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The views presented in the following papers are those of the Issues Group and are not necessarily representative of the people of St. Aloysius Parish nor the Roman Catholic Church.

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Catholic Issues: The Church Today

Papal Infallibility

The institution which we know as the papacy gradually evolved over many centuries. Jesus designated Peter as the rock on which he would build faith in his church. Peter and the apostles established the embryonic church in the logical location, Jerusalem. Peter and the apostle Paul formed many Christian communities as they traveled west as far as Rome, where they both were eventually martyred. It has therefore been traditionally believed that Peter founded the church in Rome.


This led Christians to believe that the Roman church should be the leader, a reasonable assumption because Rome was the capital of the great empire. The widely separated early Christian communities elected their own priests and bishops. With official recognition of the church by the emperor Constantine in 313 AD the Roman bishop assumed higher status. He was recognized as predominant over the other patriarchs, in Byzantium, Antioch and Alexandria.


The western Roman Empire disintegrated and succumbed to barbarian invasions. In the following political vacuum the church structured itself to become a political power in its own right. It was the only institution capable and available, with literate men who could organize and extend its power beyond the religious sphere. In this the Roman bishop functioned as a supreme court or tribunal of final appeal in church matters involving monastic orders, parishes and dioceses.


The dominant Roman bishop who came to be called the pope ruled autocratically, the only practical method of government in those troubled times. By the eleventh century the pope claimed political supremacy over all Christian monarchs including the Holy Roman emperor, the successor of Charlemagne. The pope governed most of Italy directly, fought wars and instigated crusades against the Moslems in the Holy Land.


Heretics, Catholics and Orthodox Christians were also victims of the crusades. The fourth crusade captured Catholic Zara on the Dalmatian Coast for Venice and sacked Orthodox Byzantium in 1204. The papacy launched crusades against heretical Bogomils in the Balkans, the Cathari in Italy, and the Albigensians in Southern France. The papal inquisition is not so well known as the deadlier Spanish version, but it did not discourage the slaughter of inhabitants in disaffected areas. Catholic and Protestant persecution of dissenters and heretics persisted at least into the eighteenth century.


This was the innovative era which produced the French and American revolutions, the ideal of the rights of man, and a widespread belief in the idea of human progress which would attack and hopefully vanquish social evils. The nineteen century struggled to adapt to the newly dominant forces of liberalism, nationalism, the industrial revolution, and scientific, evolutionary thought.


The papacy dissented. In 1864 Pope Pius IX's encyclical stated that it was an error to believe that the Roman pontiff could or should reconcile himself to and agree with the ideas of progress, liberalism, and contemporary civilization. He claimed for the church: control over culture, control over science and education, freedom from state interference, and continued political power. He rejected liberty of conscience for other creeds and the idea of tolerance. One might wonder whether this was in tune with the meaning of the adjective catholic, with a small c, derived from the Greek Katholikos meaning universal, general, widely inclusive.


The pope was still the political ruler of this state in central Italy, but had to suppress by force populist revolts against his autocratic rule. He retained power only through the help of French troops supplied by the Emperor Napoleon III. After France declared war on Prussia in 1870, the troops were withdrawn. With the approach of complete political defeat, Pope Pius IX convoked the Vatican I church council, the first since the sixteenth century Council of Trent. On July 18, 1870, the council proclaimed the doctrine of papal infallibility when the pope proclaimed officially, ex cathedra, a judgment on matters of faith and morals.


Specific references to infallibility apparently surfaced first in the thirteenth century. The pope did not promote it, instead he ignored it when it was claimed on his behalf by a Franciscan theologian. He used the idea to buttress a papal decision on a dispute within the Franciscan order about the real meaning of Saint Francis' rule on poverty. We have no records of infallibility being specifically invoked during the next six hundred years when the church reacted defensively against the Protestant Reformation and modernist tendencies.


The only accomplishment of the Vatican I council was the doctrine of infallibility, accomplished under less than ideal circumstances. Catholic scholars who have researched the proceedings believe that the pope was so dominant that the bishops who opposed him left the council before the final ballot on the proposal. The message was that papal doctrines proclaimed infallible were not subject to reform by their very nature and did not require the consent of the church. The council was adjourned prematurely after the Italian army entered Rome and abolished the papal state.


The nationalist Italian army captured Rome, annexed it to the new Italian kingdom as its capital, and stripped the pope of any vestiges of political power. He became the self styled prisoner of the Vatican until 1928 when Mussolini's Fascist government restored the Vatican state, where the pope presides over an authoritarian government with no parliament or independent judiciary for his subjects.


The principal European Catholic powers, Austria-Hungary and France, viewed the doctrine of papal infallibility as a political threat. It provoked anti-Catholic legislation in the newly established German empire. The main problems were the control of education, the question of veto power over the appointment of bishops, and taxation and use of church properties.


Between Vatican I and Vatican II, which met in 1962, the popes and the curia exercised more centralized control in matter of doctrine, contrary to the early traditions of the bishops sharing teaching authority in union with the Bishop of Rome, the Pope.


The American Jesuit scholar, Avery Dulles, wrote in the Documents of Vatican II, p. 11, that "the church is represented very realistically as a 'little flock' made up of frail and sinful men. Weak and humble it stands in constant need of purification and renewal." Vatican II from 1962 to 1965 tried to purify and renew the Catholic Church. The documents state on page 29 that "the body of the faithful, as a whole, anointed by the Holy One, cannot err in matters of belief." It specified three requirements for infallibility which Vatican I had failed to do:


1) A doctrine must not be new but one previously generally accepted.

2) It should receive practically unanimous approval by the bishops, which it did it did not have in Vatican I.

3) It should receive practically unanimous approval by the body of the faithful, Catholic laity throughout the world. Vatican I ignored them.


The Assumption of the Virgin Mary directly into heaven since she lived without sin is the only doctrine declared infallible since Vatican I.


Some Catholic theologians believe that the doctrine of infallibility is an obstacle to the concept of a reunion of the Christian churches, the ecumenical movement. The doctrine's basic assumption is that the Body of Christ, the Church, is called upon to proclaim faithfully the Gospel and preserve the church. But how do we define the Church? Whether we do or do not include other denominations, infallibility should be understood in terms of the meaning of authority and power, how these are exercised and by whom. Pope John XXIII, who convoked Vatican II, stated that he was not infallible, that he would never pronounce a doctrine ex cathedra officially, which would mean that it was infallible, immune from error. He never did.


Vatican II did not define rigorously the three requirements for infallibility. A doctrine thus proclaimed could be subject to revision depending on historical cycles, changes, and further scientific evidence. As an example, Copernicus and Galileo were denounced by the church. Copernicus proved that the earth rotates around the sun which overturned the official church doctrine that all planets revolved around the earth.


Vatican II reported on religious freedom as follows: "every man has the duty, and therefore the right, to seek the truth in matters religious, in order that he may with prudence form for himself right and true judgments of conscience, with the use of all suitable means." (Documents, p. 680).


As a very young Catholic boy I believed that church teachings, including those of parish priests, were mandates from heaven to be obeyed at the risk of mortal sin and condemnation to eternal hell fire. As a mature adult my responsibility is to develop an informed conscience. The wisdom of the total church is available to help me. The insight derived from the laity, the clergy, and the pope united in agreement and in concert constitutes a valid concept of infallibility.


What do we know about Jesus' thoughts on these questions? The New Testament tells us that on the night of the last supper Jesus warned his disciples to avoid struggles for power. In Christ's 'kingdom' let him who is the leader be as him who serves." (Luke Ch. 22:24-30). Jesus was the Son of God invested with infinite power and authority; however, Acts 1-12 indicates that not even Peter inherited this power. Peter in Jerusalem exercised authority in the infant church, not alone but with the disciples, his colleagues, calling upon the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is present in the whole church, not just in the leaders.


Jesus denounced the scribes and Pharisees for abusing power and authority. Matthew's Ch. 23:4,8 and 9 state:


"For they bind heavy burdens and grievous to be borne, and lay them on men's shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with one of their fingers."

"But be not ye called Rabbi: for one is you Master, even Christ; and all ye are brethren."

"And call no man your father upon the earth; for one is your Father, which is in heaven."


We have done our best to credit our sources. Please forgive us if we have overlooked any.

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