The Supposed Epistemological Certainty of Papal Infallibility

In his book Papal Infallibility: A Protestant Evaluation of an Ecumenical Issue, Mark Powell critically examines the Roman Catholic belief in papal infallibility. In light of recent polemics that present the Roman Catholic Church as epistemologically necessary for confidence in true belief, I thought his critique of papal infallibility was quite on point.

He begins by clarifying the Roman Catholic position:

For Catholics, the infallible decisions of the pope are not viewed as new revelations, and the charism the pope enjoys is not conceived as inspiration, even if papal definitions are not clearly found in scripture and early church tradition. Rather, the charism is conceived as a negative one that keeps the pope, ad the church, from error in interpreting and applying scripture and tradition in each new generation. Properly speaking, the pope serves as an infallible belief-producing mechanism who properly interprets scripture and tradition. The phrase “infallible belief-producing mechanism” is used throughout this work to describe the epistemic function of the pope, not as a criterion per se, but as an epistemic resource of the church that infallibly interprets the criteria of scripture and tradition. Therefore, an infallible pope is the capstone of an epistemic tower built on scripture and tradition, with scripture and tradition clearly conceived as epistemic criteria.

Papal Infallibility, pg. 14.

Thus the roman pope is able to be an arbiter of infallible certainty. Christians cannot know if they are interpreting their Bibles correctly, but the roman pope, who holds an office passed via unbroken succession from Christ himself through the apostle Peter, does indeed know the correct interpretation. Whatever he says ex cathedra, and I mean whatever he says ex cathedra, is thereby reliable and can be trusted with infallible certainty. (Unless he turns out to be a heretic and is condemned someday … but that’s neither here nor there.)

Powell then proceeds to critique this:

However, as a proposal to secure religious certainty, papal infallibility has obvious shortcomings. One problem is that of interpreting papal pronouncements. While scripture and tradition are preserved in texts and must be interpreted, papal pronouncements are also preserved in texts that must be interpreted. Instead of solving the problem of interpretation, the doctrine of papal infallibility only pushes the problem one step back. The only way out of this infinite regression is for each individual to possess infallibility so that each person can know that one has properly interpreted infallible papal pronouncements. But if each individual must possess infallibility to attain epistemic certainty, there is hardly a need for the pope to have a special charism of infallibility.

Another problem, which is interrelated to the problem of interpretation, is the issue of identifying infallible doctrines. How do Catholics know which doctrines meet the criteria for infallibility,whether the doctrine in question is infallibly taught by the pope or by the bishops in communion with the pope? As we turn to the four theologians that are examined in this work, it will become evident that the problem in identifying and interpreting infallible doctrines is not a hypothetical one. Such difficulties make the appeal to the pope as an infallible belief-producing mechanism problematic. At least it is difficult to see how Catholic doctrines of infallibility bring more epistemic certainty than what is enjoyed by other Christians.

Papal Infallibility, Pgs. 14-15. (Bold emphasis added.)

In the end, the oft cited refrain “I need infallible certainty and I can only get that in the Roman Catholic church” just doesn’t seem to hold up. I’m expecting that among conversions to Rome citing these types of conundrums, we will find a decent percentage of people who eventually find the revolving back-door of the Roman Catholic church, the one that dumps into the parking lot of agnosticism … or atheism.

Andrew Compton
Christ Reformed Church
Anaheim, CA

5 thoughts on “The Supposed Epistemological Certainty of Papal Infallibility”

  1. Great post, Andrew. As Luther reminded those in his day, popes and councils had contradicted one another over the medieval centuries, so the claim to infallibility was pure rubbish (and obviously so)..


  2. Good post, Andrew, thanks for that.

    I suppose this has to do with Rome’s understanding of the Magisterium of the church, which according to Rome’s catechism, exercises its authority when it defines dogmas – dogmas which the people must adhere to.

    It also has to do with Rome’s view of the Papacy – that the pope “has full, supreme, and universal power over the whole Church, a power which he can always exercise unhindered” (in the words of Rome’s catechism).

    It’s not really epistemological certainty – what if, as you hinted at, the power/authority is corrupted, wrong, or misinterpreted?

    Look forward to more posts on the book.



  3. I suppose that if Papal Infallibility were true, then all Papal pronouncements could be shown to have a unity without contradiction, just as our protestant doctrine of the infallibility of the Scriptures claims. I wonder if anyone has examined this?


Comments are closed.