We in the LDS church are fond of pointing out that we don’t believe in prophetic infallibility. At least in theory, we see prophets as human beings who sometimes make mistakes, and don’t expect them to be perfect. However, I’m not entirely clear as to what exactly what this means on a practical level. And the more I’ve thought about this, the more I’ve wondered whether we don’t believe in what I might term “practical infallibility.” In other words, while we reject infallibility as a theological proposition, in practice, it is difficult to see how our approach differs from a belief in infallibility.
The Catholic church is famous for its doctrine of papal infallibility. However, it is worth noting that this doctrine includes fairly strict criteria regarding what statements can be deemed infallible. It does not mean that every word the Pope utters is infallible. According to Vatican I, the Pope is infallible only when he is defining a doctrine of faith or morals, speaking ex cathedra (in other words, speaking explicitly as the head of the Church), and speaking with the clear intention of binding the Church. If there is any doubt about any of these, the statement cannot be considered infallible. This means that the vast majority of papal pronouncements do not in fact fall into the “infallible” category. In fact, to date there only exist two papal statements which theologians widely accept as infallible, both related to Mariology—one about the Immaculate Conception, and one about the assumption of Mary into heaven.
In contrast, while we quote the famous line about a prophet only being a prophet when speaking as such, we have no accompanying criteria with which to judge whether prophetic statements are in fact prophetic. And I wonder: if a prophet did err, would there be any way for us to know? Even the usual trump card of personal revelation is problematic here, because of the teaching that personal revelation will never contradict the teachings of the current prophet. While we can (and are indeed encouraged) to pray for a witness of the truth of prophetic teaching, there is only one possible answer to such a prayer—because any other answer would fail the litmus test which we’re instructed to use to discern whether something is in fact revelation.
In addition, I think much of our popular discourse reflects a belief in practical infallibility. The statement that God will never allow the prophet to lead the Church astray is often given as a reason to accept whatever the current prophet is saying as the will of God. I’ve also occasionally heard this framed as a question of probability. If a person finds herself in disagreement with a prophet, goes this argument, she should consider how very unlikely it is that she’s right and God’s appointed spokesperson is wrong—the point being that even if it’s a hypothetical possibility that prophets could err, the odds are overwhelmingly against it in any given situation.
And even if the prophet himself says that this is his personal opinion, that might make no difference at all on a cultural level. I remember one of my seminary teachers saying, but why would we ever go against the opinion of a prophet? Evidently one of the ways in which a prophet might actually be fallible is in his perception of his fallibility.
So what value is there in maintaining the idea of prophetic fallibility? My guess is that it has to do with dealing without our past. When we emphasize that prophets are fallible, this generally comes up in the contexts of past prophets: it’s a kind of loophole which allows us to deal with statements by past leaders which now sound bizarre to our ears. It gives us a way of responding to anti-Mormons who’ve dug up random odd statements out of the Journal of Discourses. When it comes to how we’re expected to view the current prophet, however, I am not sure I see much difference between where we are and where we would be if we did have a doctrine of prophetic infallibility. In other words, when is the prophet speaking as a prophet? When he’s alive.
While we may not have infallibility per se, then, we seem to have something that very closely resembles it. But I think there is room in our doctrine for a somewhat broader approach. As a practicing Mormon, I do think it is incumbent on me to take what the prophet says quite seriously. I don’t think, however, that necessarily means agreeing with every single word that ever happens to fall from his lips. You know that Joan Osborne song, what if God was one of us? I wonder: what if the prophet were one of us, too? Someone with a unique and unusually demanding calling, one who’s entitled to revelation for the church as a whole—but in the end, not superhuman, not qualitatively different from everyone else. Having audaciously closed the ontological gap between human and divine, maybe we could do something even more radical, and close the one between top church leaders and rank-and-file members.