on January 25, 2010
Mark E. Powell's "Papal Infallibility: A Protestant Evaluation of an Ecumenical Issue" is an insightful evaluation of the ways in which four major Catholic thinkers approached the issue of the infallibility of the pope.
I was hesitant at first to read through yet another critical examination of this issue, having read through most of the major works on the topic and thoroughly burned myself out on them. However, the author brings a fresh perspective to a tired issue. He avoids the well-worn paths of his predecessors when it comes to debating the merits and faults of the concept of the pope's infallibility, preferring to stay on his own course. Obviously there are certain historical facts and lines of argument that must be briefly retread in any treatment of this subject, but you won't find all the typical historical case studies of papal teachings here. Nor will you find biblical proof-texting (which may seem somewhat inadequate, not using Scripture to make points on this issue), but really, how many more times do we need someone to quote Matthew 16:18 and like verses in an attempt to prove how much or how little they prove the primacy of Peter? If you are unfamiliar with the usual Bible verses employed in these arguments, this is not the book for you. "Papal Infallibility" is geared toward those already well-versed in this particular theological discussion.
It may be helpful to some to know where the author is coming from before reading this book. According to the back of the book, author Mark E. Powell is associate professor of theology at Harding University Graduate School of Religion, Memphis, Tennessee, and a contributor to "Canonical Theism: A Proposal for Theology and the Church."
In the introduction to "Papal Infallibility", the author gives a good summary of what the vision of Christianity called "canonical theism" encompasses as he outlines the core teachings of its founder William J. Abraham. Canonical theists do not believe in canonizing an epistemology, so they neither belong to the methodist epistemology of Catholicism with its papal infallibility, nor do they try putting biblical inerrancy in place of it. What they advocate is a form of epistemology called particularism (as opposed to methodism). To briefly quote from the book, "Instead of beginning with an epistemic method and then proceeding to particular knowledge claims, particularism begins with particular knowledge claims and defends the rationality of these claims by employing various ad hoc arguments. In other words, particularists are more convinced of the truth of particular knowledge claims than they are of epistemic methods used to justify these claims." (Speaking of, "epistemology", the branch of philosophy that deals with how we know what we know, is a word you will come across ad nauseum in this book, so be prepared to embrace it.)
While this is hardly the place to explore the extent of canonical theism, suffice to say its main drive is ecumenism. As Powell explores the conceptions of papal infallibility propounded by Manning, Newman, Dulles, and Kung, it's aim is not to draw people away from Catholicism (or the Protestant denominations) but rather to offer a viable alternative to approaching the disunity in Christian epistemology.
The Introduction is really the first chapter, and it is where the book's main points are driven home. The second chapter deals with the historical events surrounding Vatican I and the definition of papal infallibility found in Pastor Aeternus.
In chapters 3 through 6, the author gives a brief biography of each of the four Catholic scholars, as well as addresses the times and ideas in their lives that would influence their styles of thinking. He then goes in-depth with each scholar's development of thought on the subject of papal infallibility and ends each of the four sections with an analysis on the practicality of each one's vision. We see the full scope of belief when it comes to the pope's prerogative in defining doctrine, from Manning's maximal infallibility through Newman and Dulles' moderate infallibility, finally ending with the controversial Hans Kung and his `minimal infallibility' which is essentially no infallibility.
After each of these four have been considered, chapter 7 offers a well-written summary of the main points discussed about the views of these four men, as well as suggestions for Catholic theologians in dealing with the issue of papal infallibility in the future.
Powell stresses that "epistemic certainty is not logically required for the effective exercise of teaching and organizational authority". He concludes with rather cogent ideas for addressing epistemology for the sake of ecumenical unity. While these ideas may challenge typical religious thought for many, the reality of disunity cannot be ignored, and the thought-provoking options offered in this work are certainly worth some thought.
Canonical theism and new approaches to Christianity aside, the goal of this book was to show the problems in various approaches to papal infallibility, and it achieved this end, which makes it worthy of 5 stars.
To end, here is a quote from Brian Daley, a Jesuit priest from Notre Dame, on the back cover of the book: "[Powell's] treatment is clear, lively, and fair-minded, and it should be welcomed by both Catholics and Protestants as a careful and constructive contribution to contemporary discussions of religious epistemology."