What Catholics Say About Infallibility
HOW do many Catholics themselves view the doctrine of papal infallibility? Note the following comments made to Awake! correspondent in Italy:
A. M., a Catholic lawyer from Bergamo, said: “If a person professes Catholicism, then he must believe in its dogmas. That the problem of papal infallibility cannot be explained in a rational way is obvious—it’s a question of faith. One either believes or one doesn’t.”
P. S., a Catholic from Palermo, affirms: “What is important in my opinion is, not so much whether the Bible supports the dogma or not, but whether its function within the church can be verified, and its specific utility today. We live in a confused world, a real Babylon of ideas. People no longer have certainties, and there is this great necessity for an absolutely sure source they can relate to.”
Other Catholics are critical. It would seem that their skepticism is based upon the papacy’s historical precedents. “Even though I am a practicing Catholic, it’s difficult for me to believe in this doctrine [of papal infallibility],” said L. J., a Rome journalist. “The history of the popes shows the exact opposite.”
A. P., a Rome doctor, says: “I don’t believe it at all. He is a man like all the others and makes mistakes. For example, he’s wrong when he gets involved in politics. Only God doesn’t make mistakes.”
This doctrine has divided people. In 1982, in the city of Rome, the home of the Vatican, 57 percent of Catholics considered papal infallibility one of the most questionable of dogmas. In Portugal, only 54.6 percent of Catholics believe in it, and in Spain, only 37 percent.
Could it be that this dogma, instead of contributing to the unity of the Catholic Church, has actually given birth to divisions and disputes? Historical evidence shows it has been at the root of controversies since its beginning, even during the council that promulgated it in the 19th century.
Divisions and Browbeating
It is undeniable that there were some very heated arguments between bishops and cardinals during the Vatican Council of 1870. La Civiltà Cattolica of that year spoke of “fiery agitation,” pointing out that not even the Jesuits anticipated that “such contrasts would have arisen in the face of such a sacred truth.”
German historian Ferdinand Gregorovius wrote that there were “tempestuous sessions” at the council. The one held on March 22, 1870, was particularly unruly. Bishop Josip Juraj Strossmajer, one of the many bishops present at the council who were against the infallibility dogma, was silenced by the howls of the bishops who favored it. The records of the council relate that while Strossmajer was speaking, these bishops “loudly” protested and ‘yelled’: “Kick him out!” and, “Get down! Get down!”
Other historians have shown that the pope and the Roman Curia exerted strong pressures on council members in order to get the dogma approved. Concerning this, Catholic historian Roger Aubert speaks of the “row” that Pius IX had with Cardinal Guidi of Bologna, whose address to the council was not to the pope’s liking. In a fit of anger, Pius IX reportedly said to the cardinal, who had made reference to tradition in his discourse: “I am the tradition!”
The pope wanted the doctrine approved at all costs: “I am so determined to go ahead,” he said, “that if I thought the Council wanted silence, I would dismiss it, and I would make the definition by myself.” La Civiltà Cattolica admitted: “The maneuvers of the council’s majority and also of Pope Pius IX, and the limitations and difficulties imposed on the minority, are no longer to be minimized or justified apologetically.”
One history book sums up the events, saying: “Papal nuncios [ambassadors] intimidate the bishops into favoring a decree of papal infallibility.” However, such “maneuvers” did not succeed in calming the waters of dissent—they only served to agitate them even more. After the council, part of the dissident clergy broke off from the Catholic Church. The “Old Catholics” movement was formed from the schism, and it is still active in Austria, Germany, and Switzerland.
The controversies over this dogma have never really quieted down. In 1970, with the approach of the 100th anniversary of its approval, they flared up with particular vehemence.
At the end of the 1960’s, Dutch bishop Francis Simons wrote the book Infallibility and the Evidence, in which he clearly expressed his doubts as to the infallibility of the Catholic Church and of the pope. Simons said that because of the dogma, “instead of being a force promoting progress and healthy changes, the Church has become an institution fearing that which is new and preoccupied with safeguarding its own position.”
Soon after came the seasoned attack of Hans Küng, the noted Swiss theologian, who, with his book Infallible? An Enquiry and other writings, drew stern reactions from the Catholic hierarchy. Then, at the end of the 1970’s, August Hasler wrote: “It is becoming increasingly evident that there is no basis for the dogma of papal infallibility, either in the Bible or in the history of the church during the first millennium.”
Theologians loyal to the church doctrine have reacted in various ways. La Civiltà Cattolica mentions the “formidable mass of difficulties, intolerance, and trouble” generated by “the reaffirmation of the doctrine of the Petrine-Roman primacy decreed by Vatican II.” Karl Rahner stressed that “the dogmas remain in their historical setting and permanently open to future interpretation.”
If the definitions of dogmas are subject to new interpretations, how can they be infallible? How can they offer the certainties people are seeking? However, it is even more important to know whether the early Christians followed an infallible pope.
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“He’s wrong when he gets involved in politics.”—A Rome doctor
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Miami Herald Publishing Co.