Cleansing Fire

Defending Truth and Tradition in the Roman Catholic Church

Infallibility Irony

May 12th, 2018, Promulgated by Diane Harris

The following is from Chapter XII of Half a Dialogue,  the book which I wrote in 2015 in response to Pope Francis’ invitation to discussion, dialogue and debate, on his environmental encyclical Laudato Si. The excerpt, subheading #7 of that chapter, is a reflection on the irony in Vatican I’s declaration of the doctrine of infallibility; i.e. how what was seen by some as a ‘papal power play’ is being used by the Holy Spirit to guard the Deposit of Faith even in the 21st century.

  1. An ironic reflection

It would be difficult to close this Chapter XII on Infallibility without reflecting on an ironic context to Vatican I, the first Council since Trent, three centuries earlier. Pope Pius IX summoned the Council in 1869, targeting ‘modern errors.’ Vatican I was deemed to be a pastoral council, reinforcing or restating what was already Church dogma. Papal infallibility had long been understood and accepted in the Church; e.g. when Peter, the first Pope, made the decision not to require circumcision of the Gentiles.

In the recent book “History of the Catholic Church,” by respected historian Dr. James Hitchcock (Ref. E-12), a brief history is recounted of Vatican I, and the details of its members wrestling with a statement on Papal Infallibility. Hitchcock writes (page 366): “The idea of papal infallibility was already widely accepted, and Pius did not ask the Council to approve it, lest it appear that he received his authority from the Council. He merely waited until the Council voted to proclaim it”  but he exerted some strong pressure on wavering bishops.”

Hitchcock notes that “Some bishops were troubled by the doctrine of infallibility because they thought it implied that they received their authority solely from the pope, rather than being direct successors of the Apostles.” … “A preliminary vote showed 451 in favor of the dogma, 62 in favor “conditionally”, and 88 opposed. On the eve of its solemn ratification, the opposition leaders agreed that, rather than vote … ‘it does not please me’, they would absent themselves.”   

Apparently all but two of those in opposition left the Council. However, Napoleon III’s troops were protecting Rome from the Italian armies, so there may well have been other reasons for hasty departures. A schism occurred in Germany, in particular, thereafter, with the “Old Catholic” breakaway. Vatican I was not officially “closed” until Vatican II.

Hitchcock summarizes: “Infallibility was understood as encompassing only matters of faith and morals that were solemnly proclaimed by the pope ex cathedra … a limitation necessary in order to exclude the doctrinal errors of some popes …. The pope could not create new dogmas but merely authoritatively define what were already the Church’s beliefs.”

Herein lies the irony.  Some bishops of Vatican I objected to a clear, bold statement on papal infallibility because, in part, it appeared to extend the Pope’s power, although infallibility was already well accepted.  But the Holy Spirit works in mysterious ways. Now, [nearly 150] years later, we can understand that the clarifications of Vatican I, rather than intrusively limiting the bishops’ power, merely placed constraints and limitations on the infallibility claim of any pope, especially through the restriction to “matters of faith and morals.”  That reality may well be a source of comfort to bishops concerned with directions Synods may take, and priorities of various encyclicals.

Perhaps, under the Holy Spirit’s guidance and protection, that which once seemed to be strengthening papal power has in reality clarified for the Faithful their right to cling to and protect their faith, and not to be seduced into enjoying the ‘flavor of the month’ so easily chosen by sects and faith traditions which rely on their own elders’ opinions and political pressures, rather than doctrinal infallibility. Indeed, the Holy Spirit works mysteriously, preparing so many years in advance.

Come Holy Spirit and abide with us!


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