Is the Pope or the Church infallible?? It was not only the participants in the First Vatican Council 150 years ago who were faced with this question. Our theology editor Jan Hendrik Stens also had to deal with it once.
"Is the pope infallible??" – I was asked this question in my church history exam. And I knew that if I answered "yes" now, I would have been allowed to come back one more time. Arnold Angenendt, then professor of Medieval and Modern Church History in Munster, had repeatedly announced in his lectures that he would fail anyone who claimed that the Pope himself was infallible.
And then he cited how the relevant constitution, "Pastor Aeternus," correctly states, namely, that when the pope makes final decisions by virtue of his authority, he possesses that infallibility "with which the divine Redeemer willed to endow his Church in making final decisions in doctrines of faith and morals". Almost word for word, the Second Vatican Council repeats it in its Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (LG 25). What is meant here is not all the statements that a pope makes, sometimes spontaneously, but also deliberately and in a pre-formulated way. Also an encyclical – so Angenendt – is a magisterial letter, but has nothing to do with infallibility. So when it comes to such a formulation "ex cathedra" in a final act, it always happens in association with the bishops who exercise the magisterium together with the successor of Peter. The Second Vatican Council in turn also writes that.
The dogma of infallibility is therefore not a carte blanche for the pope to tamper with the teachings of the church as he sees fit. Angenendt compared such unchallengeable "ex cathedra" decisions with court decisions of last instance. If, for example, the "Supreme Court of the United States" makes a judgment, then this is also final and unchallengeable. In and of itself a beautiful explanation, with which it can live itself. But that even judgments of the highest courts are criticized, we are currently experiencing again. And the debate around an ie even final judgments cannot stifle.
Twelve years after my church history exam, Angenendt's successor, Hubert Wolf, published the story of an Inquisition trial of members of the monastery of Sant'Ambrogio della Massima in Rome in the years 1859 to 1862. The trial at that time was also directed against the Jesuit priest Josef Kleutgen, who not only promoted morally and doctrinally questionable practices of the monastery, but also broke the seal of confession and had some sexual relations. Although the windy Jesuit from Germany had been condemned as a heretic, after his pardon he rose to become one of Pope Pius IX's most important advisors. and Leo XIII. at. His four-volume work, "The Theology of the Ancient Times," played a major role in determining neo-scholasticism, which at that time was accepted as the only legitimate teaching of the Church. And Kleutgen is also said to have helped formulate the dogma of infallibility.
Against this background, one looks today somewhat sobered and ambivalent at a truth of faith that is now 150 years old and wonders which other church doctrinal decisions may have been set in motion in a similar way or by similarly dazzling figures in church history. Nevertheless, with the dogma of infallibility remains the image of a final decision, which is valid for the whole church. Since 1870, however, this has only been used once, namely when Pius XII. proclaimed the bodily amption of Mary into heaven as a dogma. So the dose is very small and probably better remain so in the future.
Jan Hendrik Stens