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Chapter 35: The Truth of Christ Lives in His Church

Appendix 2: A critique of some views on infallibility in general

Those who deny infallibility or attempt to limit it in ways not sanctioned by received Catholic teaching generally do not discuss the infallibility of the apostles. However, most of their arguments, if sound, would exclude apostolic infallibility. Therefore, I consider some of these arguments as objections to the infallibility of the apostles and respond to them on that basis. This procedure helps greatly to clarify what ultimately is at stake in some of the debates about infallibility.

Hans Küng argues that faith always is articulated in propositions—simple or complex articles of faith. He asserts that propositions of faith never are directly God’s word but are at best God’s word mediated in human language, perceptible and transmissible by human propositions. Propositions, Küng claims, always fall short of reality, are open to misunderstanding, are susceptible to translation only within limits, change their meanings as time goes by, and can be abused for ideological purposes.51

Küng makes several mistakes. First, he apparently assumes that the word of God is not revealed in human words. This position, if carried through to its final implications, would exclude revelation altogether, for revelation is accomplished by a set of created entities (20‑A), such as the human words and deeds of Jesus, which were experienced by the apostles. Second, Küng seems to assume an individualistic conception of the act of faith; he nowhere makes it clear that infallibility is claimed for the faith of the Church founded on the apostles, not for the faith of any individual precisely as such. Third, Küng confuses propositions, which are nonlinguistic entities, with statements, which belong to language (see 20, appendix 1).

The propositions of apostolic faith certainly fell short of the reality revealed in Jesus, but the apostles also captured many aspects of this reality in nonpropositional modes of appropriation. The whole revelation falls short of divine reality itself, but cannot be faulted on that account; it is the self-communication God chose to give in the modality of the Incarnation, and is a sufficient way by which we can come to see God as he is. The propositions of apostolic faith were not open to misunderstanding; they were themselves understandings, and ones accurate by the Spirit’s help so that revelation did occur successfully.

These propositions needed no translation, but were expressed linguistically with an accuracy underwritten by the Holy Spirit (see Acts 2.5–11; AG 4). The linguistic expressions which the apostles used in preaching could in time change their meaning; but since human persons can recognize such changes, they also can compensate for them. Moreover, the Church can correct misunderstandings which arise because of the ambiguities of language. As to the ideology-prone character of propositions, Küng only shows that we can abuse truths of faith if we do not live up to them. He is certainly right about this, but it shows nothing against the infallibility of the apostles in identifying truths revealed by God.

Küng also argues that although the Spirit of God who can neither deceive nor be deceived “acts on the Church,” human beings who can both deceive and be deceived constitute the Church. The Spirit and the Church must be distinguished absolutely.52 In arguing thus, Küng apparently denies that in the man, Jesus, God reveals himself, and that by the Spirit Jesus not only acts on but speaks in and through the Church. Küng seems allergic to the Incarnation and to the lasting results in human persons of our participation through Jesus in divine truth and life.

Küng does say that infallibility belongs to God’s word: “to his word that became flesh in Jesus Christ; to the gospel message as such, which is the unerring faithful testimony of this salvation-event.” But he denies that either Scripture or the Church is infallible.53 Instead, the most he will grant is that the Church is “indefectible”—that it remains fundamentally in the truth despite all sorts of errors.54

His basic reason for taking this position is that he does not accept propositions as a medium of divine revelation; he thinks that in some mysterious way faith contacts Jesus directly.55 If one does not imagine with Küng that one’s faith is independent of the word one hears and of the Church’s faith in it, then one will be unable to make sense of Küng’s notion of indefectibility. For if not even the apostles knew what God revealed, then he tried to reveal in vain. And if the apostles knew but the Church as a whole does not know what God has revealed, then God has abandoned his own word.

In his most radical criticisms of “propositions”—linguistic entities he mistakenly identifies with propositional truth-claims—Küng actually maintains that every human proposition is historically conditioned and, as such, partly true and partly false.56 This position, which Küng draws uncritically from a number of contemporary philosophers, is an instance of self-defeating relativism. Reduced to a straightforward formula, Küng’s thesis on propositions amounts to this: “Here is an absolutely true proposition: No proposition is absolutely true.” Like all relativists, Küng of course exempts his own relativistic thesis from the limitedness, inadequacy, and partial falsity which he claims afflicts the language we use to confess and preach our faith.

Peter Chirico does not deny infallibility altogether, but asserts that it can exist only with respect to what he calls “universal meanings.” Underlying this position is a conviction that divine infallibility cannot be communicated to human persons, and so any infallibility the Church can have in believing and preaching revealed truth must be limited to areas in which human persons naturally can know without the possibility of error.57 Chirico thinks that the Church somehow is in contact with Jesus, but he does not want to admit any infallibly certain identification of revealed truths, since for him the only infallibility admissible in human judgment is that by which one identifies the necessary conditions for any human communication whatsoever.58

Chirico’s attempt to limit infallibility fails. He never makes a clear distinction between meanings and propositions, never clarifies what revelation tells us which we do not already know by human experience and reason, and gratuitously imposes on faith a theory of knowledge which limits human certitude to the conditions of the possibility of communication. In the last analysis, Chirico is prepared to admit as a truth of faith only what he is able to understand to be a saving truth; if he cannot see the value of some teaching of faith which cannot be established independently of faith, then he is prepared to reject it.59

Many theologians who disown Küng’s frank attack upon infallibility nevertheless hold views not far from his. This will be so whenever anyone suggests that each and every expression of the faith of the Church can be evaluated by one’s own faith (at least, if one is a theologian), and that one’s own faith need not be measured by any public and communal standard. Although his writings are very obscure, I think Karl Rahner’s acceptance as legitimate of a pluralism which he holds to preclude any new dogmatic definition implicitly subordinates the faith of the Church to the opinions of theologians, and so by a further implication denies the infallibility of the Church.60

51. Küng, op. cit., 157–61.

52. Ibid., 177.

53. Ibid., 218–19.

54. Ibid., 181–93.

55. Ibid., 192.

56. Ibid., 169–72.

57. Peter Chirico, S.S., Infallibility: Crossroads of Doctrine (Kansas City: Sheed, Andrews and McMeel, 1977), 57–72.

58. Ibid., 46–56.

59. Ibid., 219.

60. Karl Rahner, Theological Investigations, vol. 14, Ecclesiology, Questions in the Church, The Church in the World, trans. David Bourke (New York: Seabury Press, 1976), 66–84, esp. 80–81. Rahner’s claim (74) that his position does not mean that “from now on the dogma hitherto defined will retrospectively dissolve” is unconvincing. His argument for this is based upon the reality of God’s self-communication to us in Jesus, but he provides no reason to suppose that the “pluralism” he admits does not eliminate received dogmas as effective media of access (within the one, public faith of the Church) to this reality. For a critique of false notions of pluralism and of Rahner’s view: José Luis Illanes Maestre, “Pluralismo teológico y verdad de la fe,” Scripta Theologica, 7 (1975), 619–84.