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PAPAL INFALLIBILITY

Dr Warren Carroll

I have always found it rather ironically amusing that many historians critical of the Catholic Church find something disreputable in the proclamation of papal infallibility by the First Vatican Council and the discussions and preparations preceding it. Obviously these historians wish this proclamation had never happened and would like to blame those responsible; but in fact the truth of the doctrine of papal infallibility is historically incontrovertible (no natural explanation can account for some 270 Popes never disagreeing with one another in "ex cathedra" statements for 2,000 years, and there are several extraordinary cases of Popes who seemed about to violate infallibility and at the last minute were mysteriously held back from doing so—notably Popes Liberius and Vigilius, in the fourth and sixth centuries, respectively). It should also now be clear that with the Western world moving into an age when "all" intellectual as well as spiritual authority was challenged, where relativism and even fundamental skepticism were to become virtual intellectual norms, not only the sovereignty of truth but its doctrinal locus in the Popes had to be proclaimed.

Pope Pius IX did make extensive efforts before the First Vatican Council to ensure that it would confirm papal infallibility. Strictly speaking, it did not need to do so; the Pope has full authority to proclaim this or any other truth about the Catholic Faith and the Church by himself. But especially in the case of this unique charism given to Popes, he naturally saw it as better for it to be formally proclaimed by an ecumenical council. Since councils are not infallible and are often swayed by petty and even base motives, these advance efforts were both necessary and commendable. They can be made to look bad only by writers and readers who do not really understand who the Pope is.

In the end the fathers of the First Vatican council fully realized these truths themselves. The final vote on the schema proclaiming papal infallibility was 533-2. (A curious footnote to history is the fact that one of the two dissenters was the Bishop of Little Rock, Arkansas!) Cardinal Newman, who originally argued against the prudence of the declaration, though never against the doctrine itself) was eventually persuaded of its wisdom.

Ludwig Hertling, Philip Hughes, Martin Harney, and Henri Daniel-Rops are all excellent authorities in this matter, and none have been superseded. E. E. Y. Hales' biography of Pope Pius IX, "Pio Nono", though sometimes lacking in due respect for him and certainly not uncritical, essentially comes to the same conclusions as they, though I understand Hales changed many of his views for the worse since his biography was published some thirty years ago.

 

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