As we know, the popes are infallible under certain conditions. According to Vatican II (repeating the teaching of Vatican I), the Roman Pontiff is infallible when, “as the supreme shepherd and teacher of all the faithful, who confirms his brethren in their faith, by a definitive act he proclaims a doctrine of faith or morals.” But what about papal teaching that falls short of these conditions? In other words, what about the non-definitive teaching of the authentic papal magisterium?
I have argued elsewhere that such teaching is not infallible and so could occasionally contain error in matters of faith or morals. But could it be infallibly safe even if it is not infallibly true? What would that mean? Some Catholic theologians have put forward a thesis that the Holy Spirit, even though he does not protect non-definitive (or merely authentic) papal teaching from all kinds of error (and so it would not be infallibly true), he does nevertheless prevent it from containing anything so erroneous that it would be harmful to souls to embrace it (hence it would be infallibly safe). In other words, according to the infallible safety thesis, the pope may teach some errors in his non-infallible magisterium, but not dangerous errors.
What would be excluded by this view? Certainly, heresy would be out of the question. If all papal teaching is infallibly safe, then no pope would ever be able to teach heresy, which is the most dangerous form of error. Proponents of this view might admit that a pope could personally believe heresy, or even teach it as a private theologian, but they would necessarily deny that he could ever teach heresy in his authentic magisterium.
What else? Any teaching that would contradict any pre-existing infallibly taught Catholic doctrine would also have to be excluded, since it could never be “safe” for a Catholic to deny a doctrine that he has a prior obligation to accept.
What can be said in favor of this view?
In the first place, we should admit that the infallible safety thesis has an initial appeal and plausibility as an argument from fittingness. It would sure make life easier for Catholics if we could simply accept everything every pope teaches without fear of encountering any dangerous errors. And if the pope is supposed to be the rock of faith and the center of unity for the Church, why would God not preserve more of his teaching from more kinds of errors? Would it not be better if the popes were more infallible rather than less?
When we look for support for this thesis in the documents of the magisterium, however, we do not find much. To be sure, Pope John Paul II spoke about a charism of divine assistance that extends beyond the infallible teaching of the pope to his entire magisterium. In a General Audience of March 24, 1993, he said, “Alongside this infallibility of ex cathedra definitions, there is the charism of the Holy Spirit’s assistance, granted to Peter and his successors so that they would not err in matters of faith and morals, but rather shed great light on the Christian people. This charism is not limited to exceptional cases, but embraces in varying degrees the whole exercise of the magisterium.”
However, John Paul II also makes it clear in the very same General Audience that he does not intend this charism to be understood as a kind of infallibility, for he explicitly says that the pope is infallible “only when he speaks ex cathedra.” If the difference between definitive and non-definitive papal teaching consisted merely in a distinction between kinds of infallibility (i.e. “infallibly true” vs. “infallibly safe”), it would be odd for teaching that is supposedly “infallibly safe” to be described simply as “non-infallible” without any qualification. Yet this is how Pope John Paul II described it in an address to the Bishops of the United States, saying: “The non-infallible expressions of the authentic magisterium of the Church should be received with religious submission of mind and will.” The official notes of the Theological Commission at Vatican II similarly use the term “non-infallible” without qualification to describe this kind of teaching.
The Instruction of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith Donum Veritatis is another magisterial text that speaks of a “divine assistance,” which is said to guide “magisterial decisions in matters of discipline, even if they are not guaranteed by the charism of infallibility.” Such a text is far from conclusive, however, since it can easily be understood as asserting a special grace that protects the Church from frequent errors in the exercise of the authentic magisterium rather than from dangerous errors. As Donum Veritatis itself goes on to say, “It would be contrary to the truth, if, proceeding from some particular cases, one were to conclude that the Church’s Magisterium can be habitually mistaken in its prudential judgments, or that it does not enjoy divine assistance in the integral exercise of its mission.”
Finally, there is support for the infallible safety thesis in the theological tradition going back to such eminent theologians as Johann Franzelin and Louis Billot in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Good scholastics that they were, however, they would certainly insist that the arguments for and against the thesis be evaluated on their own merits rather than by appeal to their authority as theologians.
Objections to the idea of “infallible safety”
What do we find when we examine the arguments? There are a number of serious objections to this thesis that I find to be persuasive (or even conclusive).
In the first place, the thesis necessarily posits a distinction between errors that are dangerous to believe and errors that are safe to believe. But in matters of faith and morals, how could it be safe to embrace any error at all? That some errors are more dangerous than others is easy to concede, but that some errors are safe? That is hard to accept. Presumably, the reason why popes and councils in past centuries took the trouble to issue solemn condemnations of propositions that were not heretical, but merely “offensive to pious ears,” or “evil sounding,” or “captious,” etc. is because they believed that even such slight deviations from correct teaching constituted a danger to the faithful.
Second, it is not at all easy to square the idea of infallible safety with the historical case of Pope Honorius (r. 625–638), who was condemned as a heretic by a whole series of Ecumenical Councils (Constantinople III, Nicaea II, Constantinople IV), whose acts, including their condemnations of Honorius as a heretic, were confirmed and ratified by later popes. This poses a real dilemma, or in fact a trilemma, for the infallible safety thesis.
The trilemma is this: there are only three possible ways to interpret these condemnations of Honorius as a heretic. Either (1) he really taught heresy in his letter to Sergius, the Patriarch of Constantinople, and was rightly condemned for it; or (2) he did not teach heresy and was wrongfully condemned; or (3) he did not teach heresy, but was nonetheless rightly condemned because his teaching, although technically orthodox, contributed to the spread of the Monothelite heresy by appearing to provide support for it through its ambiguous formulations.
On the first interpretation, the infallible safety thesis clearly falls apart, for that would be a case of a pope teaching heresy, which is the most dangerous kind of error. On the second interpretation, Honorius is off the hook, but we are then confronted with the problem of multiple Ecumenical Councils, confirmed and ratified by multiple popes, who would all be guilty of an egregious error in having wrongfully condemned Honorius as a heretic. Not only would this require us to abandon the long-held and well-established tradition that the solemn condemnations of Ecumenical Councils are infallible (no small price to pay), but what would it say about their infallible safety? If popes are infallibly safe even in their non-infallible teaching, then surely Ecumenical Councils are as well; and how could it be safe to follow their teaching if they committed an error like this? Would it have been “safe” for Catholics for centuries to be anathematizing a pope as a heretic if he were not one? If popes are protected by the Holy Spirit from ever teaching heresy, it would hardly be safe for Ecumenical Councils to be condemning a pope as a heretic.
Finally, on the third interpretation, which I think the most likely one historically, even though Honorius would not have actually taught heresy, he would have been rightly condemned for exercising his magisterium in such a way as to incur the guilt of heresy through the support he provided for it, which is sure proof that his teaching was not a safe guide for the faithful to follow.
A third objection to the infallible safety thesis is that it depends primarily on theological speculation, which reasons a priori and without reference to historical facts. Speculative theology is valuable in itself, but the theologian who practices it must be willing to take into account the evidence of history. If things occur (or have occurred) in the history of the Church that do not fit with a particular theory, then the theory has to be re-evaluated.
One consequence of this is that purported instances of dangerous error in non-infallible papal teaching cannot be brushed aside by appeal to the idea of infallible safety without begging the question. If the thesis is true, then it would follow that there could be no true instances of popes teaching dangerous error; but when the truth of the thesis is the point at issue, then purported instances of such dangerous teaching have to be taken seriously as evidence against the thesis.
A speculative theological position like “infallible safety” may have seemed more plausible in the late 19th and early 20th centuries when the popes were thundering orthodox teaching with great clarity. But the list of perplexing things said by Pope Francis continues to grow. Even if every statement could be carefully (if laboriously) explained in an orthodox fashion, we would at least have to concede, based on the facts, that the papal magisterium is not protected from ambiguous formulations that insinuate or suggest dangerous errors, or from which dangerous errors might be taken away by reading texts at face value or in their natural meaning. For example, to believe that certain passages of Scripture are no longer materially true or teachable—a position Pope Francis recently espoused in one of his responses to Dubia—at least suggests a dangerous error because of its implications for the truth of Scripture in general, even if the particular Scripture passages might not seem to be of great importance.
This fact, in and of itself, undermines the foundational speculative argument for the infallible safety thesis, which can be summarized as follows:
- God must provide a means of preserving faithful Catholics from falling into dangerous error.
- If the popes are able to teach dangerous error in their non-infallible magisterium, many Catholics will fall into dangerous error.
- Therefore, God must prevent the popes from teaching dangerous error even in their non-infallible magisterium.
But consider a parallel argument:
- God must provide a means of preserving faithful Catholics from falling into dangerous error.
- If the popes are able to lend support to dangerous error in their non-infallible magisterium, many Catholics will still be led astray.
- Therefore, God must prevent the popes from lending support to dangerous error even in their non-infallible magisterium.
This is contradicted not only by the example of Honorius but also by recent history, so there must be a flaw in it. What could it be? Certainly, it is not the first premise. The problem must be in the second premise, which asserts that the means by which God preserves faithful Catholics from falling into dangerous error must be by a charism of infallible safety. But if God has provided another means of preserving Catholics from falling into dangerous error, then this premise would fail.
Let us begin with the lesser problem of papal teaching that lends support to dangerous error, which we know is possible. What means does God provide to protect the faithful from being led astray by such teaching? There are two possibilities here:
Possibility 1. If the obligation of the faithful to accept non-infallible teaching with a religious submission of will and intellect is unconditional, then in order to avoid being led astray by potentially problematic papal teaching, they will need to have a detailed knowledge of context, original language, theological nuance, etc., or at least they must have access to the explanations offered by professional theologians and apologists.
Possibility 2. If the obligation of the faithful to accept non-infallible teaching with a religious submission of will and intellect is conditional (meaning that it must be accepted only on the condition that it does not contradict the established contents of the faith), then all that the faithful will need in order to protect themselves from falling into dangerous error is a knowledge of the faith such as is found in Scripture and in every traditional catechism. When confronted with a papal teaching that seems to provide support for dangerous error, an ordinary Catholic who knows his faith would be able to shrug it off on the basis of what is already publicly known and well-established Catholic doctrine rather than be forced to suffer constant crises of faith while waiting for someone to provide an explanation of how the teaching does not quite technically violate the faith.
The latter possibility seems not only simpler and more effective, but also more in keeping with the wisdom of God’s providence, since the knowledge required to protect the faithful from dangerous ambiguities or insinuations of error is the same knowledge that all Catholics are required to have in any case—the basic knowledge of the faith—rather than an additional technical knowledge available only to a few.
But if this is how God protects his faithful from being led astray by dangerous ambiguities or insinuations of dangerous error in official papal teaching, then there is no need to posit an additional mechanism, such as a hypothetical charism of “infallible safety,” to protect the faithful from being led astray by plain assertions of dangerous error, or even heresy, in the official (but non-infallible) teaching of the pope.
The whole solution to this question, therefore, hinges on the nature of the obligation to accept non-infallible teaching with a religious submission (religioso obsequio) of will and intellect: Is it conditional or unconditional? If unconditional, then the teaching of the authentic magisterium must be infallibly safe, completely protected from heresy and from all dangerous error, since otherwise the faithful would have no choice but to accept such teaching. If conditional, however, then it may well be possible for dangerous errors or even heresies to be taught by the authentic magisterium. And there is conclusive proof that this obligation must be conditional, for in Lumen Gentium, the same response of “religious submission of the mind” (religioso animi obsequio) is said to be owed to the teaching of individual bishops, whom we know can teach heresy (one need only think of Nestorius or Paul of Samosata). The text of Lumen Gentium says, “In matters of faith and morals, the bishops speak in the name of Christ and the faithful are to accept their teaching [in sui Episcopi sententiam refers to “their bishop” in the singular] and adhere to it with a religious assent.” The same text goes on to say, “This (Hoc) religious submission of mind and will must be shown in a special way to the authentic magisterium of the Roman Pontiff,” indicating that the obligation of religious submission owed to individual bishops and to the pope is the same in kind even though the latter is greater in degree.
Peter is the rock on which Christ founded the Church. But the faithful are ultimately preserved from dangerous error not by every word that proceeds from the mouth of the pope, but by his judicious use of the keys of the kingdom, entrusted to him by Christ, when he binds and looses the minds of the faithful by his infallible judgments and definitions ex cathedra.
 Vatican II, Lumen Gentium, 25.
 Pope John Paul II, General Audience (Mar. 24, 1993).
 Pope John Paul II, Address to the Bishops from the United States of America on Their Ad Limina Visit (Oct. 15, 1988).
 Acta Synodalia Sacrosancti Concilii Oecumenici Vaticani Secundi (Rome: Typis Polyglottis Vaticanis, 1970–99), II/1, 255; III/1, 250.
 Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Instruction Donum Veritatis (1990), 17.
 Ibid., 24.
 In this case it would not even be necessary for an ordinary Catholic to assert that he knows that a particular papal teaching is in fact erroneous or incapable of being defended; rather, if the new teaching appears to him incompatible with something to which he is already bound, such as the Ten Commandments or the Nicene Creed or any other longstanding authority, he will abstain from accepting the new teaching, keeping his judgment in suspension. He would not so be much rejecting it as refraining from accepting it.
 One enormous benefit of this conclusion is that it shows how it could be possible for Divine Providence to allow a pope to fall into heresy and even to teach heresy non-definitively, without the indefectibility of the Church being undermined. For, on this view, the Church is indefectible in the public profession of faith to which all are bound, from the least to the greatest.
 Vatican II, Lumen Gentium, 25.