Papal Infallibility at the First Vatican Council
Papal Infallibility at the First Vatican Council
Bishop Peter Elliott reflects on 150 years since Pastor Aeternis
The First Vatican Council defined papal infallibility, a widely misunderstood teaching
of the Church. The history of the Ecumenical Council that met in Rome between 1869
and 1870 reveals what the doctrine of papal infallibility really means.
He who is the Truth, Jesus Christ, willed and promised that the Holy Spirit of truth would be given to his Church (John 14:25, 16:12-15, 17:17-19). Guided by the Spirit, his teaching Church cannot fall into error, which is what “infallible” means. The Holy Spirit leads her into truth and protects her from teaching error. What needed defining in 1870 was how the Pope teaches infallibly within the Church, as Successor of Saint Peter and supreme teacher of the Church.
After debates and an infusion of German theology (in those days a moderating and scholarly influence), Pastor Aeternus, the First Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, concludes with the definition, that:
“…. the Roman Pontiff, when he speaks ex cathedra, that is, when in discharge of the office of pastor and teacher of all Christians, by virtue of his Apostolic authority, he defines a doctrine regarding faith or morals to be held by the Universal Church is, by the divine assistance promised to him in Blessed Peter, possessed of that infallibility with which the divine Redeemer willed that his Church should be endowed in defining doctrine regarding faith or morals; and that, therefore, such definitions of the Roman Pontiff are of themselves, and not from the consent of the Church, irreformable.”
This should be read carefully. It does not blandly say, without qualifications, “The Pope is infallible”. Rather, the Pope can teach infallibly when exercising the Petrine Office, under specific circumstances and only in the area of faith or morals. He cannot teach infallibly on matters of science, climate, politics, economics etc., even as these areas raise moral issues.
The authoritative voice of the teaching Church is her “magisterium”. This functions in several ways. Vatican I focused on the infallible Extraordinary Magisterium of Popes and Councils, which identifies itself with a solemn public act and ceremony. The dogmatic definitions of major Church Councils, certain teachings of the Council of Trent and Pastor Aeternus at Vatican I are examples of conciliar infallibility.
After careful consultation, papal infallibility was exercised in two “solemn definitions”: the dogmas of Our Lady’s Immaculate Conception (1854) and her bodily Assumption (1950). Blessed Pius IX defined the Immaculate Conception sixteen years before Vatican I, so it was the great precedent.
The wider Ordinary Magisterium provides the day-to-day teachings, when Popes, Councils and all the bishops pass on and repeat Catholic doctrines, for example in creeds and catechisms. In continuity with precedents and never adding to Divine Revelation, truthteaching happens here. In this context the Pope also makes definitive rulings. I hold that these can be infallible, such as papal teachings on the matter and form of sacraments, birth control and the ordination of women. Others hold a different view.
Ultramontanes and Inopportunists
On July 18th, 1870, as Blessed Pius joyfully proclaimed Pastor Aeternus, a thunderstorm hit Saint Peter’s, breaking a window in the transept where the Council Fathers met. I have stood looking up at the window, reflecting: thunder, broken glass, divine warning or divine approval? Bishops interpreted it depending on their views, which we need to examine.
Because the agenda was set before the Council, the bishops already formed two parties. Most were Ultramontanes supporting papal infallibility. Led by the Pope, they included a range of views. Extremists wanted to turn the Pope into a magic oracle. Wilfred Ward, that zealous English convert, is said to have wanted a papal teaching every morning with his breakfast! But most Ultramontanes hoped for a balanced definition and they had skilled theologians and canonists to assist them.
The minority party was known as Inopportunists. Their views ranged from a cautious “not yet” to “no, we do not need this”. Both parties agreed that, guided and protected by the Holy Spirit, the Church teaches infallibly. Saint John Henry Newman had already made that clear in his Apologia pro Vita Sua (1864). He was an Inopportunist, but he had no access to the Council because in 1869 he was neither bishop nor cardinal.
The two parties elude the political categories, “conservatives” or “liberals”. The leading Ultramontane, Cardinal Edward Manning was a social progressive or liberal, an advocate for trade unionism. By contrast, Newman remained a Tory with a conservative social conscience. In terms of theology, the Inopportunists were conservatives, seeing papal infallibility as an innovation that would rock the boat of Peter. Sticking “conservative” or “progressive” on these parties is as clumsy as attempts to lock Catholics into “left” or “right” today.
After the Council
After sweltering in July and a vacation after the definition, the bishops were supposed to meet again in October 1870. However, by then the Pope was forced to suspend the Council. The Italian revolution, Risorgimento, had arrived in town. Garibaldi’s army stormed the they included a range of views gates of Rome and the Italian nation seized its new capital. The Pope was driven behind the Leonine Wall to become the “prisoner of the Vatican” and the bishops hurried home by train or ship. The French returned to a disastrous war with Prussia followed by the revolutionary carnage of the Paris Commune. The Germans witnessed the small schism of the “Old Catholics”, who rejected infallibility.
The Pope lost his Papal States, but his humiliation was compensated for by the mystical and spiritual prestige of papal infallibility. Catholics around the world developed devotion to the prisoner Pope, regarded as a living martyr, victim of atheistic forces of revolutionary secularism and Italian freemasonry. Coming to terms with the secular state would be left to other Popes. Leo XIII opened up social teaching and Pius XI negotiated the 1929 concordat with Italy, which recognised the Vatican City State, the Holy See.
Newman knew all about political under-currents. He felt the brunt of non-Catholic misunderstanding when Gladstone denounced papal infallibility as political and tyrannical. In his Letter to the Duke of Norfolk (1875), rebutting Gladstone’s “expostulation”, Newman demonstrated that he accepted papal infallibility. His own Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine can justify this development.
Vatican II Completes Vatican I
Between 1962 and 1965 the incomplete work of Vatican I passed to Vatican II, But Saint John XXIII required much more, a Council updating the Church, aggiornamento. Because Pastor Aeternus was significantly entitled the First Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium at Vatican II is its longer and richer sequel.
In Lumen Gentium 18 and 25 the Council reaffirmed papal infallibility, but at the same time the Council affirmed the teaching role of bishops as the apostolic college and their sharing in the Spirit’s gift of infallibility. This achieved balance, lacking after Vatican I was suspended.
Since the Council, Papal Infallibility has been challenged. In 1971 Hans Kung rejected it. In 1982, Francis Sullivan SJ tried to restrict it to matters of faith, but not morals. His book is still used and I regard it as misleading.
By contrast, recently some enthusiastic supporters of the Pope have revived extreme Ultramontanism, as if every utterance of a “papal magisterium” is infallible. In that regard, we should avoid “creeping infallibility” which would exaggerate the authority of papal opinions and comments, especially beyond those strict confines of “matters of faith or morals”. A tendency to exaggerate effectively demeans the sacred Petrine Office. It would also confirm the fears expressed by Inopportunists and politicians in 1870.
The Ordinary Magisterium
Nevertheless, as I have noted, there is a wider level of teachings that is not limited to solemn rare definitions of dogma in the Extraordinary Magisterium. The Ordinary Magisterium or day-to-day official teachings of the Church participate in the truth-teaching charism of the Holy Spirit. So traditional theologians argue that often they are infallible.
In that context, there are critical moments when the Pope has to settle a disputed question such as the decision of Pope Leo XIII on Anglican Orders in 1896. Modern examples of this kind of papal exercise of the Ordinary Magisterium would include the
definition of the matter and form of the Sacrament of Holy Orders by Pope Pius XII in 1947, and similar definitions made by Saint Paul VI in the context of the liturgical reforms of Vatican II. The teaching of Saint John Paul II that taking innocent life is always wrong in Evangelium Vitae is also cited as an example of the exercise of this secondary level of official teachings.
More controversial is the teaching of Saint Paul VI in Humanae Vitae (1968), that abortion, sterilization and contraception are intrinsically wrong. A Jesuit theologian, Fr. John Ford, and a lay moralist, Germain Grisez, argued that Humane Vitae is infallible teaching of the Ordinary Magisterium, resting on precedents and continuity, a view I already held.
However, is the teaching of Saint John Paul II in Ordinatio Sacerdotalis (1994), that women cannot be ordained to the priesthood, infallible teaching of the Ordinary Magisterium? On May 29th 2018, in a declaration of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith approved by Pope Francis, Cardinal Luis Ladaria, cited the authority of the Ordinary Magisterium exercised in the teaching of Saint John Paul II. In various statements and recently in Querida Amazonia (2020), Pope Francis maintains the same position on the question.
These examples of the Ordinary Magisterium usually embody decisions by a Pope, to resolve disputed questions. While they follow much consultation, rest on precedents and are expressions of the infallibility of the Church, they still speak with the voice of the Successor of Peter. Yet they are not his “solemn definitions”, like the Marian dogmas.
Gratitude for a Teaching Church
The Petrine teaching authority is restricted in scope to “matters of faith or morals”, that is, what we should believe and how we ought to live here and now. The faith of the Church and the call to live the Gospel shape a “sense of faith” among all baptized believers in their daily lives. Yet we still need guidance, direction, even correction at times. We appreciate this human need, when we return to first principles, to the providential work of the Holy Spirit in the wider context of the truth-teaching Church. This is why we should be grateful for the work of the Fathers in that heavy Roman July in 1870.
As we mark 150 years since the First Vatican Council defined papal infallibility, we should welcome the conciliar teaching on the scope, the specific limits and particularly the kindly purpose of this divine charism. In our journey on earth as God’s Pilgrim People, we are assured of the guiding and protecting presence of the Holy Spirit who, with a gentle providence, ever leads us into all truth. This adds another dimension to what the Lord Jesus himself has promised us: “I am with you always even unto the end of ages…”