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Christ to Catholicism


IX. Papal Infallibility

by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

When papal infallibility was defined by the Vatican Council in 1870, the non-Catholic world reacted with spontaneous hostility. With rare exception, the secular press denounced the definition as "a scheme of spiritual, social and coercive despotism," which made the pope "temporal ruler of the world, and authorizes him to supplant, by force, every form of civil government." [1] By this act, "Romanism declares war against intelligence; as three hundred years ago it commanded the earth to stand still in its course among the stars, with the same authority and the same impotence it today commands the human race to stand still in its greater career of advancement and hope. It is a sad end for one of the mightiest institutions of history; but henceforth the Papacy goes its own way of decay aside from the great movements of the world." [2]

While these sentiments are now modified, at least in their tone of ridicule and fear of papal aggression, the substratum of repugnance towards the Church's infallibility has not radically changed. Those outside the Church properly recognize it as "the great divide" which separates Catholicism from other Christian bodies. Catholics see it as the guarantee of the Church's fidelity to the teachings of her Founder.

Meaning of Infallibility

Briefly defined, infallibility is immunity from error, excluding not only its existence but even its possibility. Strictly speaking, only persons can be infallible, as only they are fallible; but the term may also extend to projections of the mind in the form of speech or the written word. While the end-product or effect of infallibility is negative because it keeps a person from making a mistake, the actual preservation is due to a positive influx of divine grace which enlightens the mind and strengthens the will (if need be) on the doctrine in question. We may further describe it as a special providence that presupposes antecedent study and reflection. Normally external divine assistance is enough, i.e., by so arranging circumstances as to preclude the possibility of a mistake; although, if need be, an actual supernatural influx in the mental and volitional faculties will not be wanting. So that, in the last analysis, the assurance of inerrancy does not depend on human speculation or intelligence, but on God's assistance that will not fail even when through negligence, adequate investigation had not been made.

Infallibility does not mean preservation from sin, which is impeccability. In apostolic times, St. Peter was infallible in the exercise of his office. But, unlike the Blessed Virgin, he was not impeccable; although it is commonly held that all the Apostles were confirmed in grace on Pentecost Sunday and thus preserved from losing the friendship of God. Moreover since the communication of truth involves a speaker and a listener, infallibility is both active and passive; it is active in the teaching office of the Church propounding what is to be believed, and passive in the whole body of the faithful, including the pope, who are obliged to believe what is infallibly taught.

Also infallibility must be distinguished from revelation. The latter is a supernatural locution of God that imposes the obligation of absolute faith. When a revelation occurs, God directly and internally enlightens the human mind which, in relation to the divine light, acts as a passive recipient of a truth that is somehow new. Infallibility, on the other hand, presupposes an existing revelation that needs to be conserved. Otherwise than in revelation, the divine influx is essentially external and assumes the ordinary gifts of the Holy Spirit cooperating with human effort. God, as it were, stands ready to correct the internal cogitation lest something erroneous be declared.

Finally, infallibility is not inspiration. When a person is inspired, he is so moved by God in his intellect, will and executive faculties that he writes only what God wants to be written (as in the Scriptures) or says only what the same Lord wants to be said (as in prophetic inspiration). Inspiration implies that God is the principal author of the work or word inspired, albeit using a human instrumentality, freely cooperating, to effect a predetermined result; whereas infallibility is only an external aid, so that the human being who was helped (and not God) is the principal author of an infallible statement.

Summarily we can say that in revelation God communicates His mind, in inspiration He projects it and by the assistance of infallibility He protects what was communicated and produced. Peter's declaration before the Jewish high priest, that "There is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved," illustrates the various difference. The salvation of the world by Jesus Christ is a matter of revelation; the instinct to protest against the injustice of the Jews and proclaim the name of Christ, we are told by St. Luke, was a divine inspiration: "Peter (was) filled with the Holy Spirit," and in writing this episode, the author of the Acts was supernaturally inspired. 3 But when Peter spoke as the Vicar of Christ to the officials of Judaism, he was divinely assisted and protected from error by the gift of infallibility.

Infallibility of the Apostles

The first subject or seat of infallibility in the Church, both logically and chronologically was the apostolic college. For although Christ never explicitly told the Twelve they were to be infallible in teaching His doctrine, the fact is incontestable.

From the beginning of His public life, the Savior asserted the continuity of the apostolic preaching with His own. His authority was their authority and His mission theirs. "He that hears you, hears me," He told them. Since His authority was absolute and therefore infallible, theirs had to participate in the same infallibility; otherwise the identification between Christ and the apostles in their teaching office would be meaningless.

But Christ went beyond this merely generic identification. He imposed the heaviest sanctions on all the faithful to follow the doctrine of the apostles, even to the penalty of damnation. When sending them to preach, He added the injunction, "Whoever does not receive you or listen to your words--go forth outside that house or town, and shake off the dust from your feet. Amen I say to you, it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah in the day of judgment than for that town." [4] Then more emphatically or solemnly, just before the Ascension, they were told to "go into the whole world and preach the Gospel to every creature. He who believes and is baptized shall be saved, but he who does not believe shall be condemned." [5] Even if there is some probability (however slight) that the conclusion of the second Gospel is not by St. Mark, this final commission is certainly canonical and historically gives us the words of Christ. [6]

However, Christ went beyond imposing an obligation on His followers to accept the teaching of the Apostles. He identified the ground of their infallibility by assuring them of continued assistance from Himself and from the Holy Spirit He would send. The three Synoptics and St. John are unanimous on this crucial point, "Behold I am with you all days, even to the consummation of the world," is recorded by St. Matthew as the parting message of Christ before His Ascension, after declaring His universal power in heaven and earth and commissioning the Twelve to make disciples (hence doctrinal followers) of all nations. [7] St. John confirms the promise in the first Gospel and further explains how the apostles (and their successors) would be assisted by Christ until the end of time. At the Last Supper, the Master says He will send them the Holy Spirit, "the Spirit of truth (who) will teach you all things, and bring to your mind whatever I have said to you." The assistance is therefore intellectual and directed to conserving and clarifying the teachings of Christ. "Many things yet I have to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. But when He, the Spirit of truth, has come, He will teach you all the truth…. He will glorify me, because He will receive of what is mine and declare it to you." [9] There is consequently an intrinsic relation between the preaching of Christ and the Holy Spirit whom He would send to conserve and deepen what He, "the First Paraclete," had taught. A simple analysis of the promise of Christ's Spirit in order to perpetuate His doctrine gives us the concept of infallibility as a permanent gift, first assured to the Apostles and through them to their inheritors in the episcopal office.

After the Ascension and Pentecost, the Apostles had more than one occasion to call upon this gift of infallibility and in fact, the tone of all their writings shows an absolute confidence of telling the truth, by the assistance of the Spirit of Christ. In his first epistle, Peter calls himself "an Apostle of

Jesus Christ…unto the sanctification of the Spirit," and exhorts the Christians to be faithful to "those things which have been declared to you by those who preached the Gospel to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven." [10] St. Paul is equally forthright and more specific. He too is "an Apostle, sent not from men, nor by man, but by Jesus Christ and God the Father." When he heard the Galatians were being seduced by heretical teachers, he told them plainly, "if anyone preach a gospel to you other than that which you have received, let him be anathema!” [11] St. John is equally at pains to show that his doctrine squares with the teachings of Christ: "What we have seen and have heard we announce to you." Neither more nor less. Like Peter and Paul, he warns against "deceivers who have gone forth into the world, who do not confess Jesus as the Christ coming in the flesh. This is the deceiver and the Antichrist." And "anyone who does not abide in the doctrine of Christ, has not God." [12] Always the same conviction that "this is the commandment, just as you have heard from the beginning," because of the infallible guidance of the Spirit of God.

Infallibility of the Bishops Under the Roman Pontiff

It is a matter of faith that the episcopate is of divine institution. "Under appointment of the Holy Spirit," as the Vatican Council declares, "the bishops succeeded in the place of the Apostles, (to) feed and rule individually, as true shepherds, the particular flock assigned to them." [13] An essential part of their duty is to teach the faithful the truths of revelation, which in turn presupposes a divine protection from falling into error. Already in the first and second centuries, the bishops as a body were assumed to be the infallible heirs of the apostolic magisterium. Thus Ignatius of Antioch simply equated the Savior, the Twelve and the episcopacy, when he urged the Trallians to "keep close to Jesus Christ, and the bishop, and the ordinances of the Apostles"; and the Ephesians were boldly reminded that as "Jesus Christ, the life that cannot be taken from us, is the mind of the Father, the bishops appointed to the ends of the earth are of one mind with Jesus Christ." [14]

However, there are two severe limitations to the infallibility of the bishops. Both have been the occasion of stormy controversy in the history of the Church. The first limitation is that only the whole episcopate of the Catholic world, in moral unanimity, is the subject of infallibility. Individuals or even groups of bishops, though authentic teachers of sacred doctrine within their jurisdiction, are not infallible. In this they differ from the Apostles who were each charismatically protected from doctrinal error. Also collectively, the bishops are not infallible except in conjunction with the Roman Pontiff. Historically and theologically the two limiting factors belong together.

The Vatican Definition

On July 18, 1870, one day before the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War and only two months before the siege of Rome, 500 bishops at the Vatican Council formally defined papal infallibility in the following terms:

Since in this age, which especially needs the salutary efficacy of the Apostolic office, not a few are found who minimize its authority, we think it extremely necessary solemnly to assert the prerogative which the only-begotten Son deigned to join with the supreme pastoral office.
Therefore faithfully keeping to the tradition received from the beginning of the Christian faith, for the glory of God our Savior, for the exaltation of the Catholic religion, and for the salvation of the Christian people, We, with the approval of the sacred council, teach and define that it is a dogma divinely revealed: that the Roman Pontiff when he speaks ex cathedra, that is, when acting in the office of shepherd and teacher of all Christians, he defines, by virtue of his supreme apostolic authority, doctrine concerning faith or morals to be held by the universal Church, possesses through the divine assistance promised to him in the person of St. Peter, the infallibility with which the divine Redeemer willed His Church to be endowed in defining doctrine concerning faith or morals; and that such definitions of the Roman Pontiff are therefore irreformable because of their nature, and not because of the agreement of the Church. [15]

It is doubtful if any definition in the history of the Church had a more controversial ancestry, on as large a scale and involving not just individuals but whole nations; or any that provoked a more violent reaction in the non-Catholic world. Though it is a matter of record that the Vatican Council was not convened, as some maintained, only to define the infallibility of the pope, yet many of the assembled prelates felt the denial of this doctrine was the principal error of modern times which threatened the security of the Catholic faith. Other aberrations like rationalism and denial of a supernatural order were more fundamental. But none was more dangerous. It struck at the certainty of pontifical acts since the Council of Trent and weakened the effect of papal declarations over the mind and conscience of the faithful. It kept alive a dangerous controversy on the subject of infallibility, and exposed even the Church's inerrancy to difficulties not easy to solve. As an apparently open and disputable point, close to the heart of faith, it exposed this very faith itself to the possibility of doubt.

The practical consequences of this undefined position were mischievous to say the least. Though objectively united in a common belief, the contentions of Gallicanism and Ultramontanism in the Catholic fold were a scandal and embarrassment to the Church. In times of crisis, as in the eighteenth century conflict with Jansenism, obscurity on the papal prerogatives (coupled with national-pride) became a temptation for joining the Church of France with the Church of England, independent of the Holy See, Prospects for such a union were actually undertaken by the Archbishop of Canterbury and ranking French ecclesiastics. "The Church of England," wrote the Anglican primate, "as a national Church has all that power within herself over her own members which is necessary to enable her to settle her own doctrine, government and discipline…. The Church of France, if it would once in good earnest throw off the Pope's pretensions, has the same right and independence." [16] Although a national rupture was averted, one segment of Jansenists in Holland seceded from Rome to form the Old Catholic Church which is still extant. But apart from the danger of schism was the harm to sincere Protestants and others who, according to Cardinal Manning, "have been kept from the truth by our intestine controversies, especially upon a point so high and so intimately connected with the whole doctrinal authority of the Church." [17]

In the same way, division and contention on infallibility, supposed to be an open question, "has generated more alienation, bitterness, and animosity between pastors and people, and what is worse, between pastor and pastor, than any other in our day. Our internal contest proclaimed by Protestant newspapers, and, worse than all, by Catholic also, have been a reproach to us before the whole world." [18]

It was therefore high time, the pope and bishops felt, to settle the issue, and "if the Council had been convened for no other purpose, this cause would have been abundantly sufficient. If it had defined the infallibility at its outset, it would not have been an hour too soon." [19] After the lapse of almost a century, with papal infallibility taken for granted in the Church and commonly rejected outside, it is more difficult to appreciate the tension of former days, but knowing something of their nature may help to recognize what the Vatican Council really achieved.

History of the Opposition to Papal Infallibility

Papal infallibility has been denied implicitly since patristic times by all heretics who withstood the judgment of the Holy See in matters of faith or Christian morality. However the problem of isolating this prerogative of the Roman Pontiff, within the larger framework of the Church's infallibility, arose in consequence of certain ideas held in Catholic circles from the ninth century. A number of historical factors like the Photian schism led the so-called Canonists to postulate a theory of papal inferiority to a general council, which is still the position of the Oriental Dissidents. Among other items, they held that a council may declare a pope to be heretical and depose him. By the fifteenth century, not only canonists but a number of theologians defended a council's authority as superior to the pope.) Their notion was materially strengthened by the Great Western Schism when, at one time, there were three claimants to the papal throne and the only apparent solution was to have a general council depose all the incumbents and elect a Pontiff on its own authority. Thus John Gerson, Chancellor at the University of Paris, answered the question, "Whether it is permissible in matters of faith to appeal from a decision of the Supreme Pontiff," in a series of propositions that were later condemned by the Church. "In matters of faith," he taught, "there is no other infallible judge than the Church herself or the general council which represents. her.; No decision of the pope is so binding on the faithful as to hold them to believe that something is an article of faith." [20] His teacher and predecessor at the University, Cardinal Peter d'Ailly, held the same doctrine. He proved the superiority of council to pope from the thesis that, "The universal Church has this authority, that it cannot err in questions of faith; which power it enjoys neither mediately nor immediately dependent on the pope, who does not have it." [21] Similar ideas were propounded at the University of Heidelberg, and at the pseudo-councils of Pisa (1409) and Basle (1431) the theory of; Conciliarism was canonized as a Christian dogma.)

Council of Constance. The highpoint of conflict between papal and conciliar authority was reached at the Council of Constance (sixteenth ecumenical) which put an end to the Western Schism by electing Martin V (1418). Among its published decrees were two that contradicted papal supremacy and personal infallibility. Speaking of itself, the council declared that "it holds authority immediately from Christ, and all persons of whatever dignity, even the pope himself, are bound to obey the council in all that regards the faith, the healing of the schism and the reformation of the Church of God in her head and members." Moreover, "all persons of whatever dignity, even the pope himself, who shall obstinately refuse to obey the decrees, statutes and ordinances of the holy council, or any other general council canonically assembled, shall, unless they repent, suffer the punishment they have deserved, and if need be, recourse shall be had to other means of law." [22]

Since the Council of Constance was genuinely ecumenical, and approved as such by Martin V, how are these propositions to be taken? They are clearly subversive of papal supremacy, including infallibility, and opponents of Rome to this day quote them as evidence against the papacy.

In the first place, they did not represent the majority mind of the Council, having been drawn up privately by the minority delegation from England, France and Germany. The Italian bishops, by far the most numerous, rejected them and protested against their publication. At the famous fifth session of the Council, when the decrees were published, the majority of cardinals, including the conciliarist d'Ailly, purposely absented themselves, and the few who attended did so under protest, and, as they said, "to avoid scandal," but they refused to vote or to publish the anti-papal legislation.

How did Martin V react to the decrees? While formally approving the Council, especially in its condemnation of Wyclif and Hus, he deliberately excluded from approbation whatever was derogatory to papal supremacy. In their forty-fifth and last session, the bishops reported to the Council that, in answer to the request for his approval, "Our Holy Father said that he wished to be kept and observed inviolably each and every declaration which the Council had determined, concluded and decreed in matters of faith as a council should (conciliariter). He therefore approved and ratified the decrees that were made as a council should, but none other and in no other way." [23] It was common knowledge that the decrees of the fourth and fifth sessions were not decided "as a council should," if for no other reason than because the majority disapproved. However, to remove any vestige of doubt stands the palpable fact that the Council of Constance requested papal confirmation and considered itself (and its decisions) infallible only after, and in so far as, the pope ratified its proceedings.

Councils of Basle and Florence. Shortly before his death in 1431, Martin V convoked a reform Council at Basle, which his successor, Eugene IV, "dissolved" on the valid suspicion of its conciliarist tendencies. Refusing to adjourn, the Council renewed the anti-papal decrees of Constance, stating that its authority was above the pope's. Eugenius countered by summoning a new Council, first at Ferrara, then at Florence (seventeenth ecumenical), where a temporary union of the Latin and Greek Churches was effected and the Roman primacy was solemnly proclaimed. "We define," the Council declared, "that the holy Apostolic See and the Roman Pontiff have the primacy over the whole world, and that the same Roman Pontiff is the successor of St. Peter, the Prince of the Apostles, and the true vicar of Christ, the head of the whole Church, the father and teacher of all the Christians; and that to him, in the person of St. Peter, was given by our Lord Jesus Christ the full power of feeding, ruling and governing the whole Church, as is also contained in the proceedings of the ecumenical councils and in the sacred canons." [24] The reference to "ecumenical councils" was meant to cover the implied teaching of all conciliar legislation, and exclude the illegitimate decrees of the Council of Constance. Also, without using the term "infallibility," the concept was implicit in the supreme papal authority as "teacher of all the Christians," and "the full power" received from Jesus Christ (not from any council) to "feed and rule the whole Church," which is impossible without infallible guidance.

Luther and Protestant Reformers. At the dawn of the Reformation the conciliarist ideas of the previous century were revived by Martin Luther and his followers in their opposition to Rome. One of the less-known aspects of religious history is the role these theories played in shaping the ecclesiology of Protestants. In Luther's Appeal to the German Nobility, he inveighed against the claim of papal infallibility. "If the article of our faith is right," he protested, "'I believe in the holy Christian Church,' the Pope cannot alone be right; else we must say, 'I believe in the Pope of Rome,' and reduce the Christian Church to one man, which is a devilish and damnable heresy." And again, "When need arises, and the Pope is a cause of offense to Christendom, in these cases whoever can best do so, as a faithful member of the whole body, must do what he can to procure a true council. This no one can do so well as the temporal authorities, especially since they are fellow-Christians and fellow-priests." [25] Before long the temporal powers took him at his word, not only to organize church councils but to sever dependence on any religious authority, including the Reformers.

Gallicanism and Jansenism. While Gallicanism is a generic name for the French opposition to papal supremacy, including infallibility, it falls chronologically into two stages that have quite different dogmatic emphases. The first period may be dated roughly from the days of d'Ailly and Gerson at the University of Paris to the solemn definition under Eugenius IV; the second period began with the convocation of the French Assembly under Louis XIV in 1682 and continued until the Vatican Council in 1870. In between was an era of relative quiescence on the subject in France, while in Germany (and elsewhere) the more violent reactionaries against papal authority were swept out of the Church altogether.

As commonly understood, Gallicanism refers to the second stage of French resistance to Rome that was sparked by the Jansenist heresy on grace and universal salvation. Jansenius was condemned by two popes, Innocent X and Alexander VII, who recognized the subversive character of his teaching. The condemnation might have been accepted peaceably except for two factors. For one thing, the Society of Jesus upheld the papal decrees against Jansenius who had written, "It seems to be God's will that I should exert myself everywhere against the Jesuits." [26] Consequently opposition to the Jesuits passed on to the papacy which they were supporting. Moreover when Alexander VII condemned Jansenius he did more than declare his doctrine erroneous, as Innocent X had done. In order to take the ground from under his followers who admitted the condemned propositions were heretical but denied they were taught by Jansenius, Alexander defined that "the five propositions were taken from the book of the aforementioned Cornelius Jansenius, Bishop of Ypres, whose title is Augustinus, and they were condemned in the sense intended by the same Cornelius." [27] Papal authority, the Jansenists told Louis XIV, did not extend beyond the deposit of faith; hence the pope was exceeding his powers and encroaching on the royal domain by presuming to define infallibly on whether something was contained in a given book.

Urged on by the Jansenists, the king convoked an Assembly of the Clergy of France which, under severe pressure, passed the notorious Four Articles known as the "Liberties of the Gallican Church." After stating that the papal power was limited by the authority of the temporal princes and by the customs of national churches, it proceeded to an explicit denial of papal infallibility. "Although the pope has the chief voice in questions of faith," the article reads, "and his decrees apply to all churches and to each particular church, yet his decision is not unalterable unless the consent of the Church is given." [28] Though vigorously opposed by the majority of the French clergy and reprobated by successive pontiffs, the Gallican declaration has found sympathy at times even in high circles, as in the great orator Bossuet (died 1704) and at the Synod of Pistoia (Sept. 1786). As an offshoot of Jansenism it gave rise to the Old Catholic Church in Holland, Switzerland and Germany, which had an estimated 100,000 members by the middle of the nineteenth century. Even in Catholic circles, Gallicanism was by no means a dead issue, as seen in the elaborate treatises current on the subject at the time of the Vatican Council. A sort of German Gallicanism was elaborated by Johann von Hontheim, (died 1790), Bishop of Trier, who wrote under the pen name of Febronius. Hence the term Febronianism, which differed from its French counterpart by placing the seat of infallibility in the bishops alone, and appealing not to national interests but to the ecumenical ideal of "reuniting Christians who are separated in religion."

The Evidence of Scripture and Tradition

In support of its definition of papal infallibility, the Vatican Council appealed to the witness of Scripture and tradition, taking the two sources conjointly and allowing the second to clarify and interpret the first.

Primacy Includes Infallibility. The basic principle on which infallibility depends is the apostolic primacy which the Roman Pontiff, as the successor of St. Peter, holds over the universal Church.

By definition, the primacy means the highest authority in the Church as a doctrinal institution; and by the will of Christ is the ultimate visible ground of its unity and stability. Under these conditions the primacy must be infallible. Otherwise, if the pope could err when teaching the Christian world he would be leading all the faithful into error, which is impossible according to the promise of the Savior that the gates of hell would not prevail against the society He was founding. Or, if we suppose that when the pope made a mistake the people would not follow him in error, we divide the Church from its visible head and destroy its essential structure.

Viewed from a different angle is the promise that Christ made to Peter, "I will give thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven. And whatever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven." [29] Clearly, the binding and loosing includes the power of deciding on matters of doctrine. If, therefore, the pope (as Peter's successor) could err in teaching what must be believed for salvation, Christ would commit Himself to confirming objective falsehood which is impossible.

Significantly, the only Scripture text used by the Vatican Council in support of infallibility is not from Matthew but Luke. In context, Christ is predicting Peter's denial, while promising to pray that his faith should not fail him. "Simon, Simon, behold, Satan has desired to have you (plural, referring to all the Apostles), that he may sift you as wheat. But I have prayed for thee (singular, referring only to Peter), that your faith may not fail, and do thou, when once thou has turned again, strengthen thy brethren." [30] The argument is quite simple. In virtue of Christ's prayer for Peter, the latter is assured indefectibility in faith in order to sustain the faith of his brethren. As we analyse this promise, we see first of all that it was absolute and efficacious; absolute in the sense that no conditions were attached and efficacious because the result was stated as assured. Also indefectibility implies infallibility, since it is inconceivable that fallen human nature could remain absolutely constant in the interpretation of revealed truth without a divine guarantee to preserve it from natural fallibility. Most pertinently, the promise was given to Peter as supreme head of the Church, and not merely for the immediate future. Actually, Peter gave a sorry account of himself during the Passion, when he could scarcely be said to "strengthen" the other disciples. But from Pentecost Sunday on, as described in the Acts of the Apostles, there is overwhelming evidence that Christ's petition for Simon Peter was fully answered, and in every crisis that faced the infant Church, his faith proved a bulwark of constancy on which the others depended. It is more than coincidental that St. Luke, the author of the Acts and disciple of St. Paul, has left us in the third Gospel a perfect parallel to the primacy text in St. Matthew as a kind of commentary on the latter. Thus he clarifies any question about the Petrine text (in Matthew) including stability in doctrine; and on the other hand, Matthew shows that the Lucan passage refers to Peter as head of the Church, and hence through him the indefectibility is promised to Peter's successors.

  Matthew 16:18 Luke 22:31-32
Same Danger The gates of hell against the Church Satan has desired to have you
that he may sift you as wheat
Same Genetic
Power of Christ
I say to thee. I have prayed for thee.
Same Vicarious
Power in Peter
That thou are Peter That thy faith may not fail.
Identical Effect
Upon this rock I will
build my Church.
Do thou, when once thou hast
turned again, strengthen thy

The two passages should be taken together because of the light they shed on each other. As an ensemble they lay the scriptural foundation for papal infallibility, via the primacy, as a unique and personal prerogative whose purpose is to guarantee the Church's fidelity to the doctrine given to her by Christ.

Witness of Tradition from Apostolic Times. When introducing the definition of papal infallibility, the Vatican Council declared it was "remaining faithful to the tradition received from the beginning of the Christian faith"; by which it intended to cover both theory and practice in the Church since the earliest times. As might be expected, the practice anteceded the theory, so that while the Roman See from the very beginning was conscious of its power to interpret and pass judgment in doctrinal matters, the formulation of this power in explicit terms came as a logical development.

All that we have seen in the chapter on the Roman primacy has application here. St. Peter's exercise of supreme doctrinal jurisdiction, which implied infallibility, is a matter of record in the Acts of the Apostles. In post-apostolic times, and before the Council of Nicea, we saw the popes continuing in the same tradition.

In the first century, Clement I passed judgment on the apostolic succession of the bishops; in the second century, Eleutherius was appealed to by churches of Asia and Gaul to intervene in the Montanist controversy; his successor, Victor I (died 199 A.D.), authoritatively condemned Montanism and settled the dispute over the date of Easter that was rooted in doctrinal differences; in the next century, at least four outstanding controversies were decided by papal intervention: Callistus I (217-222) decreed on the hypostatic union, declaring that only the second and not the first Person in the Trinity became incarnate and died on the Cross; Cornelius I (251-253) intervened on the question of rebaptism, leaving a series of letters, still extant, from his correspondence on the subject with St. Cyprian; Stephen I (254-257) carried on where Cornelius had left off, and finally passed sentence against Cyprian and the African bishops, saying that "No innovation must be introduced, but let that be observed which tradition has handed down;" St. Dionysius (259-268) has left us a detailed statement of his condemnation of Tritheism (three gods) and Sabellianism (denying Christ's divinity); before the end of the century, and still a generation before Nicea, his successor, Felix I (269-274), proclaimed the divinity of Christ against the Adoptionist heresy. "As regards the Incarnation of the Word and our faith," he declared, "We believe in our Lord Jesus Christ, born of the Virgin Mary, that He is Himself the eternal Son and Word of God, and not man adopted by God to be another beside Him." [31]

Historical Testimony to an Infallible Primacy. Probably the earliest implicit attestation of papal infallibility came from Tertullian after his breach with Rome over the remission of adultery, declared to be valid, by Pope St. Callistus. "An edict has been published," he protested. "The Pontifex Maximus, that is, the bishop of bishops, has made a decree: 'I remit to such as have done penance the sins of adultery and fornication." [32] The ironical implication was that Callistus professed to be infallible in settling the issue under dispute, which Tertullian (already a heretic) simply denied.

Soon after, during the rebaptism controversy in Northern Africa, Pope St. Stephen was denounced by a recalcitrant bishop, Firmilian, for arrogating to himself the infallible power of deciding in favor of heretical baptisms: 'Stephen, who brags so loudly of the seat of his episcopate and who insists that he holds his succession from Peter, on whom the foundation of the Church was laid." [33] Thus Firmilian testified to a papal claim of inerrancy in deciding on the conditions necessary for valid baptism, which, as subsequent history would show, fully vindicated the pope even when contradicted by forty bishops under the leadership of St. Cyprian.

In the mid-fourth century, Pope St. Julius rebuked the Eastern Arian bishops for condemning Athanasius on the score of heterodoxy. "Are you ignorant," he asked, "that the custom has been for word to be sent to us first and then for a just decision to be proclaimed from this spot?" [34] The historian, Sozomen (died 450 A.D.), adds that Julius told the bishops "it was an ecclesiastical law that whatever ordinances were made without the consent of the Bishop of Rome were counted void." [35] Anglicans and others who deny papal infallibility have accused Catholics of "deliberately mistranslating the text of the pope's letter so as to apply to himself the words which really refer to all the Latin bishops, and show plainly that the pope made no such claim." [36] Against this charge stands all the manuscript evidence, plus the simple fact that ancient writers (like Sozomen) plainly understood Julius to mean that he personally, and not all the bishops of Italy, was the court of last appeal in settling doctrinal disputes.

Early in the fifth century, Pelagianism had spread from Britain to the eastern limits of the Mediterranean. According to this heresy, Adam’s sin was only the bad example he gave us and man's will is so potent it may dispense with divine grace, except as a convenient aid, to attain the beatific vision. The bishops of Africa condemned Pelagius and referred their decision to the Bishop of Rome for approval. Pope Innocent I commended their action in a celebrated letter whose exact date, January 27, 417, has come down to us. "Following the examples of ancient tradition," he told the prelates, "you have shown by your proper course of action the vitality of your religion, when you decided to defer to our judgment. You understand what is due to the Apostolic See, since all of us who are here (in the western world) desire to follow the Apostle from whom are derived this episcopate and all the authority belonging to this name. By following him we know how to condemn what is wrong and approve what is praiseworthy. Moreover in safe-guarding the ordinances of the Fathers with your priestly zeal, you certainly believe they must not be trodden under foot. They decreed, not with human but with divine wisdom that no decision--even though it concerned the most remote provinces--was to be considered final unless this See were to hear of it, so that all the authority of this See might ratify whatever just decision had been reached." [37] Innocent's letter is fully extant, and through several columns of text reiterates the same profession of indefectibility in the face of Rome and duty of other churches to conform “to the norm and authority of the Church of Rome," in doctrine as well as discipline.

The highpoint of historical testimony to papal infallibility was occasioned by a schism that Acacius, the patriarch of Constantinople, had started in the late fifth century. With Asia Minor split into hostile factions over the Monophysite heresy, the patriarch supported Emperor Zeno in promoting a doctrinal compromise, called the Henoticon, which Pope Felix III condemned. While critical of Nestorianism (one person in Christ), the Henoticon leaned towards Monophysitism (one composite nature in Christ) and therefore tacitly admitted that the Savior did not actually possess a true human nature. Acacius defied the pope, while an imperial decree imposed the Henoticon on all Christian subjects of the Empire. Communion with Rome was interrupted for nearly forty years, until the accession of Justinian, a Catholic and a Latin, to the throne of Constantinople.

Justinian ordered the Eastern bishops to sign a profession of faith which Pope Hormisdas had required of the Spanish hierarchy in 517. Known as the Formula of Pope St. Hormisdas, it unequivocally proclaims the unique preservation of error by the See of Rome, due to its solidarity with the Prince of the Apostles. "The first condition of salvation," each bishop was to read, "is to keep the norm of the true faith and in no way to deviate from the established doctrines of the Fathers. For it is impossible that the words of Our Lord Jesus Christ who said, 'Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church,' should not be verified. And their truth has been proved by the course of history, for in the Apostolic See the Catholic religion has always been kept unsullied.

From this hope and faith we do not wish to be separated under any circumstances…. Following the Apostolic See in all things and proclaiming all its decisions, we endorse and approve all the letters which Pope St. Leo wrote concerning the Christian religion (about the two natures in Christ). And so I hope I may deserve to be associated with you (the pope) in the one communion which the Apostolic See proclaims, in which the whole, true, and perfect security of the Christian religion resides." [38] Subsequent ecumenical councils accepted the profession as a doctrinal standard for the universal Church, and its solemn confirmation by later pontiffs raised the professio to the rank of a formal definition. Thirteen hundred years later the Vatican Council appealed to it as incontestable proof that the explicit declaration of papal infallibility in 1870 was only a clarification of the "perpetual practice of the Church," as professed by the earliest ecumenical councils and especially those "in which the Eastern and Western Churches were united in faith and love." When, five hundred years after Hormisdas, the Oriental Churches denied the primacy and separated from Rome, they went counter to the tradition of their Fathers who proclaimed the Apostolic See to be "the perfect security" of Christian revelation.

Subject and Conditions of Papal Infallibility

According to the principles of positive theology, ecclesiological documents should be interpreted in the historical context in which they were drawn; in the case of ecumenical councils this means (among other sources) the Acts or proceedings of the council which are carefully preserved. While not official declarations, they cast a great deal of light on the exact meaning of terms and, in fact, are the normal instrument for explaining conciliar definitions. The Vatican Council was no exception. In the actual definition, the council declared that the Roman Pontiff is infallible when he speaks ex cathedra, that is, when, acting in the capacity of teacher of all Christians he defines a doctrine by virtue of his supreme apostolic authority. But what does this mean?

Long before the Vatican Council and all during its proceedings, the pivotal question under controversy was the exact nature of papal infallibility; and the answer, all agreed, revolved on the meaning of three terms that were explained differently by different (Catholic) parties in the contest. On July 11, 1870, one week before the final definition was passed, the spokesman for the deputation De Fide (charged with assembling the definition of infallibility) made a report to the council in which he analyzed the meaning of the doctrine to be defined. The whole matter, he said, hinges on the notion of the pope's infallibility being personal, separate and absolute. His complete exposition runs to twenty-seven columns in Mansi's edition of the Vatican Acta in quarto and took nearly four hours for delivery. What follows is a paraphrase summary of the main issues bearing on the subject (person) as distinct from the object (doctrine) of papal infallibility. [39]

Papal Infallibility as Personal. In what sense may the pope's infallibility be called personal? It is personal in the sense that it belongs to the Roman Pontiff, not to the Roman Church or the Roman See. In other words, infallibility is personal in so far as it belongs to each legitimate occupant of the Roman See. Negatively, therefore, it is not personal as belonging to the pope in his capacity as a private theologian and much less as a private individual. Consequently we do not speak of "personal infallibility" without severe qualification. For although we attribute the gift to the person of the Roman Pontiff, it is not to him as a private but as a public person, the Head of the Church in his relation to the Church Universal. Nor is the pope infallible simply as pope, but as subject to the divine assistance guiding him. As pope he is always the supreme judge in faith and morals, and the father and teacher of all Christians. Yet he enjoys the divine assistance, whereby he cannot err, only when actually and formally (reipsa et actu) exercising the office of supreme judge in controversies of faith, and of teacher of the universal Church. Therefore the statement, "The Roman Pontiff is infallible" may not be criticised as false, since Christ promised it to the person of Peter and the person of his successor. It may, however, be considered inadequate, because the pope is infallible only when by his solemn judgment he defines matters of faith and morals for the universal Church.

Separate Infallibility. A more delicate question is how the infallibility of the pope may be called separate? In one definite and important sense, the expression is correct. Papal infallibility is separate, or rather distinct, because it is founded on the special promise of Christ, and on the special assistance of the Holy Spirit, which is not the same as that enjoyed by the whole body of the teaching Church joined with its visible Head. The relation of Peter and his successor to the Church is quite special, and to this special and distinct relation corresponds a special and distinct privilege which no one but the pope enjoys. Thus understood, the pope's infallibility is something separate.

What may not be done, though, is separate the pope from his divinely ordained conjunction with the Church. He is infallible only when, as teacher of all Christians and representing the whole Church, he judges and defines what is to be believed or rejected by all the faithful. He can no more be separated from the Church than a foundation can be separated from the building it supports.

Furthermore, we do not separate the pope infallibly teaching from the cooperation of the Church, at least in the sense that we do not exclude such cooperation, which may be twofold. The very issue or problem on which an infallible pronouncement is solicited arises within the Church, and referred by her to the Holy See for settlement or decision. Then in view of the gravity of the matter, the pope is bound by his office to take suitable means for ascertaining the truth before defining it. Such means are councils of the Church, or the counsel of bishops, cardinals and theologians. The means will differ in different cases, and although the pope could define infallibly without these instruments, they are the ordinary means provided by Christ to assist the Roman Pontiff in arriving at an infallible judgment.

Finally, we do not separate the pope actively teaching from the Church passively consenting to his doctrine, provided we do make this consent a condition for papal infallibility, either before or after a definition is made. So that juridically, the pope's decision does not require approval from the bishops or the body of the faithful in order to take effect. Actually, however, this consent of the Church can never be withheld. As we believe that the pope is objectively infallible by divine assistance, we thereby believe also that the subjective assent of the Church can never be wanting to these definitions. For it is impossible that the whole body of bishops can be separated from their head or that the universal Church can fail.

Is Papal Infallibility Absolute? Since absolute infallibility belongs to God alone, it cannot be predicated of the pope, as may be gathered from the limitations set forth in the Vatican definition. But there was another concept of "absolute" which the opposition claimed would be verified if the pope were declared infallible independently of the bishops. They urged that the help of the Church or its assent, that is, the witness and counsel of the bishops cannot be excluded from the definition of infallibility. This opinion was proposed not by an appeal to the Scriptures but to certain axioms. In resolving these axioms, the correct notion of infallibility will also be clarified.

The first axiom is: "The members should be joined to the head and the head to the members." And another: "As the bishops can do nothing in making dogmas of faith without the pope, similarly the pope can do nothing without them." In both axioms the first part is true, because decrees of faith even made by a general council are not infallible unless confirmed by the pope; although the reason is not because the Church's infallibility resides only in the pope and from him is derived and communicated to the Church. The true reason is that this infallibility was given by Christ to the whole magisterium, i.e., to the apostles along with Peter. But conversely, can the pope do nothing without the bishops? Not so, for Christ said to Peter alone, "Thou are Peter and upon this rock I will build my Church," and "I have prayed for thee that thy faith may not fail…. Do thou strengthen thy brethren."

A third axiom says: "The consent of the churches is the rule of faith, which even the pope should follow. And consequently before passing a definition, he must consult the rulers of the Church to make certain about the consent of the churches. We here come to the crucial point. It is true that the pope in his definitions ex cathedra has the same sources as the Church, namely Scripture and tradition. It is also true that the agreement of the current preaching of the entire magisterium united with its Head is the rule of faith even for definitions by the pope. But from this can by no means be deduced a strict necessity of inquiring about it from the bishops. For such agreement can very often be deduced from the testimony of Scripture, the agreement of antiquity, the opinions of theologians, or in other private ways, which are enough for full information. There may, indeed, be a case so difficult that the pope deems it necessary for his information to inquire from the bishops, as the ordinary means, what is the mind of the churches. Such was the case regarding the Immaculate Conception; which cannot be set up as a rule, however.

Whoever contends that the pope, either for information, or for an infallible judgment on faith or morals, depends wholly on the manifested consent of the bishops, or on their help, professes the false principle of Gallicanism, that the dogmatic judgments of the popes are in themselves and of themselves reformable, unless the Church's consent is given to them.

But this position is either arbitrary or else subversive of all papal infallibility. Arbitrary, if the assent of a greater or lesser part of the bishops is needed; for who will fix the number? who will make the choice, as in this respect bishops are equal, and the assent of some cannot prejudice the assent and judgment of others? From this arbitrary theory, especially if subsequent assent is demanded, history tells us what anxieties, troubles and scandals arise. It is also subversive of all papal infallibility to require the assent of the whole Church, because tantamount to saying there is only one infallibility which resides uniquely in the whole body of the teaching Church. If that were true, the decrees of the Roman Pontiff would have to be reformed by a general council. Until such council met (an average of less than once in a hundred years), papal decisions could be called into question because the Church's assent would not be too obvious for denial. And if the bishops at the council did not agree, who would settle the controversy or presume to decide which party was right? If that came to pass, it would be the end of the Church, the "pillar and ground of truth," against which the gates of hell are never to prevail.

Object and Scope of Infallible Teaching

As defined by the Vatican Council, the function of infallibility is to "preserve the flock of Christ from the poison of error.” Its general scope, therefore, covers the whole field of doctrine in faith and morals. However, we can immediately distinguish two kinds of definable truths: those which have been directly revealed by God, in Scripture or sacred tradition, and others which cohere more or less strictly with revealed dogmas. Though not formally revealed, the latter are required to safeguard the deposit of revelation, rightly to explain it and efficaciously to define its content. To such truths belong certain basic principles of philosophy on which the structure of revelation depends. Such also are so-called dogmatic facts, like the inspired character of a book in Scripture, the ecumenicity of a general council, the canonization of saints and approval of religious institutes.

The truths of revelation are included directly and immediately in the Vatican definition as the primary objects of the infallible magisterium. "Hence all children of the Church must believe by faith that the Church is infallible in propounding and defining dogmas of faith. And in the same way the infallibility of the Head of the Church cannot be defined without defining that the Pontiff is infallible in defining dogmas of faith." [40]

As regards the secondary objects or truths not formally revealed but only connected with revelation, a careful explanation has to be made because it was precisely this area of infallibility which the Jansenists questioned in the seventeenth century and later developed into Gallicanism. Our guide in this matter will again be the Acta of the council and specifically the theological commission which drew up the dogmatic constitution De Ecclesia.

Two questions are involved in these secondary objects: 1) Did the council define the pope's infallibility when defining what is not formally revealed, and 2) with what kind of faith are they to be accepted, if and when so defined? The first question may be answered simply, that the council included non-revealed truths like philosophical principles and dogmatic facts within the scope of its definition. "The infallibility of the Church in such definitions," the commission reported, "while not directly asserted, is nevertheless declared obliquely. For the opinion which denies the obligation of mental assent in this type of definition is proved to be false from the Church's infallibility not only in truths that are immediately (per se) revealed, but also in those which are somehow connected with the former. Moreover in setting up the definition of infallibility we deliberately chose the expression, 'when defining what are to be held and handed down,' and not 'what are to be held and handed down by divine faith.'" [41] Had the council intended to limit infallibility to formally revealed truths, the phrase "by divine faith" or its equivalent would have been essential. It consciously omitted this limiting term in order to extend papal infallibility beyond direct revelation to include whatever is related to the deposit of faith.

Another more subtle question is the nature of our faith when accepting an infallible pronouncement on the secondary objects of infallibility. Many theologians at the time of the Vatican Council held, and still hold, that the faith corresponding to such definitions is divine, i.e., motivated only by the word of God revealing, with the Church's declaration being a mere condition (not a partial cause) of our assent. Others, perhaps the majority, believe that our faith in such case is not immediately divine but rather ecclesiastical; our proximate motive for acceptance is not the word of God revealing (as in divine faith) but the authority of the Church teaching infallibly with divine assistance. Ultimately, of course, we believe the Church's infallibility on the word of God; yet there is a difference between, say, accepting the Trinity because God who is infinite wisdom revealed it, and accepting the sainthood of Francis of Assisi because the Church who is divinely protected from error proclaimed it. One practical consequence of the difference is the nature of the censure that follows on denying the two types of doctrine. Where a truth is to be held by divine faith the penalty is heresy and consequent separation from the Mystical Body of Christ; where only ecclesiastical faith is concerned, the penalty is theological error and a grave sin, but not formal heresy or exclusion from actual membership in the Church.

For a variety of reasons, the council did not wish to settle the controversy on the character of our faith in secondary objects. Its choice of the term, doctrina tenenda (doctrine to be held) instead of doctrina tenenda fide divina (doctrine to be held by divine faith), showed the desire to avoid settling the dispute in favor of those who would have all infallible doctrine believed under penalty of heresy; it also emphasized the intention to include not only formal revelation within the ambit of irreformable doctrine, since "it is certain that these other (secondary) objects are included in the range of the infallibility that the Church possesses in her definitions." [42] Any other position would have been a concession to Gallicanism and an implicit denial that the Church has a right not only to proclaim the word of God but also to protect it and derive its implications.

Solution of Historical Problems

Accepted as an article of faith by believing Catholics, papal infallibility has been challenged, in modern times on historical grounds. Shortly before the opening of the Vatican Council, an outstanding German theologian, Ignaz von Döllinger, addressed a set of Considerations for the Bishops of the Council Respecting the Question of Papal Infallibility in which he appealed to the evidence of history against the projected definition. As leader of the opposition party before and after his defection from the faith, Döllinger refused to believe the pope infallible because, among other reasons, "the facts of Church history show that by the exhortation to Peter (about confirming his brethren), Christ did not intend to confer the privilege of infallibility on all popes. For, if this were the case, we should have to be able to show that all the popes for the last eighteen hundred years have always strengthened the brethren and have never asserted or tolerated anything that was erroneous. But no man will seriously think of making such an assertion." [43] He cites the case of Liberius signing an Arian creed, of Zosimus approving a profession of faith which denied original sin, and of Honorius helping to spread the heresy of Monothelitism. These are three out of some ten classic instances when, according to the critics, the popes were certainly in error. On examination, however, the accusation is found to be invalid--both on the score of empirical evidence and in the light of what exactly the Church means by papal infallibility.

Liberius versus Athanasius. Liberius (352-366) is the first pope to whom the Church does not give the title "Saint," perhaps because of his lack of courage under trial by the Arian Emperor, Constantius. He was seized at Rome for his ardent defense of Athanasius and the Nicene Creed which declared Christ's consubstantiality with the Father. After years of exile and under threat of death, he is reported to have signed a compromise formula of faith as the price of restoration to the Roman See. When Emperor Constantius died, Liberius publicly condemned Arianism. This fact, plus all the circumstances of the case, prove that no breach of infallibility was involved. It is an unsolved question which of three formulas Liberius signed; since only one was heretical, the issue is still open on this point. His conduct before and after exile was rigidly orthodox; hence the unlikelihood of heresy during exile. He was under duress, so that his acts were not unconstrained and therefore would be juridically invalid. And finally, even if what Athanasius says is true, that "Liberius, being exiled, gave way after two years and, in face of threats of death, subscribed his name," there was no shadow of intention to proclaim a dogma for acceptance by the universal Church.

Zosimus and the Pelagians. The charge against Zosimus (417-418) is that he supported the heresy of Pelagius and his confrere Celestius, after the two were condemned by the African bishops for teaching that grace is not absolutely necessary for salvation. What actually happened was that the two sectarians appealed to the pope, Celestius by a personal visit and Pelagius by letter, protesting their innocence and submission to the Catholic Church. Zosimus absolved them and wrote to the African hierarchy, suggesting that perhaps the condemnation was too hasty. Soon after the bishops to the number of 214 met in a council at Carthage, re-examined the case and informed the pope that Pelagius and Celestius were deceivers; they had misrepresented their cause in Rome. The pope forthwith ratified the African sentence and declared that unless the heresiarchs repudiated their error, they would remain excommunicated. There is no question of Zosimus failing in doctrinal integrity when he "defended" the heretics. At most he was misled by their protestations of innocence to demand a retrial; but once made familiar with the true facts, he approved the bishops' condemnation.

Vigilius' Change of Mind. When the Emperor Justinian published a decree against the Nestorian Three Chapters of Theodore of Mopsuestia, Theodoret of Cyrus and Ibas of Edessa, Pope Vigilius (537-555) began by refusing to condemn the Three Chapters, and then in 548 he did so, while at the same time confirming the Council of Chalcedon which the Nestorian document compromised. At once the bishops of north Italy, Dalmatia and Africa were furious. When Justinian asked for a general council, Virgilius withdrew the condemnation. Later on, when the Council of Constantinople met and reprobated the Three Chapters, Vigilius returned to his first position and concurred in the council's action. He died on his way back to Rome after an "exile" of nine years. In all this vacillation, there was no intention on Vigilius' part to make a doctrinal pronouncement. If he failed, it was in firmness of character on a matter of expediency, whether it is prudent to condemn writers long since dead and provoke a hostile reaction that can be avoided. But here, as in the case of Liberius, the pope was under such pressure from both sides as would account for his instability without excusing it, and deprive him of that liberty of action which is the conditio sine qua non of any dogmatic definition.

Honorius Condemned as a "Heretic." A more complicated problem arose when the sixth Ecumenical Council of Constantinople in 681 condemned Pope Honorius (625-638) as one "who did not sanctify this Apostolic Church with the teaching of apostolic tradition, but by sacrilegious treachery allowed its teaching to be sullied." [44] The reference is to a letter that Honorius wrote to Sergius, patriarch of Constantinople, who inquired about a conciliatory formula on the person of Christ intended to win over the Monophysite dissidents. Honorius' reply represents one of the alleged failures of papal infallibility. He neither approved nor condemned. While insisting that Christ was true God and true man, he praised Sergius for dropping the expression "one operation" as savoring of Eutychianism, but agreed with him that no reference should be made to "two operations" either, as this might be taken for Nestorianism. He stated that "since Christ had only one principle of action or one direction of the will, therefore He must also have one will." Taken verbally and without explanation, the statement looks heretical because the Monothelites held that Christ had only one (divine) will.

Honorius' successor, John IV (640-642), promptly wrote to Emperor Constantine, explaining how Honorius should be interpreted. "Our predecessor," he said, "is to be understood in this sense, that our Savior never had two contrary wills… that there was never in Him, as in us sinners, opposing wills of the flesh and spirit. Unfortunately some have twisted his words to suit their own fancy and suspected that he taught there was only one will (in Christ) for both the humanity and divinity, which is certainly false." [45] After forty years, the atmosphere was still hazy on where the Church stood, until the Council of Constantinople, approved by Pope Leo II, solemnly condemned the Monothelites, and at the same time reprobated Honorius for giving a handle to the heretics. Post factum, therefore, it was true that the Monothelites capitalized on Honorius' ambiguous language and to that extent he "encouraged heresy." However, we know that Honorius explicitly disavowed making a solemn definition. "As regards making a dogma of the Church," he told Sergius, "we should not definitively state whether there are one or two operations in the Mediator between God and men, while confessing there are two natures physically united in Christ,” [46] Accordingly, Honorius may be justly reproached for refusing to take a stronger position against Monthelitism, but for that very reason he cannot be charged with formal error and less still with propounding heresy.

John XXII on the Beatific Vision. One of the best examples of papal fallibility where no ex cathedra pronouncement was made, occurred during the reign of Pope John XXII (1316-1334). Up to his time, the practically unanimous teaching of theologians held that a soul enters the beatific vision immediately that its sins are expiated. Some few believed that heaven will be entered only after the last judgment. Before his elections to the papacy, Cardinal di Osa published a book favoring the minority opinion, and as Pope John XXII continued to hold the same doctrine. His public statements to the same effect were made in three sermons preached at Avignon, All Saints Day, 1331; December 15, 1331; and January 5, 1332. In these sermons, he said that heaven is attained only when the body and soul are united on the last day; also the devils and the damned will not be in hell until the day of judgment.

The theological world was scandalized. John's bitterest rival, Cardinal Orsini, went to Bavaria, where, with the Englishman William of Ockham, he preached that the pope was a heretic. Surprised at the outburst, the pope did not defend his statements but appointed a commission of various schools of theology to study the question and report back to him. Their report stated that Christian tradition contradicted the pope's opinion; but against those who charged the pope with heresy, the commission declared that this is a priori impossible because the doctrine has never been defined; moreover the pontiff made the statements only in a sermon, as a private individual and with no intention of binding the consciences of the Christian world. Shortly before his death, he signed the following document: "The souls of the just, separated from their bodies, but fully purified from their sins, are in heaven, in paradise, with Jesus Christ, in the company of the angels. According to the common tradition, they see God and the divine essence face to face, clearly, as far as the state and condition of a soul separated from the body allow." [47] John's successor, Benedict III, promptly defined the doctrine of the beatific vision, almost in the words of the dying pontiff's testimony.

Galileo's Condemnation. The most celebrated case where the pope is supposed to have erred, was the condemnation of the Italian scientist, Galileo Galilei, by two successive pontiffs, Paul V (1605-1621) and Urban VIII (1623-1644). His studies in astronomy led him to question the ancient Ptolemic theory which postulated that the earth is the stationary center of the universe, surrounded by the sun, moon and stars as moving satellites. He favored the theory of Copernicus, who taught that the sun is the center, with the earth and other heavenly bodies revolving around it. Aristotelian writers opposed Galileo on pre-scientific grounds, based on quotations from the Greek philosopher, but without success until it occurred to them to charge Galileo with heresy. If, they argued, the sun is always stationary, the Scriptures are contradicted, since we read that in answer to Josue's prayer, "The sun stood still in the heavens and hasted not to go down for the space of one day," to allow the Jews time for defeating their enemies. [48] Galileo wrote a letter in self-defense, in which he said that "although Scripture cannot err, the interpreters and expositors of Scripture can sometimes be in error in different ways: the most serious and frequent is when they stop with the literal meaning of words, which leads to contradictions, heresies and even blasphemy. Thus we should have to say that God has hands, feet and eyes, and human or bodily emotions like anger, sorrow and hatred." [49] His opponents delated the letter to Rome, where the Congregation of the Index in 1616 decreed that Galileo was not to teach or defend in the future the Copernican theory as an established fact. Although approved by the pope, the decree was purely disciplinary.

Galileo chafed under the restraint, but for sixteen years kept out of trouble with ecclesiastical authorities. Then in 1630 he asked for Roman approbation to publish his Dialogue on the Two Principal Systems of the World. Approval was given on condition that the Ptolemic and Copernican theories would be frankly discussed and the latter offered as only hypothetical. Instead of abiding by this limitation, Galileo defended the Copernican theory as an established fact, on the strength of evidence which scientists commonly agree was not conclusive. Arraigned before the Inquisition in 1632, Galileo had to sign a formula of "recantation" which absolved him from any censures he might have incurred for propounding an opinion suspected of heresy. He remained on friendly, even intimate terms with Urban VIII, receiving an annual pension of 100 crowns from the Holy See and the Apostolic Benediction from the pope before his death in 1642.

Neither Galileo nor his contemporaries believed the two condemnations were dogmatic judgments, and less still, papal definitions. They were not pronounced by the pope, but only by the Roman tribunals whose decisions are not irreformable. Copernicus had been allowed to dedicate his book to Paul III and as late as 1624 Urban VIII had declared the Copernican system was not heretical. In the final analysis Galileo was censured because he seemed to think that an opinion may be defended even when competent authority believes it is contrary to faith. If the Roman inquisitors, not the Roman Pontiff speaking ex cathedra, were wrong in suspecting the orthodoxy of a scientific theory, they were not mistaken in condemning the moral attitude of its defender.

Chapter IX - References

  1. Chicago Tribune, July 25, 1870.

  2. New York Post, July 14, 1870. Although the definition was not made until July 18, a cable from Rome mistakenly announced that infallibility had been passed five days before.

  3. Acts 4:12.

  4. Matthew 10:14-15.

  5. Mark 16:16.

  6. Rationalist criticism denies the authenticity of the last twelve verses of St. Mark's Gospel, chapter 16, verses 9 to 20, because the passage is missing in several ancient codices, e.g., the Sinaiticus and Vaticanus. Also an alternate form was recognized in the early Church. However the majority of the best manuscripts give the conclusion intact as found in the Vulgate. No Catholic questions the canonicity of these verses, i.e., their inspiration, though some hold they may be the addition of another author than Mark. The Biblical Commission censures the opinion that the objections against Marcan authenticity are really demonstrative.

  7. Matthew 28:20.

  8. John 14:26.

  9. John 16:12-14.

  10. I Peter 1:12.

  11. Galatians 1:9.

  12. I John 3:3; II John 1:6-9.

  13. Denzinger, 1828.

  14. St. Ignatius of Antioch, "To the Trallians," chap. 7; "To the Ephesians," chap. 3, Apostolic Fathers, New York, 1947, pp. 88, 104.

  15. Denzinger, 1838-1839.

  16. J. H. Lupton, Archbishop Wake and the Project of Union (1717-1720) between the Gallican and Anglican Churches, London, 1896, p. 50.

  17. Henry E. Manning, The Vatican Council, New York, 1896, p. 42.

  18. Ibid.

  19. Ibid.

  20. John Gerson, Opera Gersonis, Paris, 1418, vol. II, p. 307.

  21. Peter d'Ailly, ibid., p. 958.

  22. Concilium Constantiense (Sessio IV-V), mansi, vol. 27, pp. coll. 585, 590.

  23. Ibid. col. 1199.

  24. Denzinger, 694.

  25. Martin Luther, Werke, (Weimar edition), vol. XI, pp. 405,415.

  26. Quoted by Ludwig von Pastor, History of the Popes, London, 1938, p. 151.

  27. Denzinger, 1098.

  28. Documents of the Christian Church, New York, 1947, p. 379.

  29. Matthew 16:19.

  30. Luke 22:32.

  31. G. D. Mansi, Amplissima Collectio, vol. I, col. 1114.

  32. Tertullian, "De Pudicitia," cap. 1, MPL 2, 981.

  33. Firmilianus, "Epistola ad Cyprianum," MPL 3, 1169.

  34. Julius I, "Epistola ad Antiochenos," MPL 8, 906.

  35. Sozomen, Ecclesiastical History (Book III, chap. 10), London, 1855, p. 119.

  36. C. B. Moss, The Old Catholic Movement, Its Origins and History, London, 1948, p. 223.

  37. Innocentius I, "Epistola ad Episcopos Africanos," MPL 20, 582.

  38. St. Hormisdas, "Libellus Professionis Fidei," MPL 63, 460.

  39. Acta Concilii Vaticani, Mansi, vol. LII, coll. 1204-1232.

  40. Ibid., col. 1226.

  41. Ibid., vol. LIII, col. 326. In the final draft, the verb "handed down" was also dropped and instead of the plural "things that are to be held," the singular expression "doctrine to be held" was substituted.

  42. Ibid., vol. LII, col. 1227.

  43. Ignaz von Döllinger, Declarations and Letters on the Vatican Decrees, Edinburgh, 1891, p. 13.

  44. Leo II, "Epistola ad Constantinum IV Imperatorem," MPL 96.

  45. Joannes IV, "Epistola ad Constantinum Imperatorem," MPL 80.

  46. Honorius, "Epistola ad Sergium," MPL 80, 475.

  47. Denifle et Clâtelain, Chartularium Universitatis Parisiensis, Paris, 1891, vol. II, p. 441.

  48. Josue 10:13.

  49. Galileo Galilei, "Lettera a D. Benedetto Castelli (December 21, 1613), Opere, vol. V, Firenze, 1895, p. 282.

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