Boniface explains the confusion that many Protestants experience when reading older papal claims and try to parse infallibility:
It seems to me that there are certain dogmas or declarations of the Catholic Church that some in the Magisterium wish they could forget about. I’m thinking of declarations like those found in Unam Sanctam (1302), the Syllabus of Errors, the Council of Florence, etc. These declarations on issues such as the reality and eternality of hell, the necessity of membership in the Church for salvation, the permanent invalidity of Jewish ceremonial law, the condemnation of secular political concepts and many other such un-ecumenical positions stand out to them as embarrassing monuments of a bygone era. I think many in the Church would like to get rid of these declarations, if they could – and I am speaking not only of liberals, but of mainstream, even certain “conservative” members of the hierarchy. These teachings are like antiquated family heirlooms that one can’t get rid of but effectively hides by stuffing them in the attic.
Obviously and thankfully, these declarations cannot be gotten rid of. They can be ignored and wished away, but they will not go away. Definitive, infallible ex cathedra statements remain for all time and are irreformable of their very nature. No matter how much any bishop or cardinal would like to contradict or get rid of these dogmatic heirlooms, they cannot.
Yet, though these declarations will not go away, there is a way that the hierarchy has found to get around this problem. I have noticed that, in areas where the modern hierarchy takes vastly different positions than the traditional Church, novel positions are not given to the faithful by means of encyclicals or dogmatic statements, but are found throughout lower-level pronouncements, such as speeches, letters, addresses, bishops’ statements etc. By repeating these novel positions again and again in very low-level pronouncements, the faithful get accustomed to hearing certain novelties “from the Church” and over time come to accept them as “Church teaching.”
A classic example is the death penalty. Granted, JPII called for a lesser application of the death penalty in Evangelium Vitae; but besides this, most of the very strong words offered against the death penalty have come from bishop’s committees, papal speeches, statements and letters and articles in publications like L’Osservatore Romano and on Zenit. Many of these statements condemn capital punishment absolutely, in contradiction to Church teaching and tradition. The Catechism, the official teaching of the Church, of course says that capital punishment is licit and that the state cannot be denied the right to wield it. That is the official teaching and it cannot be altered. But, at every level lower than official teaching, capital punishment is condemned absolutely, and with such frequency that many orthodox Catholics no longer know that capital punishment is allowable. They have heard the voices of the popes and the bishops (in low-level pronouncements) condemn it so much that this erroneous position has effectively become “the Church’s teaching,” leading to a situation where something other than Church teaching takes the practical place of Church teaching while allowing the contrary and official position to remain in place.
Thus the strategy for “changing” Church teaching seems to be this: If you want to teach something contrary to what the Church has always taught, just do it at low enough levels of authority and eventually people will start to accept your low-level declarations as “Church teaching” if they are trumpeted about long enough.
Did the faculty of Auburn Seminary take over the Vatican? It’s not the letter of infallible statements but the spirit?
If only Denzinger were alive. He could fix this.