Papal infallibility was officially declared in 1870 during an ecumenical council. The wording of the decree was written and debated over a period of months but eventually declared official church dogma by a final split vote, but never a unanimous one.
The idea had been around for a while prior to 1870. It was a convenient, self-empowering tool of the sitting pope at the time, Pope Pius IX, in 1854, when he declared the Immaculate Conception of Mary, the mother of Jesus as official church dogma. When the topic came up around some parishes and dioceses Papal infallibility was met with some resistance as you shall see. But Pius liked the idea of being unquestionable (trust me on this as you’ll see later) and he wanted it made church law far and wide.
So he sent out the call for a formal ecumenical council to decide this and other issues. About 750 bishops arrived from all directions to Rome in early December of 1869, to attend what we call Vatican I.
Like I wrote before Papal Infallibility wasn’t entirely welcome. Dissension came down into three groups. One group was all for it. They were known as the “active infallibilists.”1 Another would go along with it if overall papal authority was increased. Others were leery of that kind of power being handed over to a pope at the price of weakening the authority of the bishops (like the power struggle between the ancient Roman senate and the emperors and the executive and legislative branches in modern American politics.)
December of 1869, ran into the early summer of 1870, before the council tackled the infallibility question. Many drafts were drawn up, rejected then re-written. Cardinal Filippo Guidi, Archbishop of Bologna, proposed adding to one draft that the pope is assisted by “the counsel of the bishops manifesting the tradition of the churches.” The Pope, [who was personally presiding over the council] rejected Guidi’s view of the bishops as witnesses to the tradition, maintaining that “I am the tradition.”2 How convenient!
Ten percent, that is most of the bishops from Germany, nearly half of the Americans, a third of the French, and others opposed papal infallibility on both ecclesiastical and pragmatic grounds. They believed it departed from the ecclesiastical structure of the early Christian church. They feared alienation of some Catholics, increased difficulties for union with non-Catholics, and provocation of interference by governments in church affairs.
On the issue of papal authority alone it was “After nearly two months of drafting, debating, and revising- in public and in private- the council’s delegates cast preliminary votes [the choices being for, against, or for but with amendments] to see where things stood. This trial ballot revealed a council with a significant minority dissenting. A large number, 451, voted in favor of the statement, but 88 voted against it, and 62 voted to accept it with reservations.”
The time came for the final, finished ballot to be voted on; the big day being July 18th, 1870. But the day before rather than voting openly against the pope 60+ delegates left Rome. The final vote, with the choices being only for or against, was taken with 433 in favor and only 2 against and 60 absent. Some of the 433 were eventually rewarded by Pope Pius by being appointed to Cardinalships.4 What a coincidence! That’s how its done in politics isn’t it? You scratch mine and I’ll scratch yours! It’s obvious there was nothing biblical about how papal infallibility was brought about. In fact it was unbiblical wasn’t it?
The Holy Bible tells us it was. Infallibility was given only to the writers of Scripture. They were men, capable of sin like any pope, only they were inspired by God to write the things they wrote. There is no slight or express mention of anyone of them having a successor with that same infallibility!
To suggest that only one man, say a pope or some church body is necessary to properly interpret the Scriptures is a direct contradiction of Acts 17:11, Romans 14:5, and I could site others. My friend the Holy Bible was written for the common sinner to read and understand. Yes there is a five thousand year wall of language, custom and culture between what the authors of each of the 66 books wrote and us but that issue can be overcome by the determined reader. But that was and is ignored, blighted from the ambitious thoughts of those in the church hierarchy then and now and the well meaning sons and daughters of the RCC who should know better.
So the Pope and the church as a whole isn’t capable of error right? Hold that thought, because along came Pope John Paul II, a hundred years later who apologized for the historical atrocities committed by all previous Popes, and the Catholic Church.3 Question: How, why would you apologize if you’re infallible? Doesn’t that mean even a pope isn’t infallible; that he’s just as human as the rest of us?
- McBrien, Richard P. (1995) The HarperCollins Encyclopedia of Catholicism. Harper Collins. p. 1297.
- Duffy, Eamon, Saints and Sinners: A History of the Popes (fourth ed.), New Haven: Yale Press, copyright 2014.
- William Drozdiak, The Vatican Gives Formal Apology for Inaction During Holocaust, The Tech, on-line ed., 3/17/98. Also, List of Apologies made by Pope John Paul II, Wikipedia.org.
- See Alessandro Franchi (cardinal) and Joseph-Hippolyte Guibert and John McClosky and Henry Edward Manning and Victor-Auguste-Isidoe Deschamps at Wikipedia.org.
Kirch, K. (1913) “Vatican Council”. In Hebermann, Charles. Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company
Herbermann, Charles. Encyclopedia Britannica: Pius IX.
John McArthur, Pastor of Grace Community Church, Sun Valley, California, “The Pope and the Papacy” lesson on 5/1/05, courtesy sermonaudio.org.
Ludwig Ott, Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, 4th Ed., Tan Books & Publishers, Inc., Rockford, Illinois, copyright 1974..
Christopher M. Bellitto. The General Councils; Paulist Press ©2002.