Infallibility and Tradition, by Monsignor Robert Hugh Benson, M.A.

[This paper was read in May, 1907, before the Society of Saint Thomas of Canterbury – an organization of Anglican clergy for the purpose of studying the history of Western Christendom. A few phrases only have been altered to render the paper more suitable for publication. – R. H. B.]

It has been very well observed that there is no such thing as an impartial historian. Every man who sets out to trace the development of life, whether in politics, religion, or art, is bound to do so with some theory in his mind. The word “progress” is meaningless unless there is to the mind of him who uses it some ideal standard or goal to which his idea of progress is related.

We may express this truth in slightly different language by saying that, strictly speaking, all historical argument must be deductive. It is impossible for us to approach incidents or records without a bias of some kind; we cannot, literally speaking, read the simplest statement without bringing to its interpretation our own sense of eternal fitness, without judging it, even though unconsciously, by some standard of right which we acknowledge as supreme. The historian, or the theologian, who is most nearly impartial is not he who has no view, but he who is aware of other views, and can give them due consideration.

I begin, therefore, at the outset of this paper, by confessing that I approach the subject in this spirit. It is not my intention to pretend, even to myself, that I am wholly impartial; but this does not necessarily involve a petitio principii. It will be my aim to put forward a thesis, to come, as it were, to the complicated wards of ecclesiastical politics with a key in my hand, which, I have reason to believe, will be found to fit them. It is in no sense a key of my own manufacture; I do not pretend to the slightest originality. It is only my belief that the Hand that made the wards made also the key, and designed them one for the other. If I had any other belief than this I should not dare to put it forward at all.

Next, as a matter of preface, I wish to say that I shall attempt to follow in this paper a suggestion made to me by one who proposed that it should be written. He said that the line he had thought of was one that followed some words of Schanz, to the effect that it was impossible to understand the dogma of Infallibility without first understanding what was meant by the development of the Church’s life. I have, accordingly, attempted to compose this paper on these lines, and to treat of Tradition, strictly so called, comparatively slightly, as being a kind of running comment made by history upon the development of that life.


Before approaching the subject directly it is necessary to say a word or two as to what we conceive to be the general nature of the Catholic Church. There are innumerable images and metaphors used of her in the Scriptures and the Fathers, but perhaps the most usual as well as the most comprehensive is that phrase in which we speak of her as the Mystical Body of Christ on earth; and it is a remarkable fact that recent science gives a significance to this phrase which was certainly not explicit to the minds of those who first used it – I mean the scientific facts that an organic body consists of cells which themselves have a certain independent existence, although that existence, normally speaking, is obscured by the greater unity in which it is merged; and next, that the unity of all the cells together is an inexplicable and transcendent unity dependent on a principle of which science can give us no adequate account. That the independent existence of the cells is a fact, and not merely an idea, is illustrated by the phenomena that follow dissolution. The body dies, as we say, at a certain moment; the unity is dissolved, but the cells yet retain, for a certain period, each its own vitality. The application of this image to the Body of Christ, illustrating as it does the principle of life, which makes her one and lifts her into a mysterious identity with the life of Christ, is sufficiently suggestive to need no comment on this occasion.

The Church, then, as we conceive of it, is an organic whole. (I am not dealing here with the larger sense in which the word “Church” is used as denoting that greater body which includes the departed, but only with that, itself frequently employed in the Scriptures, which signifies the company of those still on earth who are united by grace with one another in some sort of external communion and with Christ their head.) It is an organic whole, therefore – for if it is not in a real sense organic, the word loses all meaning – consisting of human persons upon earth lifted by virtue of grace to an unity one with another into something that transcends the vitality of each. They are lifted, that is, into a kind of transcendent personality which is, in a sense, identical with that of Christ. “I am the vine, ye are the branches,” said our Lord. “We have the mind of Christ,” echoes Saint Paul. It is in this sense only that we give what is strictly divine faith to the decisions of the Church – in whatever sense we may understand her constitution – we bow to her as we bow to God, not merely because she is His vicegerent, but because in a real sense she is Himself in terms of human nature. It may be that our theories of her constitution lead us to believe either that her voice is no longer articulate, or that it is obscured by human passions in these latter days; but in theory at least I take it that all who claim the name of Catholic believe in her essential divinity, and, in some manner, in the identity of her mind, and what I may call her personality, with the mind and personality of Jesus Christ.

Starting with these premisses, then, we notice a number of points which, if we attach any analogical value at all to that image of an organic body of which I have spoken, we are bound, I think, to concede.

1. She may be considered from her two sides, the human and the divine; just as the ordinary human body of a man may be approached by the biologist or the friend. To the one it is but a collection of cells, related one to another and controlled by certain laws; to the other it is a tabernacle of a soul. I say two sides, although as a matter of fact there are a hundred. The artist also has his point of view, the athlete another, the psychologist another. Yet these two sides sufficiently, I think, include them all under two main divisions.

2. But further, if we look into what we mean by the word “consciousness” as applied to a sentient, reflective being, we see that it is of a double nature. There is, first, that ordinary reflective action by which we become aware of this or that; and there is, secondly, that deep inner life which acts automatically and independently of the will. There is that process by which we became aware of the laws of our being and of the world in which we live, and there is that inner process which acts, as in sleep, keeping us in life altogether apart from our conscious volition. Now, very roughly, we may say that these two departments of our nature correspond to the human and the divine lives of the Church – to her active consciousness at any given moment and her divine instinct; and it is no argumemt against the existence of a law of our being to say that that law has not been always explicitly recognized by our reflective faculties. So long as we find that the law has been acted upon, that it explains phenomena, that it is correlated to other known laws – beyond all, if we find that there have been moments in the past when it has apparently been recognized and deliberately appealed to by our direct consciousness, we need find no difficulty in the fact that that consciousness has not been always explicit and continuous.

3. Approaching now more closely to the direct subject under consideration, we may notice, before we come to closer quarters, first that infallibility in some sense may well be one of such laws, fundamental and essential, yet not always explicitly recognized by every one at every moment. For infallibility in its barest sense means no more than this – that the divine consciousness of the Church is related in such manner to the human consciousness that it safeguards it from formulating a statement in contradiction to truth. There is, it is claimed, such a channel open between the mind of Christ and the aggregate of the minds that compose His mystical consciousness, that the former controls and checks the latter. It is not inspiration that is claimed – not a miraculous flooding of the human minds with knowledge beyond that originally deposited in them, but a steady restraint exercised upon them to such a degree that they will never formulate what is actually untrue. More than this is not claimed; less than this would be to evacuate our Lord’s promises of all meaning, as well as to destroy all our confidence in revealed truth. Infallibility, then, as so understood, may well be one such law as those of which I have spoken – a prerogative attached to the whole body of Christ, yet not always as evident as later definitions have made it.

4. In this manner, therefore, we find the reconciliation between such facts as the steady claim that the Church’s doctrine is unchanging, on one side, and that the decree of the Immaculate Conception, on the other, was not proclaimed until the 19th century. It lay there, theologians tell us, revealed from the beginning; it was a part of the depositum stored in that transcendent consciousness which we may call on one side the Mind of Christ, and, in virtue of the identity between them, the Mind of the Church; yet it had not been made explicit in such a sense that there were not many who were unaware of it, even to such a degree as apparently to contradict it, or at least to ignore it when the subject was under discussion. In such a sense as this Pius X has an explicit knowledge which Pius I had not.

So Saint Vincent, in his Commonitorium, writes

“Fitting it is, therefore, that the understanding, knowledge, and wisdom, as well of every man in particular as of all in common; as well of one alone as of the whole Church in general, should, by the advance of ages, abundantly increase and go forward, but yet, for all that, only in its own kind and nature; that is, in the same doctrine, in the same sense, in the same judgement.”

He proceeds then to compare this development to the growth of a man from childhood: –

“If any parts there be,” he writes, “which with the increase of more mature years spring forth, those before were in man virtually planted in manner as the seed, so that no new thing do come forth in old men, which before had not lain hid in them being children” (Common. xxiii.).

This argument is, of course, the backbone of the whole of Newman’s Development. As regards the further question as to whether such increase of knowledge is merely by syllogistic reasoning from premisses originally deposited, or, as Saint Vincent hints, by an actual process of a growth from germs and rudiments, it is unnecessary to speak. Theologians are to be found on either side who lay stress on the one aspect or the other. I say “aspect,” since it is a further point of discussion as to whether there is any real difference between the two theories. Certainly all development does take place by argued reasoning and syllogisms, and never without it; yet the old premisses must always to some extent be developed by new discoveries in other realms than those of revelation, and thereby the conclusions be developed too. However, this is beside our point.

5. We notice that the identity of the aggregate of minds that compose the Church with the actual mind of Christ is conditioned by various points. While in a passive sense the identity is continuous, so that the Church cannot universally and formally hold a doctrine contrary to truth, yet, for the purpose of definition, infallibility is not brought into play except under very narrow and definite limitations. It is only on a certain body of knowledge that infallibility is claimed at all; and this is further limited by other conditions – those, I mean, that belong to the constitution of a Council or the circumstances under which the Pope is held to speak ex cathedra.

6. Lastly, under this first head, we must consider the place of tradition in the life of the Church: and first let us clear our minds of the strange fancy that there is such a thing as traditions binding defide that have never been written down at all. There is, of course, a floating body of opinion – an atmosphere, indeed, rather than opinion – a temper of mind which gives colour and intensity to the doctrines held, but this is not the tradition which the Church calls one of her founts of truth. There is, further, another yet inner atmosphere, called pious opinion, often written down by saints and sages, and embodied, it may be, in the writings of Popes and the arguments of Councils; but this, no more than the temper of mind characteristic of the Church, can be called tradition. Tradition rather is a fixed body of truth scattered through the works of the Fathers and the publications of Councils dealing with definite doctrines and statements, and these are as continuous and unchanging as the doctrines directly contained in Scripture, though subject, like them, and indeed like all knowledge, to a continuous development of expression on the part of the Ecclesia docens, and of apprehension by the Ecclesia discens. The temper of mind and the pious opinions expressed from age to age may and do change their very substance these may be actually faulty, and are often found to be so, even though it is true that, like the serum that forms over a wound, they may be necessary at a given time to the preservation of a vital truth, yet in themselves be transient and temporary. An example of such may be found in the meanings attached to the phrase, Extra ecclesiam nulla salus. There is no doubt that a few centuries ago the common interpretation of these words was that all the unbaptized were literally and inevitably damned. Yet such an interpretation was never formally declared by the Church to be the only one, and in our present days universal consent declares it to be actually false; yet who can doubt that in a less subtle age such a popular interpretation was the only safeguard for the truth that the Church is God’s instrument of salvation, and that he that rejects the Church rejects God.

Tradition, then, is not a fluctuating body of opinion; it is a fixed standard. It is, we may say, not only the dogmatic interpretation of Scripture – that is no more than an unimportant aspect of it – but a positive body of truth contained in itself. It is, in a sentence, the entire revelation of Christianity – it is the whole message committed to the Church by our Lord, while Scripture is but a collection of inspired books, certainly of a peculiar and an unique character, but whose only guarantee is, indeed, tradition. Scripture is a part of tradition rather than tradition an appendix to Scripture. There is, as Mr. Mallock remarks somewhere, a continuous consciousness in the Church. She does not consist of a series of generations, sharply divided by centuries or movements, but she is a kind of person, as I have said, who lives continuously through centuries and movements, remembering the revelation once made to her, and incessantly stating and restating it. Tradition, then, roughly speaking, is her memory of that revelation and of the events that heralded and followed it, and of the deductions drawn from it. Scripture is of course, as Saint Vincent says, “adequate to the full for all its purposes,” i.e., as a record of the events and general outline of considerations of their meaning; it is, as I have said, quite unique and precious to the Church beyond all other writings; yet strictly considered it is no more than an accurate history, though inspired by God, in the hands of its human scribe. Tradition, then, in one sense consists of traditions, definite doctrines handed down. Such doctrines as that the saints are in glory before the resurrection, that they can hear in some manner the prayers of those that address them – these are truths that cannot in any real sense be proved from Scripture, though they may be found there by those who already believe them; rather they are part of that revelation which our Lord committed to His Church at any rate in germinal form. Yet tradition itself in a more real sense is a continuous memory of the whole Gospel. Tradition transcends traditions, as education transcends lessons, as a musician’s knowledge of music transcends the sum of the pieces which he composes and performs.


Having so far cleared the ground, we proceed now to a direct consideration of our subject, viz., the relations of Infallibility and Tradition, and in order to understand these relations it is necessary first to glance at what we may call the history of Infallibility.

1. We are all agreed, I suppose, that “Infallibility,” more or less in the sense in which I have Infallibility and Tradition described it, as being the result of the intimate bond between the mind of Christ and the mind of the Church on its human side, had its birth in certain words of our Lord, as when He said that the Spirit of Truth should guide His Church into all truth, that the gates of hell should not prevail, and that He Himself would be with His disciples always.

Now the infancy of that doctrine may be said to lie in those first ages when the Church acted upon those words rather than defined them further. There is, in the decrees of all early Councils, an assurance and a positiveness that cannot be explained on any other hypothesis than that the Church was at least subconsciously conscious of her own prerogative; the tone of early decrees, the sublime confidence of the creeds, the anathemas attached to them – these are a far surer indication of what she felt than any mere words could be. So, for example, the Council of Nicaea states that “the Catholic and Apostolic Church anathematizes those who say that there was a time when Christ was not” (Sym. Nicoen). So the Council of Chalcedon states that “it is lawful for nobody to put forward, or to write, or to compile, or to think, or to teach” anything other than what has been defined on the subjects in question (Def Fid. apud Concil. Chalc.). There is not the slightest faltering, or loophole for agnosticism on any of such points the Council speaks as one having authority, not as the scribes. There is no reference to the variety of Eastern and Western temperaments, or any hint at “aspects of truth.” Even the rebellion of heretics against the Church bears witness to her claim, for they protest not so much against the authority of the Church as against the authority of this or that particular Council to represent her.

Further, there is not the slightest doubt that the nucleus of the Church lay, at least in some degree, at Rome. “It can . . . be proved,” writes Harnack, “that it was in the Roman Church, which up to about the year 190 was closely connected with that of Asia Minor, that all the elements on which Catholicism is based, first assumed a definite form.” And again, “All these causes combined to convert the Christian communities into a real confederation under the primacy of the Roman Church (and subsequently under the leadership of her bishops)” (Hist. of Dogma, pp. 151, 160). And again in his Expansion of Christianity (vol. i. pp. 464-5) “Down to the age of Constantine, or, at any rate, till the middle of the 3rd century, the centripetal forces in early Christianity were, as a matter of fact, more powerful than the centrifugal. And Rome was the centre of the former tendencies. The Roman Church was the Catholic Church. It was more than the mere symbol and representative of Christian unity, for to it, more than to any other, Christians owed unity itself.”

So then, as time goes on, we see with increasing clearness that this nucleus, of which Harnack speaks, appears to solidify swiftly and strongly. Thus, even in the 2nd century, there came to Rome to seek recognition Valentinus from Egypt, Cerdo and Marcion and Praxeas from Asia Minor, Theodotus and Artemon from Byzantium, Sabellius from Libya, and many others. So, too, in the 4th century, we have on Saint Ambrose’s authority (De Exc. Sat. i. 47) that Saint Satyrus, his brother, being shipwrecked, “asked [the bishop] whether he were in agreement with the Catholic bishop – that is, with the Roman Church.” So, too, Saint Jerome writes of Rufinus, “What does he call his faith? That which the Roman Church possesses or that which is contained in the volumes of Origen? If he answers ‘The Roman,’ it follows that he and they are Catholics.” And of course Saint Augustine is full of remarks to the same effect (Ep. liii. p. 1, &c.).

2. We next notice that this swift localisation takes place at a centre which has other claims to veneration far in excess of any except that of Jerusalem itself. The two apostolic figures which stand out through the first century of ecclesiastical history as dominant and significant, not only identify themselves with that place, but shed their blood there. They are the only two apostles mentioned even by name by the three great apostolic Fathers, Clement, Ignatius, and Polycarp; and further, one of these figures is claimed at an early date to give the sanction of his authority to those who occupy his See. Here again, by what is far more significant than express definition (that is by simple assumption), we see the successor of Saint Peter claiming a right to speak, in an extraordinary degree. Of Saint Clement’s Epistle to the Corinthians, which was read aloud for a while in the Corinthian churches every Sunday, Bishop Lightfoot remarks that it was “the first step towards papal aggression”; and it is impossible indeed to read that epistle without seeing in it a very marked reflection of that supreme confidence and assurance which marks on the one side the apostolical writings of the New Testament, and on the other those of the Bishops of Rome in days when their authority was unquestioned. “If any one should disobey the things spoken by Him through us,” writes Clement, “let them know that they will involve themselves in no light transgression and danger” (chap. lix.). And so, from time to time, up to the days of Leo the Great, we have instance after instance, not only of such actions on the part of the Bishops of Rome, but of statements and acts on the part of saints and Councils implying this “more powerful headship” of which Irenaeus speaks.

Now I am not, so far, in any way claiming that to the Bishop of Rome during these first centuries there was explicitly ascribed that infallibility which was only defined comparatively recently to be a truth revealed by God. Yet that a supreme authority was believed by Leo to be inherent in his See is surely beyond question. Thus he writes “The first of all the Sees . . . the Head . . . that which the Lord appointed to preside over the rest” (Ep. cxxx.). “The care of the universal Church should converge to the one See of Peter, and no part anywhere be at variance with the head” (Ep. xiv.).

And that his claim was acknowledged, at least with sufficient clearness for this argument, is shown by Chalcedon’s words in the deposition of Dioscorus:

“Wherefore the most holy and blessed archbishop of great and elder Rome, Leo, by us and by the present holy synod, together with the thrice blessed and glorious Peter the apostle, who is the rock and base of the Catholic Church, and the foundation of the orthodox faith, has stripped Dioscorus of the episcopal dignity.”

It is surely incredible that such words should be spoken on both sides with such deliberation on such an occasion, were there not present to the consciousness of the speakers a tradition of far more weight and significance than that which earlier documents have actually preserved.

Now, looking upon this question from the point of view of development, is not this process with its consummation exactly in accord with the rest of ecclesiastical history? We began by considering that the phrase, “The Body of Christ,” as applied to the Church, is meaningtess unless we attach to it some real idea of development. By development we said that there was involved a Divine subconsciousness which we called the Mind of Christ, and a human explicit consciousness whose work it is to realize and express the contents of the original revelation; further, we saw that if the word “Infallibility,” as applied to the Church in general, means anything, it must mean that between the mind of Christ and the mind of the Church there must be such a connection that the latter cannot falsify the former. Further, again we saw that the fact that a law, in the constitution of an organic being, is not recognized by the explicit consciousness is no argument against its truth. It must be tested by its results, its power to account for phenomena, and its reasonableness.

Now, if we apply these considerations to any doctrine held by all who claim to be called Catholics – e.g., the Real Presence of our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament, the doctrine of the Blessed Trinity, the Sinlessness of our Lady – we see precisely the same phenomena as those which I have attempted to trace in that of Infallibility. First it is acted upon by the Church in general – the Blessed Sacrament is reserved, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost are worshipped, our Lady is represented as the pure Virgin. Later, these truths are defined. So with this other doctrine during this period which I have called the Infancy of Infallibility, first the Church herself in her Councils assumed a tone of complete and final authority, claiming to speak with the power of God, next the nucleus of the Church’s life lay at Rome, and lastly the Bishop of the Church in that place used to a remarkable and singular degree the tone of assurance which the Councils also used. We may say, I think, that the infallibility of the Church and the authority of the Roman Pontiff must be assumed to have been present, at least to the subconscious mind of Christendom. Personally, I think that much more than this might be said, and far more stress laid upon the position of the Roman Pontiff in the first two or three centuries; but even this under-statement, it seems to me, contains all that is necessary for the argument.

3. It is unnecessary to trace the growth of these two ideas through the ages that have succeeded, for it is allowed on all sides that it took place, and that by the 5th century at latest the Bishop of Rome spoke with at least that silent assumption of infallibility which was characteristic of the Councils in the earlier ages of Christianity. He claims repeatedly, and that without protest except from the East, to rule the Church with the authority of Peter. (Of that protest from the East I shall say a word presently.) To deny to the whole doctrine of Infallibility, which, in the only body of professing Christians where it has unmistakably developed, has reached maturity in the form of the Vatican decree – to deny to this doctrine a place in the Gospel because it was not always explicit, because it was not always simply appealed to, because saints and doctors have apparently used phrases and committed acts in contradiction to it – to dismiss it for these reasons as patently absurd, must mean to dismiss also the sinlessness of our Lady, Apostolic succession, the Athanasian doctrine of the Blessed Trinity, and the mediaeval doctrine of the Sacrament of the altar. For after all great saints may be quoted as being at least obscure on the points. St Cyril compares the consecration of the Bread and Wine to the consecration of the holy oils – a parallel which no theologian of our own days would venture upon; Saint Basil in one treatise refrains from calling the Holy Ghost divine, and Lactantius is notoriously doubtful on the same subject. Saint Chrysostom accuses Mary of pride and self-assertion. They say these things, they are not excommunicated; and slowly the growth goes forward up to definition.

Is not this a precise parallel to the subject we are considering? Saint Cyprian defies Pope Stephen, yet he is acclaimed as saint, though certainly condemned for his action by Saint Augustine, Saint Jerome, and Saint Vincent of Lerins; Saint Gregory repudiates the title of oecumenical bishop, yet in another sense it might be used as a summary of Pius X’s claims.

Neither is it necessary to speak on this occasion of the revolt of the 16th century; for it is acknowledged, I suppose, by all who claim to be Catholics in any sense, that the controversies of that age are not a hopeful ground for the discussion of vital truths. There were more things denied than the authority of the Roman Pontiff! We pass straight on, as a matter of undeniable history, to the fact that towards the close of the 19th century the Infallibility of the Roman Pontiff was declared and accepted as true by the greater part of those who are called Christians.

Now it is remarkable that this theory

1. Is held in its explicitness only by that communion of Christians which in the earliest ages of the Church was identified with the nucleus of Christendom. The two facts are undeniable. It was to Rome that men looked from the 1st century onwards; it was from Rome that the decree of Papal Infallibility was issued in the 19th.

2. It is equally remarkable that Rome yields to no portion of Christendom in respect for tradition; in fact, she is accused by many of her opponents, who agree with her in most of her doctrines, of making too much of it.

Now we have seen tradition to be a fixed body of truth, not merely a floating atmosphere of opinion, still less an unwritten secret in the possession of the authorities. It is a verifiable thing, scattered in the writings of saints, focussed in oecumenical decrees as well as preserved continuously in the continuous consciousness of the Church. Surely, then, it is unjust to see in it an accomplice in the accretions of falsehood. So far from being an accomplice, it is a check possessed by no body which professes Scripture only to be the fount of truth. It is as if a king handed to a viceroy not only the laws of England, but a series of verbal instructions which were immediately incorporated into a second book, in which broad margins were left for annotation. This second book would tend to narrow rather than to widen the possible interpretations of the legal code. It would tend to make impossible any fantastic developments or deductions from the written law. If the tradition of the first four centuries resembled at all the doctrine that all bishops are substantially equal, how is it credible that Leo could have written such things as he did, and still more that Chalcedon should have received them as history relates?

Here, then, we are faced with the fact that that Church which, above all, reverences tradition as well as Scripture – a Church, too, with peculiar access to such tradition – has, as a process of simple history, passed onwards through twenty centuries from a tone of infallibility in her early utterances and a tone of authority in those of her head to an explicit statement of the infallibility of both herself and her head. Is it possible for those of us who attach any meaning to the image of a body as applied to the Church of Christ, who accept as revealed facts such doctrines as those of the Real Presence and the Sinlessness of Mary, or even the Blessed Trinity itself, to deny to the doctrine of Papal Infallibility at least a very reverent consideration?


To return once more to our main point, which is, in a few words, the relation between the possession of Infallibility on the part of the Church and her Pontiff and the apparent ignorance of the prerogative in certain ages of the Church (although, as I have attempted to show, there is a sufficient number of indications that the ignorance was not more than a certain and occasional lack of explicit recognition) – we next demand whether there is any analogy to the situation in other branches of organic life. Is it not that the whole theory is merely an unique theory, extremely convenient and utterly without parallel? I think not.

Although I am aware that analogies prove nothing, yet they certainly and rightly dispose us to believe. An event or a doctrine without an analogy requires far more proof than one which can be paralleled. For this reason it is that the Incarnation is on all points the fundamental doctrine of Christianity. Certainly it is an unique event, utterly without analogy elsewhere, except in a very minute and shadowy manner. Yet if we once by faith accept it, the doctrine of the Real Presence becomes almost inevitably credible, since it is, in so many senses, but a prolongation of the process. The Incarnation is the analogy of the Blessed Sacrament, not vice versa. We believe the second because we believe the first. We need, therefore, as a parallel to the position of infallibility in the scheme of the Church, a mind, an object, and a relation between them – corresponding to the explicit consciousness of the Church, the depositum and Infallibility; and, in order that the analogy may be complete, the relation in our analogy must be. identical with the relation in that of which it is an analogy.

Now this, I think, is found in the instance of the exact sciences.

Strictly speaking, as Mr. Illingworth points out, the subject-matter of the exact sciences has no concrete existence; it consists of abstractions formed by the mind. There is no such thing as two in the objective world: there are only two horses or two apples. Strictly speaking, again, there is no such thing as a line, or a point, or a circle.

Since, therefore, the sciences of arithmetic and geometry are abstractions formulated by mind, they are the one and only subject in which pure mind is infallible. Mind is literally infallible in arithmetic – individual minds may make mistakes, as every schoolboy is aware – but this is only because other considerations, emotions, or distractions enter into the calculation. Pure mind, abstracted from all else, is incapable of error in these matters. Not only has mind never made a mistake, but it is incapable of doing so – no discovery of any nature whatever could conceivably make 2 + 2 = anything but 4, although it is perfectly true that two things added to two things may very often make 5 or 3!

(Further, we may also say, parenthetically, that every faculty that is to survive must be infallible towards its proper object: the eye, regarded in general, must be infallible towards light, the ear towards vibrations of sound. If it were not so, eyes and ears would long ago have ceased to exist.)

Now, even if we may demur from this parenthesis, we cannot, I think, object to the analogy of pure mind and the exact sciences. Here we have a mind, an object, and a relation between them of infallibility.

Yet it is quite impossible to say that human consciousness, as a whole, has ever formulated to itself this immense prerogative. It is true that man has acted upon it, that individual mathematicians have stated it, yet I doubt very much whether it is possible to say that there is a popular impression abroad that mathematicians in the bulk are infallible in their science. Men will rely upon them, it is true, risk their fortunes upon them; but unless they happen to have had the matter laid before them dogmatically, they will always shrink from declaring the infallibility of mind in any matter whatever. Yet it is a fact.

Then have we not here an analogy that is something other than fantastic?

Roughly speaking, the object towards which Infallibility is directed is the Christian revelation of God. This, it is true, is at least as complicated as all other sciences added together for it concerns the whole of man, body, soul, and spirit; not, indeed, necessarily in all details – for our Lord did not come to reveal to us dates or topography – but, in brief, all that concerns man’s moral action towards God and revelation of Himself to man – in other words, faith and morals.

But if the object is stupendous, the mind, of which it is the object, is equally stupendous, for it is no less than the moral consciousness of the entire human race. While it is true that the object once for all revealed is a fixed quantity in itself, its full apprehension cannot be attained until every type of mind has been brought to bear upon it. It is a gospel for every creature; the Kingdom of God is the sum of, as well as transcendent of, the kingdoms of this world. Philosophies, temperaments, individual experiences, scientific discoveries, even the arts themselves – all these have their function, as century follows century, not only of adorning, but actually of developing and helping towards expression the spirit and truth of Christianity.

On first principles, therefore, we should surely expect that the relation between the quasi-Divine mind and the vitally essential object should be as infallible as that between mind and the exact sciences; and, as if to reassure us that this infallibility should not be wanting to the nucleus of those who, in every age of Christianity, are the representatives of the human race, to reassure us that the defection or ignorance of many should not frustrate God’s purposes, our Lord declares that He Himself will be with those that submit to Him, and that the Spirit of Truth shall guide them into all truth. What else is the meaning of His declaration that “the gates of hell shall not prevail”?

Further, then, to examine our analogy once more, we see that although the prerogative has been there from the beginning, and, although it has always been acted upon, it has no always been explicitly recognized. Theologians have recognized it; the layman has relied upon it; but it is not until attention has been drawn to it that a formulated statement of the fact has been made.


When, therefore, once more we survey Christendom in general we see that in one communion, and one communion only, has this process of gradual and explicit recognition gone forward, ending in the perfedtly inevitable Vatican decree. There never was a time when there was not schism from the body; heresy sprang into being practically simultaneously with revelation, and the fact that a large part of the East separated from Rome at a comparatively early date, and that a part of the North followed its example later, affects the question no more than the defection of Hymenaeus. For if we would identify the mystical Body of Christ, we must look surely among the claimants for that which displays a gradual and increasing recognition of the laws of its own life, for that which passes, by successive movements of self-consciousness, from infancy to maturity. Tested by this essential characteristic of organic life, the theory of the infallibility of all those bodies that claim to have retained episcopal succession acting together surely fails; for it is impossible to say that the Church, so interpreted, is more conscious of her infallibility now than at Nicaea or Constantinople. And further, even granting the possibility of this theory, we are faced with the fact that the externally divided communions, for whose common faith this infallibility is claimed, severally deny it – Rome denies it, the East denies it, and Canterbury at least falters. Is it more credible that the theory should be true of the whole, in spite of these explicit denials from its parts, than that Rome’s theory should be true, which has never yet, except on the part of individuals, been denied by those for whom it is claimed? If, in answer to this, the phenomena of Gallicanism are urged, I would point out first that all Gallican movements were regarded as novelties, or, at the best, as ancient truths which had vanished for centuries – a claim which is made, more or less, by all heresies; secondly, that Gallicanism, except as a vague and diminishing temper of mind, has now, as a matter of fact, ceased to exist; and thirdly, that Gallicanism is, roughly speaking, a denial of at any rate perfect Catholicism, in the sense in which Saint Paul speaks of it as being the breaking down of national barriers. Certainly Gallicanism of a kind has its precursors in early Christian history. It is the direct descendant of those old attempts on the part of such emperors, as Constantius, Theodosius II, Zeno, Anastasius, and Justinian to break the unity of the Catholic Church by breaking the connection with Rome. The initiative in the Eastern resistance from time to time seems nearly always to have been the act of the secular power.

But if, in spite of all this, the “diffusive theory” of infallibility is actually true, then indeed we have a life utterly without analogy in the whole realm of creation – a life that lacks an analogy because it is so utterly inferior to all other lives. While the child grows from infancy to maturity, learning gradually his capacities and his limitations; while the tree exercises what is practically infallibility in the choice of chemicals suitable for its development; while the mind of man in general has learned through centuries ever more and more clearly in what realms it is authoritative, in what infallible, and in what empirical; it has been reserved for the mind of Christ’s Mystical Body to pass from coherence to incoherence, and her voice from speech to silence.

Nor is the Eastern theory any more comprehensible, since it is no more than a theory. It has not issued in action, for who is there in the West except those who have made a special study of the question that is even aware of what that theory is? The East, as has been excellently remarked, “tried only to be called Catholic, not to be so.” Even the theory, too, so far as I have been able to understand it, is not one of development at all. While Eastern theologians cling indeed to tradition, it is a tradition which is a fetter rather than a support. It does not blossom in Council after Council; it bids its adherents hold fast to the old ways, across which it builds walls for fear that its followers should go too far.

This, then, if I may recapitulate in a few sentences, is the key which appears, like none other, to fit the wards of history.

The Church, we are all agreed, is the Body of Christ; it is that collection of human beings and minds – individual cells which pass away and are renewed – which, by virtue of grace, is lifted into a transcendent personality which our Lord declares to be His own. Yet the human mind of the Church remains human, and it is in a quasi-sacramental manner that the Divine mind is united with it. This union is of such a nature that the human mind of the Church is safeguarded from committing itself to error, while it is yet necessary, from its very humanity and finiteness, that it should struggle ever towards a complete realisation of the contents of that Divine mind to which it is united.

We saw, then, in passing, that the nature of this bond, even though it is an essential and vital bond, need not, at any rate in the early stages of the body’s activity, be explicitly recognized and defined by that body – even although, as history and common-sense alike show, it is acted upon.

We, then, looking at history further, saw that the nucleus of Christendom undoubtedly, even in the earliest ages of the Church, formed itself at Rome; and that it was at Rome also that the final explicit definition of the manner in which infallibility is exercised was declared. History showed to us exactly that which we should expect from an organic life – a gradual approximation towards a full understanding of itself.

Further, again, we considered the place of Tradition in the Church’s life – that it is a check upon accretions rather than an accomplice with them; and that that same strand in the life of Christendom that showed the gradual development of which I have spoken, showed also a fidelity towards and a jealousy for tradition, unequalled elsewhere.

We then considered, in general, the nature of infallibility as a prerogative of the Church as a whole, and saw that it was essential to the Church’s survival as well as indicated – to use a mild word – by the very words of Christ; and that it was not an unique prerogative, since it is the prerogative of all mind towards its proper object.

And finally, we saw how in that same Communion where a development of consciousness has been so evident, and where tradition has ever been reckoned as a fount of truth, a decree at last issued with the full weight of that Church’s authority, defining not a new prerogative at all, but simply the limits and exercise of the old prerogative which, century by century, had become ever more and more explicit. The infallibility of the Pope and the infallibility of the Church are not two powers, but one. Although theoretically the Vicar of Christ is infallible alone, even though he is not the explicitly designated interpreter of the Church, yet practically he never can so act; and even should he do so it is in virtue of his relation towards the mind of Christ, which relation, with regard to the human mind of the Church, is the cause also of its infallibility as well.

Then, once more glancing at the course of history, I attempted to indicate how two other theories of the Church’s unity – and those the only serious ones in existence – could only succeed in evacuating the phrase, the “Body of Christ,” of all meaning. On one of those theories we find ourselves confronting a lifeless statue; on the other we see that which God endowed with supernatural life, not even fulfilling the ordinary processes of natural experience; the history of the Church, against which the gates of hell should not prevail, becomes one of retrogression and increasing perplexity.

– text taken from Infallibility and Tradition, by Monsignor Robert Hugh Benson, M.A., published by the Catholic Truth Society, London, England, September 1907