So, what about Humanae Vitae? The German bishops, advised by Rahner, issued a statement telling the people the importance of the encyclical and its primary aim to protect the person and the sanctity of marriage. They also pointed out that the encyclical did not take from them their ultimate, personal decision of conscience in the matter of birth control. Some asked how this could be when the Pope had given his judgement on the matter and the Pope is infallible.
Rahner addressed this with a simple and clear explanation. The infallibility of the Pope as recognised by Vatican I applies only to solemn statements – ex cathedra – in which the Pope explicitly claims infallibility. And he can only claim it when it is clear that he is giving expression to the faith of the whole Church, when he is speaking for the whole assembly of the faithful. Pope Paul did not claim infallibility in this statement, but simply gave his personal judgement. He could not have claimed infallibility because his commission, which had studied the tradition from the past and the evidence of the world community of the faithful, had advised him to the contrary of his own judgement.
Some have argued that even when the Pope did not explicitly claim infallibility, the faithful should consider his words infallible and end all discussion. Rahner replied: while Catholics should always listen to the teaching of the Pope with respect, they would not be obeying Christ or the Church if they made no distinction between infallible and non-infallible teachings. They would be refusing to play their own role in the development of doctrine by leaving all the responsibility, unthinkingly, to one man.
This man does not have the experience of married people and cannot even put their questions to theologians unless married people describe to him their experience and the questions arising out of this. Nor does he have the expertise and time for research that theologians have. If the whole Church waits for him to ask the right questions and find the right answers, many will be shirking their own responsibility – and perhaps would deserve to wait indefinitely for answers.
We must be sure to understand papal infallibility correctly. An easy but erroneous analogy – the Pope has a private hot-line to heaven, and when he is stuck he gets a revelation to solve the problem. The communication is not drawn from heaven but from the tradition of believers down through the ages. They were taught that public revelation ceased with the death of the apostles, in the sense that the Church would not be given special answers from heaven to new problems; there will always be the need to search the Scriptures and tradition.