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Papal Infallibility Becomes Dogma

by Michael Whelton

On September 8th, 1713, Pope Clement XI issued a Bull, Unigenitus, which among other things condemned the proposition that reading of the bible is for everyone, 1 and seemed to exalt the efficacy of grace to the point of destroying liberty. It also appeared to limit the Church to the predestined only.2 The storm of protest that arose against it proves conclusively that 18th century Catholic Europe had little notion of Papal Infallibility. This Papal Bull almost brought France to the brink of schism 3 and the Austrian Emperor forbade the Bull Unigenitus in his territories.4 This Bull sparked a debate as to the limits of papal authority. Sicilian seminaries were teaching their students that General Councils were supreme over the Pope and were using Unigenitus to show how Popes could err.5 Everywhere, the battle over Unigenitus caused a decline in the reputation of the See of Rome as a teacher of doctrinal truth. 6

In 1789 the Protestation of the English Catholics was signed by all the vicars-general and all the Catholic clergy and laity in England of any note, and solemnly declared before Parliament that we acknowledge no infallibility in the pope.7 Even in 19th century England and Ireland, Papal Infallibility was still denied as an article of Catholic belief. In 1822, Bishop Baines, Vicar Apostolic in England, wrote that Bellarmine and some other divines, chiefly Italians, have believed the Pope infallible, when proposing ex cathedra an article of faith. But in England or Ireland I do not believe that any Catholic maintains the infallibility of the Pope8 In 1825, a British Parliamentary Royal Commission was established in view of the forthcoming Catholic Emancipation Act of 1829. Some of the questions put to Roman Catholic Bishops are as follows:

Question to Bishop Doyle

Q: Is the authority of the Pope in spiritual matters absolute or limited?

A: It is limited.

Questions to Bishop Murray

Q: Is that (Papal) authority under the control of General Councils?

A: That authority is limited by the councils and canons of the Church; he is the executive power of the Church, appointed to preside over it and enforce its canons or laws. Those canons vest in individuals, for instance in Bishops, certain rights, which of course is the duty of the Pope to protect and not violate; his authority is thus limited by those canons.

Q: Does it justify an objection that is made to Catholics that their allegiance is divided?

A: Their allegiance in civil matters is completely undivided.

Question to Dr. Oliver Kelley

Q: Do the R.C. clergy insist that all the Bulls of the Pope are entitled to obedience?

A: The Roman Catholic doctrine in respect to Bulls from the Pope is that they are always to be treated with respect; but if those Bulls or Rescripts proceeding from the Pope do contain doctrines or matters which are not compatible with the discipline of the particular Church to which they may be directed, they feel it their duty then to remonstrate respectfully, and not to receive the regulations that may emanate from the Pope.

Question to Bishop Doyle

Q: Can you state in what respect the national canons received in Ireland, or any particular construction put upon the general canons, differ from those which are received in other countries?

A: For instance, a particular church, or the canons of a particular church, might define that the authority of a general council was superior to that of the Pope: Such canon may be received, for instance in Ireland or France, and might not be received in Italy or Spain.

Question to Bishop Murray

Q: Is the decree of the Pope valid without the consent of the Council?

A: A decree of the Pope in matters of doctrine is not considered binding on Catholics, if it have not the consent of the whole Church, either dispersed or assembled by its Bishops in Council. 9

In 1826, the declaration of the Archbishops and Bishops of the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland, was endorsed by the signatures of 30 bishops, declaring that The Catholics of Ireland declare on oath their belief that it is not an article of the Catholic faith, neither are they required to believe that the pope is infallible.10 Archbishop Kenrick of St. Louis pointed out in his undelivered speech, which he had published in Naples, that for two hundred years a book had been in circulation entitled Roman Catholic Principles in Reference to God and the King. It enjoyed such a wide circulation that from 1748 to 1813 it underwent 35 editions and the Very Reverend Vicar Apostolic Coppinger in England had 12 printings of it. On the question of Papal Infallibility it states:

It is no matter of faith to believe that the Pope is in himself infallible, separated from the Church, even in expounding the faith: by consequence of Papal definitions or decrees, in whatever form pronounced, taken exclusively from a General Council, or universal acceptance of the Church, oblige none, under pain of heresy, to an interior assent.11

Papal Infallibility - A Protestant Hoax?

One of the most popular catechisms circulating in 19th century England was the Controversial Catechism by the Reverend Stephen Keenan. The one I have is the third edition of 1854, published by Marsh and Beattie of Edinburgh and Charles Dolman of London and Manchester. On page 112 we find the following question and answer:

Q: Must not Catholics believe the Pope in himself to be infallible?

A: This is a Protestant invention; it is no article of the Catholic faith; no decision of his can oblige, under pain of heresy, unless it be received and enforced by the teaching body; that is, by the bishops of the Church.

This catechism carries the enthusiastic approbation of four bishops:

By The Right Rev. Bishop Carruthers:

A concise summary of arguments, authorities, and proofs, in support of the doctrines, institutions and practices of the Catholic Church, is here presented in a very convenient form, as an additional antidote against the unceasing effusions of antagonistic Ignorance and MisrepresentationThe work I trust will meet with the notice it deserves, and the good be thus effected which the zealous and talented author has had in view of its publication.

Vicar Apostolic of Eastern Scotland
Edinburgh, 10th April, 1846.

By The Right Rev. Bishop Gillis:

I have much pleasure in adding my name to the above Approbation by my Venerable Predecessor, and in earnestly recommending the study of the CONTROVERSIAL CATECHISM to the Faithful of the Eastern District of ScotlandBut there are many, it is to be hoped, sincere in their pursuit of Truth; and to all such, the CONTROVERSIAL CATECHISM must ever prove a welcome and highly useful guide.

The fact that nine thousand copies having already been exhausted in two editions in this country, besides a third edition printed in America, is evidence sufficient of the favour with which the Catechism has been received by the Catholic Public

Vicar Apostolic of the Eastern District in Scotland.
Edinburgh, 14th November, 1853.

By the Right Rev. Bishop Kyle:

I have read, with much pleasure, a work entitled Controversial Catechism, by the Rev. Stephen Keenan. As it contains a well-reasoned defense of the Catholic faith, and clear and satisfactory solutions of the usual objections adduced by separatists, I deem that the study of it will be most useful to all Catholics; and, therefore, I earnestly recommend it to the Faithful in the Northern District of Scotland.

Preshome, 15th April, l846.

By the Right Rev. Bishop Murdoch:

Glasgow, 19th November, 1853

My Dear Mr. Keenan,

I am exceedingly delighted to learn that a third edition of your excellent Controversial Catechism is about to be printed. You request my approbation of this New Edition. Most willingly and most heartily do I give it. But it is really altogether unnecessary, for the work has amply approved itself. The rapid exhaustion of the last two editions is more than sufficient proof of the value and worth of the Catechism. I know not, indeed, if we possess a better volume adapted to the wants of the time;As long as the Controversial Catechism is to be had, it is entirely the fault of all Catholics - be their rank however humble - if they be not ready on all occasions to give a reason of the faith and hope that are in them. I am, Rev. Dear Sir, yours sincerely in Christ,


The Rev. Stephen Keenan, Dundee.


The rapid sale of the former edition - its approbation by many Clergyman in Scotland and by several in Ireland and England - the fact of its appearing in a very elegant American edition, approved by the Right Rev. Dr. Hughes of New York, and by the American Catholic Clergy and Catholic press - combined with the antipathy of modern religionists to its publication or circulation, and the unwilling testimony wrung from them as to its efficacy in supporting truth, - all these motives, strengthened by a desire to put down error and establish truth, have induced the Author to give the public a second edition

Thus here in mid-nineteenth century Britain and America we have a very popular Catholic Catechism claiming the notion of Papal Infallibility as evidence of Protestant deceit or ignorance. As we have seen, this was not an article of faith that the universal church has always confessed. Pius had already tested infallibility when, in 1854, he declared the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception of, which some of them (bishops) dreaded and some opposed, but which all submitted when he had decreed without the intervention of a Council.12

Pope Pius IX—The Infallible Instrument of God

Count Giovanni Maria Mastai-Ferretti, the future Pius IX was born in 1792, being the last of nine children, to a family of the lesser nobility. In his youth and well into his thirties he suffered epileptic seizures. For a while he was allowed to celebrate mass only on the condition that another priest or deacon was present. Nothing more is heard of this condition in his later life, however, according to his contemporaries the traces of the Popes epilepsy were visible, in that the right side of his body was slightly less developed than the left. This could be seen even in his face which was asymmetric, with lips awry and a head that inclined to the right.

Pius IX was the longest reigning pope, possessing personal charm and enjoying great popularity. He was also considered highly impressionable, capricious, impulsive and unpredictable. These characteristics were attributed to his epilepsy. 13 It is this Pope Pius IX who was absolutely determined to have his office dogmatically defined as the infallible instrument of God by a council of the Church.

At the First Vatican Council the approval of the passing of Papal Infallibility was almost guaranteed from the beginning. First, by the incredibly unequal representation which was highlighted during the Council by a pamphlet, whose author was believed to be Georges Darboy, Archbishop of Paris entitled, The Liberty of the Council and the Infallibility. This pamphlet claimed that while Italy had two hundred and seventy bishops, the rest of Europe had only two hundred and sixty-five. Closer scrutiny reveals that twelve million German Roman Catholics were represented by nineteen bishops while seven hundred thousand inhabitants of the Papal States were represented by sixty-two. Three anti-Infallibilist Bishops of Cologne, Paris and Cambrai represented five million souls. It is little wonder that the German bishops who formed the backbone of the anti-Infallibilist complained of being overwhelmed by Italian and Sicilian bishops. 14

The second reason why the doctrine of Papal Infallibility was guaranteed to pass was the deep personal involvement of Pius IX himself and the intimidating coercive tactics he used. A measure of his resolve is the statement he made to the chief editor of La Civilta Cattolica, My mind is so made up that if need be I shall take the definition upon myself and dismiss the Council if it wishes to keep silence. 15 In a brief to Dom Gueranger, Abbot of Solesmes, a leading French Ultramontane (on the other side of the Alps; one who advocates supreme papal authority), Pius IX, while demonstrating no lack of confidence in his own infallibility, attacks and brands the bishops who oppose the definition as men, who show themselves completely imbued with corrupt principals and who no longer know how to submit their intelligence to the judgment of the Holy SeeTheir folly mounts to this excess that they attempt to remake the divine constitution of the Church in order to bring down more easily the authority of the supreme Head whom Christ has set over it and whose prerogatives they dread.16 Pope Pius IX was so bent on having the office of the Papacy declared infallible he used the power and prestige of his office to intimidate and upbraid even bishops who adopted a neutral or moderate line. The Reverend T. Mozley, special correspondent to The Times of London writes that bishops who adopted a neutral or moderate line:

find themselves sorely tried in a personal interview. They find it vain to declare their devotion or their sincerity. His Holiness tells them plainly they are not on his side; they are among his enemies; they are damaging the good cause; their loyalty is not sound. It is enough that they have signed what they should not, or not signed what they ought.17

Ullathorne, Bishop of Birmingham wrote, The Pope, takes every opportunity of expressing his views on the infallibility both in audiences and letters that at once get into the papers.18 Again Ullathorne writes, The Pope, I believe, is bent on the definition, if he can, as the crowning of his reign, and I think it will in some shape probably pass. 19 To a group of vicars apostolic and Oriental bishops, Pius IX reminded them, It is necessary for you to defend the truth with the Vicar of Jesus Christ. My children do not abandon me. 20

A stark example of how far removed the bishops, the successors of the apostles, were from the dignity and freedom they exercised at the Seven Ecumenical Councils and their subservience to the Pope can be judged by the behaviour of Wilhelm von Ketteler, Bishop of Mainz. Just before the final vote on Papal Infallibility, a deputation of minority bishops implored Pius IX to accept certain concessions in the wording of the declaration: Ketteler threw himself on his knees and with tears in his eyes said: Good Father, save us and save the Church of God!21 One cannot help recalling St. Pauls reproof to St. Peter when he, withstood him to his face, Gal. 11:11, and St. Irenaeus stern rebuke to Pope St. Victor over the Easter controversy (see Chapter II ). Pius was unmoved.

Cardinal Guidi, Archbishop of Bologna, in a speech before the Council said that, while accepting infallibility, he urged the Pope to take the counsel of his bishops before issuing decisions as this is the tradition of the Church. Guidis speech was reported to the Pope and he was sent for and scolded. The surprised Cardinal responded that he was only maintaining that bishops are witnesses of tradition. Witnesses of tradition? said the Pope, There is only one; thats me.22 Even Roman Catholic author Dom Cuthbert Butler in his popular work, The Vatican Council, admits to the personal influence of Pius IX,did it amount to undue influence? That at the final stages he exerted his personal influence to the utmost cannot be questioned, for it was quite open. 23

A Council Lacking in Freedom

Strenuous objections were voiced at the Council regarding the lack of freedom due to the manner of the agenda. Dom Butler admits to the Popes control over the Council when he writes, In all things the Pope kept to himself the complete mastery. Things which at Trent had been left in the hands of the Fathers - settlement of claims to take part in the Council, appointment of officials, regulation of procedure, etc. - were all now fixed by the personal act of the PopeThe bishops were invited and exhorted to suggest freely anything for deliberation that they thought would be for the general good of the Church. But such proposals or postulations must be submitted to a special Congregation, nominated by the Pope, for dealing with such postulates, to consider them and report its advice to the Pope, with whom the decision would lie as to whether the thing be brought forward at the Council or not. 24

Denying the validity of the Council, Archbishop Peter Richard Kenrick refused to speak at any of the general sessions after June 4th, 1870. Bishop Joseph Strossmeyer of Diakovar told Lord Acton, There is no denying that the Council lacked freedom from beginning to end. To Professor Joseph Hubert Reinkens, Strossmeyer said, that the Vatican Council had not had the freedom necessary to make it a true Council and to justify its passing resolutions binding the conscience of the entire Catholic world. The proof of this was perfectly self-evident. 25

Bishop Francois Le Courtier spoke for many when he wrote, Our weakness at this moment comes neither from scripture nor the tradition of the Fathers nor the witness of the General Councils nor the evidence of history. It comes from our lack of freedom, which is radical. An imposing minority, representing the faith of more than one hundred million Catholics, that is, almost half of the entire Church, is crushed beneath the yoke of a restrictive agenda, which 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 commission for postulates, which has been imposed from above. It is crushed by the absolute absence of discussion, response, objections, and the opportunity to demand explanations; The minority is crushed, above all, by the full weight of the supreme authority which oppresses it 26 Furthermore, the opposing minority of about two hundred bishops objected to the short time allowed for studying the text on primacy and infallibility as well as to the practice adopted by the deputations of inserting new clauses at the last moment.

The minority bishops were not allowed to discuss the historical objections against Papal Infallibility with the deputation on the faith.27 In a letter Bishop Le Courtier complains, See what more than aught else destroys our liberty: it is crushed under the respect we have for our Head.28 Later in frustrated anger, Bishop Francois Le Courtier tossed his council documents into the river Tiber and left Rome. The papers were retrieved and brought to the attention of Vatican officials. The price for this gesture was extracted three years later, when he was dismissed as Bishop of Montpellier. 29

In spite of the unequal representation and Pius IX using the power and prestige of his office, there was still a large number - eighty-eight bishops - who voted against Papal Infallibility, which was enshrined in the constitution, Pastor Aeternus. Sixty-two bishops, many of whom were de facto opponents, voted with reservations, with only four hundred and fifty-one giving a clear yes - this is less than half of the one thousand and eighty-four prelates with voting privileges and less than two-thirds of the seven hundred bishops in attendance at the commencement of the Council. Over seventy-six bishops in Rome abstained from voting and fifty-five bishops informed the Pope that while maintaining their opposition to the definition that out of filial piety and reverence, which very recently brought our representatives to the feet of your Holiness, do not allow us in a cause so closely concerning Your Holiness to say non placet (it is not pleasing) openly in the face of the Father.30 This statement alone speaks volumes for the subservience that these bishops had for the immense authority figure of the Pope - a presence unknown in the councils of the Early Church.

Thus lacking a moral unanimity or even a clear two-thirds majority, Papal Infallibility was now elevated as an article of faith equal to the Holy Trinity and the Incarnation. A belief that could not possibly meet the Vincentian canon of Universality, Antiquity and Consent, and in fact a belief not universally shared by Catholics even within living memory of the Council that solemnly defined it. Years later, Orthodox theologian Sergei Bulgakov, observed with disdain that, The Vatican Council has as much right to call itself a Council as todays meetings of delegates from the Soviet republics can claim to be a free expression of the will of the people. 31


1. The Popes and European Revolution, page 75, Owen Chadwick, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1981.

2. New Catholic Encyclopedia, page 397, Vol. XIV.

3. Ibid., page 398, Vol. VII.

4. Chadwick, page 238.

5. Chadwick, page 284.

6. Chadwick, page 285.

7. Historical Memoirs Respecting the English Catholics, ii, pages 113 - 118, Charles Butler, 1819.

8. A Defence of the Christian Religion, page 230, Bath, 1822. See W.E. Gladstone, Vaticanism page 48, 1875.

9. Friedrichs Documenta, Vol. I, pages 234, 236, 237, 240.

10. Essay on the Catholic Claims, page 300, Bishop J.W. Doyle, 1826.

11. Kenrick (Naples edition). Page 46.

12. Essays on Freedom and Power, page 305, Lord Acton, Meridian Book, Cleveland, Ohio. 1972.

13. How the Pope Became Infallible, Pius IX and the Politics of Persuasion, page 107, August Bernhard Hasler, Translated by Peter Heinegg, Doubleday and Co. Inc., Garden City, New York, 1981.

14. Butler, The Vatican Council, page 230.

15. Hasler, page 81.

16. Friedrich, Documenta, Vol. I, page 184.

17. Letters from Rome, II, 282.

18. Butler, The Vatican Council, Vol. II, page 199.

19. Ibid., page 119.

20. Friedrich, Documenta, Vol. I, page 185.

21. Butler, page 407.

22. Ibid., page 355.

23. Ibid., page 446.

24. Ibid., page 213, 214.

25. Hasler, page 133.

26. Hasler, pages 131, 132.

27. The Triumph of the Holy See, page 156, Derek Holmes Burns & Oates, London. 1978

28. Bulter, First Vatican Council, page 477.

29 Hasle, page 139.

30. Bultler, The Vatican Council, page 408, 409.

31. Hasler, page 143.

From Two Paths. Reprinted with permission.