Fr. John Hunwicke writes on papal infallibility. I’ll try to summarize his essential points, but am including what I think is an important excerpt, too.
The pope’s infallibility is essentially “negative” in its nature. A responsibility of the Holy Father is to avoid cloaking his pronouncements in the garb of the Holy Spirit and in so doing make himself a dictator. Instead, the Church institutionally should perceive when any particular generation’s innovations require a response on the question of their compatibility with Christ. This isn’t being merely reactionary; it’s being responsive.
The Holy Father is not a spokesman on behalf of a “God of surprises,” but a protector of the received knowledge of humanity’s destiny with its creator. So if the pope must speak in his infallible capacity, it must nearly always be simply to say, “This is not what we have received.”
When Peter speaks, he says no. It is true that he also offers words of affirmation, comfort, and encouragement, as all pastors do. But when he exercises the role most typical of the Petrine mystery—the safeguarding of the faith—he speaks in the negative. We see this in two of the most important exercises of the papal magisterium in the years since Vatican II—indeed, since the Council of Trent: Humanae vitae (1968) and Ordinatio sacerdotalis (1994).
Humanae Vitae was not the first major magisterial intervention on contraception. That had taken place a generation before, in Casti connubii (1930), when the See of St. Peter judged that a reply was needed to the Anglican Communion’s Lambeth Conference. In other words, Rome spoke against an innovation. And there can be no doubt that it was an innovation, throughout the Christian world, to suggest that contraception was anything other than immoral. Previous Lambeth Conferences had taught this; and when the 1930 Conference changed its teaching, one of the great theological luminaries of the Church of England, Charles Gore, Bishop first of Worcester, then of Birmingham, finally of Oxford, attacked it publicly. His paper excoriating the 1930 Conference was far more damning and outraged than any document I have seen on this subject from a Catholic source. As far as Byzantine Orthodoxy is concerned, as late as 1963 a popular book by a popular hierarch of English origin concluded its section on marriage with the unadorned statement, “Artificial methods of birth control are forbidden in the Orthodox Church.” (Later editions of the book did not maintain this position.)
In the 1960s, the discovery of pharmaceutical means of preventing conception without modifying the sexual act itself provided an opportunity for some Catholic writers to argue that the old prohibitions no longer applied. With historical hindsight it is easy to see that sexual ethics were the major problem of that decade—the point at which the zeitgeist most directly challenged the Church.
Blessed Paul VI, un po’ Amletico, as his predecessor described him, saw the crucial importance of the doctrinal questions involved here, and the responsibility that lay upon him as Successor of St. Peter to give a decisive and authoritative ruling. Indeed, the Holy Spirit was given to him so that he might devoutly guard and faithfully expound the teaching handed down through the apostles, the Deposit of Faith. He did not summon synods in which he invited selected bishops to express with Parrhesia whatever views they had. He did not repeatedly suggest that the Holy Spirit might be abroad advocating a change in the established teaching. He did not float an ambiguously worded document in order to create an atmosphere in which those bishops who regarded themselves as closest to the pope’s mind could feel that they had been given sufficient authority to abandon the Tradition. Instead, Paul VI stated: “Therefore, having attentively sifted the documentation laid before Us, after mature reflection and assiduous prayers, We now intend, by virtue of the mandate entrusted to Us by Christ, to give Our reply to these grave questions.” And his reply was a decisive negative. It failed to claim the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.
A similar pattern can be seen when John Paul II issued Ordinatio sacerdotalis in 1994. This document appeared at a stage in the sexual revolution that already seems as old-fashioned as grandmother’s lace. The veteran English feminist Germaine Greer had not yet been no-platformed by the student guardians of the dogmas of gender diversity because she had declared a “trans” candidate for a fellowship in her women’s college to be “not a woman.” Prepubescent children were not yet being encouraged to consider whether they might wish to change genders. But the proliferating absurdities of the next three decades are surely implicit in the question the pope set out to answer. That question was quite simply whether women, interchangeably with men, could receive the Sacrament of Holy Orders. And, in a brief magisterial intervention, John Paul II declared that the Church was unable (nullam facultatem habere) to ordain women.
In each of these cases, the proponents of innovation downplayed the significance of the changes they sponsored…