Why Papal Infallibility Was Made a Dogma in 1870

Why Papal Infallibility Was Made a Dogma in 1870 March 19, 2018

An Anglo-Catholic (words in blue) on the Coming Home Network board asked:

Shalom to all and I hope you can answer my question about this topic. I am familiar with the general rule throughout the centuries concerning the Church–by papal pronouncement or via a synod or council–speaking on a matter of faith and morals and making what comes to be accepted as a binding doctrine of faith for all the faithful. The teachings of the first seven councils were to combat heresies that had arisen, and it seems to me the Church has always hearkened back to the earliest times to elaborate on the Deposit of Faith as it is being attacked by those who would push for another view.

My question centers on this: what group of heretics or what events in the 19th century (or before) laid the groundwork for the Church’s profession of the doctrine of papal infallibility not so long ago? Who or what was challenging that view such that the Church, through the Pope, felt compelled to step in and make this a binding article of faith? Would not this pronouncement have been challenged centuries earlier by the Orthodox in the East and the European revolutionaries of the 16th century? Your assistance is greatly appreciated. Thanks.

Excellent question indeed. According to one graduate theology paper I found (anonymous), the following reasons were given (they seem quite plausible to me):

[T]his essay is concerned with the events during the pontificate of Pope Pius IX that propelled the doctrine of papal infallibility out of the obscurity of devotional practice and theological speculation and into to its prime stature as a matter of utmost concern for the Church and, eventually, the First Vatican Council. . . .

The idea for the convocation of an ecumenical council was first suggested to Pius by Luigi Cardinal Lambruschini, a member of the Roman Curia, in 1849. Lambruschini relayed to the pope that he thought a council should be convoked “for the condemnation of recent errors and to revive the faith of the Christian people” and “to restore and reaffirm ecclesiastical discipline.” Pius had only been pope for roughly three years, but was well acquainted with the general liberalism was making sharp inroads into Christian Europe, and naturally sympathized with Lambruschini’s concerns. He was convinced himself that the general principles of the Revolution in 1789 France were fueling the deconstruction of religious, social and moral values of his day. However, it took the idea of convoking a council almost twenty years of fermentation before it could become a reality.

Three events of 1863 particularly alarmed the Bishop of Rome and forced him to tighten his grip on the Church in the modern age: 1. the June publication of Ernest Renan’s enormously successful work Vie de Jesus in 1863, which praised Jesus as a spiritual man of great moral teaching, and not the Son of God; 2. the August congress at Malines where the Count of Montalembert rejected the union of Church and state and proclaimed religious liberty; 3. the academic congress at Munich where theologians, headed by Fr. Ignaz von Dollinger, declared freedom of research and critique of all religious matters not officially defined by the Church. To Pius, these measures appeared to undermine the Church’s authority, and consequently, his own prerogatives. On December 8, 1864, in a desperate act to reinforce and buttress the power of the Church, Pius issued the encyclical Quanta cura with the appended “Syllabus of Errors”, exactly ten years after the proclamation of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception. However, Pius had not forgotten Lambruschini’s advise, and was planning a further and grander comfort for the Church’s woes.

Philip Hughes, in his book, The Church in Crisis: A History of the General Councils: 325-1870 (Doubleday, 1961), argues similarly, citing the French Revolution (p. 333), an over-dominance of Catholic kings, and Napoleon. He cites the revolutions of 1848 (p. 336).

John L. Murphy, in his similar volume, The General Councils of the Church (Bruce Publishing Co., 1960), takes the same general approach, citing philosophical and nationalistic developments (p. 171), the over-emphasis of reason, per the so-called “Enlightenment,” implications that Darwinism and science in general was trying to supplant religious orthodoxy and going beyond its own purview to dogmatically declare a materialistic worldview, increasing Protestant sectarianism and doctrinal relativism (p. 172), Schleiermacher (d. 1834) and theological liberalism and modernism (pp. 173-174), and “evolution of doctrine” (as opposed to an orthodox notion of development).

The Catholic Encyclopedia article, “Vatican Council” further elaborates:

“(1) Motions calling for and opposing Definition

The opponents of infallibility constantly assert that the pope convoked the council of the Vatican solely to have papal infallibility proclaimed. Everything else was merely an excuse and for the sake of appearances. This assertion contradicts the actual facts. Not a single one of the numerous drafts drawn up by the preparatory commission bore on papal infallibility. Only two of the twenty-one opinions sent in by the Roman cardinals mentioned it. It is true that a large number of the episcopal memorials recommended the definition, but these were not taken into consideration in the preparations for the council. It was not until the contest over papal infallibility outside of the council grew constantly more violent that various groups of members of the council began to urge conciliar discussion of the question of infallibility. The first motion for the definition was made on Christmas, 1869, by Archbishop Dechamps of Mechlin. He was supported by all the other Belgian bishops, who presented a formal opinion of the University of Louvain, which culminated in a petition for the definition. The actual petition for the definition was first circulated among the fathers of the council on New Year’s Day, 1870. Several petitions from smaller groups also appeared, and the petitions soon received altogether five hundred signatures, although quite a number of the friends of the definition were not among the number of subscribers. Five opposing memorials circulated by the minority finally obtained 136 names. Upon this, early in Feb., the congregation forpetitions unanimously, with exception of Cardinal Rauscher, requested the pope to consider the petition for definition. Pius IX was also in favour of the definition. Therefore on 6 March, the draft of the Decree on the Church of Christ, which had been distributed among the fathers on 21 Jan., was given a new twelfth chapter entitled “Romanum Pontificem in rebus fidei et morum definiendis errare non posse” (The Roman Pontiff cannot err in defining matters of faith and morals). With this the matter dropped again in the council.

(2) The Agitation Outside the Council

The petitions concerning infallibility called forth once more outside the council a large number of pamphlets and innumerable articles in the daily papers and periodicals. About this time the French Oratorian Gratry and Archbishop Dechamps of Mechlin opposed each other in controversial pamphlets. A letter published by Count Montalembert on 27 Feb., 1870, in which he spoke of an idol which had been erected in the Vatican, attracted much attention. In England, Newman gave anxious expression of his fears as to the bad results of the declaration of infallibility in a letter written in March, 1870, to his bishop, Ullathorne of Birmingham. The most extreme opponent was Professor Döllinger of Bavaria. In his “Römische Briefe vom Konzil”, published in the “Allgemeine Zeitung” and issued in book form (Munich, 1870), under the pseudonym of “Quirinus”, he used information sent him from Rome by his pupils, Johann Friedrich and Lord Acton. In these letters he did everything he could by distorting and casting doubts upon facts, by scorn and ridicule, to turn the public against the council. This was especially so in an article of 19 Jan., 1870, in which he attacked so severely the address on infallibility, which had just become known, that even Bishop Ketteler of Mainz, an old pupil of Döllinger’s and a member of the minority, protested publicly against it. The Governments of the different countries also took measures on the subject of infallibility. As soon as the original draft of the decree “De ecclesia” with its canons was published in the “Allgemeine Zeitung”, Count von Beust, Chancellor of Austria, sent a protest against it to Rome on 10 Feb., 1870, which said that the Austrian Government would forbid and punish the publication of all decrees that were contrary to the laws of the State. The French minister of foreign affairs, Daru, also sent a threatening memorandum on 20 Feb. He demanded the admission of an envoy to the council, and notified the other Governments of his steps in Rome. Austria, Bavaria, England, Spain and Portugal declared their agreement with the memorandum. The president of the Prussian ministry, Bismarck, would not change his attitude of reserve, notwithstanding the urgency of von Arnim, the ambassador at Rome. On 18 April, the leader of the agitation, Count Daru, retired from his post in the ministry. The president of the French ministry, Ollivier, assumed charge of foreign affairs; he was determined to leave the council free.

I think we get the general idea.

A preliminary vote on 13 July 1870, taken by 601 bishops was as follows:

Yes 451 (75%)
Conditional Affirmative 62 (10%)
No 88 (15%)

The final vote (18 July 1870) was 433 (99.5%) to 2. The only dissenters were bishops from Italy and America. Many bishops had left Rome with permission, and were not opposed to the definition, but to its being made at that time (what is known as “inopportunists”).

A 1596 statement by St. Francis de Sales is almost identical to the 1870 proclamation:

When he teaches the whole Church as shepherd, in general matters of faith and morals, then there is nothing but doctrine and truth. And in fact everything a king says is not a law or an edict, but that only which a king says as king and as a legislator. So everything the Pope says is not canon law or of legal obligation; he must mean to define and to lay down the law for the sheep, and he must keep the due order and form.

We must not think that in everything and everywhere his judgment is infallible, but then only when he gives judgment on a matter of faith in questions necessary to the whole Church; for in particular cases which depend on human fact he can err, there is no doubt, though it is not for us to control him in these cases save with all reverence, submission, and discretion. Theologians have said, in a word, that he can err in questions of fact, not in questions of right; that he can err extra cathedram, outside the chair of Peter. that is, as a private individual, by writings and bad example.

But he cannot err when he is in cathedra, that is, when he intends to make an instruction and decree for the guidance of the whole Church, when he means to confirm his brethren as supreme pastor, and to conduct them into the pastures of the faith. For then it is not so much man who determines, resolves, and defines as it is the Blessed Holy Spirit by man, which Spirit, according to the promise made by Our Lord to the Apostles, teaches all truth to the Church. (The Catholic Controversy, translated by Henry B. Mackey, Rockford, IL: TAN Books, 1989 from the 1886 publication [London and New York], 306-307)

* * * * *

Further exchanges with the same person:

I have no problem with the Bishop of Rome exercising his historical role as the successor of Saint Peter amongst the world’s successors of the Apostles and think it is a much needed, unifying force. The Lord has bequeathed the pontiff to the world, in all times, to assist in guarding the faith of the Church. I have no problem with that. The only thing that gets me is, … why? Why go to the point of defining this and allowing for the Pope to make such pronouncements, at times, unilaterally (at least in theory–I realize the practice is very different)? Why not leave the question of infallibility alone or grant it to all of the bishops in union with the pontiff?

As you allude to, usually the pope is in close consultation with the bishops before making any infallible declaration. We also accept conciliar infallibility (when — and only when — united with the pope). Vatican II actually expanded and developed the notion of conciliar infallibility.

I think you already answered your own question above: the pope is “a much needed, unifying force.” The assumptions you already accept as an Anglo-Catholic, we simply take to what we think is their logical conclusion: the Church needs one figure as a leader, to bring unity. I think the Bible clearly exhibits the leadership of Peter, and the pope as his successor, continues his role. Papal infallibility was more or less an explicit declaration of what was already believed for many many centuries, and implicitly from the beginning.

Thie resolves some serious practical problems: one of them being (I’m sure you’ve heard the argument) how to determine what is a legitimate ecumenical council and what is not. How does one know, e.g., that the “Robber Council” of 449 was illegitimate without the pope of the time declaring it so?

This probably ties in with my appreciation of eastern catholic and orthodox thinking on appreciating the mystery of God and His ways without trying to “define” that which, frankly, we cannot define.

As to what can and should be defined or not, that is a subjective question. The Orthodox claim we are “over-rational”; we can just as well say that they are “under-rational.” Who’s to say? We don’t claim to have explained everything, and accept the notion of mystery, just as Orthodox do (which is why, e.g., we haven’t completely resolved the predestination debate, and allow differing opinions). All I know is that Catholic supposed “over-rationality” has helped to give us a greater doctrinal unity and adherence to moral tradition than the Orthodox have maintained (particularly regarding divorce and contraception).

The Orthodox object to papal supremacy and headship (while usually accepting a leadership in “honor”), yet they have been burdened by caesaropapism for much of their history, and were far more prone to institutional heresy in the early years (especially to Monophysitism and Monotheletism). Ideas have consequences. If one rejects the papacy but simply substitutes an emperor for the central authority figure, then I don’t see how that resolves anything, because of the inherent possibilities of the state predominating over the Church.

And, of course, Anglicans have had this same problem, with Henry VIII thinking he could dominate the Church (and in his case, executing whoever disagrees with that, for “treason”); as well as Lutheranism, since they gave power to princes to take over the role of bishops. Indeed, as soon as papal authority was rejected in the west, immediately the foolish notion of “divine right of kings” sprung up. To me, this indicates that people instinctively understand that the Church needs a leader. We say that leader should come from within, not without.

Eastern Catholics accept papal supremacy just as Western Catholics do (or they are supposed to, anyway). The Orthodox continue to have internal difficulties precisely because they have no one leader. This is why we need a pope! The biblical evidence itself points to the papacy, I think, and many Protestant exegetes are willing to grant several key aspects of the papacy as Catholics view it.


(originally 10-17-08)

Photo credit: Blessed Pope Pius IX (r. 1846-1878): around 1865 [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]


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