Apr 9, 2010

Is the Pope Infallible? Examining the Catholic Doctrine of Papal Infallibility

In Christian theology, infallibility is the doctrine that in matters of faith and morals the church, both in teaching and in believing, is protected from serious error by "divine dispensation." This doctrine is most associated with the Catholic church, but is also applied by the Orthodox church to ecumenical councils. The doctrine is widely rejected by Protestants on the grounds that only God can be described as infallible. 

Catholic theology asserts that the entire church is infallible (and therefore cannot err in matters of faith) when, from bishops to laity, it shows universal agreement in matters of faith and morals. Evidently popularity produces truth. Only a few persons in the church (those who hold its highest teaching office) are believed to proclaim Christian doctrine infallibly: (1) the entire body of bishops in union with the pope when it teaches with moral unanimity; (2) an ecumenical council which receives papal approval; and (3) under certain conditions, the pope alone.
What is Papal Infallibility?
Papal Infallibility, also called ultramontanism, is limited to when the Pope is speaking ex cathedra, that is when he is speaking in his official capacity as the "pastor and teacher" of all Christians in defining matters of morals and faith.
How did Pius IX manage to get papal infallibility declared an official dogma? Catholic theologian Hans Küng, critical of this dogma, argues for four principle reasons: "Pius IX had a sense of divine mission which he carried to extremes; he engaged in double dealing; he was mentally disturbed; and he misused his office." 

Criticisms of Papal Infallibility
There have been many Catholic critics of the doctrine of papal infallibility. In 1979 Father August Bernhard Hasler, Catholic priest, historian, and former staff member of the Vatican's Secretariat for Christian Unity, published "How the Pope became Infallible: Pius IX and the Politics of Persuasion." His description largely matches that of Hans Küng but differs greatly from the official version of the Church. Since he used Vatican documents which still haven't been released to the public, we should seriously consider his charges.

Today, the Catholic Church teaches its members that the pope is infallible "...in matters of faith and morals." Specifically, the pope exercises an infallible teaching office only when:
  1. he speaks ex cathedra, that is, in his official capacity as pastor and teacher
  2. he speaks with the manifest intention of binding the entire church to acceptance
  3. the matter pertains to faith or morals taught as a part of divine revelation handed down from apostolic times.
Papal Infallibility, also called ultramontanism, is limited to when the Pope is speaking ex cathedra, that is when he is speaking in his official capacity as the "pastor and teacher" of all Christians in defining matters of morals and faith. 

Many don't realize is that this wasn't always the case — in fact, this doctrine is recent, having been declared in 1870 during the First Vatican Council. You might think that popes would be happy to have such dogma in their hands, but before the declaration popes were divided on whether or not it was a good idea. The reason was because the idea of papal infallibility was originally conceived as a means of limiting papal power so that certain declarations could not later be overruled. 

Popes were concerned about this possibility, so although they might have appreciated the idea of some of the declarations becoming permanent and infallible, they weren't pleased at the prospect of other decisions being overruled by a later pope's infallibility. It is, then, a dangerous two-edged sword to place in someone's hands. 

Who originally came up with the idea of papal infallibility? It was the creation of Peter Olivi, a Franciscan who was more than once accused of heresy (an auspicious parent for the concept of infallibility, wouldn't you say?). His reason for attempting to limit papal power seems to have been to prevent future popes from rescinding a ruling favorable to Franciscans made by Pope Nicholas III (1277-1280). Nicholas was willing to go along with this idea, but later popes rejected it outright. For example, Pope John XXII (1316-1334) went so far as to call it "...a work of the devil...the Father of Lies." and in 1324 actually issued a papal bull condemning it as heresy.

The idea that the pope could be infallible might have remained a heresy had it not been for Pope Pius IX and his Vatican I Council, called by Pius and which met in Saint Peter's Basilica in Rome 93 times between December 8, 1869, and September 1, 1870. How did he manage to get papal infallibility declared an official dogma? Catholic theologian Hans Küng, critical of this dogma, argues for four principle reasons: "Pius IX had a sense of divine mission which he carried to extremes; he engaged in double dealing; he was mentally disturbed; and he misused his office." Küng goes on to say:
    So repressive were the agenda and official procedures; so one-sided and partisan were the selection of main theological experts and the composition of both the conciliar commissions and the conciliar presidium; so numerous were the means of pressure (moral, psychological, church-political, newspaper campaigns, threatened withdrawal of financial support, harassment by the police) to which the bishops of the anti-Infallibilist minority and the Infallibilist majority were exposed; so varied were the forms of manipulation applied, at the pope's behest, to advance the definition before, during, and after the Council that...as painful and embarrassing as it may be to admit, this Council resembled a well-organized and manipulated totalitarian party congress rather than a free gathering of Christian people.
Hans Küng served as a parish priest in Lucerne, Switzerland, before becoming assistant in dogmatic theology at the University of Münster, West Germany. He was official theologian for the 2nd Vatican Council. As far as Küng is concerned, the freedom of the First Vatican Council was so severely compromised that the infallibility doctrine it devised cannot be regarded as an authentic or authoritative Catholic teaching. For writing such things, he was in 1979 forbidden from teaching theology in the name of the Catholic Church.

Pope Pius IX

Ultramontanism is not Pius IX's only claim to fame — a number of important changes were made during his tenure. For example, in 1854 he declared the dogma of Immaculate Conception. According to this dogma, Mary was protected from all sin — even original sin — because she had been chosen to become the mother of Jesus. This was the first time in the history of the Catholic Church that a Pope had taken it upon himself to proclaim a doctrine or dogma without first consulting a council. 

Regarded by many as having inaugurated the modern Catholic Church, Pius IX is also noted for his vitriolic reaction against many basic trends in modernity. Of particular note was his creation of the Syllabus of Errors which listed 80 ideas that Catholics were forbidden to accept. Among the list were such nasty things like rationalism, communism, liberalism, freedom of speech, freedom of worship/religion, national churches without papal authority, recognition of religions other than Catholicism, democracy, marriage as a civil institution, and secular schools run by the state. The Syllabus also specifically rejected the idea that the papacy and, by extension, the Roman Catholic Church, could even be reconciled with progress, liberalism, and modern civilization. 

Pius IX had little chance to enjoy his infallibility. The Franco-Prussian war started on the day after the vote. Because of this, France withdrew troops protecting the Vatican from the Kingdom of Sardinia and as soon as the French moved out, Sardinian troops moved in. On September 20, 1870, all of Rome except the Vatican itself was annexed and Pius became a "prisoner of the Vatican." Perhaps that was a fitting end for a pope who worked so hard to make psychological and intellectual prisoners of the millions of Catholics who looked to him for guidance.

Pius may have been insane. He suffered from seizures his entire life and later developed memory loss and an inability to think clearly for long periods of time (by his own admission). By 1869, disease and stress had taken a serious toll on his psychological state and people noticed that he had become unpredictable, irrational, emotional and dictatorial — sometimes acting like a megalomaniac. Historian Ferdinand Gregorovius reported that 1870:
    The pope recently got the urge to try out his infallibility...While out on a walk he called to a paralytic: "Get up and walk." The poor devil gave it a try and collapsed, which put [the pope] very much out of sorts. The anecdote has already been mentioned in newspapers. I really believe he's insane.
Pius may have been dishonest. He never admitted to the things he had done in his efforts to have infallibility declared an official Church dogma. Cardinal Gustav von Hohenlohe told a friend: "In my entire life, I have never met a man who was less particular about the truth than Pius IX." Other bishops, like Bishop Henir Manret, openly called Pius IX a liar, so the charge was not at all unusual. 

Pius stacked the council. There were 96 consulting positions, and among them 59 were filled by Italians (his biggest supporters) and just 37 to officials from other countries. Out of those last 37, a mere 6 had any proir experience working with the Vatican. Upon later reflection, many of the inexperienced members came to believe that their ill-fated appointments occurred only so that they could more easily be outmaneuvered by the pope's supporters. One, Bishop Joseph Karl Hefele wrote to a friend:
    The longer I stay here, the more clearly I see the duplicity behind my appointment as consultor concilii. That was just Rome's way of hoodwinking the public with the appearance of neutrality. In reality, I have no idea what I'm supposed to be doing here.
Pius had the council convened in Saint Peter's Basilica. What's wrong with that? Well, that place has some of the worst acoustics possible, making it incredibly difficult for anyone to actually hear what was going on, especially for the more elderly members. Bishop Hefele wrote: "I now sit right next to the Secretary's desk, in the immediate vicinity of the cardinals...but often I can't hear what is being said from the speaker's platform." 

As bad as this situation was, the pope exacerbated it by refusing to allow any copies of the speeches to be printed, preventing the cardinals from actually taking the time to study them carefully. Moreover, small group discussions in which issues could be debated and collectively reviewed were expressly prohibited — later, even large groups were banned. 

Finally, only committee members were given permission to reply to a speech immediately after it had been given — coincidentally, all committee members supported infallibility. All these rules were instituted by Pius before the council met and without consulting the bishops - at prior councils the bishops set their own rules for debate and discussion. 

Pius drove the bishops mercilessly. The council was not permitted to postpone or recess under any circumstances, despite meeting in the harsh summer heat and in the middle of a malaria epidemic which caused a number of bishops to fall seriously ill. Upon learning of the spreading disease among the ranks of his bishops, Pius reportedly declared "Che crepino pure" (Let them croak).

Pius bullied the bishops directly. When one Archbishop Bathiarian of Armenia refused to support Pius' push for infallibility, Pius actually went so far as to try and get the papal police to arrest his personal secretary, sparking a small riot in the process. The other Armenian bishops were so frightened that they immediately asked permission to return home. They were denied, but two were smart enough to flee anyway.

Pius used financial pressure on the bishops. Well over 350 bishops attending the council were financially dependent upon the Vatican, without which they would be in dire straights. Pius did not hesitate to take clear advantage of this fact, threatening any who dare dissent with total cut-off from Vatican coffers. Enforcement was achieved by requiring all voting to be done in public - and this tactic worked more than probably any other.

With all of this going on, is it any wonder that many simply stopped attending meetings? Bishop Felix Dupanloupe wrote in his diary: "I'm not going to the Council anymore. The violence, the shamelessness, even more the falsity, vanity, and continual lying force me to keep my distance." Bishop Lecourtier from France, who was so discouraged that he threw his notes into the Tiber river and simply went home only to have his bishopric taken away for his trouble, complained:
    An imposing minority, representing the faith of more than one hundred million Catholics, that is almost half the entire Church, is crushed beneath the yoke of a restrictive agenda, which is contradicts conciliar traditions. It is crushed by commissions which have not been truly elected and which dare to insert undebated paragraphs in the text after debate has closed. It is crushed by the absolute absence of discussion, response, objections, and the opportunity to demand explanations; by newspapers which have been encouraged to hunt the bishops down and to incite the clergy against them.
One estimate had Pius's support at only about 50 bishops at the opening of the First Vatican Council with about 130 opposed and the rest undecided (Of 1050 bishops and others eligible, 800 attended the council, half of them representing European dioceses, and a majority of the rest, European missions abroad. The Americas had 100 representatives).

But after Pius got done with them, 533 of the 598 left in Rome voted his preference. The two who voted against followed Galileo's example by dropping to one knee in front of the Pope after the final tally was announced and declaring "Now I believe." In the following month, the 63 who abstained all eventually consented to the decree and the Pope became infallible through what was ultimately a unanimous vote.


How the Pope Became Infallible, by August Berhard Hasler.
Infallible? - An Unresolved Enquiry, by Hans Küng.
Pope-Pourri, by John Dollison.
A Concise History of Christianity, by R. Dean Peterson.


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