The First Vatican Council attributed absolute authority only to God. It declared that the Pope possesses only that infallibility which God willed to give to the Church, whenever he solemnly and officially defines a doctrine to be held by the whole Church concerning faith or morals.
The question of morals is harder to pinpoint, because it is difficult to determine exactly what a doctrine concerning morals might be. The crucial point is that the Council recognises that the Pope, acting officially in the name of the whole Church, possesses that freedom from error that the whole Church possesses. The Council did not believe the Pope was above the Church with special access to truth, but that he could express the truth already held by the Church. The Pope is dependent on the faith of the whole Church, from which he draws his understanding of revelation. The whole Church means exactly that – the people of God along with clergy and theologians – all must be there.
If faith, as the response to God’s invitation, comes first and the attempt to formulate it in words comes second and is dependent on the uses of language and culture, then common faith can be expressed in different ways. If there is only one right answer and the others are wrong, then infallibility means someone is guaranteed to have the right answer. If there are several right answers, then infallibility has a different meaning. It can be expressed as a guarantee that with one specific formulation a belief is within the common Christian tradition, though there other ways of expressing it.
This would not mean that infallibility once formulated could never be changed. It could be rethought and restated by the same channels by which it first came about, though future generations should respect the words already used. Where the Catholic Church has traditionally used one way of expressing a doctrine, other explanations by Protestant and Orthodox Churches are not necessarily wrong. They may be expressing the same Christian faith from a difference in language, culture and society.
Defined dogmas have been brought up and discussed again [the different accounts of the Holy Spirit given by Western and Eastern Churches were discussed at the Council of Florence – 1431]. As long as the Church is alive, with believers trying to live-out their faith in their own time and place, there will always be new understanding and new ways of expression. Jesus said: the Sabbath is for man, not man for the Sabbath – he would say to believers worried over dogmatic formulations that these formulations are for believers, to sustain their faith, rather than the faith of believers being for the sake of keeping formulations intact.
The freedom to reopen discussion is important, because too many believers are finding that dogmatic pronouncements no longer sustain them in their life of faith in their present form. It is important because we are not true to the Gospel unless we retain our power to communicate with non-Christians and give a fully alive witness of what the Gospel and faith in Jesus Christ means to us in terms of living in the world we share.