The Nature of Papal Infallibility & the Obligatory Discussion of Galileo
The craving for an infallible guide arises from men’s consciousness of the weakness of their understanding….It seems intolerable to men that, when their eternal interests are at stake, any doubt or uncertainty should attend their decisions and they look for some guide who may be able to tell them, with infallible certainty, which is the right way.
Before examining Salmon’s argument in this chapter, it may be as well to remind ourselves that the Church’s claim to infallibility is not a modern invention but something that has its roots in Christian antiquity and the New Testament. I know indeed, of no definition of faith in which the word “infallible” occurs earlier than that of the [First] Vatican Council:
We define that the Roman Pontiff, when he speaks ex cathedra….is endowed with that infallibility wherewith the divine Redeemer willed his Church to be armed in defining [her] teaching on faith or morals.
The word means, according to the Concise Oxford Dictionary, “incapable of erring.”
Infallibility an Ancient Belief
But despite the late arrival of the word in the language of the articles of faith, the claim that it involves is ancient. It is implicit in many statements, indeed in the whole theological standpoint, of Origen of Alexandria and Palestinian Caesarea (c. AD 220-250) :
Whereas there are many who think that they have the mind of Christ, and some of them hold views diverse from those of former times, let the Church’s teaching [ecclesiastica praedicatio] be maintained, which has been handed down in one succession from the Apostles and abides till the present day in the Churches. That alone is to be believed truth which in no respect disagrees with the ecclesiastical and apostolic tradition. [De Principiis, prol, ii. This passage survives only in a Latin translation. By “Churches” Origen means the several local Churches of which the universal Church consists.]
Who would not be eager to fight for the Church and to stand up against the foes of truth, those that is who teach men to oppose the dogmas of the Church? [In Num hom xxv, 4 (extant only in Latin).]
The same implication pervades the writings of Cyprian of Carthage. In common with the whole of Catholic antiquity, St. Cyprian taught that salvation was to be sought only within the visible unity of the Catholic Church. But the Catholic Church then, as now, refused its communion to those who, in its judgment, “disagreed with the ecclesiastical and apostolic tradition” (Origen, quoted above). It follows that salvation was to be sought only by accepting the dogmatic decisions of the Church, and since, in the objective order of things, it cannot be God’s will that we should attain salvation by accepting error, it follows further that the Church’s dogmatic decisions are not liable to error.
I have singled out, in Origen and Cyprian, two early Catholic teachers. But it is to be observed that the principle extra ecclesiam nulla salus (outside the Church, no salvation) was, as I have said, common to the whole ancient Church. That Church therefore was making an implicit claim to infallibility when, as in the Ecumenical Councils, it put its ban (anathema) on those who rejected its teaching. It was conscious, in the words of the New Testament, of being the “ground and pillar of truth” (1 Tim 3:15) and it claimed to define this truth and so to exclude errors. A heretic, in the ancient and modern meaning of the word, is one who contradicts this truth or these definitions, and Catholic antiquity was unanimous in holding that heretics were in error. The word “infallible” is a sort of witch-word, arousing non-rational emotional antipathies in modern men. It may therefore be useful to point out that when the modern Church claims to be “infallible” she is only making the claim which the Church has always made — that her teaching is true and that “heretical” teaching is, as such, erroneous.
Confusing Infallibility with Certainty
“our belief must, in the end, rest on an act of our own judgment, and can never attain any higher certainty than whatever that may give us.” . . . “I do not see how a Roman Catholic advocate can help yielding the point that a member of his Church does, in truth, exercise private judgment, once for all, in his decision to submit to the teaching of the Church.” . . . “The result is, that absolute certainty can only be had on the terms of being infallible one’s self.”
Now no one, so far as I know, has ever maintained that an act of faith, in one who has reached the age of reason, does not involve or imply an act of personal decision, and a Roman Catholic advocate has no inclination to contest this point. The Church teaches that an act of faith is a virtuous act, and no act can be virtuous unless it comes from the intelligence and will of the agent. We do not merely concede the point, we strongly maintain it. But it does not in the least follow that when I say “I believe the Church to be infallible” I am in effect saying “I believe myself to be infallible.” On the contrary, I am saying, “God, in giving the Church as a reliable teacher of his truth, has of course made her recognizable precisely by fallible people like me. She is recognizable, and I recognize her.”
Salmon has confused the notion of infallibility with that of certainty, and he appears to identify the notion of belief with that of certainty, so that (on his showing) any act of belief, whatever the object of the act, is a claim to personal infallibility — a conclusion so paradoxical that it can hardly have been intended by him. Let us try to distinguish these three notions, of belief or faith, of certainty, and of infallibility.
Faith, Certainty, and Infallibility
(1) “Belief” may mean a variety of things. A man may say “I believe that the Church is infallible” in the same sense that he may say “I believe that we are in a spell of fine weather,” expressing no more than that some considerations make it seem to him not improbable that the Church is infallible. If he says “I believe in the Church’s infallibility” he probably means something more than this, but he does not necessarily mean that he is certain that the Church is infallible. He may be only expressing a strong conviction, and we are strongly convinced of a good many things of which we could not rightly claim to be certain. Of course, on the other hand, “I believe in the Church’s infallibility” may be an act of supernatural faith; it may imply acceptance (of the Church’s infallibility) on the word of God, and the Church teaches us that such an act is an act of certainty.
(2)The notion of certainty in the sense which interests us here, is distinct from that of belief. Belief may be accorded to opinions that are not true. But it is impossible to hold with certainty something which in fact — whatever the appearances may be — is false. Certainty is a quality of some of our acts of apprehension of truth. Thus I am certain of my own existence.
(3) But though I am certain of my own existence, I am not infallible. Infallibility connotes that one is not liable to error within some whole province of truth — as the Church, according to the Vatican definition, claims infallibility in the province, not of science or politics, but of “faith and morals.” But though I am certain of my own existence, I am not free from my liability to error in the province of metaphysics; I am certain of a particular proposition, I am not infallible in a given science, and many of my judgments in that science may prove to be erroneous, though not the particular judgment (of whose truth I am certain) that I exist. As usual Cardinal Newman states the distinction between certainty (or as he styles it, certitude) and infallibility with luminous clarity:
It is very common, doubtless, especially in religious controversy, to confuse infallibility with certitude, and to argue that, since we have not the one, we have not the other, for that no one can claim to be certain on any point, who is not infallible about all; but the two words stand for things quite distinct from each other. For example, I remember for certain what I did yesterday, but still my memory is not infallible; I am quite certain that two and two make four, but I often make mistakes in long addition sums. I have no doubt whatever that John or Richard is my true friend, but I have before now trusted those who failed me, and I may do so again before I die.
A certitude is directed to this or that particular proposition, it is not a faculty or gift, but a disposition of mind relative to the definite case which is before me. Infallibility, on the contrary, is just that which certitude is not; it is a faculty or gift, and relates, not to some one truth in particular, but to all possible propositions in a given subject-matter. We ought, in strict propriety, to speak not of infallible acts, but of acts of infallibility….I am quite certain that Victoria is our Sovereign, and not her father, the late Duke of Kent, without laying any claim to the gift of infallibility….I may be certain that the Church is infallible, while I am myself a fallible mortal; otherwise, I cannot be certain that the Supreme Being is infallible, until I am infallible myself….It is wonderful that a clearheaded man, like Chillingworth, sees this as little as the run of everyday objectors to the Catholic Religion… [Grammar of Assent (1903), 224f.]
The Grammar of Assent, from which the above quotations are taken, was published in 1870 and Salmon’s fourth lecture “was chiefly concerned” with it (see Mr. Woodhouse’s note, page 34 of the Abridgement). It can only be a matter of surprise that Salmon nevertheless chooses to follow Chillingworth and to perpetuate the misunderstanding which Newman so clearly explains.
More Misunderstandings and Errors of Salmon
On page 16, Salmon suggests that a prospective convert is asked to believe that he has been hitherto following “a way which must end in your eternal destruction.” But it must be remembered that it is not religious error, but blameworthy religious error, that is to say error due to a moral fault on the part of the person in error, that Catholics hold to be liable to divine punishment. In the overwhelming majority of cases, non-Catholic religious persons are probably “not guilty” in this way. Guilt may occur when a man’s conscience tells him that he ought to re-examine his position, and he nevertheless omits to do so.
On page 18f, Salmon contrasts a Protestant’s deference to the theologian with the Catholic’s deference to “Pius IX…an Italian ecclesiastic, of no reputation for learning.” But, of course, a Catholic does not defer to the Pope because of his natural qualities or acquired theological skill, but because (as the Catholic believes) the Pope is assisted by divine Providence when he pronounces an ex cathedra definition: “Out of the mouths of babes and sucklings thou hast perfected praise. Thou hast concealed these things from the wise and prudent and has revealed them unto little ones.”
On page 22 Salmon states the alleged circular argument for Catholicism, with reference to Scripture texts, as follows:
They say, ‘The Church is infallible, because the Scriptures testify that she is so, and the Scriptures testify this because the Church infallibly declares that such is their meaning’; and he goes on: We find ourselves in the same circle if we try to prove the Church’s infallibility by antiquity, sayings of the Fathers, by reason, or in any other way. The advocates of the Church of Rome have constantly maintained that, on religious questions, nothing but the Church’s authority can give us certainty….All the attempts of Roman Catholic controversialists to show the helplessness of men without the Church make it impossible to have any confidence in their success in finding the Church.
The names of “advocates of the Church of Rome” who land themselves in this argumentative circle are not given. I cannot defend “advocates” unknown to me who adopt a line of argument which I do not accept. On the contrary, I would point out that the Church is one of the strongest “advocates” of the reliability of human reasoning powers when applied in a natural way upon their appropriate subject matter. The [First] Vatican Council stated that the Church holds and teaches “that God, the Source and Goal of all things, can be certainly recognized by the natural light of human reason.” It further states God has deigned to give not only the inner help of the Holy Spirit but (so that the obedience of faith may harmonize with reason)
external arguments in favour of his revelation, namely divine deeds and especially [imprimis] miracles and prophecies….which are most certain signs of divine revelation and are fitted to the understanding of all men.
Right reason, in fact, “shows the foundations of faith.” On page 25 Salmon argues that
the truth of the conclusion of a long line of arguments cannot be more sure than our assurance of the truth of each link in the argument, and of the validity of each step in the inference.
To this I reply that the grounds of credibility of the Catholic Church are not the end of a single line of reasoning, but the meeting-point of a series of converging arguments — like, as I have suggested above, the grounds we have for our estimate of the character of someone we love. Many adult converts will remember how it was first one thing, then another, that made them feel that the Catholic claims required to be investigated; and how a time came when their defenses against Catholicism began to crack first at one point, then at another, till at last they felt themselves being drawn by a pull of manifold quality but of a strength like that of some tremendous love affair; with the difference that they felt perhaps no particular emotional attraction to the faith, were indeed acutely conscious of the terrible sacrifices involved in its acceptance, and yet loyalty to their own intellectual and moral conscience demanded in the end that they should take the “mortal leap” into life.
We return at page 26 to Newman, with the quotation “Faith must make a venture and is rewarded by sight” (Loss and Gain, 1903, page 343). It would perhaps suffice to point out that these words are spoken, in the novel from which they are taken, by a non-Catholic fictional character, and it is not usual to assume that a novelist believes whatever he makes one of his characters say. But I prefer to remark that there is a quite unobjectionable meaning that can be put upon these words. Faith may be perfectly reasonable, may be something recognized coolly as a duty, and yet it will always be a “venture” because though reason tells us to believe in the word of God’s accredited messenger (be that messenger Christ or Christ’s Church), yet the content of the message includes mysteries which the reason can never fathom.
Queen Elizabeth I is credited with a remark about the Blessed Sacrament as follows: “What our Lord himself doth make it, that I do believe and take it.” There was obviously a venture of faith here, since however certain the Queen was that Christ was a true Teacher, the thing he taught when he said “This Is My Body” is profoundly mysterious. But faith, says the character in the novel, “is rewarded by sight.” This is only strictly true when, in heaven, faith gives place to vision. There is, however, a kind of truth about it even in this life, at least for some people.
Newman himself says that “from the time I became a Catholic….I have been in perfect peace and contentment; I never have had one doubt.” [Apologia pro vita Sua, 238. The Apologia was written some 18 years after its author’s conversion.] This is an interesting echo of the concluding quotation in the Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine written at the time of his conversion. He there quotes in Latin from the Song of Simeon: “Now, Lord, thou lettest thy servant depart, according to thy word, in peace, because my eyes have seen Thy salvation.”
If the reader is not already wearied by this long list of points in this chapter of the Abridgement which call for correction, there is still one more (on page 27), where Salmon says that a Catholic “must reject every attempt to test the teaching of his Church by reason or Scripture or antiquity,” since the Church’s “first principle” is “that her teaching shall be subjected to no criticism.” On this I observe as follows:
(1) In the Church’s mind an intelligent adult is not ripe for reception into the Church until he has been duly instructed and is morally certain that he has, as it is often but perhaps inaccurately described, “received the grace of faith”; 
(2) The Church protects her “little ones” from unsettling literature just as a human parent would; but
(3) she encourages her more capable sons and daughters to study and understand her credentials and the objections which are made against her claim, not only to strengthen the substructure of their own faith but to equip them for the propagation of the truth.
Chapter Four: On Deference to Authority
Salmon is anxious that it shall not be supposed that, in repudiating the notion of infallibility, he rejects all deference to authority in the sphere of religious doctrine:
On the contrary, we think it every man’s duty, who has to make a decision, to use every means in his power to guide his judgment rightly. Not the least of the means is the instruction and advice of people better informed than ourselves”; thus a clergyman may expect deference for his theological opinions from a layman “just so far, and no more, as he has given more and more prayerful study to those subjects than the layman has.
It will be observed, and indeed Salmon insists on the point, that the authority of the clergyman is in no way derived from his office as a minister of the Church, but simply from his prayer and study. The theme is taken up below:
God has made the world so that we cannot do without teachers. We come into the world…dependent on the instruction of others for our most elementary knowledge. The most original discoverer that ever lived owed the great bulk of his knowledge to the teaching of others….Boys will not respect a teacher if they find out that he is capable of making mistakes….But you know that the teacher’s infallibility is not real….With respect to the teaching of secular knowledge, Universities have a function in some sort corresponding to that which the Church has been divinely appointed to fulfill in the communication of religious knowledge….The whole progress of the human race depends on two things — human teaching, and teaching which will submit to correction….I maintain that it is the office of the Church to teach; but that it is her duty to do so, not by making assertion merely, but by offering proofs; and, again, that while it is the duty of the individual Christian to receive with deference the teaching of the Church, it is his duty also…to satisfy himself of the validity of her proofs.
The position adopted by Salmon in the above quotations is somewhat different from that earlier stated, in which it appeared that a single intelligent man, presented with a vernacular Bible, could determine what doctrines were contained in Scripture. It is worth dwelling on the present re-statement of Salmon’s attitude to authority, as it, or something like it, has become common in certain non-Catholic circles, especially since the belief in Scripture’s inerrancy has been so widely abandoned.
St. John Chrysostom and “Bible Reading”
As regards the fourth century Church’s belief in her power to define the Christian faith — and therefore in her infallibility — it may be observed that about sixteen years before the consecration of John Chrysostom as Bishop of Constantinople the peace of the Church in the Eastern half of the Roman Empire had been established by the Council of Constantinople (AD 381, this Council is now reckoned as the second Ecumenical) on the basis of the “Nicene faith” : and it will be remembered that the Nicene faith was crystallised in the word “consubstantial”, which was not scriptural, and to which objection had even been taken on the ground that it was untraditional.
When Salmon concludes, from his quotations of St. John Chrysostom, that though the Fathers of the fourth century may not have been “English Protestants of the nineteenth…they thoroughly agree with us on fundamental principles” whereas the principles of the Church of Rome are different, it seems unnecessary to say more than that such statements are so extravagantly wide of the mark as to reflect little credit on Salmon’s historical sense. The fundamental principle of fourth-century Catholicism was that the Church was a society, an organized body; and that the Christian faith was the corporate faith of this body, not the theological opinions of an individual or a local Church exercising unfettered freedom of judgment upon its constituent articles.
Chapter Five: The Catholic Position on Infallibility
In Chapter VI of the Abridgement it is objected against the Church’s claim to infallibility that her actual behaviour suggests that she does not belief in it herself.
I think it admits of historical proof that the Church of Rome has shrunk with the greatest timidity from exercising this gift….on any question which had not already settled itself without her help.
Salmon goes on to suggest that several papal decisions are now known to have been wrong, and the case has to be met by “pitiable evasions” — “the Pope was not speaking ex cathedra; that is to say, he had guided the Church wrong only in his private not his professional capacity.”
Misconceptions of Infallibility
This passage suggests such a false notion of what Catholics conceive to be the nature, function, and conditions of the exercise of infallibility that it seems desirable here to give a statement of the Catholic position on these matters.
Catholics do not affirm that either the Church or the Pope, her head on earth, is omniscient (all-knowing). They do not affirm that infallibility is equivalent to revelation of new truth or to inspiration. Nor do they affirm that it covers truths which are not integral to the faith or to morality (faith and morals). Neither the Church nor the Pope has the function of settling mathematical or scientific controversies. Nor is it supposed that within the region of revealed truth the Church or the Pope has the answer ready to hand at every moment, for any question that might be raised. It is quite consistent with the Catholic claim, to hold that the Church could not have defined, for instance, the Immaculate Conception in any century earlier than the nineteenth. There is a gradual ripening of theological thought, a slow deepening of the spiritual insight of the faithful. Thomas Aquinas, a Doctor of the Church and the greatest exponent of systematic theology in medieval times, denies the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception; he prefers the view that Mary was conceived in original sin and was purified of its stain in the moment after her conception. His reason for this opinion is of profound interest; it seems to him that if Mary was not conceived in original sin she was not redeemed by her divine Son, the Saviour of all mankind. Other medieval thinkers disagreed with St. Thomas, and the Council of Trent deliberately left the controversy (between the first and the second moment of Mary’s existence, be it noted) undetermined.
Excerpts from Newman’s “Letter to the Duke of Norfolk”
As the “Letter to the Duke of Norfolk” was published many years before the first edition of Salmon’s book, it may be of interest to refer to Newman’s comments on the Vatican definition in that celebrated work. He there states (p. 320) that the Church “has ever shown the utmost care to contract, as far as possible, the range of truths and the sense of propositions” of which she demands reception simply on her own word as God’s representative. And in fact the “range” of the Pope’s infallibility is most materially contracted by the conditions attached to it by the Vatican definition (p. 325); on this Newman quotes “the Swiss bishops”: “The Pope is not infallible as a man, as a theologian, or a priest, or a bishop, or a temporal prince, or a judge, or a legislator, or in his political views, or even in his government of the Church” since in none of these cases are the definition’s conditions verified.
Again, it will hold of the Pope, as it holds of a Council, that he is not infallible in the reasons by which he is led, or on which he relies. Nor is it necessary to hold that he is directly and actually exercising his infallibility in the “prefaces and introductions” to his definitions (p. 326). Of the Pope, again, as of a Council, it is true that his infallibility in its actual exercise requires not a “direct suggestion of divine truth” (an inspiration or a special revelation) but “simply an external guardianship, keeping [him] off from error” and saving him “as far as [his] ultimate decisions are concerned, from the effects of [his] inherent infirmities” (p. 328). “What providence has guaranteed is only this, that there should be no error in the final step, in the resulting definition or dogma.” (ibid).
The whole of this section of the “Letter” (p. 320-40) deserves study, and is a useful check upon the criticisms which Salmon urges against infallibility. A rather more extensive quotation may be of use to some readers:
From these various considerations it follows that Papal and Synodal definitions, obligatory on our faith, are of rare occurrence; and this is confessed by all sober theologians. Father O’Reilly, for instance, of Dublin, one of the first theologians of the day, says:
The Papal Infallibility is comparatively seldom brought into action. I am very far from denying that the Vicar of Christ is largely assisted by God in the fulfilment of his sublime office….that he is continually guided from above in the government of the Catholic Church. But this is not the meaning of Infallibility….
This great authority….I am sure, would sanction me in my repugnance to impose upon the faith of others more than what the Church distinctly claims of them; and I should follow him in thinking it a more scriptural, Christian, dutiful, happy frame of mind, to be easy, than to be difficult of belief….To be a Catholic a man must have a generous loyalty towards ecclesiastical authority, and accept what is taught him with what is called the pietas fidei….I end with an extract from the Pastoral of the Swiss Bishops, a Pastoral which has received the Pope’s approbation.
It in no way depends upon the caprice of the Pope, or upon his good pleasure, to make such and such a doctrine, the object of a dogmatic definition. He is tied up and limited to the divine revelation, and to the truths which that revelation contains. He is tied up and limited by the Creeds, already in existence, and by the preceding definitions of the Church. He is tied up and limited by the divine law, and by the constitution of the Church. Lastly, he is tied up and limited by that doctrine divinely revealed, which affirms that alongside religious society there is civil society…. [338f.]
Wilfrid Ward says, of the “Letter to the Duke of Norfolk” that it was “welcomed” by the English Catholics “almost without a dissentient voice.” [Life of John Henry Cardinal Newman, ii, 406.] As regards the conditions of an infallible papal handbook, in which, after pointing out that the Pope is infallible, not incapable of sinning, the author states that these conditions are as follows:
The Pope must be speaking not as a private teacher, nor as Bishop of the city of Rome, nor as a temporal prince, but as a shepherd and teacher of the whole Church in virtue of his supreme authority; he must be teaching a truth of faith or morals; he must define, i.e. finally settle what is to be held with really interior faith; and the definition must impose an obligation on the universal Church. [Tanquerey, Brevior Synopsis Theologiae Dogmaticae (6th ed), 119f.]
Salmon for his part, is impatient of such limitations — he is like the neo-Ultramontanes before the Vatican Council, and would wish, if there be an infallible authority, to extend rather than to limit its scope and range. I can understand, though I do not share, this desire; especially as the Vatican definition’s limitations make Salmon’s task of discrediting the doctrine of infallibility so much more difficult. He writes, a propos of Pope Honorius:
….the only distinction in this matter that I can recognize as rational is that between the pope’s official and non-official utterances….
Drawing Difficult Distinctions
Well, Catholic theologians do not find themselves in Salmon’s unfortunate intellectual predicament. They recognize a perfectly rational distinction between those official papal utterances which conform to the definition’s conditions and those which do not, and it may be argued that the careful wording of the definition might have been intended precisely to exclude from it official utterances such as the condemned proposition of Honorius.
The unscientific temper of Salmon’s mind, so clear in this impatient rejection of an all-important theological distinction, is apparent also in a passage in which he argues that the theory of development is inconsistent with the claim that the Church’s teaching is “final and perfect”:
[The theory of development] acknowledges that the teaching of the Church may be imperfect and incomplete; and though it is too polite to call it erroneous, the practical line of distinction between error and imperfection is a fine one and difficult to draw.
One is tempted to despair of a serious author who invites us to neglect or reject a line of distinction because it is “a fine one and difficult to draw.” The whole process of man’s deepening apprehension and understanding of reality depends upon such fine distinctions, and the really informative objects of study are “limiting cases.” I hope that what has been said above may serve to answer in some measure Salmon’s case against infallibility so far as that case is based upon the supreme authority’s “hesitations.”
Thus it is no argument against the reality of belief in the Church’s infallibility that the Council of Trent did not settle the question of the Immaculate Conception. The matter, we may suppose, was not ripe for decision. But Salmon argues that, since the caution observed on that occasion was partly due to fear of precipitating a schism, it is clear that those who were liable to go into schism, if an infallible decision were given, cannot have believed in infallibility, since it is absurd not to accept the decision of an authority whom you believe to be incapable of error. Absurd, I agree. But all sin is absurd, and the Church knows with unrivalled experience that this absurdity is possible. A monk who refuses the obedience he has solemnly vowed to a legitimate superior in a morally neutral manner is not necessarily dubious of the binding force of a solemn vow, or of the fact that God punishes disobedience. Yet such disobedience occurs, and some way will be found to “rationalize” it. The fact that Dollinger seceded from the Church after the Vatican Council is no proof that he disbelieved in the Church’s infallibility before the Council took place.
The Condemnation of Galileo
In a book whose purpose is, among other things, to show that the Pope is not infallible, it was almost inevitable that the condemnation of Galileo would come under discussion, and Salmon in fact spends eight pages on it. The admitted facts of the case are that in 1615 the Holy Office informed Pope Pius V that in their opinion the proposition “that the sun in the unmoving centre of the universe” was absurd, false, and “formally heretical.” In consequence, the Pope instructed St. Robert Bellarmine to tell Galileo that he must abandon his notions, and (if he refused) that he must abstain from teaching his doctrine. Galileo therefore promised obedience. But in 1632 there appeared his Dialogue on “The Two Principal Systems of the World.” Before its publication, the Pope (Urban VIII) had stipulated that the book must conclude with an argument propounded by the Pope himself; and that the subject must be treated from a purely hypothetical standpoint. As published, however, while it failed to incorporate the revisions insisted on by the Roman censor before publication, it was found that the Pope’s own argument had been put into the mouth of a character in the Dialogue who was represented as a simpleton. Galileo was summoned before the Holy Office, and in 1633 this tribunal pronounced that he was
….vehemently suspected by this Holy Office of heresy, that is, of having believed and held the doctrine (which is false and contrary to the Holy and Divine Scriptures) that the sun is the centre of the world….and also that an opinion can be held and supported as probable after it has been declared and finally decreed contrary to the Holy Scripture….
Sentence having been pronounced, Galileo read and signed an act of abjuration in which he declared that he was rightly suspected of heresy, and promised not in the future to maintain the condemned opinions. Such are the facts, and it is clear “that the Roman Congregations both in 1616 and in 1633….” based a disciplinary decree on what they declared to be heresy but is obviously not heresy. And in both cases the Pope acquiesced.
But it is equally clear that these decrees do not conform to the conditions laid down by the Vatican Council for an ex cathedra definition of doctrine. First, because they do not define doctrine. Church law distinguishes between disciplinary and doctrinal decrees, and the doctrinal motives stated or implied in a disciplinary decree are not part of its formal intention. Secondly, these decrees, though approved by the Pope, were each a decree of a Congregation, not formally an act of the Pope, and even his approval could not make either of them into an ex cathedra definition.
I cannot therefore agree with Salmon that if the Pope did not speak infallibly in these decrees “it will be impossible to know that he ever speaks infallibly.” On the contrary, the circumstances of the definition of the Immaculate Conception certainly conform to the Vatican Council’s conditions for an infallible definition, while those of the Galileo decrees certainly do not. Salmon may think it regrettable that the Pope did not decide “infallibly” the truth or falsehood of the hypothesis, but this opinion will not be shared by everyone.
It is worth noticing that a Jesuit theologian and astronomer, opposed to Galileo, wrote as follows in 1651 (less than twenty years after Galileo’s second condemnation):
As there has been no definition on this matter by the Sovereign Pontiff, nor by a Council directed and approved by him, it is in no way of faith that the sun moved and the earth is motionless, at least the decree does not make it so, but only at most the authority of Holy Scripture — for those who are morally sure that God has revealed it to be so. Still, all Catholics are obliged by prudence and obedience….not to teach categorically the opposite of what the decree lays down. [Riccioli, in Almagestum Novum, Bologna, i, 52]
It should be further noticed that Galileo might have avoided all collision with ecclesiastical authority if he had been content to remain on the scientific plane and had avoided all discussion of the theological implications of his hypothesis. He might have acted in accordance with the advice given by Ballarmine in 1615 to another Copernican:
Your reverence and Galileo would be acting prudently if you did not speak absolutely but provisionally, as, I believe, Copernicus did; in a word, it is sufficient to say that by supposing that the earth moves and that the sun is fixed, the phenomena we know are better explained than by epicycles and eccentrics; this does not offer any difficulty and is quite sufficient for the mathematician.
(Since Einstein, modern science [or should we say “some modern scientists” ?] seems to have come round to the conclusion that the Ptolemaic system and the Copernican system both made “the important mistake of failing to stress that motion is relative. The question whether the earth goes round the sun is wrongly posed; the answer depends upon the point of view of the observer — to an observer on the sun the earth appears to revolve, to an observer on the earth the sun appears to revolve, because the motion is relative.”) [E.F. Caldin, The Power and Limits of Science, 88.]
On the other hand we may certainly regret that Galileo’s theological opponents did not themselves insist that the matter should be kept rigidly within the confines of science, and did not take more thoroughly to heart the words of St. Thomas Aquinas:
In astronomy, the hypothesis of epicycles and eccentrics [i.e. the Ptolemaic system] is laid down, because by it justice can be done to the appearances of the motions in the sky; but this is not a decisive consideration, since another hypothesis might [also] do justice to these movements.
And in fact, whereas Luther and Melanchthon (another great Protestant leader) had violently attacked Copernicus’ hypothesis, Clement VII had apparently rather favoured it, and over eighty years elapsed before the theological tentatives of Galileo led to the unfortunate decrees which we have here discussed.
There is no need to deal at length with Salmon’s apparent inclination to think that Galileo was harshly treated. He was apparently compelled to go to Rome to answer the charges against him when he was an old and sick man and his movements and social intercourse were to some extent restricted after the trial. To those who are familiar with the story of religious intolerance in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, this treatment will seem comparatively mild.
[Dave: see my related articles:
Is the Vatican Definition “Useless” ?
I hope it is not unfair to suggest that the notion of infallibility, to which Salmon’s criticisms in Chapters vi-ix relate, is not that canonized by the definition of 1870. It would appear that Salmon had been collecting material for the controversy with the Catholic Church for the greater part of his adult life, and it may be that the moderateness of the dogma of the Council disconcerted him. Much of what he objects against infallibility could have been used with some effect before 1870 by a moderate Ultramontane like Ullathorne against extreme neo-Ultramontanes such as Veuillot of the Univers or W. G. Ward.
The objection will of course be made: if the conditions for an infallible definition are so stringent, and if in consequence that occasions on which a Pope has unquestionably used his powers, not to condemn false teaching but to impose a new affirmative dogma, are so few, is not the Church’s infallibility practically “useless”? To this objection I would in the first instance reply that there are many matters — for example, the sacramental character and apostolic descent of valid Orders, the Real Presence in the Eucharist, the sacramental nature of “sacramental penance,” the privileges of the Mother of God — which are for Western non-Catholics at best matters of opinion, but in Catholic eyes belong certainly to the “deposit of faith.” Some non-Catholics no doubt hold that it is preferable that these and suchlike matters should remain in the realm of opinion; but at best it cannot be claimed that a moderate doctrine of infallibility, which yet renders these points certain, is “useless.”
And secondly, it is to be observed that the Church’s infallibility — with which, if we may press so far the words of the definition, that of the Pope is not only comparable but identical — is not only operative when a formal definition is promulgated. It gives a colour and a cast to the whole teaching and mind of the Church. It means that the mind of the individual believer moves out into a world of corporate thought and belief at the back of which is a divine guarantee of objectivity. And from time to time, when the needs of the Church or the providential purpose requires, the movement of Catholic thought does actually lead up to a definition and a new dogma gives articulation to some traditional doctrine.
Finally, and at the risk of some repetition, it seems important to emphasize that the Pope is not, what Salmon seems to suggest he ought on Catholic principles to be, a sort of automatic fortune-telling machine. He cannot, under the conditions laid down by the Council, define doctrine simply in obedience to private whims or for the convenience of the Church’s passing, as opposed to her permanent, needs. When he does make a definition he speaks as the voice of “tradition,” as the utterance of the Church’s mind; and the Church’s mind like the mills of God, though grinding surely, grinds very slowly. In formal language, we are not taught that the Pope is an inspired oracle, but that he is a divinely assisted witness to the faith once delivered to God’s saints (Jude 3).
Practical Matters: Perhaps some of my 4,200+ free online articles (the most comprehensive “one-stop” Catholic apologetics site) or fifty-one books have helped you (by God’s grace) to decide to become Catholic or to return to the Church, or better understand some doctrines and why we believe them.
Or you may believe my work is worthy to support for the purpose of apologetics and evangelism in general. If so, please seriously consider a much-needed financial contribution. I’m always in need of more funds: especially monthly support. “The laborer is worthy of his wages” (1 Tim 5:18, NKJV). 1 December 2021 was my 20th anniversary as a full-time Catholic apologist, and February 2022 marked the 25th anniversary of my blog.
PayPal donations are the easiest: just send to my email address: firstname.lastname@example.org. You’ll see the term “Catholic Used Book Service”, which is my old side-business. To learn about the different methods of contributing, including 100% tax deduction, etc., see my page: About Catholic Apologist Dave Armstrong / Donation Information. Thanks a million from the bottom of my heart!
Summary: Bishop B. C. Butler critiqued the anti-infallibility arguments & rampant misrepresentations & quotes out of context, of anti-Catholic George Salmon, in 1954.