Faith of Our Fathers, Chapter 11 – Infallibility of the Popes

photograph of Cardinal James Gibbons taken no later than 1915, location and photographer unknown; swiped from Wikimedia CommonsAs the doctrine of Papal Infallibility is strangely misapprehended by our separated brethren, because it is grievously misrepresented by those who profess to be enlightened ministers of the Gospel, I shall begin by stating what Infallibility does not mean, and shall then explain what it really is.

First – The infallibility of the Popes does not signify that they are inspired. The Apostles were endowed with the gift of inspiration, and we accept their writings as the revealed Word of God.

No Catholic, on the contrary, claims that the Pope is inspired or endowed with Divine revelation properly so called.

“For the Holy Spirit was not promised to the successors of Peter in order that they might spread abroad new doctrine which He reveals, but that, under His assistance, they might guard inviolably, and with fidelity explain, the revelation or deposit of faith handed down by the Apostles.”

Second – Infallibility does not mean that the Pope is impeccable or specially exempt from liability to sin. The Popes have been, indeed, with few exceptions, men of virtuous lives. Many of them are honored as martyrs. Seventy-nine out of the two hundred and fifty-nine that sat on the chair of Peter are invoked upon our altars as saints eminent for their holiness.

The avowed enemies of the Church charge only five or six Popes with immorality. Thus, even admitting the truth of the accusations brought against them, we have forty-three virtuous to one bad Pope, while there was a Judas Iscariot among the twelve Apostles.

But although a vast majority of the Sovereign Pontiffs should have been so unfortunate as to lead vicious lives, this circumstance would not of itself impair the validity of their prerogatives, which are given not for the preservation of their morals, but for the guidance of their judgment; for, there was a Balaam among the Prophets, and a Caiphas among the High Priests of the Old Law.

The present illustrious Pontiff is a man of no ordinary sanctity. He has already filled the highest position in the Church for upwards of thirty years, “a spectacle to the world, to angels and to men,” and no man can point out a stain upon his moral character.

And yet Pius IX, like his predecessors, confesses his sins every week. Each morning, at the beginning of Mass, he says at the foot of the altar, “I confess to Almighty God, and to His Saints, that I have sinned exceedingly in thought, word and deed.” And at the Offertory of the Mass he says: “Receive, O Holy Father, almighty, everlasting God, this oblation which I, Thy unworthy servant, offer for my innumerable sins, offences and negligences.”

With these facts before their eyes, I cannot comprehend how ministers of the Gospel betray so much ignorance, or are guilty of so much malice, as to proclaim from their pulpits, which ought to be consecrated to truth, that Infallibility means exemption from sin. I do not see how they can benefit their cause by so flagrant perversions of truth.

Third – Bear in mind, also, that this Divine assistance is guaranteed to the Pope not in his capacity as private teacher, but only in his official capacity, when he judges of faith and morals as Head of the Church. If a Pope, for instance, like Benedict XIV were to write a treatise on Canon Law his book would be as much open to criticism as that of any Doctor of the Church.

Fourth – Finally, the inerrability of the Popes, being restricted to questions of faith and morals, does not extend to the natural sciences, such as astronomy or geology, unless where error is presented under the false name of science, and arrays itself against revealed truth. It does not, therefore, concern itself about the nature and motions of the planets. Nor does it regard purely political questions, such as the form of government a nation ought to adopt, or for what candidates we ought to vote.

The Pope’s Infallibility, therefore, does not in any way trespass on civil authority; for the Pope’s jurisdiction belongs to spiritual matters, while the duty of the State is to provide for the temporal welfare of its subjects.

What, then, is the real doctrine of Infallibility? It simply means that the Pope, as successor of Saint Peter, Prince of the Apostles, by virtue of the promises of Jesus Christ, is preserved from error of judgment when he promulgates to the Church a decision on faith or morals.

The Pope, therefore, be it known, is not the maker of the Divine law; he is only its expounder. He is not the author of revelation, but only its interpreter. All revelation came from God alone through His inspired ministers, and it was complete in the beginning of the Church. The Holy Father has no more authority than you or I to break one iota of the Scripture, and he is equally with us the servant of the Divine law.

In a word, the Sovereign Pontiff is to the Church, though in a more eminent degree, what the Supreme Court is to the United States. We have an instrument called the Constitution of the United States, which is the charter of our civil rights and liberties. If a controversy arise regarding a constitutional clause, the question is referred in the last resort, to the Supreme Court at Washington. The Chief Justice, with his associate judges, examines into the case and then pronounces judgment upon it; and this decision is final, irrevocable and practically infallible.

If there were no such court to settle constitutional questions, the Constitution itself would soon become a dead letter. Every litigant would conscientiously decide the dispute in his own favor and anarchy, separation and civil war would soon follow. But by means of this Supreme Court disputes are ended, and the political union of the States is perpetuated. There would have been no civil war in 1861 had our domestic quarrel been submitted to the legitimate action of our highest court of judicature, instead of being left to the arbitrament of the sword.

The revealed Word of God is the constitution of the Church. This is the Magna Charta of our Christian liberties. The Pope is the official guardian of our religious constitution, as the Chief Justice is the guardian of our civil constitution.

When a dispute arises in the Church regarding the sense of Scripture the subject is referred to the Pope for final adjudication. The Sovereign Pontiff, before deciding the case, gathers around him his venerable colleagues, the Cardinals of the Church; or he calls a council of his associate judges of faith, the Bishops of Christendom; or he has recourse to other lights which the Holy Ghost may suggest to him. Then, after mature and prayerful deliberation, he pronounces judgment and his sentence is final, irrevocable and infallible.

If the Catholic Church were not fortified by this Divinely-established supreme tribunal, she would be broken up, like the sects around her, into a thousand fragments and religious anarchy would soon follow. But by means of this infallible court her marvellous unity is preserved throughout the world. This doctrine is the keystone in the arch of Catholic faith, and, far from arousing opposition, it ought to command the unqualified admiration of every reflecting mind.

These explanations being premised, let us now briefly consider the grounds of the doctrine itself.

The following passages of the Gospel, spoken at different times, were addressed exclusively to Peter: “Thou art Peter; and on this rock I will build My Church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” “I, the Supreme Architect of the universe,” says our Savior, “will establish a Church which is to last till the end of time. I will lay the foundation of this Church so deep and strong on the rock of truth that the winds and storms of error shall not prevail against it. Thou, O Peter, shalt be the foundation of this Church. It shall never fall, because thou shalt never be shaken; and thou shalt never be shaken, because thou shalt rest on Me, the rock of truth.” The Church, of which Peter is the foundation, is declared to be impregnable – that is, proof against error. How can you suppose an immovable edifice built on a tottering foundation? For it is not the building that sustains the foundation, but it is the foundation that supports the building.

“And I will give to thee the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven.” Thou shalt hold the keys of truth with which to open to the faithful the treasures of heavenly science. “Whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound also in Heaven.” The judgment which thou shalt pronounce on earth I will ratify in heaven. Surely the God of Truth is incapable of sanctioning an untruthful judgment.

“Behold, Satan hath desired to have you (My Apostles), that he may sift you as wheat. But I have prayed for thee (Peter) that thy faith fail not; and thou, being once converted, confirm thy brethren.” It is worthy of note that Jesus prays only for Peter. And why for Peter in particular? Because on his shoulders was to rest the burden of the Church. Our Lord prays for two things: First – That the faith of Peter and of his successors might not fail. Second – That Peter would confirm his brethren in the faith, “in order,” as Saint Leo says, “that the strength given by Christ to Peter should descend on the Apostles.”

We know that the prayer of Jesus is always heard. Therefore the faith of Peter will always be firm. He was destined to be the oracle which all were to consult. Hence we always find him the prominent figure among the Apostles, the first to speak, the first to act on every occasion. He was to be the guiding star that was to lead the rest of the faithful in the path of truth. He was to be in the hierarchy of the Church what the sun is in the planetary system – the centre around which all would revolve. And is it not a beautiful spectacle, in harmony with our ideas of God’s providence, to behold in His Church a counterpart of the starry system above us? There every planet moves in obedience to a uniform law, all are regulated by one great luminary. So, in the spiritual order, we see every member of the Church governed by one law, controlled by one voice, and that voice subject to God.

“Feed My lambs; feed My sheep.” Peter is appointed by our Lord the universal shepherd of His flock – of the sheep and of the lambs – that is, shepherd of the Bishops and Priests as well as of the people. The Bishops are shepherds, in reference to their flocks; they are sheep, in reference to the Pope, who is the shepherd of shepherds. The Pope, as shepherd, must feed the flock not with the poison of error, but with the healthy food of sound doctrine; for he is not a shepherd, but a hireling, who administers pernicious food to his flock.

Among the General Councils of the Church already held I shall mention only three, as the acts of these Councils are amply sufficient to vindicate the unerring character of the See of Rome and the Roman Pontiffs. I wish also to call your attention to three facts: First – That none of these Councils were held in Rome; Second – That one of them assembled in the East, viz: in Constantinople; and, Third – That in every one of them the Oriental and the Western Bishops met for the purpose of reunion.

The Eighth General Council, held in Constantinople in 869, contains the following solemn profession of faith: “Salvation primarily depends upon guarding the rule of right faith. And since we cannot pass over the words of our Lord Jesus Christ, who says, ‘Thou art Peter, and on this rock I will build My Church,’ what was said is confirmed by facts, because in the Apostolic See the Catholic religion has always been preserved immaculate, and holy doctrine has been proclaimed. Not wishing, then, to be separated from this faith and doctrine, we hope to merit to be in the one communion which the Apostolic See preaches, in which See is the full and true solidity of the Christian religion.”

This Council clearly declares that immaculate doctrine has always been preserved and preached in the Roman See. But how could this be said of her, if the Roman See ever fell into error, and how could that See be preserved from error, if the Roman Pontiffs presiding over it ever erred in faith?

In the Second General Council of Lyons (1274), the Greek Bishops made the following profession of faith: “The holy Roman Church possesses full primacy and principality over the universal Catholic Church, which primacy, with the plenitude of power, she truly and humbly acknowledges to have received from our Lord Himself, in the person of Blessed Peter, Prince or Head of the Apostles, whose successor the Roman Pontiff is; and as the Roman See, above all others, is bound to defend the truth of faith, so, also, if any questions on faith arise, they ought to be defined by her judgment.”

Here the Council of Lyons avows that the Roman Pontiffs have the power to determine definitely, and without appeal, any questions of faith which may arise in the Church; in other words, the Council acknowledges them to be the supreme and infallible arbiters of faith.

“We define,” says the Council of Florence (1439), at which also were present the Bishops of the Greek and the Latin Church, “we define that the Roman Pontiff is the successor of the Blessed Peter, Prince of the Apostles, and the true Vicar of Christ, the Head of the whole Church, the Father and Doctor of all Christians, and we declare that to him, in the person of Blessed Peter, was given, by Jesus Christ our Savior, full power to feed, rule and govern the universal Church.”

The Pope is here called the true Vicar or representative of Christ in this lower kingdom of His Church militant – that is, the Pope is the organ of our Savior, and speaks His sentiments in faith and morals. But if the Pope erred in faith and morals he would no longer be Christ’s Vicar and true representative. Our minister in England, for instance, would not truly represent our Government if he was not the organ of its sentiments. The Roman Pontiff is called the Head of the whole Church – that is, the visible Head. Now the Church, which is the Body of Christ, is infallible. It is, as Saint Paul says, “without spot or wrinkle, or any such thing.” But how can you suppose an infallible body with a fallible head? How can an erring head conduct a body in the unerring ways of truth and justice?

He is declared by the same Council to be the Father and Doctor of all Christians. How can you expect an unerring family under an erring Father? The Pope is called the universal teacher or doctor. Teacher of what? Of truth, not of error. Error is to the mind what poison is to the body. You do not call poison food; neither can you call error doctrine. The Pope, as universal teacher, must always give to the faithful not the poisonous food of error, but the sound aliment of pure doctrine.

In fine, the Pope is also styled the Chief Pilot of the Church. It was not without a mysterious significance that our Lord entered Peter’s bark instead of that of any of the other Apostles. This bark, our Lord has pledged Himself, shall never sink nor depart from her true course. How can you imagine a stormproof, never-varying bark under the charge of a fallible Pilot?

But did not the Vatican Council in promulgating the definition of Papal Infallibility in 1870, create a new doctrine of revelation? And did not the Church thereby forfeit her glorious distinction of being always unchangeable in her teaching?

The Council did not create a new creed, but rather confirmed the old one. It formulated into an article of faith a truth which in every age had been accepted by the Catholic world because it had been implicitly contained in the deposit of revelation.

I may illustrate this point by referring again to our Supreme Court. When the Chief Justice, with his colleagues, decides a constitutional question, his decision, though presented in a new shape, cannot be called a new doctrine, because it is based on the letter and spirit of the Constitution.

In like manner, when the Church issues a new dogma of faith, that decree is nothing more than a new form of expressing an old doctrine, because the decision must be drawn from the revealed Word of God.

The course pursued by the Church, regarding the infallibility of the Pope was practiced by her in reference to the Divinity of Jesus Christ. Our Savior was acknowledged to be God from the beginning of the Church. Yet His Divinity was not formally defined till the Council of Nicaea in the fourth century, and it would not have been defined even then had it not been denied by Arius. And who will have the presumption to say that the belief in the Divinity of our Lord had its origin in the fourth century?

The following has always been the practice prevailing in the Church of God from the beginning of her history. Whenever Bishops or National Councils promulgated doctrines or condemned errors they always transmitted their decrees to Rome for confirmation or rejection. What Rome approved, the universal Church approved; what Rome condemned, the Church condemned.

Thus, in the third century, Pope Saint Stephen reverses the decision of Saint Cyprian, of Carthage, and of a council of African bishops regarding a question of baptism.

Pope Saint Innocent I, in the fifth century, condemns the Pelagian heresy, in reference to which Saint Augustine wrote this memorable sentence: “The acts of two councils were sent to the Apostolic See, whence an answer was returned. The question is ended. Would to God that the error also had ceased.”

In the fourteenth century Gregory XI condemns the heresy of Wycliffe.

Pope Leo X, in the sixteenth, anathematizes Luther.

Innocent X, in the seventeenth, at the solicitation of the French Episcopate, condemns the subtle errors of the Jansenists, and in the nineteenth century Pius IX promulgates the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception.

Here we find the Popes in various ages condemning heresies and proclaiming doctrines of faith; and they could not in a stronger manner assert their infallibility than by so defining doctrines of faith and condemning errors. We also behold the Church of Christendom ever saying Amen to the decisions of the Bishops of Rome. Hence it is evident that, in every age, the Church recognized the Popes as infallible teachers.

Every independent government must have a supreme tribunal regularly sitting to interpret its laws, and to decide cases of controversy likely to arise. Thus we have in Washington the Supreme Court of the United States.

Now the Catholic Church is a complete and independent organization, as complete in its spiritual sphere as the United States Government is in the temporal order. The Church has its own laws, its own autonomy and government.

The Church, therefore, like civil powers, must have a permanent and stationary supreme tribunal to interpret its laws and to determine cases of religious controversy.

What constitutes this permanent supreme court of the Church? Does it consist of the Bishops assembled in General Council? No; because this is not an ordinary but an extraordinary tribunal which meets, on an average, only once in a hundred years.

Is it composed of the Bishops scattered throughout the world? By no means, because it would be impracticable to consult all the Bishops of Christendom upon every issue that might arise in the Church. The poison of error would easily spread through the body of the Church before a decision could be rendered by the Prelates dispersed throughout the globe. The Pope, then, as Head of the Catholic Church, constitutes, with just reason, this supreme tribunal.

And as the office of the Church is to guide men into all truth, and to preserve them from all error, it follows that he who is appointed to watch over the constitution of the Church must be infallible, or exempt from error in his official capacity as judge of faith and morals. The prerogatives of the Pope must be commensurate with the nature of the constitution which he has to uphold. The constitution is Divine and must have a Divinely protected interpreter.

But you will tell me that infallibility is too great a prerogative to be conferred on man. I answer: Has not God, in former times, clothed His Apostles with powers far more exalted? They were endowed with the gifts of working miracles, of prophecy and inspiration; they were the mouth-piece communicating God’s revelation, of which the Popes are merely the custodians. If God could make man the organ of His revealed Word, is it impossible for Him to make man its infallible guardian and interpreter? For, surely, greater is the Apostle who gives us the inspired Word than the Pope who preserves it from error.

If, indeed, our Saviour had visibly remained among us, no interpreter would be needed, since He would explain His Gospel to us; but as He withdrew His visible presence from us, it was eminently reasonable that He should designate someone to expound for us the meaning of His Word.

A Protestant Bishop, in the course of a sermon against Papal Infallibility, recently used the following language: “For my part, I have an infallible Bible, and this is the only infallibility that I require.” This assertion, though plausible at first sight, cannot for a moment stand the test of sound criticism.

Let us see, sir, whether an infallible Bible is sufficient for you. Either you are infallibly certain that your interpretation of the Bible is correct or you are not.

If you are infallibly certain, then you assert for yourself, and of course for every reader of the Scripture, a personal infallibility which you deny to the Pope, and which we claim only for him. You make every man his own Pope.

If you are not infallibly certain that you understand the true meaning of the whole Bible – and this is a privilege you do not claim – then, I ask, of what use to you is the objective infallibility of the Bible without an infallible interpreter?

If God, as you assert, has left no infallible interpreter of His Word, do you not virtually accuse Him of acting unreasonably? for would it not be most unreasonable in Him to have revealed His truth to man without leaving him a means of ascertaining its precise import?

Do you not reduce God’s word to a bundle of contradictions, like the leaves of the Sybil, which gave forth answers suited to the wishes of every inquirer?

Of the hundred and more Christian sects now existing in this country, does not each take the Bible as its standard of authority, and does not each member draw from it a meaning different from that of his neighbor? Now, in the mind of God the Scriptures can have but one meaning. Is not this variety of interpretations the bitter fruit of your principle: “An infallible Bible is enough for me,” and does it not proclaim the absolute necessity of some authorized and unerring interpreter? You tell me to drink of the water of life; but of what use is this water to my parched lips, since you acknowledge that it may be poisoned in passing through the medium of your interpretation?

How satisfactory, on the contrary, and how reasonable is the Catholic teaching on this subject!

According to that system, Christ says to every Christian: Here, my child, is the Word of God, and with it I leave you an infallible interpreter, who will expound for you its hidden meaning and make clear all its difficulties.

Here are the waters of eternal life, but I have created a channel that will communicate these waters to you in all their sweetness without sediment of error.

Here is the written Constitution of My Church. But I have appointed over it a Supreme Tribunal, in the person of one “to whom I have given the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven,” who will preserve that Constitution inviolate, and will not permit it to be torn into shreds by the conflicting opinions of men. And thus my children will be one, as I and the Father are one.

– text taken from The Faith of Our Fathers, Being a Plain Exposition and Vindication of the Church Founded by Our Lord Jesus Christ, by Cardinal James Gibbons, Archbishop of Baltimore, 1917