of the Lord reminding the Apostles that they are not to be seeking to be the "greatest," but rather to be "servants," as He was. Finally, he straightens up and virtually shouts into the rafters of the immense aula in which we are assembled: "Simon, Simon, take heed. Satan has been given leave to sift all of you like wheat. But I have prayed for you, Simon, that your faith might not fail. And when you are restored (that is, when you have repented from denying Me, as I know you will), strengthen your brothers."

"This is what papal infallibility is all about," our professor first whispers and next repeats in a loud voice. "The Lord Himself has prayed that the faith of Peter, and all the Peters of all times, never fail; and it never has and never will." He hesitates a moment and continues, "Moreover, that same Lord has ordered Peter, and all the Peters of all times, to strengthen or, as one translation puts it particularly well, to ‘make firm’ the faith of all of us. That too is what papal infallibility is all about; and what a splendid, magnificent gift it is to the Church and to each and every one of us."

With that, he removes his birettum, bows, descends the steps of the podium from which he was speaking, and takes his leave amid the applause of both students and visitors. You know that he has thoroughly enjoyed his lecture and all the drama and devotion he has put into it, and you know too that no one who has heard him on the subject of papal infallibility will ever forget the experience.

Over the past 52 years I have been blessed to see with my own eyes and hear with my own ears six Successors of St. Peter. Never have I been in the presence of any of them without recalling the lecture of Father Zapelena on the text from the Gospel of St. Luke that he evidently loved so much. When the Holy Father comes into view, I am reminded that the Lord has prayed that his faith will never fail (a prayer that cannot go unanswered) and has as well ordered that he, as a Successor of Peter, is to strengthen my faith and the faith of the entire Church.

At the same time I am also reminded that, while every Pope is free to exercise the gift of papal infallibility when he judges this right and necessary, such an exercise is rare indeed. In the ordinary course of events, the Successors of St. Peter teach the truths of revelation as they know them and revere them without invoking infallible teaching authority. And to all such teaching we followers of the Divine Savior respond with the greatest of interest and the deepest of respect, as we will when Pope Benedict XVI publishes his life of Christ and "has his cake and eats it too."


Edward Cardinal Egan

Archbishop of New York