Is the Pope
Infallible In Matters of
Doctrine and Morals? - Part 2
by Dr. John
Ankerberg and Dr. John Weldon
the story behind papal infallibility is less well known than the
doctrine itself. Writing in The Trinity Review for July, 1992,
John W. Robbins discusses what went on behind the scenes at the first
Council itself was a travesty. The 700,000 residents of the Roman
states were represented by 62 bishops, constituting half to two-thirds
of every committee. The 1,700,000 Polish Catholics were represented by
one bishop, who was not chosen for a single commission; four
Neopolitan and Sicilian bishops outvoted the bishops of Paris, Cologne
and Chambray, representing 4,700,000 Catholics.
Not to take
any chances at losing, however, the papacy demanded that debates be
conducted in Latin, condemning, writes Himmelfarb, nine-tenths of the
bishops to silence and the rest to confusion. The pope refused the
bishops permission to examine the stenographic reports of their own
speeches; he prohibited meetings of twenty or more bishops outside the
council; he strictly censored literature, imprisoned and threatened
recalcitrant bishops, and continued the time-honored tradition of the
Roman post office opening letters suspected of heresies or error. It
was declared to be a mortal sin to communicate anything that occurred
in the Council. But all was not threats. The pope used promises of
titles, positions and benefices to aid his cause as well: Fifteen
cardinal’s hats were dangled before wavering bishops.
these attempts to rig the Council, opposition to the notion of papal
infallibility continued. Further steps were necessary. Debate was cut
off, minority speakers interrupted, and the rules of order and debate
were skewed to favor those who favored infallibility. The final text
was rushed to the Council without any debate at all.1
discussion of the Vatican I Council can be found in August Bernard
Hasler’s How the Pope Became Infallible. Hasler served for five
years in the Vatican Secretariat for Christian Unity where he was given
access to the Vatican Archives. There he uncovered crucial documents
relating to the Council that had never been studied before. As a result
of his research, this learned Catholic scholar concluded:
becoming increasingly obvious, in fact, that the dogma of papal
infallibility has no basis either in the Bible or the history of the
Church during the first millennium. If, however, the First Vatican
Council was not free, then neither was it ecumenical. And in that case
its decrees have no claim to validity. So the way is clear to revise
this Council and, at the same time, to escape from a situation which
both history and theology find more and more indefensible. Is this
asking too much of the Church? Can it ever admit that a Council erred,
that an 1870 Vatican I made the wrong decision?2
Given the fact that it was
principally non-theological factors that were involved in the first
Vatican Council’s declaration of papal infallibility,3 it is
not surprising that the Catholic Church had opened for itself a rather
robust can of worms.4
The simple truth is that the
doctrine of papal infallibility is easily disproven, even granting that
most papal statements are not made under the strictures of the 1870
ex cathedra definition. The point is that papal pronouncements in
general (ex cathedra or not) uphold the doctrinal position of
Catholicism. From a biblical perspective, then, errors of doctrine exist
because ex cathedra pronouncements by definition uphold
Catholic doctrine—doctrine that is not biblical. If, as Catholics
maintain, the pope speaks "from a tradition of right teaching," i.e.,
then from an Evangelical perspective the issue of papal infallibility is
settled. The popes cannot possibly be infallible at any point in which
they deny Scripture.
knowledge, not once has a pope publicly renounced Catholic teaching.
This means that throughout papal history there are hundreds of
errors—whether or not they are given ex cathedra is irrelevant.
If, on the
average, a pope were to give two ex cathedra decrees in his life
and 500 other communications, written or verbal, that supported
unbiblical Catholic beliefs, why should the issue of an ex cathedra
pronouncement even be relevant to the issue of papal authority?
teaching ex cathedra, popes have 1) consistently upheld
unbiblical Catholic doctrine and 2) misinterpreted Scripture. So it is a
bit difficult to consider them infallible in matters of doctrine—and
perhaps in morals as well.
papal pronouncements have clearly been false. These errors often
illustrate what Kung emphasizes when he says,
of the ecclesiastical teaching office in every generation have been
numerous and indisputable.... And yet the teaching office constantly
found it difficult to admit these errors frankly and honestly.... For
a long time, too, Catholic theologians in their works on apologetics,
in the service of the teaching office, were able very successfully to
ward off any questioning of infallibility by the use of a basically
simple recipe: either it was not an error, or—when at last and finally
an error could no longer be denied, reinterpreted, rendered innocuous
or belittled—it was not an infallible decision.6
history of the Christian Church there have been a number of heretical or
semi-heretical teachings that the Church has opposed. Yet, popes have
sometimes been known to side with these false or heretical teachings.
"Pope" Victor (192) first approved of Montanism and then condemned it;
Marcellinus (296-303) was possibly an apostate idolater; in 358 Pope
Liberius (352-366) condemned Athanasius and sided with the Arians who
denied Christ’s deity. Pope Zosimus (417-418) first sided with the
Pelagians and later condemned them. Pope Honorius I (625-638)
first sided with the Monothelites.
In a confusing
historical case, Pope Vigilius (537-555) at first refused to condemn the
heresies of the Monophysites and Nestorians. Later he both condemned
them and upheld orthodoxy. But then he retracted his condemnation. This
kind of vacillation continued because the pope was apparently uncertain
as to how he should best handle the particular political situation he
found himself in. Here at least, could not a genuine infallible
pronouncement have saved a great deal of anguish and confusion?7
If Pope Liberius accepted in
the Arian creed, how could he possibly be considered the recipient of
divine guidance? Why was Pope Honorius I condemned as a heretic by a)
the Sixth General Council in 681 A.D. and b) several subsequent popes?8
How did Pope Sixtus V (1585-1590) produce the error-ridden 1590 edition
of the Vulgate?9 How did Pope Paul V (1605-1621) and Pope
Urban VIII (1623-1644) condemn the true scientific theories of Galileo?10
Why did the Church wait 300 years to correct the error?
popes have sometimes contradicted one another. Pope Hadrian II (867-872)
declared civil marriages valid while Pope Pius VII (1800-1823) declared
Pope Eugenius IV (1431-1477) condemned Joan of Ark to be burned as a
witch while Pope Benedict XV (1914-1922) declared her a saint in 1919.
Pope Clement XIV (1769-1774) suppressed the order of the Jesuits on July
21, 1773 while Pope Pius VII (1800-1823) restored them on August 7,
II’s declaration on religious freedom conflicts with the condemnation of
religious freedom in Pope Gregory XVI’s encyclical Mirari vos
(1832). Elsewhere, Vatican II is also in conflict with the earlier
doctrine that salvation outside the church was not possible.
theologian Hans Kung is only one dissenting voice who has pointed out
such problems for years—to no effect. For example, in Kung in
Conflict, a compendium of responses to Kung with rejoiners, we read
"Kung, like so many Catholics, was deeply disturbed by what he perceived
to be a lack of sincerity and truthfulness in dealing with changes in
doctrines and truth claims. It was felt by many to be less than truthful
to describe the shift from Gregory XVI’s solemn condemnation of freedom
of conscience as ‘false, absurd madness...’ in Mirari vos (1832)
to Vatican II’s Declaration on Religious Freedom.…13
But popes have even
contradicted one another on the recommendation or condemnation of Bible
But should anyone be
surprised by all this? To date, the Catholic Church claims for itself a
whopping 263 popes, including many "anti-popes" or false claimants.15
Since the Bible nowhere
tells us that popes can be infallible (it never even mentions popes or
their office), why should anyone assume they are infallible—solely
because a Church conference was convened by a 19th century pope who
literally forced acceptance of the doctrine for personal reasons?
Certainly, if popes are not infallible saints, but fallible men like the
rest of us, how reasonable is it to assume that in 2,000 years not
one of these sometimes great but certainly fallible men have ever
made a single error when speaking "ex
infallibility was never a credible doctrine. As Carson points out, the
doctrine of an infallible pope and/or church reasonably assumes that the
infallible guide will first of all be clearly recognizable; second, that
this guide will act with reasonable promptitude in discerning truth from
error; and third, that this guide can never be responsible for
leading the Church into error.16
Historically, none of this has been true.
In fact, the
history of Catholicism "is strewn with a line of anti-popes who have
laid claim to the See of Rome, and so to the allegiance of the
Thus, it would seem that the infallible guide has not
always been clearly recognizable to the faithful.
popes have not acted in a reasonable amount of time when a given
historical situation necessitated a prompt answer. "The facts of history
speak for themselves. They reveal his extreme reluctance to commit
himself; they suggest that considerations of expediency rather than a
conviction of his own infallibility were the dominant factors."18
Third, a single error by a
pope speaking ex cathedra will once and for all undermine the
entire doctrine of papal infallibility. But throughout history the
number of such errors, especially if we include Catholic doctrine, is
considerable. Catholics may respond by saying that in certain cases the
pope was not speaking ex cathedra. Nevertheless, when the
pronouncement is issued with full authority, when the Church at large
accepts it as a true papal pronouncement, it becomes difficult to deny
that this is an apparent rationalization.19
But if the
pope really is to be infallible in matters of faith and
morals—and yet chose not to speak "ex cathedra" when, in
fact, he did make a doctrinal or moral error—one wonders how his
judgment can be considered trustworthy at other points?
what unambiguous basis is an "ex cathedra" pronouncement
officially identified? Do popes have to verbally exclaim they are
issuing an "ex cathedra pronouncement" for it to be considered
infallible? If not, how is an infallible announcement infallibly
to accept the doctrine of papal infallibility is based on a principle
Rome itself condemns:
therefore, how it is that a man comes to accept the infallibility of
the Pope. Surely it is by an act of private judgment. Rome virtually
admits this by her very approach. Here, for example, is the inquirer
meeting the priest. The claims of Rome are presented, and the
arguments are mustered. If he decides to accept these and submit, it
is because he considers the arguments valid. But this is as much an
act of private judgment as an attempt by a Protestant to come to a
reasoned conclusion on any biblical issue. So we are really no further
forward. The appeal to the infallibility of the Church does deliver
from the necessity of private judgment: rather, its very acceptance is
derived from the same source.21
it is impossible to accept that Roman Catholic popes have been granted
infallibility in matters of faith or doctrine.
But, in good
conscience, neither can we necessarily accept the Roman Catholic claim
of infallibility in morals. As the eminent German and English historian
John E. Dalberg (Lord Acton) points out, "A man is not honest who
accepts all the papal decisions in questions of morality, for they have
often been distinctly immoral...."22
As Hudson comments, "Beside
these historical examples [of errors], which could be expanded to fill
many pages, what of the gross wickedness, intrigues and immoralities of
many of the popes?"23
Indeed, many of these are
"described with surprising frankness" in a book displaying the
Imprimatur of Cardinal Spellman—Glen D. Kirtler’s, The Papal Princes.24
1 John W. Robbins, "Action
on the Papacy," The Trinity Review, July, 1992, p. 3.
2 August Bernard Hasler,
How the Pope Became Infallible: Pius IX and the Politics of Persuasion
(Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1981), p. 310.
3 Paul G. Schrotenboer,
ed., Roman Catholicism: A Contemporary Evangelical Perspective
(Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1980), pp. 52-53; Hans Kung,
Justification: The Doctrine of Karl Barth and a Catholic Reflection
(Philadelphia: Westminster, 1981), pp. 78-84.
4 Schrotenboer, pp. 52-53.
5 Karl Keating,
Catholicism and Fundamentalism, The Attack on "Romanism" by "Bible
Christians" (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 1988), p.
6 Hans Kung, Infallible?
An Inquiry (Garden City, NY: Image Books, 1972), p. 30.
7 cf., Walter Martin,
The Roman Catholic Church in History (Livingston, NJ: Christian
Research Institute, Inc., 1960), pp. 17-21 and Harold O. J. Brown,
Heresies (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1940), pp. 66, 186, 190,
8 Kung, Infallible? An
Inquiry, p. 30.
9 H. M. Carson, Dawn or
Twilight? A Study of Contemporary Roman Catholicism (Leicester,
England: InterVarsity Press, 1986), p. 83.
10 Ibid., pp. 84-85.
11 Henry T. Hudson,
Papal Power (Welwyn, Hertfordshire, England: Evangelical Press,
1981), p. 112.
12 Martin, pp. 17-21.
13 Leonard Swidler, ed.,
Kung in Conflict (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1981), p. 33.
14 Hudson, p. 112; cf., the
letter from Pope Pius VI to the Archbishop of Florence dated April
1778 on the title page of the Roman Catholic English Bible; cf., the
Council of Toulon, 1239; the Council of Trent’s index of prohibited
books, 4th rule; the encyclical letter of Pope Leo XII May 3, 1824,
etc., as cited in Dreyer and Weller, Roman Catholicism in the Light
of Scripture, (Chicago: Moody Press, 1960), pp. 13-16. (References
for papal infallibility include Carson, pp. 80-85; cf., Robert C.
Broderick, ed., The Catholic Encyclopedia, rev. and updated
(NY: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1987), pp. 479-482 for a list, Richard
Knolls, Roman Catholicism: Issues and Evidences, from
Chattanooga, TN, Ankerberg Theological Research Institute, 1990;
Walter Martin, The Roman Catholic Church in History, pp.
15 Broderick, ed., p. 482.
16 Carson, p. 72.
17 Ibid., p. 73.
18 Ibid., p. 75.
19 Ibid., p. 80.
20 Cf., Kung,
Infallible? An Inquiry, pp. 58-60; Brown, p. 190.
21 Carson, p. 53.
22 Cited by John W.
Robbins, "Acton on the Papacy," The Trinity Review, July, 1992,
p. 3, in a review of Gertrude Hummelfarb’s Lord Acton: A Study in
Conscience and Politics (University of Chicago, 1952) and Robert
Schuettinger, Lord Acton: Historian of Liberty (LaSalle, IL:
Open Court, 1976.)
23 Hudson, p. 113.
24 Glen D. Kittler, The
Papal Princes (New York: Funk & Wagnalls, 1960).
Copyright 2006, Ankerberg Theological Research Institute