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Dive into the historical and theological perspectives of the doctrine of Papal Infallibility with “The Infallibility of the Pope: A Closer Look.” Explore the controversies, its historical impact, and its relevance to the modern Catholic Church. Understanding the doctrine has never been more insightful.
Is the Pope Infallible?
In 1870, the Jesuit publication La Civiltà Cattolica highlighted the critical importance of the doctrine of papal infallibility, proclaiming it as the core tenet that empowers Catholicism to stand against Rationalism. This was during the First Vatican Council, which officially affirmed the dogma of papal infallibility.
Within the framework of Catholic theology, “dogma” signifies doctrines that hold an irrefutable value and are therefore unquestionable. In the case of papal infallibility, the exact definition laid out by the council of 1870 is as follows:
Papal infallibility is a dogma of divine origin, stating that the Pope, in his role as the spiritual shepherd and teacher of all Christians, is infallible when he speaks ex cathedra, or officially. When, drawing upon his supreme apostolic authority, he outlines a doctrine pertaining to faith or morals for the entire Church to uphold, he is graced with divine assistance, a promise made to him in the persona of the blessed Peter. This divine assistance ensures infallibility, a quality that the divine Redeemer desired His Church to possess when defining doctrines related to faith and morals. Consequently, the Pope’s definitions or doctrines are in themselves irreformable or unchangeable, not due to the Church’s agreement but rather by their very nature.
Adherents of Roman Catholicism universally accept the belief in papal infallibility. They affirm that when the Pope makes pronouncements on matters of faith and morals, he is incapable of error. This belief was notably affirmed when Pope Pius XII declared on November 1, 1950, that the physical body of Mary, Jesus’ mother, ascended to heaven at her death. For Catholics, there’s no ambiguity about the doctrine of papal infallibility. Nevertheless, it’s useful to illuminate the official and unofficial Catholic perspective on this doctrine for the benefit of millions of Protestants and individuals with other religious beliefs. Even Catholics may find this impartial and candid examination enlightening and valuable.
During Pope Pius IX’s tenure, an ecumenical council known as the Vatican Council assembled. On July 18, 1870, the Council established a Constitution that incorporated the doctrine of papal infallibility. The decree issued states: “We… teach and define, as a Divinely revealed dogma, that the Roman pontiff, when he speaks ex cathedra… by virtue of his supreme Apostolic authority, decides that a doctrine concerning faith or morals is to be held by the entire Church…” Because of the divine support pledged to him through St. Peter, the Pope possesses the infallibility the Divine Savior wished for His Church. Consequently, the Pope’s definitions are inherently irrevocable (Catholic Encyclopedia, vol. 15, p. 308).
Reflecting on this dogma, Catholic authorities assert that nobody can rationally refuse to accept such papal decrees with absolute and irrevocable certainty. Furthermore, when the Church explicates a dogma’s meaning, this interpretation is everlasting and cannot be deviated from, regardless of the depth of subsequent investigation. The sphere of infallibility is not to be excessively constrained; it must encompass indirect and secondary subjects as well. Thus, the Constitution’s third chapter, adopted by the Vatican Council, warns against anyone attempting to diminish the Pope’s authority over the Church in matters of faith, morals, discipline, and administration (Ibid., vol. 15, p. 308).
In essence, this Catholic doctrine is based on several theological conclusions: that Christ established His Church on Peter, not Himself; that Peter was the Catholic Church’s first Pope; that authority and infallibility transferred from Peter to his successors; that early tradition and Church history support these assertions in principle. These conclusions are reinforced by the Church’s stern warning: anyone who declines to acknowledge her teachings faces the threat of eternal damnation. (Catholic Encyclopedia, vol. 7, p. 792.)
Analyzing the Assertion of Infallibility
The doctrine of infallibility, declared by the Vatican Council in 1870, met with significant resistance even within the Catholic Hierarchy. Prior to the Council, as many as 162 bishops voiced their opposition to such a doctrine, and after the Council convened, over two months were spent debating this contentious issue. It’s been noted that “Rarely have significant matters ever been subjected to as intense a debate as the question of papal infallibility was at the Vatican Council” (Ibid., vol. 15, p. 306).
Among the primary dissenters at the assembly was the titled Croatian scholar, Joseph Georg Strossmayer, who held various positions of influence, including Bishop of Bosnia, Slavonia, and Sirmium, chaplain to the Austrian Emperor, director of the Augustinian body at Rome, count of the Holy Roman Empire, and bishop of the pontifical throne. The speech purportedly delivered by this esteemed individual at the Council merits thoughtful consideration, as it presents an impressive collection of indisputable facts. Space constraints permit us to share only these excerpts from his address. (These quotes come from a reprint of The Bible Treasury, No. 195, August 1872, which is an English translation of the original Italian version published in Florence.)
In his address, Strossmayer began: “Venerable Fathers and Brethren…conscious of the immense responsibility before God, I have devoted myself to the diligent study of the Old and New Testament scriptures, seeking to ascertain whether the esteemed Pontiff who presides here is truly the successor of St. Peter, the representative of Jesus Christ, and the infallible guide of the Church…I turned to these sacred pages. And—dare I admit it—I found nothing to substantiate the view of the Ultramontanes [the extremists advocating papal supremacy]. To my great surprise, I found no mention in the apostolic era of a pope, successor to St. Peter, and vicar of Jesus Christ, any more than of Mahomet, who didn’t yet exist…No, Monseigneurs, I do not blaspheme, nor am I deluded. Having read the entire New Testament, I affirm before God, with my hand held high towards the grand crucifix, that I found no hint of the papacy as it stands today…
“While studying the holy scriptures with the utmost attention that God has granted me, I couldn’t find a single chapter or even a verse where Jesus Christ grants St. Peter supremacy over his fellow apostles.”
APOSTOLIC SUCCESSION: Were There Divinely Appointed Successors of the Twelve Apostles with Authority, and Is the Pope the Successor of Peter?
Strossmayer highlighted various biblical passages which illustrate that (1) Jesus instructed Peter and the other apostles not to wield power as secular kings do (Luke 22:25), and yet, “according to our tradition,” the bishop said, “the papacy wields two swords, symbols of both spiritual and temporal power”; (2) it was James, not Peter, who presided over the assembly in Jerusalem and summarized their conclusions (Acts 15); (3) the church is built on Christ, not Peter (Eph. 2:20). Strossmayer proceeded to comment:
“Nowhere in the writings of St. Paul, St. John, or St. James do I find a hint of the papal power. St. Luke, chronicler of the apostles’ missionary work, is silent on this crucial point…
“What astonishes me most, and what can indeed be demonstrated, is St. Peter’s silence. If the apostle were truly what we proclaim him to be—the earthly representative of Jesus Christ—he surely would have been aware of it; if he had been aware, why did he never act as pope?”
Strossmayer was not only a meticulous student of the Bible, as his speech continued it was evident he was also a discerning historian. He asked, “Was St. Peter in Rome? Was he crucified upside down? … Scaliger [1484-1558], a highly erudite scholar, unflinchingly declared that St. Peter’s episcopate and residence in Rome should be relegated to the realm of ludicrous legends… Esteemed colleagues, we face an arbiter before whom all of us—including His Holiness Pius IX—must bow in humility and acquiescence. That arbiter is history. Unlike malleable legends, history is like a diamond, etching indelible marks upon the glass of time…
“Since I found no trace of the papacy during the apostolic age, I turned to church annals for answers. However, I openly admit—I sought a Pope in the first four centuries but found none…
“It’s clear that the Patriarch of Rome has always sought to centralize authority; however, it’s equally clear that he didn’t possess the supremacy that the Ultramontanes ascribe to him. If he did, would the African bishops—St. Augustine leading them—have dared to forbid appeals to his supreme tribunal?”
With persuasive logic and the support of ancient references, Strossmayer demonstrated that the Bishop of Rome wasn’t superior to the bishops of Africa and Asia. Instead, each was acknowledged as first among equals in his jurisdiction. Strossmayer then cited what Gregory I stated about the concept of a supreme pope. “Regarding the title of universal bishop, which popes later adopted, St. Gregory I, believing his successors would reject this appellation, penned these noteworthy words, ‘None of my predecessors agreed to assume this unholy title; for when a patriarch claims the title Universal, the stature of patriarch is diminished.’… These authorities, and I could list countless more of equal value, clearly demonstrate, with the clarity of a midday sun, that the first bishops of Rome were only later recognized as universal bishops and heads of the church.”
In this historical review, Strossmayer invoked the evidence of ancient “church fathers” to resolve the critical argument of whether Peter is the “rock” on which Christ’s church is built.
Peter, Not the Church’s Head
Rather than substantiating the claim that Peter was appointed head of the Christian church by Jesus Christ, the Holy Scriptures indicate that Jesus Christ retained this position for himself, delegating it to none. Long after Jesus’ resurrection, the apostle Paul stated in the Catholic Douay Version, “Christ is the head of the church” (Eph. 5:23). There’s no scriptural evidence that Peter was the church’s head. This is apparent from the account of the first church council in Jerusalem around 49 C.E. Rather than chairing the council, Peter, like Barnabas and Paul, addressed it, but it was James who encapsulated the matter under discussion and offered the recommendation that the council endorsed. (Acts 15:6-29).
The majority of instructional letters on faith and morals to the early church were not penned by Peter; he authored only two, whereas the apostle Paul wrote fourteen. Paul’s perception of Peter not being the divinely appointed church head is evident in Galatians 2:9 (Dy), where he says, “James, Cephas, and John, who appeared to be pillars, extended to me and Barnabas the right hands of fellowship.” Therefore, Cephas or Peter was not acknowledged by Paul, a recipient of the Holy Spirit, as the church’s foundation and head, but simply as one of its “pillars.” Later, Paul publicly reprimanded Peter for unbecoming apostolic behavior (Gal. 2:11-14).
However, you might argue, what about Jesus’ statement in Matthew 16:18 (Dy): “I say to thee: That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church. And the gates of hell shall not prevail against it”? The presumption that Peter is the rock foundation Jesus referred to is mistaken. Peter himself identifies the true foundation in 1 Peter 2:4-8 (Dy) when he describes the congregation as “living stones built up, a spiritual house, a holy priesthood,” and he portrays Jesus Christ as “the stone which the builders rejected,” “a stone of stumbling, and a rock of scandal, to them who stumble at the word.” Thus, Peter openly acknowledges that the church is built on the rock or foundation cornerstone that is the Lord Jesus Christ.
When Jesus praised Peter’s faith, he stated that he would construct his church, not on Peter, but on himself, whom Peter had just identified as the Son of the living God. This aligns with Ephesians 2:20 (Dy), which designates Christ as “the chief cornerstone.” As Peter was not the church’s foundation and head, he couldn’t have successors. Hence, the Pope lacks a credible basis for his claims to primacy and infallibility.
ANALYZING THE FALLIBILITY OF “INFALLIBLE” POPES
Renowned Bishop of Bosnia, Strossmayer, pinpointed the logical inconsistencies and historical inaccuracies that the notion of papal infallibility instigates. He stated that history, impartial and immutable, presents an unassailable truth that defies any attempts at manipulation or demolition. He quotes Monsignor Dupanloup, the Bishop of Orléans, France (1849-1878), saying that if we accepted Pope Pius IX as infallible, logic would dictate that every predecessor should be regarded likewise.
However, Strossmayer emphasizes the historical evidence that verifies the fact that some popes have been mistaken in their decisions or teachings. Instances include Pope Victor’s flip-flop stance on Montanism, Marcellinus’s idolatry, Liberius’s temporary espousal of Arianism, Honorius’s Monothelitism adherence, and the contrasting attitudes of different popes towards issues like dueling, civil marriages, and bible reading. He also cites the conspicuous contradictions found in the edicts of numerous other Popes.
Strossmayer then delves into the often scandalous conduct of Popes such as Vigilius, Eugenius III, Stephen VI, John XI, XII and XXII, and Alexander VI. Moreover, he could have discussed the notorious actions of Benedict IX, Gregory VI, Sylvester III, Julius II, Innocent VIII, Paul III, among others, all listed by Annuario Pontificio as legitimate popes.
Strossmayer concludes that if you assert the infallibility of Pope Pius IX, you would also need to substantiate the infallibility of all preceding popes, even the ones with apparent transgressions and erroneous teachings. The claim of infallibility would be ludicrous, considering the empirical evidence against it. He compares this claim to a betrayal of Christ that surpasses even Judas’s infamy.
Even if the speech’s authorship remains contested, the veracity of its content, built on historical evidence, remains robust. For instance, recent debates question whether Pius XII was infallible when he declared that Mary’s physical body ascended to heaven, a claim contradicted by the Catholic Douay Bible. The Bible stands as the only infallible Word of God.
Documented Errors of the Pope
The proclamation by Pope Pius XII that Mary was “assumed body and soul into heavenly glory” contradicts the Scriptures’ clear assertion that no fleshly body can enter heavenly glory. The Pope’s declaration of Mary’s Immaculate Conception, her supposed preservation from original sin, similarly violates Biblical truths. As noted in Romans 5:12, “sin entered into this world and by sin death; and so death passed upon all men, in whom all have sinned.” Mary, like every descendant of Adam, was born in sin, and nowhere does the Bible refute this fact.
Consequently, the claim of papal infallibility appears to be an attempt to delude trusting believers. The Bible warns about religious leaders who deceive, terming them “false apostles, deceitful workers, transforming themselves into apostles of Christ.” (2 Cor. 11:13) As Jesus forewarned, blindly following such leaders puts people in grave danger.
The history of the papacy contains several instances where popes have made decisions or held views that were later revised, criticized, or deemed erroneous. Here are a few examples:
Pope Honorious I (625-638): He was posthumously condemned for heresy by the Third Council of Constantinople for his views on Monothelitism, the belief that Jesus Christ had two natures but only one will. This view was later considered a heresy by the Church.
Pope Sixtus V (1585-1590): He authorized the publication of a new Latin edition of the Bible (the Sixtine Vulgate), which was filled with numerous translation errors. It was quickly withdrawn, and a revised edition (the Clementine Vulgate) was issued after his death.
Pope Urban VIII (1623-1644): He was involved in the Galileo affair, where he put Galileo under house arrest for supporting the heliocentric theory (that the Earth revolves around the Sun). This is now universally accepted among scientists, marking the Church’s stance at that time as incorrect.
Pope Pius IX (1846-1878): In his “Syllabus of Errors”, he condemned many modern political and philosophical ideas, including the separation of church and state, and freedom of religion. These stances have since been updated or reversed by the Church in the Second Vatican Council.
Pope John XXII (1316-1334): He held and preached a view about the Beatific Vision that was contrary to then-common teaching; he believed that those who died in grace do not see the presence of God until the Last Judgement. He later recanted this view.
The disputes surrounding the doctrine of papal infallibility have remained persistent. As we approached its 100th anniversary in 1970, these debates rekindled with exceptional intensity.
In the late 1960s, Dutch bishop Francis Simons published his book, “Infallibility and the Evidence,” voicing his skepticism about the infallibility of the Catholic Church and the pope. Simons suggested that due to the adherence to the dogma, the Church, instead of serving as a progressive force enabling positive transformations, has turned into an institution that dreads novelty and is preoccupied with preserving its own status.
Following this, distinguished Swiss theologian Hans Küng launched a vigorous critique with his book, “Infallible? An Enquiry,” among other publications. These writings drew severe responses from the Catholic authorities. In the late 1970s, August Hasler added to the argument, stating, “It is becoming increasingly apparent that there is no foundation for the dogma of papal infallibility, neither in the Bible nor in the history of the church during the first millennium.”
Theologians who adhere to the church doctrine have responded differently. La Civiltà Cattolica referred to the “massive array of challenges, inflexibility, and disruption” spawned by “the reaffirmation of the Petrine-Roman primacy as mandated by Vatican II.” Karl Rahner emphasized that “the dogmas stay within their historical context and remain perpetually open to future interpretation.” If the proclamations of dogmas are subject to reinterpretation, can they indeed be considered infallible? How can they provide the assuredness that individuals seek? They cannot! Only the inspired, inerrant Word of God can provide us with assuredness.