Infallibility: What does it mean?
The word itself means exactly what the dictionary tells us, “incapability of error or deception.” Interestingly enough, no person on the face of the earth, except the Vicar of Christ, would dare insist on such a prerogative of office, and get away with it. Non-Catholics are constrained by force of truth to reverence the man who claims to speak for Jesus Christ on earth, whether they accept his authority or not. No matter how great a leader, in his own realm, the head of any false religion might be, he would be laughed to scorn if he ever had the audacity to claim that his solemn words were guaranteed protection from error by God Himself. The head of the Roman Catholic Church maintains such; and he is not laughed to scorn, though he is hated by many; rather, he is treated quite seriously wherever he goes. And no matter how proud certain heads of state might be, they suddenly become a little less sure of themselves when awaiting a papal audience in the Vatican. The atmosphere of authority, a divine atmosphere, is overwhelming, as many non-Catholics have testified.
In its most strict application, the attribute of infallibility is possessed supereminently, and essentially, in no one but God, Who is Absolute Truth. By way of a gift, or a sharing, this divine prerogative has been granted by the Author of creation to an office, occupied (the Papacy), and to a Book, inspired (the Bible). Philosophically speaking, everything that exists must he essentially true, infallibly declaring its essence (that is, what it is) by its very existence. A rock is infallibly a rock; it is not a fish. A piece of plastic that looks like a rock is infallibly a piece of plastic that looks like a rock; it can be nothing else. Sounds silly, hut the fact of this communication of truth from the Creator to His creature, that what God has made must manifest truly what it is, is a sharing by creation in the Absolute Veracity of God.
With the Sacred Scriptures, which are the very thoughts of God, the contents are more than infallible; they are divinely inspired. In other words, the thoughts conveyed by the holy writers are God’s thoughts, clothed in a man’s literary style. Infallibility however, as it is applied to the Pope, and to the Catholic Church which is in union with him, is not the same thing as inspiration. It is a protection, a safeguard, from error, which is clearly something different than inspiration. We might think of inspiration (that is, the kind intended for the edification and/or instruction of others) as an impulse from heaven to communicate verbally a particular message from Creator to creature. Inspiration and infallibility are the same only in that they are gifts from God that He uses to reveal Himself, and His will, to men.
The devil is quite aware of how desperate man is for communication from the eternal world beyond. Hence, in his attempts to obfuscate the true revelation, he hoists up counterfeit sources of revelation, lying pretensions, such as the Talmud of the Jews, the Koran of the Moslems, the Vishna books of the Hindus and, most recently, the Book of Mormon of the Latter Day Saints. The prince of darkness knows that the true revelation alone can save and, since he is the “ape of God”, he continuously devises other “infallible” authorities (always dead authorities who cannot speak, but must be read), by which to deceive those who find it convenient to be deceived.
Infallibility: The Dogma
Before proceeding any further, let us read the definition of papal infallibility as it was promulgated at the First Vatican Council in 1870:
Faithfully adhering to the tradition received from the beginning of the Christian faith … we teach and define that it is a dogma divinely revealed that the Roman Pontiff, when he speaks ex cathedra, that is when in discharge of the office of pastor and teacher of all Christians, by virture of his supreme Apostolic authority, he defines a doctrine regardging faith and morals to be held by the universal Church, by the divine assistance promised him in Blessed Peter, is possessed of that infallibility with which the Divine Redeemer willed that His Church should be endowed for degining doctrine regarding faith and morals; and that, therefore, such definitions of the Roman Pontiffs are irreformable of themselves, and not from the consent of the Church.
How foolish are those blind heretics whose “humble righteousness” is offended by such uncompromising insistence on the God-given authority supremely vested in the successor of Saint Peter! Are they so blind as to pretend not to see that this truth cannot but be so, if indeed the Savior of men did establish one Church for the salvation of the world? Is it not obvious that this dogma must be concomitant with our faith in the Divinity of Our Redeemer? Need we point out to the ”separated” Christians the clarity of the Godpels on this point, and its perfect reasonableness in the face of the comforting promise of Christ Himself that the Spirit of Truth woud remain with His Church always? How then, could one put one’s unhesitating faith in an instutition, to which we are bound in obedience, if such an institution were merely human, and therefore subject to the fancies of times and seasons? Witness the outcome of Popeless Christianity! All the thousands (who can guess the number!) of non-Catholic denominations are constrained by force of history to refer to themselves by the generic title of Protestant, as well as the specific appellation of the names of their founders. And what is it that all seperated Christians share in common — indeed, the only thing they share in common? They will not have the Pope! In their refusal to submit to the secure teaching authority of the one man designated as supreme shepherd by Christ Himself, they have actually conferred such awesome authority upon themselves — individually!
Infallibility: Foundation of Divine Authority
The Vicar of Christ must remain true to his call, in the person of Saint Peter, he has been commissioned by the Son of God to ”confirm thy brethren.” (Luke 22:32) And, bearing such an onerous responsibility, must he not imitate Jesus the Master, and speak, as He did, “with authority”? Now how could Saint Peter and the other apostles “teach all nations,” as they are commanded to do by Christ, unless the God Who sent them preserved their doctrine pure? Indeed their message demanded the assent of faith from those who heard them teach — if the instructed wished to save their souls. And how, too, could our Incarnate God give such power to men, as to commit heaven itself to ratify their decisions, were not such decisions guaranteed the guidance of the Holy Ghost? “Amen I say to you, whatsoever you shall bind upon earth, it shall be bound in heaven …” (Matt. 18:18)
Moreover, Christ commands the faithful of all time to obey the Church, and its supreme shepherd, as He commanded His disciples to obey the high priest who sat in the chair of Moses. And, in the Old Testament, when the high priest spoke from the Chair of Moses, arming himself with the ephod of authorty over the people of God, he too was infallible, and had to be obeyed. Now the Chair of Moses protected a revelation that was but a shadow of greater things to come. If, therefore, the figure enjoyed the gift of infallibility, how much more so the fulfillment, the Chair of Peter, which was established by the Son of God Himself. Whereas, before, God had commanded His people to “hear” Moses, or the prophets, or the high-priest, now, by the very voice of the Messiah, all men to the end of time are commanded to ”hear the Church”, for “he that heareth not the Church” is to be treated as a “publican or a heathen.”
It is crystal clear, as we can see in the history recorded in the Acts of the Apostles, that there did exist in the Apostolic age a visible authority to which the early Christians were to go in order to resolve doctrinal and moral uncertainties. And when that authority was resisted, or deceived — as in the case of Ananias and Saphira (Acts 5) — drastic chastisements fell from heaven.
It is beyond the scope of this article, however, to prove what is so clear from Scripture, namely, that there was a supreme authority in the infant Church, and it was the person of Peter or his successors.
Infallibility: Possessed by all the Apostles
The doctors and the fathers of the Church teach that not only was Saint Peter blessed with the gift of infallibility, but so were all the twelve apostles, and Saint Paul. However, they also clearly teach that only in the successors of Saint Peter was this special grace to be perpetuated. And for good reason. Had the successors of each of the apostles received this gift which the founders of their Churches possessed, we would have not one Catholic Church, under one supreme shepherd, but twelve Churches, under as many supreme shepherds.
It was more than fitting, indeed it was necessary, that all of the apostles should he granted immunity from doctrinal error. The salvation of all the nations to which they were sent depended on it. For if there is no salvation in any other name, as Saints Peter and John preached in Jerusalen (Acts 4:12), then the true doctrine of Jesus Christ must be known before an act of faith can he made. And Saint Paul assures us, as he himself had been taught by Christ, that “without faith it is impossible to please God.” (Hebrews 11:6) Even still, infallibility was explicitly promised by the Savior to His apostles when he said, “he that heareth you, heareth me.” (Luke 10:16)
Infallible authority is so essential to the true Christian Church that without it there would be no visible divine Church at all. For if Our Lord has left His Church in the hands of men, which is a fact uncontested by Catholics and most Protestants, then He also has to commit himself to safeguarding dogmatic accuracy. Otherwise faith would be a mere human thing and would have nothing to do with the grace of God. For if the act of faith is more God’s act in us than our own, then our faith is true, for God cannot by grace initiate a meritorious act based upon a lie. But “faith cometh by hearing.” Therefore a visible authority teaching in God’s Name must always be present in the world until the end of time, if we are to have the opportunity of making a divine act of faith.
How is this Note of Infallibility excercised?
This grace given to the Vicar of Christ on earth does not guarantee that every time the Pope speaks on a matter of faith or morals he is engaginig infallibility. If such were the case, then there would be no need for distinguishing ex cathedra pronouncements from ordinary locutions, or the solemn from the ordinary magisterium. The following four criteria must be present in order for a papal teaching to be considered ex cathedra , that is, infallible.
- The Pope must teach as supreme doctor (teacher) of the whole world. For, as Christ’s Vicar, he has the entire human race for his flock. He it is who, most eminently, must teach ”all nations.” As supreme lawgiver, however, he can only bind the baptized. He does not legislate for non-Christians. Therefore, all separated Christians are required to obey the disciplinary, as well as the doctrinal, teaching of the Church in order to be saved. The grace of their baptism is working on them to accept the papal authority. The successor of Saint Peter is not infallible when he speaks merely as a private theologian, a simple priest, the Bishop of Rome, the Archbishop of the Roman province, the Primate of Italy, or the Patriarch of the West, all of which offices he holds.
- The Pope must be defining a doctrine of faith or morals. No other subject matter pertains to our salvation. Note too, that infallibility is engaged only on such positive acts, not on any lack of action. The Supreme Pontiff can be infallible when he teaches with words not when he teaches by silence. Indeed, in the latter case, silence can be a grave scandal. Therefore, as we said before, infallibility is a different thing than inspiration. It is the guarantee of God’s protection from teaching error. Inspiration is a direct moving grace from God, not sanctifying the recipient, but enlightening him by a private revelation, or by infused knowledge, to communicate a divine message to men.
- The Pope must make his intention known by clear words that he is defining a doctrine contained in the deposit of faith, and binding upon the consciences of men. Such ex cathedra introductions as “We declare,” “We define,” or “We pronounce,” are customarily prefixed to the actual definition.
The deposit of faith (depositum fidei) is that body of revelation, containing truths to be believed (faith) and principles of conduct (morals), which was given by Our Savior to His Apostles, to be preserved by them and their successors, with the guarantee of the guidance and protection of the Holy Ghost, the Spirit of Truth, in the visible Church for all times and to the end of time.
- The Pope must attach the sanction of anathema to the decree, either explicitly or implicitly. In other words, since obedience to superiors is necessary for salvation, the anathema means that the representative of Christ on earth intends to avail himself of the full height of his God-given authority and command our intellectual assent.
Interestingly enough, the Pope is greater in believing what he has defined than in defining. For the grace of infallibility does not, when engaged, make the Pope any holier. It is a grace freely given by God (gratia gratis data), such as is prophecy, tongues. or healing, and it is meant primarily for the edification of the faithful and, secondarily, for non-believers. Infallibility is a gift that is directed at strengthening the virtue of Faith in others; and naturally, that will redound upon the Faith of the Pope himself. As supreme teacher, the Pope is the highest pinnacle in the hierarchy of the Church teaching (ecclesia docens), which extends all the way, from an infallible definition, down to a mother teaching her child catechism. All of the faithfull share the responsibility of ecclesia docens. In believing what has been defined, or what has been transmitted universally down through the centuries (depositum fidei), we, all the children of the Church, are the Church learning (ecclesia docens). As believers we are greater than teachers. Just as a priest is greater in receiving Holy Communion than in distibuting It. For in the reception of the sacraments we are made holier. We receive an increase of sanctifying grace, which is a gratia gratum faciens, that is, a grace making one pleasing (to God). We might also mention here that for a Pope to engage the grace of infallibility, it is not a prerequisite that he be in a state of grace. This is strictly theologically speaking. There is no guarantee from Christ either that His Vicar can never lose the faith himself, or that he will be immune from sin. Infallibility is not the same as impecability. Only Our Lord, as God, was impeccable, that is, incapable of sinning. Our Lady was not impeccable; but she was immaculate. She could have sinned (but not by way of concupiscence for she was free of that), but she didn’t. She alone, of all the children of men, was free of all sin, original as well as personal.
Infallibility: Its Purpose
This great gift of Our Lord to his Church, and to His Vicar, is for our salvation. For if we must believe in order to be saved, then the Light of our salvation must provide for us a beacon to guide us along the right road to heaven. Now the order of the Church’s infallibility and the Pope’s is this: The Church must be infallible when she echoes unsullied, the teaching she has received in the sacred deposit from Apostolic times. Therefore, her infallibility is not distinct from that of the Pope, but is essentially derived from her union with him — the Bishop of Rome. However, only the Vicar of Christ is personally guaranteed immunity from error when defining a dogma. The Bishops of the Church have no such guarantee, except when they profess the truths found in the sacred deposit. Neither does an ecumenical council have such immunity from error, except when the Pope approves, with his supreme authority, decrees on faith or morals that the collective episcopate has decided open. And, in such a case, the Pope must make it clear that these decrees he has approved are binding upon the consciences of men. The decrees of Vatican II were never stamped with the note of infallibility, Pope Paul VI having personally requested that this council not he considered doctrinal, but only pastoral.
Although the Holy Ghost is continually flooding the Vicar of Christ with special graces, such graces (which are lights enlightening, not only grace sanctifying) are not irresistible. The Pope is a mortal man and is, therefore, free to accept or reject grace. This is why we must pray for the Pope. For if his cooperation with grace were guaranteed, we would need not pray for him at all, for he would always do what is right and good. This is manifestly not the case. Christ Himself, as Head of the Mystical Body, prayed for Peter that his “faith would fail not.” However, when the Pope ascends the Apostolic Chair to teach all men, or to legislate the morals of Christians, the grace then given to him is irresistible. And how could it be otherwise? Is the promise of Christ in vain when he assures us in the Gospel, “But the Paraclete, the Holy Ghost, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things …” (John 14; 26) — that is, all things necessary for salvation, which is everything. And again, “I will ask the Father, and he shall give you another Paraclete, that he may abide with you forever. The Spirit of Truth, whom the world cannot receive … he shall abide with you … ,” for, “I shall not leave you orphans.” (John 14:16-18)
Infallibility: On Morals
Then too, in order to be saved. we must keep the commandments of God and of the Church. For it is not enough merely to believe that we might be saved, we must also love. ”If you love me keep my commandments,” Christ said. (John 14:15) Therefore, the Church, through its visible head, must also teach us how to live. On this point of moral authority, the true Church of Christ has always insisted on a most elevated code of ethics: the indissolubility of marriage, purity of morals, justice and charity, forbidding, as Christ himself did forbid, even evil thoughts. The moral teaching of the Church is not strictly a part of revelation, since man ought to know by the law of his conscience how to live righteously. But because of our fallen nature the voice of conscience easily becomes dulled, and eventually it can become perverted. Therefore, the Savior of men did dwell, in many of His sermons, on how His disciples were to conduct themselves in their land of exile. Due to the crystal clarity of the Scriptures in the Old, and more especially in the New Testament, the Popes who have governed the Church for these two thousand years have seldom found it necessary to place anathemas on teachings contrary to Christian morality, for there were not many men so bold and audacious as to challenge the traditions on these points. But when there were enough who did not refrain from so doing (and they are legion today), the papal authority had to stamp out the contagion. Thus we have the decrees of Pope Innocent XI (March 4, 1679) which condemned from the Chair of Peter perverse moral practices, including the murdering of infants in the womb during any stage of pregnancy. Humanae Vitae, the encyclical of Pope Paul VI, though lacking anathemas, was unquestionably infallible teaching, for it reechoed the traditional position of the true religion on that subject, which always held that birth control was morally evil.
In summary: Papal infallibility conveys to us the very means of salvation — that is a knowledge of what we are to believe by faith, and how we are to live in obedience and charity. The Vicar of Christ, therefore, is the supreme lawgiver on earth, for his decrees are conducive not merely temporal peace, but to eternal life. And no man need answer to His Maker on the Day of Judgment for having erred in any other fields but those of faith and morals.
Arguments against Infallibility as presented at Vatican I
Those within the Church who opposed the teaching concerning papal infallibility presented their case, before the dogma was defined, at the sessions of the First Vatican Council (1869-1870). After great scrutiny of the Church’s history, they were able to come up with only a few questionable cases which, they thought, contradicted the belief. We are skipping over the arguments of Protestants who oppose not only infallibility, but papal supremacy as well. Their objections are easily refuted, but we will save that refutation for another essay we plan to publish, addressed specifically to Protestants and schismatics.
The first difficult case put forth at the Council by opponents of infatlibility was that of Pope Liberius (352- 366), who, at one point, appeared to oppose the effort of Saint Athanasius in combating the semi-Arians. The heresy, you will recall, taught that the Son of God is like the Father, but not equal to Him. The problematic point was that Liberius, as Pope, had signed the creed of the local Synod of Sirmium, which creed purposely had avoided identifying the Son of God as “consubstantial” with the Eternal Father. This consubstantiality (identity of nature, or substance, or whatess) of the Father and the Son had been infallibly defined for all time at the first Ecumenical Council, Nicaca I, in 325. Liberals at the time of Liberius were pretending that, since the Bishop of Rome had signed the evasive symbol of Sirmium, Saint Athanasius (who had previously condemned this very Syood for its calculated omission) was wrong. The facts of the case, however, were different from the appearances:
- The Pope had signed the Creed under duress, even threats, as Saint Athanasius later discovered and publicized. Liberius had actually been seized as a prisoner by the Arian prefect Leontius, precisely because he had refused to repudiate the faith declared at Nicaea.
- The formula of Sirmiurn was not heretical in itself. It was insufficient. It was scandalous because of its deliberate omission of the word consubstantial.
- Pope Liberius, in order to safeguard the Faith as professed at Nicaea, had actually subjoined an addendum to the Creed of Sirmium to which he affirmed his faith in the consubstantiality of the Persons of the Holy Trinity. The German historian Hefele, who, interestingly enough, was one of the leading theologians opposed to the definition of infallibility at the First Vatican Council, recorded in his History of the Councils that Liberius had indeed added this saving declaration.
The next case put forth to oppose the dogma was that of Pope Honorius (625-638), who was condemned for negligence by the sixth Ecumenical Council in 681. His condemnation was not for teaching heresy, but for failure in extinguishing a heresy. As the Fathers of that Council explained, Honorius “failed to illuminate the world with the apostolic doctrine.” The heresy that this Pope was negligent in combating was that of Monothelitism, which was a compromise of the more overt error of the Monophysites, who maintained that there was no human nature in Christ, but only the divine. The Monothelites proposed the less blatant, but equally dangerous, opinion that there was indeed a human nature in Christ, but an incomplete one, because, they argued, Christ did not have a human will (mono-one, thelema-will). The heresy was propagated by the Patriarch Sergius, of Constantinople. In two letters written by the Pope to this heresiarch it is clearly evident that Honorius did not understand the heresy latent in Sergius’ doctrine, but instead credited the turmoil it caused to a mere quibbling over words — semantics — hardly worth upsetting the peace and unity of the Catholic empire. Consequently the error was allowed to flourish. Historians point out that in the letters to Sergius the Pope made it emphatically clear that he was not defining any dogma in the correspondence.
Which brings us to another point worth interjecting here: The Pope is not restricted to pronouncing definitions only during ecumenical councils. He can define a dogma at any time he chooses — in a bull, in an encyclical, in a constitution, a brief, or a simple letter, so long as he states his intention of defining a dogma, and he meets all the other aforesaid requirements.
Another case that appeared to present a difficulty was the unorthodox teaching of Pope John XXII (1316- 1334). This Pope was one of the French Popes who ruled the Church from France during the Avignon exile (1309-1377). The second Sovereign Pontiff to reign from the palace on the River Seine, instead of on the Tiber, John XXII promoted an error concerning the state of consciousness of the departed souls. Once, on All Saints Day, he preached a sermon from the Avignon cathedral, in which he stated that the blessed departed would not enjoy the full sight of God until after the General Judgment and the Resurrection of their bodies. Although several of the Church Fathers had flirted with this theory, the vast testimony of the Church’s tradition was against it. It took some time before this Pope decided to change his opinion. In fact, he went so far as to imprison a Dominican friar who labeled the teaching heresy. In his recantation John XXII affirmed that, in promoting this error, he was speaking only as a private theologian, in an area which he wrongly had considered open to opinion.
Finally, we will mention the controversial cases of Popes Paul V (1605-1621) and Urban VIII (1623-1644), who both condemned the teaching of Galileo. This objection is very easily refuted. In the decrees imposed against the scientist’s theories, there was never manifested any intention of defining a dogma. The controversial decree of 1616 involved the Index, wherein there was a prohibition of books that promoted the Copernican theory. The Pope was certainly not using his infallibilily to teach science. The controversy surrounding the Galileo episode (which has afflicted our time more than Galileo’s — someone dubbed it the Galileo complex) will be explained in a future Center publication. For now, it is enough to know that the issue involved discipline, strictly speaking, not doctrine. The Index of Pope Paul V prescribed only what one must do, not what me must believe. Even if the reasons behind the prohibition of certain books were doctrinal, the reasons never formed part of the decrees themselves. Furthermore, the decrees were clearly non-definitional in nature.
In forbidding Christians to read the works of Galileo, the Pope was not requiring his flock to act against reason, hut rather he was defending faith. For the proud scientist had challenged the inspiration of the Scriptures themselves (a common enough practice among heretical theologians of our day), and had flatly stated that Josue could not have stopped the movement of the sun. This was, in effect, saying that the Bible was not an absolute, but must be judged by science. In 1651, the Jesuit theologian Riccioli, in one of his scholarly expositions, summarized the Seventeenth Century perplexity thus, “As in this matter there has been no definition by the Sovereign Pontiff, nor by a Council directed or approved by him, it is by no means of faith that the sun moves and that the earth is immovable, at least in virtue of the decree.”
Finally, we must stress that, in these cases cited, and in all other controversial cases involving papal infallibility that have arisen in the course of Church history, in not one instance in which the Pope has heen wrong, has the Supreme Pontiff ever engaged the power of the keys by way of binding the consciences of the faithful.
Even if the Pope were wrong in the case of Galileo (and who can tell for sure, since the entire universe is in revolving motion, and all motion is relative to some other point — and Scripture makes that point earth), matters of discipline require obedience, not faith. Indeed, Popes Paul and Urban did engage the power of the keys in a matter not involving infallibility, and all Christians were bound to obey their prescriptions. Otherwise there would be an exception to the law of Christ, “Whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth is bound in heaven,” and such divine precepts can admit of no contradiction. Therefore, it is more than clear that these Popes were riot exacting faith in a teaching that contradicted proven evidence of science. It is not as if the Pope were commanding Christians to believe that the moon is made of cheese, or some such absurdity. These Popes were using their God-given authority to safeguard the literal meaning of the Scriptures, and to condemn any book that thought that God could not do what He inspired the sacred writers to describe as having been done.
Disciplinary laws of the Church are, therefore, morally binding, but not absolutely so. They are not propositions dealing with truth or falsehood, right or wrong. They are commands — do this or do that. Consequently, they cannot be absolute, since there could arise occasions when it would be impossible, or even detrimenral to faith, to obey a given command, even from a Pope.
Let us explain
Take the Church’s canons, which are its official laws of government, bringing (in normal circumstances) the needed order to the visible Kingdom of Jesus Christ on earth. What if such laws of discipline were used to weaken, or what is worse, destroy, faith or morals? Ought they not be resisted? Of course, that is common sense. Canon law is not infallible, precisely because it presents norms of action, not belief. When the Church commands us to attend Mass on the Lord’s day, would one call such a command infallible? Of course not! One cannot reply true or false to a command. But, if I say that Our Lady was immaculately conceived, I state a proposition that is either true or false. And when defined by the Pope it becomes infallible. Laws are not definitions, nor could they be; they do not explain what we are to believe, but what we are to do.
Now this is a crucial point: All law, especially ecclesiastical law, must serve the Truth and moral teaching of the Church. A command cannot be obeyed which would offend truth or right conduct, even if the law cited in the command is ecclesiastical. Saint Robert Bellarmine put it this way:
Although it clearly follows from the circumstances that the Pope can err at times and command things which must not be done, that we are not to be simply obedient to him in all things, that does not show that he must not be obeyed by all when his commands are good. To know in what cases he is to be obeyed and in what not … it is said in the Acts of the Apostles. “One ought to obey God rather than man:” therefore, were the Pope to command anything against Holy Scripture, or the articles of faith, or the truths of the Sacraments, or the commands of natural or divine law, he ought not to be obeyed, but in such commands, to be passed over (despiciendus). [as quoted in Turrencremata's Summa de Eccles.]
And, again, he repeated the same in another work
It is lawful to resist him (the Pope) if he assaulted souls, or troubled the state, and much more if he strove to destroy the Church. It is lawful, I say, to resist him by not doing what he commands and hindering the execution of his will. [Cardinal Saint Robert Bellarmine (de Rom. Pont.)]
One unfortunate effect of the dogma on infallibility is to give the impression that the Pope should be obeyed with docility only when speaking ex cathedra. Somewhat wary of this opening for abuse, Pope Pius IX, who later defined infallibility, issued a very strong, though not infallible, Letter, Tuas Libenter, in 1863, to the Archbishop of Munich, wherein he stressed the necessity of submission of conscience to even the ordiniary (non-ex cathedra) teaching authority of the Bishop of Rome and his Curial Congregatioins. In this Letter Pius IX was careful to include the essential distinction that such ordinary teaching must obviously be “divinely revealed” and in “common and constant agreement” with the teaching of Catholic theologians over the past centuries.
In other words, there is no human tribunal to judge the Holy See but the Holy See. So, if a Pope, in his ordinary teaching, contradicts the “revealed” doctrines of the past, either as manifested in solemn decrees of past Popes or Councils, or as manifested clearly in Scripture, or as upheld constantly by tradition, the error must be brought to his attention. If he persists in teaching a novelty, he must be resisted and his heresy exposed. But we cannot depose him or judge him to be ipso facto deposed. We can only resist, pray, and patiently await a Divine intervention, or the Pope’s conversion.
In such a situation, (and we have it today), confusion is sure to arise among the faithful. But we must, nevertheless, confidently believe that God will not leave us “orphans,” and that He will provide, for men of good will, indications that will warn them against being led into error. For, although we are not individually inspired as to what we are to believe or reject, we do have the grace of our baptism, one effect of which is to smell the smoke of heresy by the infused virtue of Faith working within us. God permits the devil to go only so far in disseminating his mischief. As, at the time of Moses, the magicians of Pharaoh did indeed perform preternatural prodigies, but the wonders performed by the great Patriarch and lawgiver were greater, destroying the artifices of Satan in the land of Egypt.
Infallibility: Testimony from the universal Church in post-apostolic times
The Bishop of Rome has always and everywhere been accepted as the final arbiter of the faith of Christians. The exceptions here do indeed prove the rule. For up until the Greek schism (9th Century), there was no mass opposition to this tradition. Every one of the Fathers and Doctors of the Church during the past two thousands years of history, both in the East and the West, testified to the supreme doctrinal authority of the Roman bishop. The first eight ecumenical councils, which were all held in the East, first received the approval of the Pope before their convocation, and, upon their conclusion, they all awaited his final determination of orthodoxy before their decrees could become binding upon the universal Church they represented.
The Fourth Council of Constantinople (869) taught that, “in the Apostolic See the Catholic religion has ever been preserved free from stain.”
The Third Council of Constantinople (680) declared that “Peter’s Apostolic Church has never departed from the way of truth into any error whatsoever.”
The bishops of the Council of Chaleedon (151), not far from Constantinople, responded to the reading of Pope Leo’s dogmatic Letter to his representative, Bishop Elavian, with the unanimous outburst of faith, “Peter hath spoken through the mouth of Leo.”
The Council of Ephesus (431) called Pope Celestine (422-432), “the guardian of the faith,” who teaches right doctrine, because he is the successor of Blessed Peter the Apostle, the head of the whole faith, and the head of the Apostles.”
Rome: By divine right a solitary claim
Nor has any other apostolic see ever claimed primacy of honor and jurisdiction except that of Rome. Now how could this be if Rome were not in fact always considered by the universal Church to be supreme authority? How could a Pope as early as Saint Clement (died in the year 100), who was a disciple of Saint Peter, have taken such authority upon himself as to write, as he did in the year 96, these words to the Church of Corinth; “If any man should be disobedient unto the words spoken by God through us, let them understand that they will entangle themselves in no slight transgression and danger.” Moreover, he commands them to “render obedience unto the things written by us through the Holy Spirit.” Was not Bishop Clement taking for granted that the Corinthians, who were Greeks, would accept his juridical authority? (The particular Letter cited involved this Eastern Church’s reception, back to their offices, of certain bishops who bad been unjustly deposed by a rebellious faction.)
The case of Pope Clement’s famous Epistle to the Corinthians is the earliest extant document (other than the New Testament itself) proving papal supremacy. From the beginning of the second century on such documents increased and abounded to such an extent that no unbiased author could ever question the fact that the early Church recognized a visible head, a supreme “feeder of the sheep,” a supreme “confirmer of the brethren,” and a supreme possessor of the “keys,” in the Bishop of Rome. And the foundation for this universel belief of the early Church in the Roman authority was not due to any “accident of history,” as desperate opponents allege, but rather to the universally known fact that Rome was the permanent See of Peter. To this all the Fathers testify unanimously.
Saint Peter was also the Bishop of Antioch in Syria, was he not? Yes, he was. For a brief time (36-42) he had established his residence in the Syrian capital as he traveled about the world “confirming the brethren.” It was in Rome, however, in the year 42, that he established his permenent Chair. And, as every historian worthy of the name admits (even the anti-Catholic Professors Hornack and Lightfoot of our century), it was in Rome, on Vatican Hill, where the Prince of the Apostles was crucified in the year 67.
A fact that Protestant apologists conveniently pass over is that no apostolic see (that is, a Church founded by one of the Twelve), not even that of Antioch, the foundation of whose Patriarchate is traced to Saint Peter, ever claimed primacy of honor and jurisdiction over Rome. Even at the time of the initial stages of the Greek schism under Photius of Constantinople (9th century), the proto-schismatic Patriach never claimed a supremacy over the universal Church. The Greek separatists attacked Rome’s claim, not of inheriting the permanent See of Peter, which honor they were rational enough not to doubt, but of having a primacy of legislation and jurisdiction over all Easten Churches as well as those of the West. This was the first time in the nine hundred years of the Church’s existence that there was any united resistence to the authoritative role of the Bishop of Rome. His universal primacy was a tradition too overpowering to resist. And, enforcing it, in the Scriptures, was the crystal clear pre-eminence of Peter over the other apostles. Leave it to the Protestant divines who “enlightened” Christendom, fifteen hundred years after the Savior had established His indefectible Church, to figure out what the situation realty was in apostolic times. Can we call this presumptuousness anything less than self-serving audacity!
Papal infallibility? Yes, O Modernists, who visibly stand within the Church, but who are spiritually without! Yes, O self-inspired, separated, non-Catholic “Christians,” who are visibly without, but whose baptismal graces lure you lovingly to come within! The One True Church needs an infallible magisterium, that she may be One and True. The apostles needed the gift for themselves. And the post-apostolic Church, especially in our time, needs it in the person of the successor of Saint Peter, so that he can continuously feed Jesus’ lambs — the children of God; and the Savior’s sheep — the hierarchy of bishops. Without infallibility, how can we have the virtue of Faith? How can we defend ourselves against the subtle snares of the father of lies, who so cleverly insinuates false doctrine among those who are not well-grounded?
Let us loyalists, who defend the authority of Saint Peter’s Chair amidst the modern-day babel, take courage. Let us refresh our faith in the indefectibility of Christ’s promise to Saint Peter by meditating upon the fisherman’s profession (Matthew 16:16). For this can be viewed as the proto-type, the first of all papal definitions. In pronouncing the infallible truth that Jesus was indeed “the Christ, the Son of the living God,” Peter was not echoing the conclusions of his reasonings. Rather it was the Holy Trinity speaking in him and through him, inspiring and perfecting his own faith, and preparing him for his doctoral office. “Blessed are thou, Simon Bar-Jona.” Why Simon Bar-Jona? Why was Peter being so graced? Why not Nathaniel, who had even before Peter, made the same profession of faith in Christ’s Divinity? (John 1:49) Why was Saint John the Baptist not so declared? Or for that matter, why not Saint Martha, who also made such a strong profession of faith in Christ’s full identity? (John l1:27) Why was Simon Bar-Jona singled out for his profession? Why was only his name changed to “Rock” (Cephas), and not the others who had professed faith in Christ? (And remember, his name was changed the very first time Jesus met him — three years before his profession at Caesarea-Philippi.)
In the continuation of the discourse, Jesus reveals why Peter’s profession was so blessed, “Because flesh and blood hath not revealed it to thee, but my Father Who is in heaven. And 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.” And the Father will continue to protect His revealed truths through Peter and his successors to the end of time. Peter and his successors are to be the unique participators in the infallibility of the Rock, Christ Himself. And whosoever wishes to be one with Jesus Christ must join that divine society that is built upon the foundation the Savior Himself laid — Saint Peter.