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Thomas O'Neil wrote:

Hi, guys —

How would you respond to this article from an orthodox perspective which claims that:

  • papal infallibility doesn't work,
  • there is no list of infallible statements
  • no one can be certain what statements are, or are not, infallible, and
  • that certain statements made by Popes in encyclicals are problematic or contradictory.

Here is a link to the article in question.


  { How would you respond to this Greek Orthodox perspective that papal infallibility doesn't work? }

Richard replied:

Hi, Mike —

The article is an excerpt from the self-published book "His Broken Body" by Fr. Laurent Cleenewerck, an Orthodox priest, and it's an attempt to review the controversies between Orthodox and Catholics from an Orthodox point of view.

From reading a few pages of the article, I get the impression that Fr. Cleenewerck may actually have some misunderstanding about what Catholics believe regarding infallibility.

For example, in discussing the canons of the Fourth Lateran Council, he quotes Canon 3, a passage that urges secular authorities to "exterminate" heretics in their territory. Of course this is shocking, and Fr. Cleenewerck presents this as if Catholics considered it to be infallible.

However, that is probably a mistake. I'll explain why. The passage is giving directives on how to fight the influence of heresy. It says that heretics are to be excommunicated; they are to be anathematized, etc. This is all procedural direction. Infallibility applies to doctrine and not to directives. Therefore, if I understand things aright, Catholic theologians would not consider Canon 3 to be protected by the gift of infallibility.

The whole of Canon 3 can be read here in translation:

That web publication is cited in Fr. Cleenewerck's book, so apparently he was using that very translation. It was published in 1937, and it's actually a bit misleading. In particular, the word exterminate is misleading in English: a more accurate translation would be expel. So the Fourth Lateran Council was urging secular authorities to expel heretics in their territory. Admittedly, that is not up to modern human rights standards, but for the 13th century, that's how they kept the peace. It's not talking about extermination in the sense of killing, so the whole thing becomes less shocking.

That point about language leads to another question. Fr. Cleenewerck doesn't cite any source for his readers to look at the canons in the original Latin. That is really not up to scholarly standards, which is surprising, since he holds several graduate degrees.

The page for his book contains the book's entire index, and it has not a single index entry for any Latin terms. The on-line excerpt which I read doesn't contain any quotations from the Latin, except for the titles of documents, so I can't tell whether Fr. Cleenewerck knows Latin well enough to read the documents that he is discussing.

His resume/curriculum vitae online does not list Latin among the languages that he knows:

So all in all, I would have to say that the book has some weaknesses, and probably is not the best resource for understanding both sides of the theological divide in the depth that the subject deserves.

I hope this helps.

— Richard

Richard followed up:

Hi again, Mike!

I've found a 20-page analysis of Fr. Cleenewerck's book, written by a Catholic writer, James Likoudis, a convert from Greek Orthodoxy, and author of "Ending the Byzantine Greek Schism".

He offers the article for purchase through his web page: James Likoudis' Page at:

— Richard

Mike replied:

Hi Thomas,

Thanks for the question.

Over the past six years we have received some very good questions on the topic of papal infallibility. Although most are not directly related to the [Catholic|Orthodox] differences I think:

  • if you read all of these web postings, or
  • send them to the person you are dialoguing with

both of you will find them helpful to a Catholic, meaning total, understanding of papal infallibility.

I have tried to group them into mini-categories.

You said:
How would you respond to this article from an orthodox perspective which claims that:

  • papal infallibility doesn't work

I don't mean to be smart, but papal infallibility won't work if you don't understand:

  • what it is, and
  • what it isn't.

Reading the web postings that I've pulled from our database will help those who don't believe in it to understand it better.

You said:
How would you respond to this article from an orthodox perspective which claims that:

  • there is no list of infallible statements
  • no one can be certain what statements are or are not infallible

This posting should help:

You said:
How would you respond to this article from an orthodox perspective which claims that:

  • that certain statements made by popes in encyclicals are problematic or contradictory.

These postings should address this:

One of the problems I had with some of Fr. Laurent's comments were some statements came across as statements of personal judgment rather that receiving divine teachings that can be traced back to the [Catholic] faith Jesus founded on St. Peter in 33 A.D.

My message to seeking Orthodox Christians who are contemplating becoming Catholic, is a major part of being Catholic is accepting, in faith, that the Holy Spirit is guiding the Church Jesus promised to safeguard through His appointed human leaders, St. Peter and his successors.

Personally, it gives me a peace of mind on issues of faith and morals, rather then constantly playing personal pope in my own life which is really a form of moral relativism.

He also quoted Catholics who I have never heard of, so my questions is:

  • Why would I give any creditability to a Catholic who:
    • I don't know and
    • who may be dissenting from the Church on this issue?

On Page 6 (313) he said:
The Orthodox have less of a problem because most theologians agree that only the dogmatic definitions of the Ecumenical Councils are considered true or infallible.

This sounds like Gallicanism, an error some fell into during the 17th - 19th century. It's the second to last heresy on my Christian heresy page (temporarily off-line).

He said:
[O]ur point here is to show why many Christians cannot see how Papal infallibility can be a usable and sustainable concept.

I claim many Christians don't see papal infallibility as usable and sustainable because:

  • they don't understand what it is, and is not, or
  • understand it, but have too much cultural pride to accept it.

Before ascending into Heaven Jesus gave the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven to Peter to bind and loose; just read Matthew 16:13-20. Under other circumstances, after Peter fails Christ through human frailties all men have, but Jesus says to him in Luke 22:31-32:

31 “Simon, Simon, Satan has asked to sift all of you as wheat. 32 But I have prayed for you (singular "you" in the Greek), Simon, that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned back, strengthen your brothers.”

Luke 22:31-32

Again Tom, I would read through the postings I listed at the start of my answer. Like many of our answers, they may not immediately address the issue at hand but require you read the whole posting to get to the issue.

I hope this helps,


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