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The Hillarious History
of Papal Infallibility

How the pope became infallible is one of the funniest
    and most bizarre stories in the history of religion.

The claims of the Papacy:
by Peter De Rosa

"It may jolt Catholics to hear it, but "the great Fathers of the Church saw no connection between the verse which Jesus addressed to Peter and the Bishops of Rome.  Not one of them applies "Thou art Peter" to anyone but Peter.  One after another they analyze it: Cyprian, Origen, Cyril, Hilary, Jerome, Ambrose, Augustine.  They're not exactly Protestants.  Not one of them calls the Bishop of Rome a Rock or applies to him specifically the promise of the keys. . .
        The surprises do not stop there.  For the Fathers, it is Peter's faith – or the Lord in whom Peter has faith – which is called the Rock, not Peter.  All the Councils of the Church from Nicea in the fourth century to Constance in the 15th agree that Christ himself is the only foundation of the church, that is, a rock on which the church rests.
        Perhaps this is why not one of the Fathers speaks of a transference of power from Peter to those who succeed him; not one speaks, as church documents do today, of an "inheritance".  There's no hint of an abiding Petrine office.  Insofar as the Fathers speak of an office, the reference is to the episcopate it in general.  All bishops are successors to all the apostles.
What, then, becomes of the promises said to be made via Peter to his "successors", the Pope's?  Do not popes inherit infallibility and worldwide jurisdiction from Peter?
        The first problem about infallibility is that the new Testament makes it plain that Peter himself made tremendous errors both before and after Jesus died.  When, for instance, Jesus insisted that he had to go up to Jerusalem where he would be crucified, Peter protested so much that Jesus called him a "satan" in his path.  Some Catholic theologians have suggested that these words, "Get thee behind me Satan", should be added to the Petrine text already inscribe
by Peter De Rosad around Michelangelo's dome (i.e."Thou art Peter and upon this rock I will build my church and the gates of hell will not prevailed against it.")
        After Jesus' resurrection, Peter made an equally bad blunder.  "Heresy" is not too bad a word for it.  The church's greatest ever canon lawyer, Gratian, said in 1150: "Peter compelled the gentiles to live as Jews and to depart from gospel truths".
        As to worldwide jurisdiction, did it ever cross Peter's mind when he preached to his little flock at Antioch or Rome that he had command over the whole church?  Such a idea had to wait until Christianity was integrated into the Roman Empire.  Even then it took time for the papacy to grow to the stature that made such a pretension possible.
        The difficulties not stop there.  Popes are only said to be infallible when they address the whole church.  When did they first do so?  Certainly not in the first millennium.  During that time, as everybody agrees, only General Councils expressed the mind of the church.  Was the pope's supreme power suspended all that while?  If the church managed to function without it for 1000 years, why should she need it at all?
        So the early church did not look on Peter as Bishop of Rome, nor, therefore, did it think that each Bishop of Rome succeeded to Peter.  Rome was held in highest esteem for rather different reasons.  In the first place, it was where Peter and Paul had witnessed with their lives.  Secondly, Rome was a sacred spot because there the faithful, clergy and laity, kept the apostles' bodies and revered them.  Those bodies were a kind of pledge of orthodoxy throughout the ages. (pp. 24-25)

        . . . In spite of this, in the first three centuries, only one of the Fathers, Irenaeus, connects Rome's primacy with doctrine.  Not even he relates this personnally to the Bishop of Rome.

        In all the Greek Fathers (of the Church) there is not one word about the prerogatives of the Bishop of Rome, no suggestion he had jurisdiction over them.  No one, Greek or Latin, appeals to the Bishop of Rome as final and univeral arbiter in any single dispute about the faith.  As a point of fact, no bishop of Rome dared decide on his own a matter of faith for the church." (pp. 205)

How the pope became infallible :

        When the First Vatican Council defined papal infallibility, it claimed it was the ancient and constant faith of the Church.  In fact, the first statement on personal infallibility came from Pope Leo the Great in 457: 'By the power of the Holy Spirit he needs no human instruction and is incapable of doctrinal error.' It is clear and precise.  But there's a snag. Leo was referring not to himself but to the new Roman Emperor.
        In Origins of Papal Infallibility 1150-1350, Brian Tierney showed that the doctrine of papal infallibility was invented by enemies of the papacy between 1280 and 1320 in an attempt to limit the power of the reigning pontiff.  The more rebellious they became, the more they exaggerated the infallibility of past popes.
        No pontiff ever claimed that he personally could propound dogmas, that is, irreformable doctrines to be held by all Catholics.  Popes were chiefly interested in their supremacy. Integral to this was ultimate authority in doctrine and discipline.
        Why didn't they want infallibility as well?  Partly because history showed beyond question that many popes had been heretics and apostates.  There was also a more important political reason: it would limit their personal power.  How?  If they were infallible, so were their predecessors.  If a predecessor had spoken infallibly they would be bound by what he said.  Popes held that only Christ could not err.  This meant that they were only bound by scripture and definitions of Councils which interpreted scripture.
        Incidentally, to suggest that the pope was above General Councils makes nonsense of the whole history of the early and medieval Church.  The pope had no choice but to accept the doctrinal decisions of the early Councils, especially the first four, for a Council is greater than a pope.  Popes could err; Councils could not.
        When Pope John XXII (1316-34) heard that some upstart Franciscans had proposed papal infallibility, he was furious.  They were accusing him of being a heretic for denying his own infallibility when no pope had ever claimed it.  What John XXII's foes were implying was he had contradicted his infallible predecessors, therefore, he should be removed from office and handed over to his own Inquisition to be burnt.
        In his Bull, Quia quorundam of 1324, John XXII quoted those who said, 'What the Roman Pontiffs have once defined in faith and morals stands so immutably that it is not permitted to a successor to revoke it.' This was a lie, he said, and inspired by the 'Father of lies'.  He was not infallible.  He, the Pope, retained the right, in principle, to be a heretic, like anyone else, but he didn't intend to exercise this right by espousing the new heresy of papal infallibility.
        The first pope to hear of papal infallibility called it insane, the teaching of the devil.
        Like all medieval popes, John XXII saw that papal infallibility would make him not the equal of his predecessors but their inferior, for he would only be able to teach some things with their consent.  This violated a basic legal principle that an equal cannot bind an equal.  Papal absolutism demanded that a pope be answerable to God and no one else. Far from his predecessors being necessarily free from error, every pope had a duty to say that popes had erred but their heresies had been corrected by Councils and popes after them.  (p. 163)

        Not until the 16th century did popes see the positive side of infallibility.  At one point, Innocent XI (1676-89) thought of infallibly defining his own infallibility.  The "devil's teaching" was on the way to becoming Catholic doctrine.  With good reason.  If a pope wasn't infallible and a Council was, a Council was superior to the pope.  Dissidents could appeal over the pope's head to a Council.  Such a right of appeal was reasonable for as long as the papacy kept to the Catholic teaching that popes can err while Councils cannot.
        This is why the papacy in the end rejected traditional doctrine in favour of what John XXII called pernicious novelty.  They chose to be above Councils even if the price was making themselves subject to the teaching of their predecessors.
        That was annoying, all right.  Each pontiff would always have to be looking over his shoulder at the ever-lengthening line of pontiffs behind him to make sure he didn't contradict them.  Even so, being subject to dead popes, having dried-mouthed conversations with skeletons, was less threatening than being subject to future Councils. 

        After Pius IX insisted on having himself declared infallible in 1870, Cardinal Newman wrote:  'We have come to a climax of tyranny.  It is not good for a pope to live twenty years.  He becomes a god, has no one to contradict him, does not know facts and does cruel things without meaning it.'
        Many people don't realize how novel the idea of infallible popes is.  It was only proclaimed at the instigation of Pope Pius IX at the First Vatican Council in 1870, about whom his private secretary, Monsignor Talbot said: 

'Theology was not Pius' forte.' and 'As the Pope is no great theologian, I feel convinced that when he writes, his encyclicals are inspired by God.'  Complete ignorance was no bar to infallibility, he said,  since God can point out the right road even by the mouth of a talking ass.'  (regarding which De Rosa comments :)  'Talbot, without meaning it, had reached the heights of Voltaire.' " (p. 133)


Another outstanding historian who offers some great insights on the ramifications of the claims of papal infallibility is James Carroll. In his monumental work "Constantine's Sword, The Church and the Jews", Carroll shows how Pope Pius IX's anti-modernism, anti-semitism and his famous battle with the German theologian, Dollinger were all intertwined:

"Later, in articles and speeches, especially after Pius IX's campaign against modernism was in full swing, [The leading German Catholic theologian and professor of Church History at the U. of Munich Johann von Dollinger] condemned the ways that the modern errors against which the pope had set the Church were so cavalierly identified with Jews.  Dollinger shrewdly analyzed the long history of Church abuse of Jews, drawing the connection between antisemitism and a Christian pursuit of power.  'The fate of the Jewish people,' he wrote, 'is perhaps the most moving drama in the history of the world.' Reflecting on his own era, Dollinger set himself against the dominant twin motif of Church resistance to revolution defined as Jewish socialism and Church resistance to materialism defined as Jewish greed.
        Dollinger railed against Pius IX's decision in 1867 to raise to sainthood one of sixteenth-century Spain's notorious grand inquisitors, Don Pedro Arbues de Epilae.  According to Kornberg, it was Dollinger's conviction that canonizing the inquisitor 'served the pope's campaign of riding roughshod over liberal Catholics.  The pope was celebrating a man who had sanctioned compulsory baptism of Jews, then inflicted judicial torture to make sure these conversions were sincere.  [ See http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/view.jsp?artid=1725&letter=A ]  Dollinger saw the origins of the Inquisition in a drive to enhance the papacy's `worldly dominion and compulsory power over the lives and property of men. . .  In this sense, the decree on Papal Infallibility was the logical culminating point of the Inquisition' Not surprisingly, given such an attitude, Dollinger openly opposed the Vatican Council's decree on infallibility, and was promptly excommunicated (in 1871) for doing so.  His position, however, was clear.  As Kornberg sums it up, 'Dollinger had linked medieval anti-Jewish hostility to the papacy's coercive temporal and religious dominion as well, thus emphasizing that Jews and liberal Catholics had a common enemy.  Hatred of Jews was nourished by the same survivals of the Middle Ages that had produced the triumphs of Ultramontanism, the Syllabus of Errors (1864) and the decree on Papal Infallibility (1870), namely the belief that `we alone are in possession of the full saving truth,' coupled with a lack of respect for the `right of independent action' of others.'
        One of the things that makes the Dollinger episode another of those all too rare sanctuaries of a better way in this otherwise unrelieved narrative is the fact, as Kornberg puts it, that this German Catholic theologian 'considered nineteenth-century Catholic anti-Jewish hostility no inevitable outcome of Catholic doctrine, but rather the result of Ultramontanism's fortress mentality.  Not `essential' Catholicism, but those who wished to prevent Catholics from being contaminated by modern ideas, had made an unholy alliance with antisemitism.
        In 1881, Dollinger delivered an address to the 'festal meeting' of the Academy of Munich, a major convocation of German Catholic intellectuals.  His subject was 'The Jews in Europe,' and his purpose, as he said at the beginning of his remarks, was 'to show how the skein [of Jew hatred] was gradually twisted which none at the present day can hope to unravel.' But attempt to unravel it he did.  After a long description of the very history we have traced in this book, Dollinger returned to the baseline source of Christian antisemitism:  'The false and repulsive precept that mankind is perpetually called upon to avenge the sins and errors of the forefathers upon the innocent descendants, has ruled the world far too long, and has blotted the countries of Europe with shameful and abominable deeds, from which we turn away in horror.'  As a historian, he had set for himself a purpose I attempt to emulate here, to show 'how History, the guide of life, points to her mirror in which past errors are reflected as warnings against fresh mistakes which may be impending.  ' Little did he know.
        Dollinger was unusual.  Far more than from within the Church, opposition to Pius IX's absolutist claims came from outside, and nowhere more violently than in Germany, where the complaint had nothing to do with the Church's antisemitism." [p.484]


        When the fathers of Vatican I defined the pope's infallibility, they showed a contempt for history, preferring their own fables and fantasies.  As if dogma is able to rise above the stone facts of history.  As if dogma can fashion its own history.  'The very first thing dictators do, ' said Gerald Stern, 'is to efface memory.'  Orwell wrote in Nineteen Eighty-Four, my choice of the most brilliant novel of the 20th century,  'The past was erased, the erasure was forgotten, the lie became truth.'

        Popes are experts in doublethink, the ability to hold two contradictory beliefs in one's mind simultaneously.  In this case, the past is what they say it is.  This is because they have changed their minds about it and forgotten that they have.  As Orwell put it, 'The past is whatever the Party (Church) chooses to make it.  It also follows that though the past is alterable, it never has been altered in any specific instance … this new version is the past, and no different past can ever have existed … At all times the Party (Church) is in possession of absolute truth, and clearly the absolute can never have been different from what it is now … And if it is necessary to rearrange one's memories or to tamper with written records, then it is necessary to forget that one has done so.'
        No wonder that Gary Wills entitled his book on the papacy Papal Sin: Structures of Deceit.


        There are Catholics for whom reason is of no avail, because their idea of "faith" is to believe in spite of human reason and logic, as epitomized by this quote from the very scholarly defender of the papacy, Robert Bellarmine,

        In 1931, Pope Pius XI, Cardinal of the Society of Jesus, Robert Bellarmine, a Saint and a "Doctor of the Universal Church", saying about him :

"God in his great providence has from the beginnings of Christ's Church even up to more recent times continually raised up men distinguished by learning and holiness to defend and illuminate the truths of the Catholic faith and opportunely to repair the damage inflicted by heretics on those same Christian truths. Among these men [i.e. distinguished by learning and holiness], Saint Robert Bellarmine, Cardinal of the Roman Church, of the Society of Jesus, is without the slightest doubt to be counted. Even from the days of his most holy death he was called “an outstanding man, a distinguished theologian, an ardent defender of the faith, the hammer of heretics” and he was also declared to be “as pious, prudent and humble, as he was generous to the poor”.

Among the gems this "Doctor of the Universal Church" taught are the following:

  • whatever the pope commands, however evil or ridiculous, has to be obeyed, as if it is virtue itself.  Whatever the pope does, even when he deposes an emperor ( or Prime Minister or President ?)  on the most frivolous pretext, has to be accepted by Catholics who henceforward have to obey the pope and not the emperor."
  • Pages 217 through 219 of the book, Vicars of Christ, shows how Cardinal Bellarmine explained how he advised Pope Sixtus' successor to publish blattant lies when a new version of the Bible which Sixtus had personally translated, to correct the many serious mistakes he had made in it.  In order to preserve the undeserved "honor of Pope Sixtus", he gave this sage and holy advice, which the pope followed.  "This result could be achieved by removing inadvisable changes (i.e. errors made by the pope) as quickly as possible, and then issuing the volume with Sixtus' name upon it, and a preface stating that owing to haste some errors had crept into the first edition through the fault of printers and other persons (rather than their true author, Pope Sixtus).

  • Although Galileo considered Bellarmine a friend and the Catholic clergyman most likely to appreciate his discoveries, he was devasted to learn that , according to this "Doctor of the Universal Church", when the Fathers and all modern scripture scholars analyse the relevant Bible passages, all agree in interpreting them literally as teaching that the sun is in the heavens and revolves around the Earth with immense speed and the Earth is very distant from the heavens, at the centre of the universe, and motionless.  Consider, then, in your prudence, whether the Church can tolerate that the Scriptures should be interpreted in a manner contrary to that of the holy Fathers and of all modern commentators, both Latin and Greek . . .  Scripture says, `The sun also riseth and the sun goeth down'.
            Old Bellarmine was a good and wise man.  How could he take so childish a view of the Old Testament?  His Eminence went on to say that anyone, simply by consulting his senses, could know for sure that the earth is motionless. . .  Great theologian he might be, but Bellarmine was as clueless about astronomy as those people who seriously said that if the earth moved round the sun all the towers in Italy would fall down.  `Their senses told them' everything in the universe was moving except the earth!"  {p. 225}

"John XXII proved to be a prophet.  From 1870 on, popes were all past-masters; they always looked backwards, engaging in theological necromancy.  In 1968, for example, Paul VI felt he had to ban contraception because, he thought, his predecessors had banned it and permitted the safe period.  He was right on the first point, completely wrong on the second.  His Humanae Vitae did more harm than all the Inquisitors together.  It's a document with as much blood on as Mein Kampf.  He certainly did his best to make sure the poor are always with us.  How much better if Paul VI had simply misbehaved like Alexander Borgia and left the Church alone.
        Popes are the chief victims of the debilitating myth of orthodoxy.  It has made them almost totally irrelevant in a fast-changing world.  They can't face the future because of their terror of contradicting the past."

Most of the material on this page came from
"Vicars of Christ : the Dark Side of the Papacy"
by Peter De Rosa.

In 1964 Pope Paul VI created the Papal Commission on Population and Birth Control which met from 1964 to 1966. It was a two-part commission. One consisted of 64 lay persons, the other 15 clerics, including Pope John Paul II, then a Polish Cardinal. Pope Paul gave the Commission only one mission, to determine on how the Church can change its position on birth control without undermining Papal Authority. After two years of study, the Commission concluded that it was not possible to make this change without undermining Papal Authority, but that the Church should make this change anyway because it was the right thing to do. The lay members voted 60 to 4 for change, and the clerics 9 to 6 for change. We know this because one or more of the Commission members released the details without permission to an Italian newspaper and a French newspaper.
        Pope Paul did not act immediately on the Commission's report. A minority report was prepared, co-authored by the man who is now Pope John Paul II, which observed:

        "If it should be declared that contraception is not evil in itself, then we should have to concede frankly that the Holy Spirit had been on the side of the Protestant churches

  • in 1930 (when the encyclical Casti Connubii was promulgated),
  • in 1951 (Pius XII's address to the midwives, and
  • in 1958 (the address delivered before the Society of Hematologists in the year the pope died).
  • It should likewise have to be admitted that for a half century the Spirit failed to protect Pius XI, Pius XII, and a large part of the Catholic hierarchy from a very serious error."

"This would mean that the leaders of the Church, acting with extreme imprudence, had condemned thousands of innocent human acts, forbidding, under pain of eternal damnation, a practice which would now be sanctioned. The fact can neither be denied nor ignored that these same acts would now be declared licit on the grounds of principles cited by the Protestants, which popes and bishops have either condemned or at least not approved."
        (Translation: "If anybody thinks that we are going to admit being dead wrong for so long, they are crazy!")


        There's so much to be said about the recent long-lived pope John Paul, that we devote an entire page to him at John Paul II, victim of papal infallibility.

When confronted with problems with the idea of papal infallibility, Catholic apologists often claim that popes and/or the church rarely claim infallibility. Here is evidence to the contrary from the current pope, Benedict XVI, in his prior position as chief representative of the faith:
        In October 1995, the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued a letter signed by its then Prefect, Cardinal Ratzinger. In the letter, Cardinal Ratzinger amplified, explained and defended papal arguments against the ordination of women by stressing the constancy of the Church’s tradition and teachings on the subject from the very beginning of Christianity. Cardinal Ratzinger explained that while John Paul II did not invoke papal infallibility, his ban on the ordination of women should nevertheless be considered as infallible because it is based on the infallibility of the “ordinary magisterium” of all the bishops agreeing with a particular Church teaching."

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