Are the Popes Infallible?
ALL good Roman Catholics believe that the pope is infallible and cannot err or make a mistake when issuing decrees on faith and morals. As a consequence, they believe that Pope Pius XII was infallible when he proclaimed on November 1, 1950, that the fleshly body of Mary the mother of Jesus went to heaven at the time of her death. There is no question in the Catholic mind concerning papal infallibility. However, for the benefit of millions of Protestants and persons of other religious beliefs it is well to explain the official and unofficial Catholic teaching concerning the infallibility of the bishop of Rome. Catholics will also find this unbiased and frank discussion very enlightening and profitable.
During the reign of Pope Pius IX a general or ecumenical council known as the Vatican Council convened, and on Monday, July 18, 1870, it adopted a Constitution containing the dogma of papal infallibility. The decree there promulgated says this: “We . . . teach and define, as a Divinely revealed dogma, that the Roman pontiff, when he speaks ex cathedra, that is, when he, in the exercise of his office as shepherd and teacher of all Christians, by virtue of his supreme Apostolic authority, decides that a doctrine concerning faith or morals is to be held by the entire Church, he possesses, in consequence of the Divine aid promised him in St. Peter, that infallibility with which the Divine Saviour wished to have His Church furnished.” Hence “such definitions of the Roman pontiff are of themselves . . . irreformable”.—Cath. Ency., vol. 15, p. 308.
Commenting on this dogma Catholic authorities say that no one “can consistently refuse to assent with absolute and irrevocable certainty” to such papal decrees.* “When, therefore, the Church explains the meaning of a dogma this interpretation is to be maintained in all future time, and it can never be deviated from under pretence of a more profound investigation.”* Nor is this power of infallibility to be too strictly confined or limited in its boundary, for “it is clear that there must also be indirect and secondary objects to which infallibility extends”.* Hence, the third chapter of the Constitution adopted by the Vatican Council gives this anathema warning: “When, therefore, anyone says that the Pope of Rome has only the office of supervision or of guidance, and not the complete and highest power of jurisdiction over the entire Church, not merely in matters of faith and morals, but also in matters which concern the discipline and administration of the Church throughout the entire world, or . . . [if anyone says] that this his power is not actual and immediate . . . over all and individual clergy and faithful, let him be anathema.”* (Italics added)
Briefly stated, this Catholic teaching is said to rest on the following theological conclusions: that Christ founded his church, not on himself, but on Peter; that Peter was the first pope of the Catholic Church; that authority and infallibility passed from Peter to successors; that early tradition and Church history support the claim in principle; that these conclusions are confirmed by this terrible sanction imposed by the Church: “All who refuse to assent to her teaching are threatened with eternal damnation.”*
CLAIM WEIGHED IN THE BALANCE
The dogma of infallibility was proclaimed by the Vatican Council in 1870 over violent opposition from within the ranks of the Hierarchy itself. Prior to the assembly no less than 162 bishops signified they were opposed to the proclaiming of such a dogma, and after the assembly was called more than two months were consumed with heated debates over the issue. “Scarcely in any parliament have important matters ever been subjected to as much discussion as was the question of papal infallibility in the Vatican Council.”*
One of the principal opponents at the assembly was the betitled Croatian scholar, Joseph Georg Strossmayer, who was bishop of Bosnia, Slavonia and Sirmium, as well as 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 that this learned man is reputed to have made before the Council is worth careful consideration, for it sets forth a brilliant array of undeniable facts. Limitation on space allows us to quote only the following excerpts from this speech.*
“Venerable Fathers and Brethren: . . . penetrated with the feelings of responsibility, of which God will demand of me an account, I have set myself to study with the most serious attention the writings of the Old and New Testament, and I have asked these venerable monuments of truth to make known to me if the holy pontiff, who presides here, is truly the successor of St. Peter, vicar of Jesus Christ, and the infallible doctor of the church. . . . I have then opened these sacred pages. Well! (shall I dare to say it?) I have found nothing either near or far which sanctions the opinion of the Ultramontanes [the extremists who contend for papal supremacy]. And still more, to my very great surprise, I find in the apostolic days no question of a pope, successor to St. Peter, and vicar of Jesus Christ, any more than of Mahomet who did not then exist. . . . No, Monsignori, I do not blaspheme, and I am not mad. Now, having read the whole New Testament, I declare before God, with my hand raised to that great crucifix, that I have found no trace of the papacy as it exists at this moment. . . .
“Reading then the sacred books with that attention with which the Lord has made me capable, I do not find one single chapter, or one little verse, in which Jesus Christ gives to St. Peter the mastery over the apostles, his fellow-workers.”
Strossmayer then called attention to the sacred Scriptures which prove that (1) Jesus forbade Peter and the other apostles to exercise lordship as the kings of the Gentiles do (Luke 22:25), and yet, “according to our tradition,” the bishop said, “the papacy holds in its hands two swords, symbols of spiritual and temporal power”; (2) it was James and not Peter that presided over the assembly in Jerusalem and summed up their conclusions (Acts 15); (3) the church is built on Christ, not on Peter (Eph. 2:20). Strossmayer then continued and said:
“Neither in the writings of St. Paul, St. John, nor St. James, have I found a trace or germ of the papal power. St. Luke, the historian of the missionary labours of the apostles, is silent on this all-important point. . . .
“What has surprised me most, and what moreover is capable of demonstration, is the silence of St. Peter. If the apostle had been what we proclaim him to be—that is, the vicar of Jesus Christ on earth—he surely would have known it; if he had known it, how is it that not once did he act as pope?”
PAGES OF HISTORY TURNED BACK
Not only was Strossmayer a diligent student of the Bible, as he proceeded with his speech it was manifest he was also a critical scholar of history. “But it is said on all sides, Was not St. Peter at Rome? was he not crucified with his head down? . . . Scaliger [1484-1558], one of the most learned of men, has not hesitated to say that St. Peter’s episcopate and residence at Rome ought to be classed with ridiculous legends. . . . My venerable friends, we have a dictator, before whom we even his holiness Pius IX—must prostrate ourselves and be silent and bow our heads. That dictator is history. This is not like a legend, which can be made as the potter makes his clay, but is like a diamond which cuts on the glass what cannot be cancelled. . . .
“Finding no trace of the papacy in the days of the apostles, I said to myself, I shall find what I am in search of in the annals of the church. Well, I say it frankly—I have sought for a pope in the first four centuries and I have not found him. . . .
“That the Patriarch of Rome had from the earliest times tried to draw to himself all the authority is an evident fact; but it is an equally evident fact that he had not the supremacy which the Ultramontanes attribute to him. Had he possessed it, would the bishops of Africa—St. Augustine first among them—have dared to prohibit the appeals of their decrees to his supreme tribunal?”*
With convincing argument, backed up by ancient authorities, Strossmayer proved that the bishop of Rome was not over and above the bishops of Africa and Asia, but, rather, each was recognized as holding the first place in his respective see. Strossmayer then recalls what Gregory I said about the idea of a supreme pope. “As for this title of universal bishop, which the popes took later, St. Gregory I, believing that his successors would never think of adorning themselves with it, wrote these remarkable words, ‘None of my predecessors has consented to take this profane name; for when a patriarch gives himself the name of Universal, the title of patriarch suffers discredit.’ . . . These authorities, and I might add a hundred more of equal value, do they not prove, with a clearness equal to the splendour of the sun at mid-day, that the first bishops of Rome were not till much later recognized as universal bishops and heads of the church?”*
At this point in his historical review Strossmayer called up the testimony of ancient “church fathers” to settle “the great argument” as to whether Peter is the “rock” on which Christ’s church is built. His devastating array of facts was published in a previous issue of The Watchtower.*
“INFALLIBLE” POPES PROVED FALLIBLE
The learned bishop of Bosnia next called attention to the ridiculous dilemma the claim of papal infallibility creates. “History is neither Catholic, nor Anglican, nor Calvinistic, nor Lutheran, nor Armenian, nor schismatic Greek nor Ultramontane. She is what she is. . . . Write against it, if you dare! but you cannot destroy it, any more than taking a brick out of the Coliseum would make it fall. . . . Monsignor Dupanloup [Bishop of Orléans, France (1849-1878)], in his celebrated Observations on this Council of the Vatican, has said, and with reason, that if we declared Pius IX infallible, we must necessarily, and from natural logic, be obliged to hold that all his predecessors were also infallible.
“Well, then, venerable brethren, here history raises its voice with authority to assure us that some popes have erred. You may protest against it or deny it as you please, but I will prove it! Pope Victor (192) first approved of Montanism, and then condemned it. Marcellinus (296-303) was an idolater. He entered into the temple of Vesta, and offered incense to the goddess [her temple was the oldest pagan temple in Rome]. You will say that it was an act of weakness; but I answer, a vicar of Jesus Christ dies rather than become an apostate. Liberius (358) consented to the condemnation of Athanasius, and made a profession of Arianism, that he might be recalled from his exile and reinstated in his see. Honorius (625) adhered to Monothelitism: Father Gratry has proved it to demonstration. Gregory I (785-90) calls anyone Antichrist who takes the name of universal bishop, and contrariwise Boniface III (607-8) made the parricide Emperor Phocas confer that title upon him. Paschal II (1088-99) and Eugenius III (1145-53) authorized duelling; Julius II (1509) and Pius IV (1560) forbade it. Eugenius IV (1431-39) approved of the Council of Basle and the restitution of the chalice to the church of Bohemia; Pius II (1458) revoked the concession. Hadrian II (867-872) declared civil marriages to be valid; Pius VII (1800-23) condemned them. Sixtus V (1585-90) published an edition of the Bible, and by a bull recommended it to be read; Pius VII condemned the reading of it. Clement XIV (1700-21) abolished the order of the Jesuits, permitted by Paul III, and Pius VII re-established it.”*
Strossmayer briefly mentions the wicked history of popes Vigilius, Eugenius III, Stephen VI, John XI, XII and XXII, and Alexander VI. He could have extended the list and told about the lusts of Benedict IX, Gregory VI, Sylvester III, Julius II, Innocent VIII, Paul III, and many others, all of whom are officially listed by Annuario Pontificio (1947) as popes in good standing.*
Coming now to the conclusion, we read: “Again I say, if you decree the infallibility of the present bishop of Rome, you must establish the infallibility of all the preceding ones, without excluding any; but can you do that when history is there establishing with a clearness equal only to that of the sun, that the popes have erred in their teaching? Could you do it and maintain that avaricious, incestuous, murdering, simoniacal popes have been vicars of Jesus Christ? Oh! venerable brethren, to maintain such an enormity would be to betray Christ worse than Judas!”
Because some say this speech was written by an Augustinian monk instead of by Strossmayer does not reduce its truthfulness in the least.* The facts of history remain irrefutable. But if this historical discussion bores you, consider recent events and a current question: Was Pius XII infallible when he proclaimed that the fleshly body of Mary went to heaven? On the very face of it the statement is a lie, for the Catholic Douay Bible says plainly: “Flesh and blood cannot possess the kingdom of God: neither shall corruption possess incorruption.” (1 Cor. 15:50) Other scriptures proving the Assumption Dogma a fallible falsehood appeared in The Watchtower, January 15, 1951. Not man’s word, but only God’s Word, the Bible, is infallible!—John 17:17.
Catholic Encyclopedia, vol. 7, p. 800.
Ibid., vol. 15, p. 308.
Ibid., vol. 7, p. 799.
Ibid., vol. 15, p. 308.
Catholic Encyclopedia, vol. 7, p. 792.
Ibid., vol. 15, p. 306.
From a reprint of The Bible Treasury, No. 195, August 1872, which was an English translation of an Italian version first published at Florence.
Augustine of Hippo (354-430), called the “glory of the Catholic church”, was secretary in the Council of Milevis (Mileve, Melvie) when it issued the decree: “Whoever wills to appeal to those beyond the sea [meaning the bishop of Rome] shall not be received by any one in Africa to the communion.”
“The sixth Council of Carthage forbade all the bishops to take the title of prince of the bishops, or sovereign bishop.” “Pope Pelagius II [579-590] calls John, Bishop of Constantinople, who aspired to the high priesthood, ‘impious and profane.’ ‘Do not care,’ he said, ‘for the title of universal which John has usurped illegally.’ (Pelagius II, Lett. 13.)”—Strossmayer.
June 1, 1951, pp. 345-348.
Another papal bull was the one Pope Urban VIII made when excommunicating the great scientist Galileo for teaching the truth that the earth revolves around the sun and not vice versa. Other glaring contradictions appear in the edicts of Innocent I, Gelasius I, Pelagius I, Nicholas I, Stephen II (III), Celestine II, Innocent III, Nicholas II, etc.—McClintock & Strong’s Cyclopædia, vol. 4, pp. 571, 572; vol. 10, p. 673.
1948 National Catholic Almanac, pp. 30-35.
Catholic Encyclopedia, vol. 14, p. 316; vol. 15, p. 306.