The Infallibility of the Pope and the Stupidity of the New York Times

Infallibility is a charism of the Bishop of Rome. Stupidity is a charism of some journalists and academics when they write about the Bishop of Rome. The following paragraphs come by Rachel Donadio of the The New York Times, “What do you call a retired pope? And is he still infallible?”:

“What is the status of an ex-pope?” asked Ken Pennington, a professor of ecclesiastical and legal history at the Catholic University of America in Washington. “We have no rules about that at all. What is his title? What are his powers? Does he lose infallibility?”

. . .

“From a theological point of view, how can a person be considered to be infallible and not be infallible anymore?” Pennington asked.

. . .

That the supreme pontiff can pass authority to his successor at retirement rather than death inevitably introduces more ambiguity to the authority of church doctrine, some scholars say, since it calls into question the authority of the pontiff who promulgated that doctrine. “Benedict actually by resigning has introduced some cracks into that infallibility. It’s bound to relativize doctrine,” [Oxford Church history Professor Diarmaid] MacCullough said.

Infallibility is a charism unique to the Roman Pontiff. It was thus defined by Blessed Pius IX:

Faithfully adhering to the tradition received from the beginning of the Christian faith … we teach and define that it is a dogma divinely revealed that the Roman Pontiff, when he speaks ex cathedra, that is when in discharge of the office of pastor and teacher of all Christians, by virtue of his supreme Apostolic authority, he defines a doctrine regarding faith and morals to be held by the universal Church, by the divine assistance promised him in Blessed Peter, is possessed of that infallibility with which the Divine Redeemer willed that His Church should be endowed for defining doctrine regarding faith and morals; and that, therefore, such definitions of the Roman Pontiffs are irreformable of themselves, and not from the consent of the Church.

My high-school religion students can figure this one out: Since the charism of papal infallibility is exercised only by the Roman Pontiff, “by virtue of his supreme Apostolic authority,” then when a man ceases to be the Roman Pontiff, he has, eo ipso, ceased to posses that charism which is unique to the office.

That this power can be truly possessed and exercised by one man, lost by him upon abdication of his office, and given to another while that first man yet lives, is no terrible challenge to the mind of one who believes in the office of the papacy. He has that power “by virtue of his supreme Apostolic authority,” to quote again from the definition of Vatican I. When he loses that authority, he loses that power.

It would seem that Professors MacCullough and Pennington either don’t believe in infallibility or else they are very badly formed concerning the essence of the doctrine. In either case, they have nothing to offer us that is “theological” in the matter.

Rachel Donadio would have done well to interview a theologian who actually believes in papal infallibility and can explain it, rather than cast doubt on it. But that’s the point; she didn’t want to.