July 15, 2016

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

The Church rebounds: It defines papal infallibility

John F. Fink(Third in a series of columns)

With the beating the papacy took during the 18th century, especially in France and including the times when Napoleon Bonaparte imprisoned two popes, it’s understandable that Pope Pius IX was anxious to re-establish the authority of the pope. One way to do that, he decided, was to make the concept of papal infallibility a dogma of the Church. He decided that a council should do this, the first council since the Council of Trent in the 16th century.

Infallibility means the inability to err in teachings on faith and morals. Popes at least from the time of Gregory VII in 1073 believed that they were infallible, but it had never been solemnly defined as a dogma. When the First Vatican Council was convened in 1869, Pius IX had been pope for 23 years. Of the 739 bishops in the world, he had appointed all but 81. More than a third were Italians, and they and the French composed an absolute majority. He was confident, therefore, that the bishops would do his bidding.

However, not all the bishops were in favor of the definition of papal infallibility that the pope had in mind. About a third of them accepted the primacy of the pope, but thought that he could make decisions binding the whole Church only when he acted in agreement with the other bishops.

Discussion of the issue was lengthy, but eventually both sides starting thinking compromise. Those who proclaimed absolute authority for the pope began to see that there should be some limitations on papal infallibility. Those on the other side could see that there was support for the idea of divine guidance for papal teachings.

Cardinal Guido, the superior general of the Dominicans, offered the compromise on June 18, 1870. He suggested that the debate should focus on the infallibility of the pope’s doctrinal decisions rather than on the infallibility of the person of the pope. He said that the pope’s decisions were infallible precisely because they were made in concert with the other bishops, and that the pope could teach infallibly only when he acted in union with his fellow bishops and when he respected the tradition of the Church.

From then on, the council dealt with the pope’s doctrinal decisions rather than with the pope himself—which infuriated Pius IX because he really considered himself to be infallible. Before the vote took place, about 80 bishops left the council rather than vote against the pope.

The vote on the issue was taken on July 18, 1870, and passed 533 to 2. The council decreed that the pope teaches infallibly when he teaches ex cathedra (“from the papal throne”) on matters of faith or morals.

It made a subtle difference between the pope himself and what he teaches. It said that, under certain strictly limited circumstances, the pope teaches infallibly, but it was careful not to state that the pope is an infallible person. Pope Pius IX was disappointed.

Since 1870, this dogma has been used only once, in 1950 when Pope Pius XII proclaimed the dogma of the Assumption of Mary. †

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