On December 27, an article by theologian Dr. John Joy was published by 1 Peter 5 under the title, Is There a Charism of Infallible Safety?
By this, he means to question whether the pope’s authoritative non-infallible magisterium is always safe for the faithful to embrace, i.e., it never poses a danger to one’s soul. The impetus for this inquiry is obvious: The man that most of the world, including Dr. Joy, considers pope is a veritable firehose of dangerous doctrines.
The day following publication of Joy’s article, the ubiquitous Dr. Peter Kwasniewski took to social media to say that it is “one of the most important essays of 2023, on the question of whether we should (or must) believe it is always safe to follow papal teaching.”
Here, we will examine Dr. Joy’s case against infallible safety, offering counterarguments in the light of Catholic tradition. Be forewarned: These proceedings will take time to unfold, but given that Dr. Joy’s conclusions reflect the view of a great many Catholics in our day, perhaps it will be worthwhile.
Concerning “the non-definitive teaching of the authentic papal magisterium,” Joy writes:
I have argued elsewhere that such teaching is not infallible and so could occasionally contain error in matters of faith or morals.
He later states:
In the first place, the thesis [of infallible safety] 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. [Emphasis in original.]
There appears to be a misunderstanding on Dr. Joy’s part insofar as the infallible security “thesis” (as he calls it) does not concede the possibility of “error in matters of faith or morals” in the non-infallible authoritative papal magisterium. In fact, as we shall see, numerous holy popes, saints, catechisms, and venerable theologians have consistently indicated that such is not possible.
Does that mean that no error of any kind whatsoever is possible in the non-infallible authoritative papal magisterium?
For an answer, let us turn for insight to the eminent moral theologian Benedictus Merkelbach, O.P., who writes:
Where the Church does not teach with infallible authority, the proposed doctrine is not of itself irreformable, that is why, if per accidens in an hypothesis (albeit very rarely); after the most careful examination, there seems to be very grave reasons against the proposed teaching, it would be licit without temerity to suspend internal assent… Benedictus Henricus Merkelbach O.P., Summa Theologiae Moralis, Vol. I, p. 598.
NB: The phrase per accidens serves to provide a crucial distinction. It suggests that the possibility of “very grave reasons to suspend internal assent” to a non-infallible teaching may be due to something in the doctrine as proposed that is accidental, extraneous, or nonessential; this as opposed to error per se, that is, a doctrine that is erroneous in and of itself.
Now that we are clear as to what the potential for error in non-infallible teachings entails vis-à-vis infallible safety, let’s return to Joy’s arguments.
To his credit, he makes a good faith effort to present arguments both pro and con. With respect to the pro-thesis side, he writes:
When we look for support for this thesis in the documents of the magisterium, however, we do not find much.
In reality, as we shall see, there is a great deal of convincing evidence to be found, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
What Joy did find and provide are the following citations that, despite being taken exclusively from post-conciliar sources, offer a considerable amount of support in favor of infallible safety:
Pope John Paul II spoke about a charism of divine assistance that extends beyond the infallible teaching of the pope to his entire magisterium …
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.”
The footnote for the latter statement directs readers to Donum Veritatis – 17, but Dr. Joy fails to provide the most salient portion of the text, which reads:
Divine assistance is also given to the successors of the apostles teaching in communion with the successor of Peter, and in a particular way, to the Roman Pontiff as Pastor of the whole Church, when exercising their ordinary Magisterium, even should this not issue in an infallible definition or in a “definitive” pronouncement but in the proposal of some teaching which leads to a better understanding of Revelation in matters of faith and morals and to moral directives derived from such teaching.
One must therefore take into account the proper character of every exercise of the Magisterium, considering the extent to which its authority is engaged. It is also to be borne in mind that all acts of the Magisterium derive from the same source, that is, from Christ who desires that His People walk in the entire truth.
NOTE: I am not suggesting that Dr. Joy overlooked this portion of Donum Veritatis 17 deliberately, but one must acknowledge that it speaks far more directly to the matter under review than the text he chose to provide.
Think carefully about what is stated: All acts of the Magisterium – not only dogmatic acts of defining – derive from Christ who so wills that the faithful should abide in truth that He provides divine assistance to the popes even in the exercise of their ordinary magisterium.
In order to fully understand the gravity of what is being said in each of the citations above, it will be necessary for us to define what this “divine assistance” entails. Thankfully, as we shall see momentarily, unassailable pre-conciliar sources provide the answer.
About the curiously limited citations that Dr. Joy did offer from Donum Veritatis, he states:
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 [art. 24] 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.” [Emphasis added by Dr. Joy]
It seems that confirmation bias has gotten the better of Dr. Joy insofar as the idea that one may occasionally find “dangerous error” in non-infallible teachings on faith and morals (his position) is nowhere to be found in the text. In fact, such is not even suggested.
Once again, to make matters worse, crucial context is missing.
As stated in its opening, Donum Veritatis article 24 is very specifically addressing “Magisterial interventions in questions under discussion which involve, in addition to solid principles, certain contingent and conjectural elements,” i.e., it concerns matters legitimately open to theological debate. The authors of the text state that such interventions “might not be free from all deficiencies.” This should call to mind the extraneous or nonessential elements mentioned by Merkelbach as potentially present per accidens alongside certain “solid principles.”
In any event, the authors of Donum Veritatis then go out of their way to insist:
The willingness [of theologians] to submit loyally to the teaching of the Magisterium on matters per se not irreformable [that is, non-infallible] must be the rule. (ibid.)
In this, one notes that the interventions under discussion in Donum Veritatis 24 and the non-infallible authoritative Magisterium (the subject of infallible safety) are not one and the same. This much is obvious even in the truncated quote that Dr. Joy provided where we find the authors of the text making a clear distinction between “prudential judgments in particular cases” and “the integral exercise of [the Church’s] mission.”
And what exactly is the latter?
The authors of the text tell us by calling our attention back to the “divine assistance” previously mentioned in art. 17 as given to the pope in the exercise of his “ordinary magisterium” on “faith and morals.”
Invalid though Dr. Joy’s point is, even if one is inclined to accept it, the example of Francis (for those, like Joy, who insist that he is the Roman Pontiff) thoroughly dispels the argument inasmuch as one is hard pressed to deny that his so-called magisterium includes dangerous error on an habitual and frequent basis.
Dr. Joy went on to cite “the historical case of Pope Honorius,” saying that it is difficult to “square [with] the idea of infallible safety.”
He presents this as one of his strongest arguments, but even he admits that the case remains highly contested to this day and, furthermore, it concerns not authoritative papal magisterium disseminated to the entire Church, but rather a posthumously discovered private letter from the pope to the Patriarch of Constantinople.
More could be said on the Honorius situation but I will leave it to readers to search this blog and elsewhere for more details.
Even so, it should already be obvious enough that the case of Pope Honorius (like that of Liberius, John XXII, and other “bad” popes) bears little resemblance to the present situation under Francis.
Dr. Joy goes on to affirm that “God must provide a means of preserving faithful Catholics from falling into dangerous error,” a point that no serious Catholic disputes. The question is how and by what means does God provide a safety net for the protection of the children of the Church.
Joy’s answer as to the means by which Catholics are preserved from dangerous error allegedly dispensed by the Apostolic See is as old as the Protestant revolt itself. He states:
…an ordinary Catholic who knows his faith would be able to shrug it [authoritative but dangerous papal magisterium] off on the basis of what is already publicly known and well-established Catholic doctrine.
He goes on declare:
…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.
Before we address this proposition, it must be said (and presumably Dr. Joy does not disagree) that this “knowledge that all Catholics are required to have” in order to avoid false and dangerous teaching extends beyond infallibly defined doctrines alone.
So, what does the Church have to say about what is required of us? Pope Pius XII, writing in 1950, states:
Nor must it be thought that what is expounded in Encyclical Letters does not of itself demand consent, since in writing such Letters the Popes do not exercise the supreme power of their Teaching Authority. For these matters are taught with the ordinary teaching authority, of which it is true to say: “He who heareth you, heareth me”; and generally what is expounded and inculcated in Encyclical Letters already for other reasons appertains to Catholic doctrine. (Humani Generis 20)
In the previous century (1864), writing in the Syllabus of Errors, Pope Pius IX condemned as false the following proposition:
The obligation by which Catholic teachers and authors are strictly bound is confined to those things only which are proposed to universal belief as dogmas of faith by the infallible judgment of the Church. (Syllabus, Condemned Error No. 22)
Obviously, the Church does not strictly bind anyone to that which is potentially dangerous, much less the simple faithful who turn to Catholic teachers and authors for knowledge.
At this, one may recall Dr. Joy’s assertion that we do not find much support for infallible safety in the documents of the magisterium.
We will decimate that allegation soon. In the interim, however, one notes that Joy utterly fails to provide any such support in favor of his thesis. The reason for this is simple:
There are no magisterial documents, nor are there any teachings from the Fathers, Saints, or Doctors of the Church, etc., alerting the faithful to the potential for dangerous error in the papal magisterium, exhorting them to seek safety from this menace in their own knowledge.
This emphasis on individual knowledge should call to mind the scene that unfolded in Eden as Adam and Eve sought the knowledge of good and evil apart from God. Here, Dr. Joy is suggesting that we must attain knowledge, not so much apart from God’s Church, but that we may defend ourselves against what comes out her! Could there be a less Catholic thought?
That having been said, if we deign to treat Dr. Joy’s proposition with seriousness, we quickly discover that it is deeply flawed in several other noteworthy respects.
For one, it is at odds with the above cited papal magisterium wherein it is made clear that the Church obligates the faithful to the non-infallible magisterium. Surely, Dr. Joy would not contend that the Church, even occasionally, binds the innocent to dangerous error.
Secondly, one might ask: What chance would the simple faithful have in a Church wherein reliance upon one’s own knowledge is the only thing that stands between themselves and Satan who prowls about the world seeking the ruin of souls? How would it be possible in such an environment for the simple faithful to “be as little children” with reliance on the Church as Holy Mother?
Thirdly, Joy’s proposition amounts to replacing the contemporary “living Magisterium of the Church,” which is the “universal norm of truth for all,” the same that “explains that which is only implicit in the deposit of faith” (cf Pope Pius XII, Ad Caeli Reginam, 45), with what, the Bible and a series of textbooks?
Lastly and most noteworthy, Dr. Joy’s supposition – namely, that one’s own “basic knowledge of the faith” is enough to provide safe harbor for the children of the Church should they ever be subjected to dangerous errors in authoritative magisterial texts – fails completely insofar as it suggests the absolute necessity of infallible safety.
In other words, his theory cannot possibly hold unless the sacred Magisterium really is (or at least once was) to be trusted as never teaching dangerous errors in matters of faith and morals. Apart from this, how would the faithful ever to come to this basic knowledge of the faith in the first place?
The good news is that Our Lord does indeed guide the Church in such a way that we can always rely on the sacred Magisterium as a trustworthy teacher and guide that will never dispense errors that endanger us. How so? By way of the aforementioned “divine assistance” that we will now consider in greater detail.
First, let us look to the last true ecumenical council of the Holy Roman Catholic Church, Vatican I.
The Son of God, Redeemer of the human race, Our Lord Jesus Christ, promised, when about to return to his heavenly Father, that he would be with this Church Militant upon earth all days even to the end of the world. Hence never at any time has He ceased to stand by his beloved Bride, assisting her when she teaches, blessing her in her labors and bringing her help when she is in danger. (Vatican I, Dogmatic constitution on the Catholic Faith, Preamble, 1) [Emphasis added.]
NB: Our Lord assists His Church whenever she teaches, i.e., this divine assistance is not narrowly limited to infallible acts of defining alone. The Vatican Council continues:
For the Holy Spirit was promised to the successors of Peter not so that they might, by his revelation, make known some new doctrine, but that, by his assistance, they might religiously guard and faithfully expound the revelation or deposit of faith transmitted by the apostles. (Vatican I, First Dogmatic Constitution on the Church of Christ, Ch 4, Art. 6)
NB: Our Lord keeps His promises. This necessarily means that the divine assistance described above is, without any question whatsoever, given to every last one of the Successors of Peter. Once again, no suggestion is made that this assistance is limited merely to acts of defining.
Unfortunately, many today mistake the word “might” as found in the widely published translation above to mean, “maybe they will, maybe they won’t.” The Latin text, however, may more properly be translated to state, “so that they would keep the deposit of faith sacredly and faithfully expound it.”
This is confirmed by what immediately follows in the text:
Indeed, their Apostolic teaching was embraced by all the venerable Fathers and reverenced and followed by all the holy orthodox Doctors, for they knew very well that this See of St. Peter always remains unblemished by any error, in accordance with the divine promise of our Lord and Saviour to the Prince of His disciples: “I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail; and when you have turned again, strengthen your brethren.” (ibid.)
NB: By virtue of the “divine promise” (that is, the divine assistance that we are examining), the See of Peter “always remains unblemished by any error.” This freedom from any blemish of error very directly concerns the indefectibility of the Church.
The Vatican Council goes on to say:
This gift of truth and never-failing faith was therefore divinely conferred on Peter and his Successors in this See so that they might discharge their exalted office for the salvation of all, and so that the whole flock of Christ might be kept away by them from the poisonous food of error and be nourished with the sustenance of heavenly doctrine. (Vatican I, First Dogmatic Constitution on the Church of Christ, Ch 4, Art. 7)
Once again, despite the common use of the word “might” in the translation above, the Latin text is more properly translated to say, “that they may…,” i.e., “enabling them to…”
Perhaps more interesting still, the Latin text speaks of the “veritatis et fidei numquam deficientis charisma,” that is, “the never-failing charism of truth and faith.” This is just another way of describing the charism of infallible safety.
Note once again that there is no suggestion that this charism is limited only to rare occasions.
These citations from Vatican Council I tell us in what the “divine assistance” given to the popes consists, and why it is given. Taken together, they rather plainly provide irrefutable testimony in favor of the thesis of infallible safety.
Even so, let us not hesitate to seek corroboration from other “expert witnesses” if you will, turning first to the Catechism of the Council of Trent (Roman Catechism):
This Spirit, first imparted to the Apostles, has by the infinite goodness of God always continued in the Church. And just as this one Church cannot err in faith or morals, since it is guided by the Holy Ghost…
Yet again, we find that the inability of the Church to err in faith and morals is not limited, and this due to the ever-present divine assistance of the Holy Ghost.
Is it really necessary at this point to call more witnesses?
For the sake of thoroughness, let’s hear from just two more.
The Church is endowed with perfect and perpetual immunity from error and heresy. (cf Pope Pius XI, Quas Primas, 22)
Interestingly, Pope Pius XI mentions immunity from both heresy – that is, doubt or denial of that which must be believed with divine and Catholic faith, aka dogma – and simple error, that which contradicts non-infallible teaching.
Jesus Christ, hanging on the Cross, opened up to His Church the fountain of those divine gifts, which prevent her from ever teaching false doctrine. (cf Pope Pius XII, Mystici Corporis, 31) [Emphasis added.]
We might also add:
It is Christ who enriches pastors and teachers and above all His Vicar on earth with the supernatural gifts of knowledge, understanding and wisdom, so that they may loyally preserve the treasury of faith, defend it vigorously, and explain it and confirm it with reverence and devotion. (Pius XII, Mystici Corporis, 50)
This plainly indicates that divine assistance is given to the Roman Pontiff, not only for purposes of defining doctrine, but also for defending, explaining and confirming the faith, i.e., the content of the ordinary magisterium.
NB: Both of the above cited Roman Pontiffs reigned after the First Vatican Council, and yet neither one treated its definition of papal infallibility as if to mean that all manner of error is otherwise possible.
Before we rest our case in defense of infallible safety – which based on the weight of the testimony provided, one hesitates to call a mere “thesis” – let us first consider a common rebuttal.
Divine assistance is, of course, promised and offered to the popes, even when they teach non-infallibly. They do, however, retain their free will. As such, this assistance may very well be rejected, and the charism go unreceived.
First, let us acknowledge that all concerned agree that the popes are prevented from erring when teaching infallibly, and yet not one of us would suggest that his free will is thus suspended. Likewise, no one argues that the free will of the human authors of Sacred Scripture was suspended as they wrote, even as we accept that “it is absolutely wrong and forbidden to admit that the sacred writer has erred” (Pope Pius XII, Divino Afflante Spiritu).
I offer these examples, not to call into question the enduring nature of free will, but only to illustrate the degree to which all Catholics readily recognize that free will is not incompatible with the divine assistance that, by the Lord’s expressed will, prevents error from entering into His Church, endangering His faithful.
That having been said, let’s address the free will argument more directly.
Imagine a pope who refuses the divine assistance that is offered. How might we come to know that he rejected it? What might we witness as the result?
Well, we may very well see (to use the language of Vatican I) that rather than “religiously guarding and faithfully expounding the deposit of faith,” he makes it publicly known that he has abandoned the “truth.” We might witness his “faith failing,” shuddering in horror as he dispenses “the poisonous food of error” to the entire Church.
Yes, our interlocutor might say, this describes Francis precisely!
For many Catholics today – e.g., men like Drs. Joy and Kwasniewski, et al. – the Bergoglian reign of terror serves as solid evidence that the notion of infallible safety is a fallacy, and this according to the following faulty logic:
Thesis: Infallible safety as proposed is like a shoe that every pope wears.
Observation: Francis’ magisterium does not provide infallible safety, i.e., the shoe obviously does not fit the man.
Conclusion: The thesis must therefore be wrong, i.e., the shoe of infallible safety never really existed.
Oh, but there is another conclusion to be drawn, one that has the great advantage of being logically consistent with the bi-millennial witness of Catholic tradition:
The shoe does not fit because the man is not pope.
In fact, it is beyond dispute that any man who publicly abandons the truth, and whose faith fails in plain view of all, and who even goes so far as to externally manifest the poisonous food of error, broadcasting it throughout the world and refusing every attempt at correction, etc., this man is not a member of the Mystical Body of Christ at all, i.e., he is not a Catholic of any rank, much less is he a pope.
NB: This is undoubtedly so according to what Holy Mother Church herself has always taught regarding membership in the Mystical Body of Christ. (See Pius XII, Mystici Corporis, nos. 22, 69)
Along this same line, let’s consider more closely the aforementioned indefectibility of the Church:
Only to One particular Church is indefectibility assured, viz. to the See of Rome. To Peter, and in him to all his successors in the chief pastorate, Christ committed the task of confirming his brethren in the Faith (Luke 22:32); and thus, to the Roman Church, as Cyprian says, “faithlessness cannot gain access.” (1917 Catholic Encyclopedia)
By order of Francis, it must be admitted, dangerous error has been entered into the Acta Apostolicae Sedis which records the official Acts of the Apostolic See. Therefore, if Francis is truly the Roman Pontiff, it cannot be denied that faithlessness has gained access to the See of Rome.
Now, one may argue that this is merely Francis’ private opinion, but if the Bishop of Rome, the pope himself, cannot be relied upon to declare what constitutes the Acts of the Apostolic See over which he reigns, to whom shall we turn? A future pope with a more palatable opinion? Dr. Joy? Dr. Kwasniewski? Our grandma?
Does it not make more sense to posit that these dangerous errors do not really belong to the Acts of the Apostolic See because the “pope” that ordered their inclusion isn’t really the pope?
At this, our case is closed. It’s time to deliberate, and there are only two possible verdicts:
- One can rule in concert with the consistent testimony of the Fathers, the Saints, the Doctors, the Catechisms (Roman and others), Vatican Council I, venerable theologians, and holy popes, thus recognizing and reaffirming the divine assistance whereby infallible safety is assured, which therefore necessarily means that a man like Francis cannot possibly be the Roman Pontiff. Or…
- One can choose to declare that each of the aforementioned expert witnesses have been wrong all along; the Holy Roman Catholic Church and her popes – outside of a relative handful of teaching exercises – cannot be trusted. It is thus up to every individual man to determine whether or not the authoritative papal magisterium happens to contain the poisonous food of error, posing a danger to the soul, and this based upon nothing more than his own knowledge of the faith.
May the Good Lord grant to each of us in this New Year the divine assistance necessary to discover, to embrace, and to share the truth, whatever it may be, no matter how inconvenient or costly.