By Quiet George
It has been my contention on this blog that there is but one subject that need be discussed, and that is the primacy and infallibility of the Pope. If one can prove this proposition, all the fullness of the Roman Catholic faith follows. Similarly, if this proposition is disproven, Roman Catholicism cannot stand, and all of its more peculiar doctrines are condemned as without foundation.
I am not so well studied as to think that I am capable of besieging the walls of the Papacy, for they have had a millennium to re-enforce their bulwarks. I myself have not even lived half that long; therefore, who am I to call an assault? However, I do think that I might render a valuable insight which may have some gravity as it pertains to the historicity of the Roman Pontiff’s claim to infallibility.
Allow me to rebuke any form of good style, and to speak briefly and plainly, that all might be said concisely.
1. Point of Contention
It is said among the Papalists that the doctrine of the infallibility of the Pope has inhered in the “ancient and constant faith of the Church, from the beginning of the Christian faith.”
It is this which I desire to contest.
2. That there is no reference among the ancient fathers and martyrs of such infallibility; and neither is there any mention among them of a certain primacy given to the bishop of Rome.
The Papalists often insist that the ancient Church fathers of both the east and the west have always held that the bishop of Rome was infallible concerning his pronouncements on faith and morals, and that he has always held not just a preeminence among equals, but an unrivaled sovereignty, by which it is assumed that the decisions determined unilaterally by the Pope were binding on all other bishops and patriarchs against any inclination or conviction of their own.
However, it is very questionable if they can even put forward a single quote from among the fathers which might give weight to this conviction. Most commonly, a few lonely lines from Augustine are given, wherein he states that “[i]f it were not for the Catholic Church, I would not believe in the sacred scriptures.” And elsewhere, that “Rome has spoken, the matter is settled.”
Neither of these statements of St. Augustine need to be spoken to, for they are both terribly out of context, and, strictly speaking, neither of them speak a word about the infallibility and sovereignty of the Pope. However, in order to keep them away from what I hope will be a more serious discussion, free from such misunderstandings, I will deal with them briefly.
Concerning the first, the blessed bishop’s statement that “[i]f it were not for the Catholic Church, & etc.,” it only need be noted that he speaks here not of the Pope, nor of the Church of Rome, nor of any institution, but rather, as is made clear in the 4th Chapter of his Contra Epistolam Manichaei, of the Church, that is, the body of believers called out of the world by the historic faith attested to by “consent of peoples and nations,” “inaugurated by the miracles (of the apostles),” and “established in the age.” Nothing is said here of Papal authority, only of the authority of the historic and established faith which during his time was known in both the east and the west as “Catholic.”
Concerning the second, that “Rome has spoken, & etc.,” it should first be noted that it is very questionable whether or not St. Augustine ever said this, as it is not found in any of his intact writings. However, if we are to accept it as valid, we should also accept the entire passage wherein it is contained, as well as the context in which it was supposedly written. The passage was pronounced against the Pelagian heresy which had become entrenched in the city of Rome. The teaching was condemned in two North African synods, one in Carthage, the other in Mileve. However, due to the limits of jurisdiction which these synods suffered from, their decisions were not binding on any Christians in Italy in general. Therefore, there being no similar pronouncements offered by Rome herself, Pelagius was free to continue with his heretical teaching. St. Augustine and the North African bishops repeatedly warned the bishop of Rome, Innocent I, of this heresy until, in 417, he acquiesced to the decision of his colleagues and officially condemned Pelagianism within the jurisdiction of the Roman diocese. It was after this that St. Augustine is said to have written, “In this matter, two synods have already sent letters to the apostolic see, and thence rescripts have come back. The matter is settled; if only this heresy would cease!” This was to say “If it was not enough that two foreign synods have condemned you, Pelagius, now your own bishop, from whom you received the sacrament of ordination, condemns you as well. Will you now continue to tell us you are not a heretic, but a teacher of the Orthodox faith, when not only your relatives from afar, but even the father of your own house has rebuked you?”
Now, in order to avoid the flinging about of various de-contextualized quotations and passages from the fathers in order to prove or disprove papal supremacy and infallibility, it is perhaps most judicious to reference only the commentaries given by the great doctors of the Church on those verses which are said to establish this teaching, that is, Matthew 16:18 “… thou art Peter, & etc.” and John 21:15-17 “…feed my sheep, & etc.” If the ancient theologians truly did uphold the Papalist dogmas, it should be very clearly stated within their comments on these passages.
On Matthew 16:17-18, concerning the “rock” of which Christ spoke, Theodore of Mopsuestia writes:
This is not the property of Peter alone, but it came about on behalf of every human being. Having said that his confession is a rock, He stated that upon this rock I will build my Church. This means He will build His Church upon this same confession of faith. For this reason, addressing the one who first confessed him with this title, on account of his confession, He applied to him this authority as well, as something that would become also his, speaking of the common and special good of the Church as pertaining to him alone. It was from this confession, which was going to become the common property of all believers, that He bestowed upon him this name, the rock.
On the 19th verse, Epiphanius the Latin writes in his Interpretation of the Gospels: “For Christ is the rock which is never disturbed or worn away. Therefore Peter gladly received his name from Christ to signify the established and unshaken faith of the Church.”
Jerome writes, in his Commentary on Matthew:
‘For you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church’ He himself have light to the apostles that they might be called the light of the world, and the other designations that were allotted from the Lord. In the same way, to Simon, who believed in Christ the rock, was granted the name Peter. And in accordance with the metaphor of rock, it is rightly said to him: “I will build my Church” upon you.
From all these it becomes obvious that the Fathers understood the “rock” either to be Peter’s faith and confession, as is seen in Theodore, or as Christ, as is seen in Epiphanius and Jerome.
Even St. Augustine, who of all the Church fathers was most partial to the Roman Church, due to their support in suppressing the Pelagian heresy, wrote thusly about Matthew in his Retractationes:
In a passage in this book, I said about the apostle Peter: “On him as on a rock the Church was built”… But I know that very frequently at a later time, I so explained what the Lord said: “Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church,” that it be understood as built upon Him whom Peter confessed saying: “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God,” and so Peter, called after this rock, symbolized the person of the Church which was built upon this rock [Christ], and has received “the keys of the kingdom of heaven.” For, ‘Thou art Peter” and not ‘Thou art the rock was said to him. But “the rock was Christ” in confessing whom, as also the whole Church confesses, Simon was called Peter. But let the reader decide which of these two opinions is the more probable.
Here we see that Augustine himself, who was never bereft of affection for the see of Rome, gradually abandoned his first opinion, claiming that Peter was the rock, and took up the opinion that Christ was the rock, and that Peter was only thus named that he might become a personalized and living memory of his own confession and of the establishment of the Church, just as when God in the Old Testament would often give to his chosen new names and titles. Though it is evident in the passage that Augustine prefers his latter interpretation, he does not believe either interpretation to be one of great importance, but rather speaks of them both as “opinions” that the reader could freely choose between according his own reason. Therefore, it is evident that St. Augustine saw nothing of great gravity depending on this passage; definitely nothing as weighty as the infallible authority and unquestionable supremacy of the bishop of Rome.
To briefly touch on John 21:15-17, St Augustine writes extensively on the passage beginning with “Do you love me?” in his 123rd Tractate on the Gospel of John. I will not quote it, as it would be much too long. However, let it be known that nowhere does he seem to imply that Christ’s command to “feed my sheep” applies only to Peter. Rather, Augustine explicitly states over and over that his command was given to all the Apostles equally, and therefore to all their successors, the priests and bishops of the Church. All other Church fathers, as far as my knowledge extends, agree with this, for none of them conceive of Christ’s commands to Peter as ever being solely applicable to Peter.
Now, it will be said by some that the only reason the fathers spoke so sparsely, if at all, on the doctrine of the Pope is because it was so readily assumed by one and all. However, not only is this silly (as, by such logic, one could prove nearly anything) but also unfounded, as the fathers often reaffirm over and over the most basic tenants of faith, from creation to the pre-existence and incarnation of Jesus to the virginity of Mary. Is it to be believed that the primacy of Peter is more fundamental to the Christian religion than Christ?
Let it be also noted that the ancients believed that it was possible for the bishop of Rome to err, even terribly. Pope Honorius I upheld the belief of the monothelites during the 7th century. He was posthumously condemned as a heretic by the Third Council of Constantinople. Similarly, the Liber Pontificalis speaks of Pope Anastasius II as condoning heresy, and so writes that concerning his untimely death, “Anastasius, hated by God, was smitten by divine command.” The ancients similarly viewed him as a false teacher and a heretic. Such is the witness of the true antiquity concerning the ability of the Popes to teach falsely.
3. That the Roman Canonists Repudiate any notion of Papal Infallability.
Having dealt with the witness of the fathers concerning the position of the Pope, let us continue into the middle ages and deal with what are known as the Canonists or Decretists of the 12th and 13th Centuries.
The Decretum of Gratian was a collection of canon law which, along with several other documents, comprised the Corpus Iuris Canonici, the authoritative compendium of canon law for the Roman Catholic Church until 1917. It is by no means an unimportant document, but arguably, is a document of such eminence that it overshadows even the bulls of Popes and pronouncement of councils. By the middle ages, a slew of theologians and canon lawyers had arisen within the Roman hierarchy to interpret the distinctions of the Decretum and discern its casuistry. These scholars became known as the Canonists. From among their ranks arose not only many great theologians, but also several popes. Therefore, neither they, nor their works, nor the work upon which they commented should be quickly cast away.
Concerning the authority of Roman Pontiffs, and of the structure of authorities in general, Huguccio writes, “The writings of the Old and New Testaments hold first place; canons of the apostles and councils second; decrees and decretal letters of the Roman pontiffs third; writings from the Greek fathers fourth; of the Latin fathers fifth; the example of the saints sixth.” Here it is evident that the Pope, far from being supreme and infallible, is quite subject both to the Scriptures and to the Councils of the Church.
Huguccio again writes concerning Luke 22:32, “That your faith shall not fail us understood to mean finally and irrecoverably for, although it failed for a time, afterward he was made more faithful. Or in the person of Peter the Church is understood, in the faith of Peter the faith of the universal Church which has never failed as a whole nor shall fail down to the day of judgment.” In this statement, the Canonist puts forward the belief common to the decretists, that, even though the Church might often err, and that even the Popes may often err, the faith of the Church as a whole shall always be preserved, which is to say, that the Church will never as a whole fall away. This understanding will become more clear as we go.
Huguccio again writes, concerning Matt 16:18 “Vices and mortal sin shall never prevail so that there are no good persons in the Church, whence Christ said to Peter, as a symbol of the Church ‘I have prayed for you Peter that your faith shall not fail…’ or ‘the gates of hell means heresies and schisms which shall likewise never prevail against the Church as to completely pollute it.’” Here, Christ’s commendations to Peter are shown to apply to the whole Church. Furthermore, it is shown that Peter was a “symbol” of the Church, and was not its supreme magistrate and minister.
Johannes Teutonicus writes, concerning Luke 22:32, in reference to the 19th distinction of Gratian, “That your faith shall not fail, that is, the faith of the Church which is your faith, for the Church has never failed because it existed even at the Lord’s death at least in the Blessed Virgin. The Church can be small; it can never be nothing.” Again, Christ’s words here are given not to Peter, but to the Church, that is, to those who believe. This Church may be small, even so small as to exclude Peter, as in implied in this text; however, as it is written, “a remnant shall remain.”
This belief that the Church as a whole could never entirely apostatize is complemented among the Canonists with their universal belief that the Popes themselves were human and could err on issues of faith and morals, as it is written again in Huguccio:
The apostolic Church has never erred. There is an objection concerning Anastasius (this is in reference to the common belief among the Canonists and medieval Christians that Pope Anastasius II had deeply erred by accepting monophysitism, as mentioned before). But perhaps this pope came earlier. Or perhaps, and this is better, he speaks of the faith of the universal Church which has never erred. For although the Roman pope has sometimes erred this does not mean that the Roman Church has, which is understood to be not he alone, but all the faithful, for the Church is the aggregate of the faithful; if it does not exist at Rome, it exists in the regions of Gaul or wherever the faithful are.
Here, then, we see that not only is it explicitly stated that the pope could err, but also that the Church is not tied to Rome, but could exist both outside of Rome, and outside of the apostolic see of Rome.
This belief is compounded by the statements of the canonist Laurentius, who wrote, “Although the pope, who can be judged for heresy, has erred, the Roman or Catholic Church which is understood as the congregation of catholic Christians has not erred.” And also of the canonist Alanus, who wrote, “Even though the pope erred, the faith endured in the Church which is the congregation of those who believe the universal faith.”
Speaking directly on the subject, Johannes Teutonicus writes, “I ask of what Church is it said here that it cannot err? It is certain that the pope can err, as in Dist. 19 Anastasius and Dist. 40 Si papa. I answer: the congregation of the faithful is here called the Church, and such a Church cannot be [in error] for the Lord himself prayer for the Church, Dist. 21: ‘I have prayed for thee.’”
Now, by the middle ages, the notion of papal primacy had already become firmly established. However, the canonists and theologians of the earlier half of the middle ages did not understand this doctrine as it is now. Within the concept of papal primacy, neither infallibility or irreformability were contained. Rather, it meant that, in disputes, the pope was the “highest court.” However, his decisions could be wrong, and could be overturned by future popes, or, as the Concialiarists would have it, by a Church council.
Concerning whether or not the Pope’s exegesis on the scriptures or his dogmatic declarations were binding and completely authoritative, the Canonists of the middle ages answered in the negative, as is obvious from Gratian himself, the author of the authorized Canon Law of the Roman Church previously stated, when he wrote, “It is clear that the expositors of divine Scripture, even if they excel the pontiffs in knowledge have not attained to the apex of their dignity. Therefore, in expositions of sacred Scripture, they are to be preferred to the pontiffs; in decided cases, they are to be placed after them.” The Pope was the highest judge, not the highest teacher.
Concerning the authority of the Pope as related to the Church council, Johannes Teutonicus writes in his extremely influential glossa ordinaria: “It seems that the pope is bound to require a council of bishops, which is true where a matter of faith is concerned, and then a council is greater than a pope.”
Again, Gratian writes in Summa Elegantius, “Among universal councils there are eight outstanding ones and, of these, four have superlative authority. These the Roman Church cannot change or mutilate by one iota.”
Both Gratian and Teutonicus are here approved of by Rufinus who wrote that the ancient canons and beliefs of the Church held authority over those of the popes and more recent councils because they were established by an ancient and “universal consensus,” that they “were more potent because more ancient,” and that the “statutes of the ancient and venerable Fathers” were inviolable. This is all to say that the Canonistic consensus was that only those doctrines and canons were binding which boasted a universal consent not only through space, but also through time, and that no group of currently existing prelates had the authority to change, modify, or add to this.
Concerning the authority of the popes, and their ability to err, Alanus writes, “It is argued that in matters of faith a council is greater than a pope, and this is to be held firmly. It is for this reason that a council can judge and condemn him, and so it happens that he incurs excommunication decreed for heresy in a council.” And elsewhere, “It is true that for the one crime of heresy a pope can be judged even against his own will… he is less than a college of cardinals or a general council of bishops.” Here is it obvious that the Canonist believed that not only was the Pope’s authority secondary, but also that he could err and be excommunicated by his peers for heresy.
Concerning the Pope’s authority to overturn or abrogate previous papal decrees, the Canonists replied that this was always to be allowed, for “an equal can not rule over and equal” and “the popes may sometimes err.” It is written in the Summa Parisiensis, “The eight councils are to be preserved inviolate. But, as regards other writings of his predecessors, the Lord pope can dispense, derogate, and abrogate.”
4. Concerning the origin of the doctrine of Papal Infallibility.
It should now be asked by any honest man, “If even the medieval canonists did not hold to the doctrine of infallibility and primacy as it is today understood, whence did such a doctrine arise?” The answer is rather complicated; however, I will attempt to summarize it as quickly as possible.
A belief arose during the 13th century known as Joachimism, which professed that St. Francis was not just a holy man, but indeed “the angel” of the sixth seal spoken of in Revelation which would usher in a new age, associated with the opening of the seal of the scroll by the Lamb. This belief, which became established within the Franciscan order, held that the message of St. Francis of Assisi was nothing less than a divine revelation, and that it was to be held as equal to the words of the Scriptures. Particularly, they sought to assert the divine origin of St. Francis’ doctrine of “complete poverty,” wherein he taught that Christ and the apostles neither owned anything, nor used anything of another’s beyond that which was absolutely essential to sustain life; and that no man could be called good or Christian who did not do likewise. Though this belief was by any standard rather eccentric, it found a sympathizer and protector in the person of Pope Nicholas III. In 1279, he wrote the bull Exiit qui seminat which unapologetically exclaimed that the way of life taught by the Franciscans was not only followed by Christ and the apostles, but was divinely ordained for all people; and that no one was to be considered as a full follower of evangelical ethics unless he dispossessed all he owned and lived in absolute poverty.
With this said, the Franciscan revelation became an official doctrine of the Church. However, fear arose among the Order that, since papal bulls could be overturned by future pontiffs as was affirmed by canon law, the existence of Exiit did not assure the future of their Order and belief. Therefore an effort arose, starting with Bonaventure to elevate the authority of the papal declarations to that of the Scriptures, that their “charter” Exiit might forever be protected. Pietro Olivi, a Franciscan a generation later than Bonaventure, became deeply assured that since St. Francis had ushered in the last age of man, the anti-Christ was sure to be coming soon. He also became assured that the anti-Christ would take the form of none other than the Pope, for only the Pope would have the authority to war against the evangelical revelation given to St. Francis by overturning Exiit. Herein we find the origin of the belief which would later be taken up by Luther, that the anti-Christ would sit in the seat of the Papacy. Pietro Olivi began to formulate and popularize within his order a strong understanding of Papal Infallibility, similar to what one might see in the Catechism today. Primarily he argued that Papal teachings were infallible, and therefore irreformable, for if they were without fault, they could not be changed, for to change perfection would be to create an imperfection. By pushing such a doctrine, future popes would be bound by the decisions and decrees of previous popes, and therefore their power to innovate would be limited, and so Exiit would be considered eternally binding and safe. In this way, Olivi hoped to protect his order against the imminent anti-Christ.
Though this doctrine became nearly universally accepted within the Franciscan order, it was heavily contested outside of it, especially among the secular theologians and particularly by the Papal theologians, who desired more the freedom of the current pope to that of the popes of the past.
Here lies the origin of Papal Infallibility. It would be greatly debated, denied, revived and eventually established as the centuries wore on. However, what we can find in this narrative is that the doctrine arose at a discrete point in time, and for a discrete purpose; not as an explication of an anciently held dogma, but as a novel belief ushered in by enthusiastic and vision-seeing monks.
5. That such a belief was utterly condemned by none other than Pope John XXII.
There arose a pope by the name of John XXII who, having grown tired of the strange practices and condemning tone of the Franciscans, wished to revoke the privileges once bestowed upon them by Pope Nicholas III. However, as long as the belief that previous papal decrees were irreformable was current and left un-condemned, he would be unable to take such an action. Therefore, in 1324, he released a the Bull Quia Quorundam in which he wrote that “the father of lies” had disseminated among the Franciscans the belief that “what the Roman pontiffs have once defined in faith and morals with the key of knowledge stands so immutably that it is not permitted to a successor to revoke it.” Not only here did John XXII explicitly repudiate all that was written within Exiit, but he further denied Papal Infallibility, and so retained his own right to abrogate previous Papal declarations and bulls. He goes on to write, “‘[the belief that] it is not licit of their successors to call again into question those things which were defined once for all by the key of knowledge in faith and morals by the Supreme Pontiffs, although it is otherwise,’ so they say, ‘in regards to those things which have been ordained by the Supreme Pontiffs by the key of power’ it is evidently clear from the following things that this is directly contrary to the truth.” He continues to write that the they keys given to Peter in no way conferred “knowledge” that is, a complete understanding of the truth, but only the ability to bind and loose sins, which were not given to Peter alone, but, as Pope John XXII affirms, “in priestly orders.” That is, ordination.
It is made even more manifest that Pope John XXII denied papal infallibility as noted above by the fact that he was viciously accused of doing so by his Franciscan opponents who charged him with the heresy of believing that, “the supreme pontiff can revoke decrees of his predecessors in matters pertaining of faith and morals” as was said by Michael of Cesena.
Zenzillinus, the official glosser of Pope John XXII, in defense of Quia, wrote that “The pope can make an article of faith only if “article” is understood, not properly, but in a broad sense, as meaning something which is to be believed when previously it was necessary.” Again, he wrote that “things defined by the Roman pontiffs are found to have been changed by the pontiffs themselves or their successors, as in Extra, and De consanguinitate.” In his gloss of Cum inter nonnullus, he wrote, “The faith cannot be proved among men except through Sacred Scriptures.” He, in defense of his Pope, therefore affirmed the principle of sola scriptura, that only the Scriptures be held as a rule for belief, and not the past declarations of popes.
It should be noted that even those Franciscans who believed in Papal Infallibility in reality believed that the Pope could err. However, in erring, he ceased to be pope by rule, and became nothing but an anti-pope, that is, one with all the appearances of a Pope, who sits on the Papal see, but in reality is not by right a true bishop of Rome, but a heretic, as is seen in the writing of Michael of Cesena, “From the very fact that the pope manifestly errs in faith he incurs a sentence of excommunication at once, nor is it necessary to await any other sentence of condemnation.” Such an understanding, that a heretical pope immediately ceased to be a true pope, was extremely common to the canonists, as is seen by the canonical glosses Si romanorum, Contra statuta, Canones di. XV and others. It is exactly this “canonist” view which Luther himself upheld during his own trials against what he believed to be a false anti-pope.
To those who read this, I do hope that you will consider it honestly. For, as my experience has born out, it has become too common for the defenders of the Roman Catholic faith to revert to absurdities and un-falsifiable arguments in order to retain their doctrines against a cloud of witnesses to the contrary. Recall that just because a more pleasant interpretation can be put on something does not mean that it is the case, only that it has the potential to be the case. Just because an inconsistency can be “explained away” does not mean that explanation is true. One must not also fall into the trap of conspiracy theorists, wherein their beliefs are first assumed, and then all the world is made to submit to it. We must not play the game of saying “is there some sort of spin or interpretation what can be put on all these texts and events which might make them reconcilable to my belief?” but rather “What most simply explains the consensus of these fathers, canonists, theologians, and pontiffs that the pope is not supreme, and that the pope can err?”
It is also not good to resort to different distinctions between terms such as those “magisterial” and “non-magisterial” proclamations of the popes, for no such distinction is recognized by the ancient or medieval Church, and furthermore, no such distinction exists in reality in the modern Church, for even Catholic theologians of our day cannot in any way agree on what papal decrees are to be viewed as infallible. There exists no certain definition of what it means to speak ex cathedra, neither, as far as I am aware, does there exist any certain list of those infallible statements of pontiffs. Rather what is to be viewed as fallible and infallible, as magisterial and non-magisterial is entirely a game of interpretation by those who are in theological power presently. Therefore, such terminologies are empty, and should not be relied upon.
All things, even our most dearly held beliefs, must not be held as of infinite value in and of themselves, but only of value insofar as they accord with what is true and what is good. It is a godless thing to defend dogmas against the witness of Christ, His apostles, and His Church, even if such a dogma is tenderly held as an ancient tradition. Therefore, it should be heard by us all what St. John once wrote:
“Little children, keep yourselves from idols.”