Mark Powell’s new book Papal Infallibility: A Protestant Evaluation of an Ecumenical Issue shows that the path from papal infallibility to epistemic certainty is hardly uniform or successful.
First, maximal infallibility:
[Henry Edward Cardinal] Manning’s maximal infallibility, which stressed the problems of private judgment in theological reflection, looked to the pope to decisively settle theological disputes and secure doctrinal unity. . . . However, Manning’s maximal infallibility is fraught with problems. His position is dependent on a strong foundationalism with unfeasibly high standards for knowledge that has been largely abandoned in contemporary epistemology. Rather than rescuing Manning from the problem of private judgment, maximal infallibility only continues his pursuit of epistemic certainty on an endless cycle. Infallible papal pronouncements must be properly identified, and then they too, like scripture and tradition, are subject to private interpretation. In this regard, papal pronouncements bring no more certainty than scripture and tradition do. (202-203)
Second, moderate infallibility:
[John Henry Cardinal] Newman’s moderate infallibility and his theory of doctrinal development were proposed to address many of the problems that result from maximal infallibility. The moderate position substantially limits the number of infallible papal pronouncements, and the theory of doctrinal development explains the lack of historical support for recent Catholic doctrines. Newman, though, shares many of Manning’s assumptions in epistemology. Like Manning, Newman is seeking epistemic certainty, and this certainty is required for religious claims to qualify as knowledge….
However, the complexity of Newman’s proposal subtly undermines the epistemic certainty he seeks. To avoid papal absolutism, Newman highlights the problem of identifying and interpreting infallible papal pronouncements. For Newman, the church as a whole has a part in adopting infallible papal pronouncements, and theologians in particular play a crucial role in interpreting infallible doctrines. While Newman recognizes the problem of past papal errors, some of which are quite inventive, in an attempt to preserve papal infallibility. When he considers the possibility of future papal errors, he employs a number of epistemic resources, primarily conscience, to counter these potential errors….
While the theology of doctrinal development worked in Newman’s favor for the doctrines he supported, it was also used against him by proponents of doctrines he opposed. Suddenly, Newman could no longer appeal to historical problems in contemporary doctrinal proposals since such doctrines could be legitimate doctrinal developments. Further, proponents of theological liberalism could appeal to doctrinal development to bypass historical beliefs like the Trinity and Chalcedonian christology. (203-204)
Third, minimal infallibility:
[Han’s] Kung’s minimal infallibility, which is actually a rejection of papal infallibility, refuses to engage in the epistemic practices of moderate infallibility. Kung does not call doctrinal change a doctrinal development, and he does not retain the term “infallibility” when he is in fact speaking of indefectibility. Kung admits historical problems in the doctrinal history of the Catholic Church without attempting to explain these problems away. And he is not interested in retaining the notion of religious certainty. . . .
The debate over Kung’s Infallible? An Inquiry demonstrates once again the inadequacy of doctrines of infallibility. In Infallbie? Kung gives the example of Humanae Vitae, which bans the use of artificial contraception, as an example of erroneous teaching of the Catholic magisterium that has the status of an infallible doctrine. Kung’s example, though, sparked a substantial debate over whether Humanae Vitae is indeed an infallbile exercise of either the extraordinary papal magisterium or the ordinary universal magisterium. The debate clearly shows the problem of identifying infallble doctrines by the foremost officials and theologians of the Catholic Church. Obviously, doctrines of infallibility have not brought the epistemic certainty first envisioned by Manning and even Newman. (206)
Powell’s conclusion is that with out infallibility, the pope “could still exercise primacy in the Catholic Church while exercising a different role of leadership in any potential ecumenical union, as the bishop of Rome did in the first millennium of the church’s existence.” (213)