Dogmatic Theology, Volume II, Christ's Church,
by Monsignor G. Van Noort, S.T.D.,

[Please forgive the appalling Scriptural translations, a typical product of the late 'fifties.]

Article III


I. The Catholic Dogma
II. Explanation of the Dogma:
1. The meaning of papal infallibility
2. The efficient cause of papal infallibility
3. The person endowed with the prerogative of infallibility
4. The scope of papal infallibility
5. The conditions required for exercising papal infallibility

Proposition: When the pope speaks ex cathedra, he is infallible.
1. from Christ's own words
2. from tradition

Objections: from history.

Epilogue: The Pope's Temporal Sovereignty

Article III


The infallibility of the Church's magisterium, viewed as a whole, has already been demonstrated (see nos. 79-99). Granted that fact, the primacy of the pope, since it comprises both teaching and ruling authority, must also include the prerogative of infallibility. If the Church's magisterium cannot err, and if the pope by himself possesses the full power of that magisterium, it follows inevitably that the pope in exercising that magisterium is preserved from error. In other words, he is infallible. Still, the matter is so serious it must be discussed ex professo.

I. The Catholic Dogma

The Catholic dogma is expressed in the following words of the Vatican Council:
And so, faithfully holding on to that tradition recognized from the very beginning of the Christian religion … with the approval of the sacred council, we teach and define as a dogma revealed by God: that the Roman pontiff when speaking ex cathedra, that is, when exercising his office of supreme shepherd and teacher of all Christians, defines, in virtue of his supreme apostolic authority, that some doctrine on faith or morals must be held by the universal Church, he possesses, thanks to the divine assistance promised to him in the person of St. Peter, that infallibility with which the Divine Redeemer willed His Church to be endowed in defining doctrines on faith or morals; and consequently that definitions by the same pontiff are by their very nature, and not because of the consent of the Church, irreformable. – DB 1839.

II. Explanation of the Dogma

1. The meaning of papal infallibility. The notion of infallibility was explained earlier in this book (see nos. 77 and 79). Many non-Catholics, however, still have distorted notions about this matter. It may be helpful, therefore, to clear aside some misconceptions by stating the following points: (a) The pope was declared infallible in his teaching activity, not in his other activities. It would, then, be pure wantonness to confuse the notion of infallibility with impeccability. (1) How infallibility may have an indirect bearing on the Church's ruling power was explained above (see nos. 91 and 93). (b) The prerogative of infallibility does not make the pope's will the ultimate standard of truth or goodness. (c) Infallibility is not omniscience. (d) Finally, infallibility does not imply inspiration. An infallible decree does not possess the same sort of dignity as Sacred Scripture.

2. The efficient cause of papal infallibility is God's assistance. That assistance was promised to the Roman pontiff in the person of St. Peter. Keep in mind, however, that the popes in preparing an infallible decree do not neglect normal means of inquiry, re-search, discussion, or deliberation:
The Roman Pontiffs on their part, according as the condition of the times and circumstances dictated, sometimes calling together ecumenical councils or sounding out the mind of the Church throughout the world, sometimes through regional councils, or sometimes by using other helps which divine Providence supplied, have, with the help of God, defined as to be held such matters as they had found consonant with the Holy Scripture and with the apostolic tradition. – DB 1836; TCT 216.

3. The person endowed with the prerogative of infallibility is the currently-reigning Roman pontiff. That is why the Gallican theory could not possibly be squared with the Vatican Council definition. The Gallicans make a distinction between the see and its occupant. Thus the individual popes could err, but God would prevent "error from taking deep root" in the Roman see or Roman Church. In other words, God would see to it that an error committed by one pope would be swiftly repaired either by the same pope or at least by his successor. Obviously this opinion is not reconcilable with the statement of the council that "the Roman pontiff," is infallible when speaking ex cathedra; nor with the necessary conclusion of the same council: "and consequently definitions made by the same pontiff are of themselves, and not because of the consent of the Church, irreformable."

The Gallicans wrongly appeal to Leo the Great's epigram, "Sees are one thing, those who sit upon them another" (Epistula 106. 6). By that saying, Leo simply meant that the rights of a see do not depend upon the holiness of its occupant, "For even though those who occupy sees may differ at times in their merits, still the rights of the sees remain" (Epistula 119. 3).

Notice, however, that only the pope himself personally enjoys infallibility; not other people to whom he may delegate some share in his teaching authority. For example, even though the Roman congregations are organs of the papacy, they are not the pope himself. The reason for the restriction is this: the pope cannot cause the divine assistance, promised to himself personally, to come to the aid of other people. It should be clear, then, what is meant by saying that infallibility is a personal prerogative. It is personal insofar as it belongs to each individual pope and cannot be delegated to other people; it is not personal in the sense that it belongs to the pope as a private person, that is, in virtue of his personal qualifications.

4. The scope of papal infallibility is exactly the same as for the Church as a whole: "He possesses that infallibility with which the Divine Redeemer willed His Church to be endowed in defining doctrines on faith or morals." The fathers of the Vatican Council did not mean to delineate the precise boundaries of papal infallibility by the words: "doctrine on faith or morals to be held by the entire Church," for it was their intention to take up this point later. Hence they indicated the scope of his infallibility only in a general way by the formula normally used by theologians. It was by deliberate design, however, that they employed the phrase: “must be held” (tenendam) rather than the phrase: “must be believed” (credendam). They used the former phrase so that they might not appear to be restricting the prerogative of infallibility exclusively to those truths which have been revealed. (2)

5. The conditions for papal infallibility are summed up in the        words: "when he speaks ex cathedra." A throne (cathedra-chair-judicial bench) is normally a symbol of authority and particularly of doctrinal authority. (3) The consecrated formulae: "to speak ex cathedra," or "an ex cathedra definition" were in use in theological schools long before the Vatican Council. They designated the full exercise of the papal magisterium. The Vatican Council, however, added this precise explanation: "that is: when exercising his office of supreme shepherd and teacher of all Christians, he defines, in virtue of his supreme apostolic authority, that some doctrine on faith or morals must be held by the universal Church.”

Keeping in mind, then, what has already been explained in discussing the object of infallibility (see nos. 85-96), "to speak ex cathedra" signifies two things: (a) the pope is actually making use of his papal office – of supreme shepherd and teacher of all Christians; (b) the pope is using his papal authority at its maximum power. Both these facts must be made known clearly and indisputably. It makes no difference, however, whether they be made known by the words the pope uses, or by the circumstances of the case. Briefly, no set formula, and no particular type of solemnity is required for an ex cathedra statement.

For example, it is not inconceivable that some pope in the future might use the medium of television to broadcast a solemn definition to the world. It is the pope's office that guarantees him the divine assistance, and the pope's decision to make a definitive declaration that calls that assistance to his aid, not any magical formula of words. Some literal-minded people wish that St. Peter had laid down some one introductory phrase, or clause for all popes to follow in making infallible statements. They forget that phrases which in apostolic times might be very clear to apostolic contemporaries might be very obscure to us; and that phrases which would be very clear to us might be very obscure to future generations. The Church is always contemporary; its magisterium is a living magisterium and it knows how to make its message known in any age.

In reference to point a:– A man holding public office does not always act in his official capacity. Again, if the same person holds several offices simultaneously, he does not have to be constantly exercising his highest function. We must keep these points in mind when discussing the pope's infallibility, for he fulfills several positions simultaneously. He is not only the pope of the whole Catholic Church, he is also the local bishop of the diocese of Rome, metropolitan of its surrounding sees, and temporal sovereign of the Vatican state. Consequently, if the pope speaks merely as a private individual, or as a private theologian, or as a temporal sovereign, or precisely as ordinary of the diocese of Rome, or precisely as metropolitan of the province of Rome, he should not be looked on as acting infallibly. He may, for example, as a private individual air his private views – political, economic, or spiritual. As a private theologian he might write a book on some aspects of the spiritual life. As temporal sovereign of the Vatican state, he might issue decrees on taxes, or economic reform, or might set up a law granting religious liberty to non-Catholic worship in return for territory restored to himself and so on. Speaking precisely as ordinary of the diocese of Rome he might give a series of instructions or a retreat to the people of some definite parish in the city. (4)

What is required for an infallible declaration, therefore, is that the pope be acting precisely as pope; that is, as the supreme shepherd and teacher of all Christians so that his decision looks to the universal Church and is given for the sake of the universal Church. It is not necessary, however, for the document containing an infallible decision to be addressed directly to the universal Church. A decision, intended for the whole Church can be immediately ad-dressed, for example, to the bishops of a particular region in which a condemned error is flourishing.

With reference to point b: – A man who acts in an official capacity does not always make use of his full power, of the whole weight of the authority which he possesses by his very position. A president may, for example, disagree with a bill of Congress, and express his disapproval and yet not take the step of vetoing the bill. Thus the pope, even acting as pope, can teach the universal Church without making use of his supreme authority at its maximum power. Now the Vatican Council defined merely this point: the pope is infallible if he uses his doctrinal authority at its maximum power, by handing down a binding and definitive decision: such a decision, for example, by which he quite clearly intends to bind all Catholics to an absolutely firm and irrevocable assent.

Consequently even if the pope, and acting as pope, praises some doctrine, or recommends it to Christians, or even orders that it alone should be taught in theological schools, this act should not necessarily be considered an infallible decree since he may not intend to hand down a definitive decision. The same holds true if by his approval he orders some decree of a sacred congregation to be promulgated; for example, a decree of the Holy Office, in which the congregation itself condemns some doctrine. It is one thing to be willing to allow a decision of a congregation to be published – a decision which is by its very nature revocable – but quite another matter for the pope himself to make the final decision.

For the same reason, namely a lack of intention to hand down a final decision, not all the doctrinal decisions which the pope proposes in encyclical letters should be considered definitions. In a word, there must always be present and clearly present the intention of the pope to hand down a decision which is final and definitive.

Thus far we have been discussing Catholic teaching. It may be useful to add a few points about purely theological opinions – opinions with regard to the pope when he is not speaking ex cathedra. All theologians admit that the pope can make a mistake in matters of faith and morals when so speaking: either by proposing a false opinion in a matter not yet defined, or by innocently differing from some doctrine already defined. Theologians disagree, however, over the question of whether the pope can become a formal heretic by stubbornly clinging to an error in a matter already defined. The more probable and respectful opinion, followed by Suarez, Bellarmine and many others, holds that just as God has not till this day ever permitted such a thing to happen, so too he never will permit a pope to become a formal and public heretic. Still, some competent theologians do concede that the pope when not speaking ex cathedra could fall into formal heresy. They add that should such a case of public papal heresy occur, the pope, either by the very deed itself or at least by a subsequent decision of an ecumenical council, would by divine law a forfeit his jurisdiction. Obviously a man could not continue to be the head of the Church if he ceased to be even a member of the Church.

PROPOSTITON: When the pope speaks ex cathedra, he is infallible.

This is of faith, from the Vatican Council. The proposition can be proved both by Christ's own words and by the witness of tradition. Tradition makes unmistakeably clear the position the infallible Church has always held in this matter.


1. From Christ's own words:
" . . . And I, in turn, say to you: You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of Hell shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven." – Matt. 18:18-19. (A full exegetical discussion of this text is given in the appendix at the end of this volume.)

Peter – and his successors – was established as the rock, or unshakeable foundation, which would make the Church perpetually indestructible. Now nothing pertains so much to the stability of the Church as immunity from error in matters of doctrine. Peter, then, was to be the means by which the Church would always uphold the faith in its purity and integrity. But if Peter is to be made equal to that task, two things are necessary: first, he must always have the power to bind all Christians absolutely to believe this doctrine and to reject that; second, in taking such action Peter must himself be necessarily immune from error.

If Peter could not bind all Christians in an absolute fashion, he would not be a foundation. On the other hand, if in binding all Christians he himself were liable to error, he would not be an unshakeable foundation, but a very shaky one. That Christ clearly intended to lay an unshakeable foundation is evident from the metaphor of the rock, and especially from the conclusion He drew: "and the gates of Hell shall not prevail against it."

Peter – and his successors – received the keys of the kingdom of heaven with such full power to bind and to loose that whatever Peter bound would also be bound by God. Usually the keys of the kingdom are listed as two: the key of knowledge (teaching power – magisterium) and the key of power (ruling power – jurisdiction). Consequently Peter can also bind absolutely by a doctrinal decision, and this decision by the very fact of its utterance is ratified by God. Now if this is the way matters stand, one is forced to conclude: either that a pope cannot err when making a definitive decision, or else that God Himself could at some time ratify a false doctrine.

After they had breakfasted, Jesus said to Simon Peter: “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these others do?" "Yes, my Master," he replied; "you know that I really love you." "Then," Jesus said to him, "feed my lambs." He asked him a second time: "Simon, son of John, do you love me?" "Yes, Master," he replied, "you know that I really love you." "Then," he said to him, "be a shepherd to my sheep." For the third time he put the question to him: "Simon, son of John, do you really love me?" It grieved Peter that he had asked him the third time: "Do you really love me?” and he replied: "Master, you know everything; you know that I really love your "Then," Jesus said to him, "feed my sheep.” – John 21:15-17.

Peter – and his successors – clearly received the task and the full power to feed the entire flock of Christ. Before anything else, then, he is bound to nourish the entire flock, both bishops and the ordinary faithful, on healthy doctrine and to keep them away from poisonous pasture. This task itself necessarily implies infallibility on the part of the pope, in the sense already explained. Suppose a pope were to make a mistake in defining Christian doctrine. What would happen? Either the entire Church would accept the pope's decision – and that would be the end of the infallibility and indestructibility of the Church; or, the Church would rebel against the pope's decision and would correct his doctrine – and that would be the end of the arrangement set up by Christ Himself, for the flock would be feeding the shepherd!

“Simon, Simon, mark my words: Satan has demanded the surrender of you all in order to sift you like wheat; but I have prayed for you personally, that your faith might not fail. Later on, therefore, when once thou hast turned again, it is for you to strengthen your brethren” (su pote epitrepsas sterison tous adelphous sou). – Luke 22:31-32.

Now we must show that this text implies infallibility in the sense already explained; and, furthermore, that it implies infallibility not only for Peter himself but also for his successors.

a. That Christ's words here guarantee Peter real indefectibility in faith, or infallibility, seems quite clear. First of all, Christ's unqualified prayer that Peter's faith might not fail, could not possibly go unanswered. Second, by the force of this prayer and the assistance begged for in it, Peter was to be made equal to the task of strengthening or stabilizing his brothers in the faith. If Peter were to be made equal to this task, the very minimum required was that he be necessarily free from error at least at such times was he would be actually instructing his brothers in the faith with the maximum of his authority.

b. That this text refers to Peter in his official capacity, and consequently to Peter living in his successors is clear: first, from the very nature of the office entrusted to him. Strengthening in the faith is no less necessary for later generations: in fact it is even more necessary for them than for the apostles and the first Christians. Second, that this text refers to Peter in his official capacity is clear likewise from the real parallelism between this passage and those of Matt. 16 and John 21. If the office of acting as a foundation for the Church and of being shepherd to the Church is something perpetual, how could the office of confirming in the faith be not always perpetual since it is already contained in those other two functions? But if this office is perpetual, so must the aid Christ prayed for be perpetual. (6)

2. From tradition.

Even though the fathers of the Church do not discuss the pope's infallibility in absolutely explicit and unmistakeable terms, his infallibility was nonetheless acknowledged from the very earliest days. It was acknowledged both in theory and in practice. This fact is clear from: (a) the statements of the fathers; (b) the practice of the popes; (c) the statements of ecumenical councils.

a. The statements of the fathers.

St. Irenaeus (c. 140–c. 202) not only admits that the Roman Church possesses "a more powerful authority" (potiorem principalitatem) but he explains the reason for this authority. It stems from the fact that the Roman Church is the standard of faith for the rest of the churches. Irenaeus teaches that to have a sure knowledge of the Christian truth all one has to do is consult the faith of the Roman Church, because the faithful throughout the world are obliged to agree with this Church in matters of belief (see no. 64). Now if the faith of the Roman Church is the standard and norm for all the other churches, this very fact presupposes the infallibility of the Roman Church, or what amounts to the same thing both objectively and also in the mind of Irenaeus, the infallibility of the bishop of Rome.

St. Cyprian (c. 200–258) praises: "the Romans whose faith was extolled in the very preaching of the apostle [Rom. 1:9] men to whom perversion of faith could have no access" (see no. 65).

St. Ephiphanius [sic] (c. 315–403) states: "The faith receives its stability in every way from him who received the keys of the kingdom and who looses things on earth and binds them in heaven. For from him may be found out [the answer] to even the deepest problems of the faith" (Ancoratus 9).

St. Jerome (c. 342–419) when a great dispute was raging in the East over the question of whether one should acknowledge one or three "hypostases" in the Trinity, sought the answer from Pope Damasus, "Therefore, I thought I ought to consult the chair of Peter and that faith recommended by the mouth of the Apostle. For by you people alone is preserved incorrupt the tradition of the fathers" (Epistula 15. 1).

St. Augustine (354–430) says of the Pelagian controversy, "For this reason two deputations were sent to the Apostolic See, and that see has sent back the answers. The case is finished" (Sermo 131. 10).

In another place, Augustine writes, "All doubts about this matter were completely removed by the letters of Pope Innocent of blessed memory" (Contra duas Epistulas Pelagianorum. ii. 3. 5).

St. Peter Chrysologus wrote to Eutyches, "In all ways we implore you, honorable brother, to heed obediently the directions written by the blessed pope of the city of Rome; because St. Peter who lives in and presides over this his own see offers to all who seek it the truth of the faith" (Among the Epistulae of St. Leo 25).

St. Leo the Great (390?–461): "The firmness of that faith, which was recommended in the prince of the apostles, is something perpetual" (Sermo 3[1]. 2).

John, bishop of Jerusalem        (572–92), after citing Matthew 18:18-19 concludes, "Now in the heads of that holy, first, and venerable see his [Peter's] successors are sound in the faith and according to our Lord Himself, infallible." (7)

b. The practice of the popes:

At the beginning of the third century, Pope Callistus by a peremptory decree rejected Montanism. (Montanism was a heresy of an ascetical nature, placing more emphasis on a rigorous mode of life than on doctrine. It dates from about 170 AD. Its founder, Montanus, thought he had been inspired by the Holy Spirit to start a more rigid Christianity, prohibiting second marriages, advocating prolonged fasts, fierce physical mortifications, etc. Its most famous convert was Tertullian who succumbed to its austere appeal and died as a heretic outside the Church. See Parente, Dictionary of Dogmatic Theology, p. 195–6.)

At the beginning of the fifth century, Innocent I, by confirming the decrees of the councils of Carthage and Mileve in the year 418 definitely condemned the errors of Pelagius and Celestius. That the entire Church accepted his decision as binding irrevocably is clear, for example, from the testimony of St. Augustine mentioned above.

Pope Celestine I (422-432) condemned Nestorius. A brief time later his legates went to the Council of Ephesus (431) to see that the decisions he had previously laid down should be executed (see no. 87). The fathers of the council humbly accepted the pope's decision: "Constrained by the sacred canons and the letter of our holy father and co-minister, Celestine, the bishop of the church at Rome ... we have necessarily reached this painful decision against him [Nestorius].” (8)

The fathers of the Council of Chalcedon (451) received in the same Way the Tome of St. Leo I to Flavian, bishop of Constantinople, in which he condemned the doctrines of Eutyches (see no. 87). The fact that Leo intended his decision to be accepted as definitive is clear from his letter to the Council of Chalcedon: "It is not permissible to defend what is not allowed to be believed, since in accord with the authority of the gospels, the words of the prophets, and the doctrine of the apostles, what is the true and holy doctrine about the mystery of the Incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ was stated fully and clearly in the letter which we sent to Bishop Flavian" (Epistula 93. 2).

In the seventh century Pope Agatho condemned Monotheletism even before the Third Council of Constantinople (680–681) did. At the same time in a letter to Constantine Pogonatus, he greatly extolled the apostolic see, "Which has never turned aside from the road of truth to any sort of error ... and has never become depraved and surrendered to heretical novelties, but in the true faith known from the very beginning remains unpolluted to the very end" (Epistula ad Augustos Imperatores). The fathers of the council applauded* the decision of Pope Agatho: "The paper and ink were seen and Peter spoke through Agatho." (9)

*Philip Hughes describes the incident briefly and vividly; To this council the pope – Agatho – sent a letter setting out the traditional Catholic teaching on the dogmatic point at issue, viz. whether in Our Lord there were one or two wills, as St. Leo had sent the like kind of letter to Chalcedon. As at Chalcedon so now the 174 eastern bishops present received the pope's teaching with acclamations, crying out: 'It is Peter who speaks through Agatho.' The doctrine defined, the council turned to condemn the authors of the heresy, and with them it condemned Pope Honorius, not indeed as an author of the heresy but 'because in his reply to Sergius he followed in all things that wicked man's opinion, and confirmed his impious teaching.' – A Popular History of the Catholic Church (New York, 1947), pp. 46-7.

In the fourteenth century Clement VI (1342–52) required the Armenian church to believe "that only the Roman pontiff can, when doubts arise about Catholic faith, by a guaranteed decision impose that faith which must be adhered to without qualification; and that whatever he, by the authority of the keys handed over to him by Christ, decides is true is the true and Catholic doctrine; and that what he decides is false or heretical must be judged to be so" (DB 570q).

c. The Testimony of ecumenical councils:

Three ecumenical councils "in which the East and the West united in a union of faith and charity" (DB 1833), even if they did not declare the pope's infallibility in explicit terms, did declare it in equivalent terms.

The fathers of the Fourth Council of Constantinople (870) sub-scribed to the following solemn profession of faith: °

The first condition of salvation is to keep the norm of the true faith and in no way deviate from the established doctrine of the Fathers. For it is impossible that the words of our Lord Jesus Christ who said, "Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church" (Matt, I6:18) should not be verified. And their truth has been proven by the course of history, for in the Apostolic See the Catholic religion has always been kept unsullied. …
Following, as we have said before, the Apostolic See in all things and proclaiming all its decisions, we endorse and approve all the letters which Pope St. Leo wrote concerning the Christian religion. And so I hope I may deserve to be associated with you in the one communion which the Apostolic See proclaims, in which the whole, true, and perfect security of the Christian religion resides. –DB 171 f.; TCT 147 f.

° This profession of faith stems back to Pope St. Hormisdas who, in dealing with the Acacian Schism, included it in a letter to the bishops of Spain in the year 517. For the authenticity of the text see BLE (1904), p. 152 and (1905), p. 333.

In the Second Council of Lyons (1274) the Greeks who returned to the unity of Church made the following profession:

The holy Roman Church has supreme and full primacy and jurisdiction over the whole Catholic Church. This it truly and humbly recognizes as received from the Lord himself in the person of St. Peter, the Prince or head of the Apostles, whose successor in the fullness of power is the Roman Pontiff. And just as the holy Roman Church is bound more than all the others to defend the truth of faith, so, if there arise any questions concerning the faith, they must be decided by its judgment. –DB 1834; TCT 214.

In the Council of Florence (1439) the Greeks as well as the Latins defined that:

The Roman pontiff is the true vicar of Christ, the head of the whole Church, the father and teacher of all Christians; and that to him, in the person of St. Peter, was given by our Lord Jesus Christ the full power of feeding, ruling, and governing the whole Church. –DB 1835; TCT 215.

If the Roman pontiff is the teacher of all Christians, so much so that he possess the full power of feeding – and hence of teaching – the universal Church, which cannot fall into error, it follows inescapably that he is himself infallible.

There you have the mind of the Church. Fourteen hundred years of unswerving tradition. Unfortunately, the frightful Western Schism at the end of the fourteenth century caused near chaos in Christendom. With three rivals claiming to be the legitimate pope, people were bewildered during a period of some forty years. (10) This schism was the occasion also of causing confusion in the minds of some western theologians. Not only did it obscure for them the doctrine of papal supremacy in governing the Church, it also cast its shadow over the related doctrine of the pope's infallibility. Actually, it was particularly at the time of the Council of Constance (1414-1418) that the pope's infallibility began to be seriously questioned and attacked.* Gallicanism and Josephinism vehemently supported the opinion denying papal infallibility.

* "This council which met at Constance (November, 1414) is the strangest in all Church history from its composition, its procedure, and the nature of what was effected through it. The full effect of the chaos of forty years was now seen. All the wildest theories about the source of ecclesiastical authority seemed likely to be realized when there descended on the town (in addition to the 185 bishops) 300 doctors in theology and law, 18,000 other ecclesiastics, and a vast multitude of lay potentates, of princes, and of representatives of towns and corporations, to the number of more than a hundred thousand…. This same council that had brought the schism to an end had sown the seeds of much future dissension. Whatever the niceties of Canon Law that had safe-guarded the legitimacy of its liquidation of a complex problem, the fact remained that the Council of Constance had judged two claimants to the papacy and condemned them, and that it had also elected a new pope, And it had also declared, in explicit terms, that General Councils were superior to popes, and it had provided that every five years this General Council should reassemble and the pope, in some measure, give to it an account of his stewardship. As far as the wishes of the Council of Constance went, a revolution had been achieved, and the Church for the future was to be governed in a parliamentary way, and not by the absolute, divinely given authority of its head, the Vicar of Christ. The forty years that followed the Council were to see the successive popes – Martin V, Eugene IV, and Nicholas V – wholly taken up with the effort to destroy this new theory and to control the councils which it bred and inspired. The full fruits of the mischief were only reaped in the long-drawn-out dissensions of the Council of Basle (1431-1449)" (Hughes, Popular History, op. cit., p. 141-3),

But how startlingly this negative opinion departed from Catholic mentality and tradition, Gerson himself (d. 1419) admitted at the very beginning of the controversy: "Before the Council of Constance that traditional teaching [of the pope's infallibility] was so completely accepted by most Catholics that if any one had tried to teach an opposite opinion he would have been either censured or condemned for heretical depravity.” (11)

And Tournely admitted the same thing at the beginning of the eighteenth century when he stated:

One should not disguise the fact that it is difficult in the face of the vast amount of evidence which Bellarmine and others have assembled, not to recognize the unquestionable and infallible authority of the Apostolic See or of the Roman Church: but it is even more difficult to reconcile that testimony with the Declaration of the Gallican Clergy with which we are not allowed to disagree. (12)

Ruard Tapper of Enkhuizen (d. 1559) has excellently summed up the whole history of the dogma of papal infallibility in these remarks:

But whether this head [of the Church – the pope] can make an error when he makes a decision concerning the faith and morals of the faithful … began to be controverted and disputed pro and con about 150 years ago … For from the time of the councils of Constance and Basle some doctors teach that only an ecumenical council enjoys the privilege of infallibility … But the older writers unanimously argue from the Scriptures that this privilege of infallible decision belongs to Peter and to the Roman pontiff and his see, since he is the supreme vicar of Christ on earth in Peter's place and, as such, has alone received the keys of binding and loosing everything. (13)

As a final point, note that the Roman pontiffs did not refrain from handing down definitive decisions in matters of faith even during the period of the controversies; (14) and all the churches, even those among whom the new opinion had more or less made head-way, in practice accepted these decisions as being of themselves irrevocable and infallible.


Many facts from the Church's history are adduced as objections to the infallibility of the pope. Here, only the main ones will be considered. In dealing with these facts, we are interested in one point only: whether the pope ever made a mistake when speaking ex cathedra.

1. Against St. Peter himself two objections are raised. First, he denied Christ on the night of His passion; secondly, he forced Gentile converts to adopt Jewish religious practices (see Gal. 2:11-14).

At the time of the passion Peter was not yet the supreme shepherd and teacher of the Church. Obviously, then, he could not act in that capacity at that time. As a private individual he sinned seriously, but he did not lose the faith.

The second objection is closer to the point, for Peter was then head of the Church. It is, however, a rather superficial argument against infallibility. When Peter deliberately separated himself from the Gentile way of life – so not to shock Judaic-Christians – he did act imprudently. He did cause some harm to the progress of the faith. (That is why St. Paul scolded him for it: he knew how much Peter's example meant.) Whether Peter was acting in good conscience or not is not here our concern. One fact is abundantly clear: Peter by no means handed down any doctrinal decision on the matter. That is why Tertullian could write, "It was indeed a fault of conduct, but not of teaching" (De praescriptione 23).

2. Pope Liberius (352-366) is alleged to have betrayed St. Athanasius and the whole Catholic faith by signing the formula of Sirmia which was either Arian or semi-Arian in doctrine.

a. For the sake of argument let us grant that Liberius did actually sign this heretical document (some historians dispute the point). The mere signing of the document could not possibly be considered an ex cathedra decision. Even anti-Catholic critics admit that the pope, after two years of exile and captivity, only finally signed to release himself from persecution. Such circumstances,* far from showing that the pope intended to hand down a decision binding the universal Church, exclude any such intention.

* Basil of Ancyra the leader of a group which, though Catholic, disliked the term homoöusion, because of its misuse in a third century controversy, gained the emperor's favor. He then endeavored to unite all the Catholics on the basis of a non-Nicene (but not anti-Nicene) formula. In the Catholic sense in which this was offered, and with an explanation making clear what he was doing, Liberius, still a captive, signed this. The forgeries of Arian pamphleteers are probably the original cause of the confusion around which the discussion centers. – Hughes, Popular History, op. cit., p. 53.

b. Even in the supposition that Liberius did sign his name to one of the formulae at Sirmia, the one he signed would have been the third formula (in the year 358). This formula was not in itself heretical. Even though the formula, by omitting the term homoousios made sacrosanct by the Council of Nicaea, contained a less accurate formulation of the Catholic faith and was consequently more acceptable to the semi-Arians; strictly speaking it was not erroneous.

c. Finally, a number of historians think there can be some real doubt whether Liberius actually signed or not. (15)

3. Pope Vigilius (537-555) is accused of first condemning "The Three Chapters," (16) then of forbidding their condemnation, and finally of once more condemning them.

Vigilius did not change in the slightest his decision about the doctrinal matter in question. He always and clearly rejected the Nestorianism with which "The Three Chapters" were infected (see no. 89). But the pope was under extremely difficult circumstances (as Justinian's prisoner), and, surrounded by deceit and political intrigue, hesitated to make a prudential judgment. He did hesitate about the wisdom of condemning, at that time, those writings of Theodore of Mopsuestia, Theodoret of Cyrrhus, and Ibas, bishop of Edessa, which were called the Tria Capitula (the authors themselves were already in their graves). The writings did deserve censure, but since their authors, after explicitly rejecting Nestorianism, had been welcomed back by the fathers of the Council of Chalcedon, condemnation of the writings would have been a stumbling block to many people, particularly the Westerners. These people would have taken the condemnation as a slap at the authority of the Council of Chalcedon.° Consequently, even if the pope acted a bit imprudently in this matter, he definitely made no error in matters of faith. For a fuller treatment of this extremely complicated matter, consult the historians cited in no. 89 above. [Hefele, Conciliengeschichte (2nd ed.), II, 798 if.; Hergenröther-Kirsch, Kirchengeschichte, I, 602 if. See P. Hughes, op. cit., I, 342 ff.; H. M. Diepen, O.S.B., Les trois chapitres au Concile de Chalcédoine (Oosterhout, 1953).]

° The Roman objection to issuing the condemnation was that since Theodoret and Ibas had been solemnly reinstated at Chalcedon any attack on them must have a prima facie appearance of a move away from Chalcedon. And indeed this was the first and immediate reading in the west of the very qualified condemnation issued by the pope in 548. There were passionate scenes everywhere, but in Africa especially, where the pope was excommunicated.

The pope's position was all the more delicate – and his acts open to misinterpretation – from the fact that he was at this time Justinian's prisoner, having been kidnapped in 545 and shipped to the capital when his first hesitancy about complying with the imperial will had shown itself.

Between the condemnation of 548, which the pope withdrew, and the meeting of the council – May 553 – there were a succession of crises, and the council met with the pope refusing to take any part in it. There were thus separate condemnations. One, by the pope, of the writings of Theodore of Mopsuestia, the other, by the council, of the Three Chapters – or rather an acceptance by the council of Justinian's condemnation of them.

It remained to win the pope's assent, and after six months more of bullying, of isolation and imprisonment, Vigilius, an old man past eighty years of age, yielded. He was then allowed to leave for Rome, whence he had been absent nearly ten years. – Hughes, Popular History, op. cit., pp. 43-4.

4. It is alleged of Pope Honorius I (625-38) that: (a) in two letters to Sergius, bishop of Constantinople, he taught Monotheletism † and, did so, indeed, so clearly that (b) he was afterwards for this very reason condemned as a heretic by the sixth ecumenical council (Third Constantinople) in the year 680.

† Monotheletism (from manas "single" and thelo "I will") is the last of the great Christological heresies and an offshoot of Monophysitism. It maintained that Christ had only one will – a divine will – and consequently denied to Christ's human nature that which is connatural to it – a human will. See Parente, Dictionary, op. cit., p. 194-5.

a. The letters of Honorius do not contain any ex cathedra statement. The pope made no doctrinal decision; he approved the request of Sergius that silence should be observed in the question of "a single or double operation" in Christ, "Exhorting you that avoiding the use of the newfangled term of a single or double operation…" (Kirch 1064); and again, "It is not necessary for us to give a definitive decision on this matter of one or two operations" (Kirch 1068).

But to urge silence on a matter is just the reverse of a peremptory definition!

The letters of Honorius do not contain any doctrinal error. Even though the pope does refrain from using the term of a double will or double operation, he does teach in equivalent terms the existence of two wills and a twofold operation by asserting that Christ possesses two complete, unconfused natures, which operate and are sources of operation, and one operator.

The phrase: "We confess that there is one will of our Lord Jesus Christ" (Kirch 1073) in nowise prevents this conclusion. In the context in which the clause occurs, the meaning is simply this: In Christ's human nature there is perfect harmony between His rational will and His sensitive appetite (for the latter is perfectly subject to the former), hence there is in Christ's humanity but one will, one that is to say, not physically but morally. (17) Pope John IV (640-42) ratified this orthodox meaning in his Apologia pro Honorio coauthored, it is interesting to note, by the same John Sympon who had cosigned the letters of Honorius himself.

It must be admitted, however, that the clause "we confess one will," even though it did not have a Monotheletic meaning in Honorius' mind and does not have such a meaning objectively – provided the context be considered carefully, not casually – could be easily twisted to give it a perverted sense. (18)

b. Before anything else, this much is absolutely sure: Honorius was not condemned as guilty of preaching heresy in his official capacity (ex cathedra). Something more, he was not even condemned as being privately a heretic. Strictly speaking, he was condemned for being a helper of heresy. Whatever might have been the intention of the fathers of the sixth ecumenical council, this much is certain: the decree of the council would be of no value except insofar as it was ratified by the Apostolic See. Now Leo II, who had succeeded Agatho as pope before the end of the council, in his ratification of the fathers' decree either explained the decree in such fashion or so mitigated it that the upshot was that Honorius was to be stigmatized not as a heretic, but as a helper of heresy.

Here are Leo's words to Constantine Pogonatus ratifying the council's decree: "We anathematize the inventors of the new error, that is, Theodosius, Cyrus, Sergius, Pyrrhus, Paul, Peter . . . and also Honorius who did not enlighten this apostolic see with the doctrine of apostolic tradition, but allowed its immaculate faith to be soiled by profane betrayal" (Kirch 1085). (19) A short time later, Leo wrote to the bishops of Spain explaining the matter. Honorius was condemned along with the others: "because instead of extinguishing the incipient flame of heretical doctrine, as befits the holder of apostolic authority, he rather fanned it by his negligence."

Was, then, Honorius actually a helper of heresy? Prescinding from the question of serious subjective guilt, from which many authors excuse the pope, this much must be said: Honorius was a bit gullible in relying so readily on Sergius' advice and he acted unwisely in persuading people not to preach about the twofold operation – which he himself, nonetheless, personally admitted. He acted still more unwisely by adding that odd-sounding clause about "one will in Christ." Because of these imprudences he did (unwittingly) help to fan the rising blaze of the Monotheletic heresy. Instead, he should have combatted the heresy energetically with a clear and distinct explanation of apostolic doctrine as befitted his apostolic office. Finally, it seems probable that the only reason the Apostolic See acquiesced in this grave censure of Honorius was to prevent even further damage by making some concessions to the Greeks who were quite incensed about the condemnation of some of their leaders. (20)

All this explanation is offered on the hypothesis that both the letters of Honorius and the acts of the sixth council are completely authentic. Quite a few scholars – whose opinion has not won wide acceptance, however – have tried to show that a number of interpolations have been inserted in either the letters of Honorius or the acts of the council.

5. Pope Zacharias (741-752) is said to have erred by condemning St. Virgilius for teaching the existence of the antipodes.

We still do not know much about this case of Virgilius. Nothing about the case has been handed down to posterity except this reply of the pope to St. Boniface:

as for that perverse and evil doctrine in which he has spoken against God and against his own soul – if he has actually taught that there is another world and other men under the earth or another sun and moon – after convening a council throw this man out of the Church and deprive him of the priestly honor. But we ourselves in writing to the aforesaid duke [Otilo, duke of Bavaria, and defender of Virgilius] have sent summoning letters to the aforesaid Virgilius: that he should come before us for careful questioning and if he should be found in error, he shall be condemned in accord with the canonical sanctions. (21)

a. It was the commonly accepted opinion of earlier ages that to make a journey to the other side of the earth was absolutely impossible. Consequently anyone who would subscribe to such an impossibility and at the same time accept the existence of the antipodes would be implicitly asserting that some men on this earth are not descended from Adam. This assertion, since it negates the universality of original sin, is contrary to the Catholic faith. It should be clear, then, that the pope called that doctrine "perverse and evil" not in the sense that there should actually exist antipodes, but in the sense that there should exist antipodes not descended from Adam.

b. This censure of the pope does not bear the earmarks of an ex cathedra decision. The replies of the pope to some bishop who asks for advice on a particular matter are not usually ex cathedra decisions. Again, perversity of doctrine is rather implied than declared ex professo: the pope considered that further investigation was necessary. It is hardly probable that Pope Zacharias wished to make subtle inquiries as to whether Virgilius admitted the existence of the antipodes; what he wanted to know was precisely in what way Virgilius accounted for them.

Finally, even though we do not know precisely how he did so, it seems clear Virgilius gave the pope a satisfactory answer, for he soon received the cathedral of Salzburg and his name was added by Gregory IX to the catalogue of the saints. (22)

6. Finally, we have the widely publicized case of Galileo whose teaching on the motion of the earth and the immobility of the sun was condemned as "false and completely opposed to Divine Scripture."

a. It should be candidly admitted, we think, that the sacred congregation did condemn Galileo's teaching by what was actually a doctrinal decree. The opinion of some theologians that the decree of March 5, 1818 was a purely disciplinary decree, merely forbidding the reading of books containing Galileo's theory and nothing more than that, is, in our opinion, difficult to square with the facts of the case. Likewise it should be frankly admitted that the Congregations of the Inquisition and of the Index committed a faux pas in this matter. Even though that mistake is easily understandable in the circumstances of the time, it cannot be completely excused. °

° Monsignor Journet feels that the authors of the decrees of 1818 and 1833 committed a fault against prudence due to a failure of nerve. They failed to act quickly enough and resolutely enough in detaching the scriptural question from the scientific one:
Where precisely were the authors of these fallible decrees at fault? They lacked the courage to detach the question of Scripture at once from the dispute over the geocentric issue. That, it seems, would have been the prudent thing to do. "Cardinal Baronius," wrote Galileo to the Grand Duchess of Tuscany, "used to say that God did not wish to teach us how the heavens go, but how we are to go to heaven." One wishes that all the theologians of that day had spoken like Cardinal Baronius! Then they would not have involved the fallible magisterium of the Congregations in a prudential and doctrinal error. – Church of the Word, op. cit., I, 356-7.

b. It is beyond question that in the whole case of Galileo no ex cathedra decision was ever handed down. The pope was aware of the decree of the congregation, and approved it as a decree o f the congregation, even though (as was customary at the time) no explicit mention of papal approbation is found in the decree itself. But the pope himself in his capacity as pope did not hand down any decision. Neither did he make the congregation's decision his own in any special way. In the Galileo case, therefore, we have a decision which is by its very nature revocable and nothing more. As a matter of fact, both the more sensible theologians of the time and a fair number of the scientists of the day understood the matter in exactly that light. †

† See, for example, the statements by the theologian, St. Robert Bellarmine, and the astronomer, Laplace, cited in Journet, loc. cit. A recent work, detailing all the intrigues surrounding the Galileo incident, is now available to English readers: George De Santillana, The Crime of Galileo (Chicago, 1955). Unfortunately, the multitudinous Latin and Italian footnotes are, for the most part, untranslated.

Likewise, the decree of July 22, 1833 which ordered Galileo to abjure his errors and, furthermore, did so under pain of certain penalties – even though it was sent to all the bishops by order of Urban VI – possesses no other authority than the authority of the Sacred Congregation of the Inquisition. This is quite clear from the ending of a decree of this type:– And so, we, the undersigned cardinals, pronounce . . . "; there then follows a list of their names without any mention made of the pope.

Since in this whole question, he who occupied the chair (sedebat in cathedra) never handed down a decision, there is simply no ex cathedra decision in the Galileo case.* Consequently it is futile to adduce it as an objection to papal infallibility.

° Since the other objections against Catholicism in general that arise at the mention of the word "Galileo' (v.g., that a scientific mind is irreconcilable with acceptance of religious teaching by authority) have no precise bearing on the question of papal infallibility, they cannot be gone into at this point. They come into focus under the more generic question of the relationship obtaining between faith and reason and will be discussed in the next volume of this series, Sources of Revelation and Divine Faith. It is impossible to discuss such a question intelligently until one understands precisely the various types of assent required by the ecclesiastical magisterium and in precisely what matters. These points are all discussed ex professo in the next volume.

The actual proceedings of the case of Galileo have been edited by A. Navarro, Il processo di Galilei (1902) and A. Favarro, Galileo e L'Inquizione. Documenti del Processo (1907).
Among the best treatments of the Galileo case are the following:. H. Grisar, Galilei-Studien (1882); Funk, Manual of Church History, vol. II; Linsmeijer, "Riccioli's Stellung im Galileistreit;" Natur and Offenbarung (1901); A. Miller, Der Galilei-prozesz 1632 nach Ursprung, Verlauf und Folgen; R. Maiocchi, Galileo e la sua condamna (1919); J. Stein, "Galilei an zijn tijd," Studien, 85 (1916), 392.


1. Because the word "infallibility" when rendered into other languages might possibly leave the door open to misinterpretations of this sort, the fathers of the Vatican Council took the fourth chapter which had been tentatively titled "On the Infallibility of the Roman Pontiff" and re-entitled it, "On the Infallible Magisterium of the Roman Pontiff." See Coll. Lac., VII, 408.

2. See Granderath, op. cit., p. 190 ff. The importance of this distinction will be seen in the controversy over "ecclesiastical faith"; see volume III of this series, nos. 248-50.

3. See, for example, Matt. 23:2: "The Scribes and the Pharisees occupy the chair [cathedram] of Moses."

4. So, John XXII in sermons preached at Avignon stated three times that the souls of the saints do not enjoy the intuitive vision of the Divine Essence prior to the General Judgment. See Hefele, op. cit., VI, 299. The matter had not yet been defined.

5. Pertinent to this point are the words of Innocent III: "He [the Roman pontiff] can be judged by men, or rather can be shown to be already judged, if for example he should wither away into heresy; because he 'who does not believe is already judged" (Sermo 4); see Decreta Gratiani, III, d. 40, c. 8.

6. We have changed the Kleist-Lilly translation in this instance:
Some scholars maintain that this text refers exclusively to the time of our Lord's Passion and consequently cannot be used in favor of Peter's successors. They base their stand on a double argument:

(1) By supposing that Luke 22:31 is a parallel passage with Matthew 28:31 and Mark 14:17, they conclude that the sifting Luke was talking about must refer to the scandal which all the apostles were to undergo on the night of the Passion.

But this hypothesis is not terribly convincing since all the apostles and Peter in particular actually succumbed to scandal on that night; whereas the sifting spoken of in Luke seems to indicate that the brethren will come through it unscathed; Peter first of all, and then, because of Peter, the other apostles. As a matter of fact later events confirmed the distinction between the two types of danger: for there is no shred of probability for maintaining that Peter "strengthened" the rest of the apostles on the night of the Passion. He failed even more than the others.

(2) Opponents of our interpretation state: there is a restrictive sense to the passage implied from the fact that Peter is ordered to confirm his brethren after his own conversion from the fall of the denial: "and do thou, when once thou hast turned again" (aliquando conversus – su pote epitrepsas).

But: a. It is not certain that the word, "turned" (conversus) should be understood in this sense, since Christ had not yet predicted Peter's denial. Consequently, many scholars render the word (conversus) this way: "but you in your turn (vicissim) confirm," or, "You turn yourself to your brethren and confirm them."

b. Even if the word conversus may be understood of a conversion from a fall, it does not follow at all that the task of strengthening the brethren should be fulfilled immediately after the conversion, and at that time exclusively. Furthermore, the particle (pote) seems to indicate a time-period that is more remote (see Palmieri, De Romano pontifice, 2nd ed., p. 353). At all events, even if the explanation proffered by our opponents might seem to have some probability to it, considering Sacred Scripture alone, the interpretation of tradition is of such a kind that "for men who follow the Church's interpretation of Scripture, there can and should be no doubt at all about the true meaning of the passage” (Relat. Ep. Brixin. in Coll. Lac., VII, 282).

Now if the text in question, at least from the viewpoint of tradition simply must be understood of Peter as the foundation and supreme pastor of the Church, obviously the quibblings of Jos. Langen fall apart; for he contended that the indefectibility promised Peter does not prevent him from innocently falling into error in matters of faith, but only prevents him from losing the virtue of faith by sinful apostasy from Christ. It would certainly not be much help if the one who holds the office of strengthening his brethren in the faith could not become a "formal heretic;" but could in some circumstances go astray from the truth (see Palmieri, loc. cit.).

A recent, excellent article on this subject by a Scripture scholar is to be found in Edmund F. Sutcliffe, "Et Tu Aliquando Conversus" CBQ, 15 (July 1953), 305-310. This study corroborates the interpretation given here; it adds to the theological reasoning here employed, some cogent exegetical and philological arguments.

7. Epistula ad Abatem albanorum catholicum; see H. Hurter, "Ein Zeugnis aus dem 6. Jahrhunderte fur die Unfehlbarkeit des Papstes," ZkTh (1910), p. 219.

8. See Hefele, op. cit., II, 188.

9. Conc. Constantinop. III, act. 18; cited in Labbe, VI, 1053.

10. Philip Hughes describes their confusion neatly in the following words: All the cardinals – with one exception – recognized Clement VII as pope [i.e., in a second election attempting to disqualify the legitimately elected Urban VI]. What was Christendom to do? How was it to decide between the conflicting accounts of the rivals? And how was it to judge on which occasion this same body of cardinals had really, by its unanimous vote, elected a pope, in April or September? Christendom speedily divided, along lines more or less political, according as its sympathies were French or anti-French. And both camps were equally representative of the Church, holy people, since canonized, being found among the supporters of the Avignon pope as well as among those of his Roman antagonist. Was the Church divided? On one point only, the point of fact, was Urban truly pope or was Clement? On all points of doctrine, on the point of papal powers and the obedience due to the pope, all were in agreement. There was nowhere any rebellion against an admittedly lawful pope. The division was not a schism in any real sense of the word. But it was a very real division, and it lasted for just short of forty years. – Popular History, op. cit., p. 139.

11. De potestate ecclesiae, constit. 12; in Opera omnia (Paris, 1606), I, 135.

12. De ecclesia Christi, q. 5, a. 3 (Paris, 1727), II, 134.

13. Orat. theol., 3, no. 7. Then the illustrious theologian mentions his personal opinion, stating that the privilege of papal infallibility, "is, in our judgment, certain because of the teaching of the fathers end the councils" (no. 8).

14. This is obvious, for example, from the condemnations of Baius (DB 1001 ff.); Jansenius (DB 1092 ff. ); Quesnel (DB 1351 ff. ); and Synod of Pistoia (DB 1501 ff.), and so forth.

15. See Hefele, op. cit., I, 681 ff.; Hergenröther-Kirsch, Kirchengeschichte, I, 374; BLE (1905), p. 223; (1907), p. 279; A. Feder, "Neue Literatur zur Liberiusfrage," ThR (1910); F. di Capua, ll ritmo prosaico nelle Iettere dei Pape, I (1937), p. 236-47.

18. See below p. 336, note.        .

17. Others give a different explanation, namely that Honorius was referring to a kind of moral unity between the divine and human wills in Christ; sea Hefele-Leclercq, Histoire des conciles, III, 376 ff.

18. See Hefele, op. cit., III, nos. 296-8; Hergenröther-Kirsch, op. cit., I, 625.

19. In Greek: Te bebelo prodosia mianthenai ten aspilon parexoresen. Thus, certain versions err by translating the text as, “he tried to stain,” rather than, “he allowed to be stained.”

20. See Hefele, op. cit., III, no. 324.

21. Jaffé, Monumenta moguntina, p. 91.

22: See Hefele, op, cit., III, 557; Barthélemy, Erreurs et mensonges historiques (1873), I, 269-86; Kirchenlexikon, XII, col. 1002; Gilbert in Revue des questiones scientifiques (1882); Krabbo in Mitteilungen des Institut fur Oesterreichisch Geschichtsforschung, 24 (1902), 1.

Epilogue: The Pope's Temporal Sovereignty *

* For a lively, unbiased, historical presentation of this whole matter by a non-Catholic, see: Pio Nono, by E. E. Y. Hales (New York, 1954): "The Prisoner in the Vatican," pp. 313-331. The whole book, indeed, is commendable for its balanced, scholarly assessment of the struggles between the papacy and nineteenth century liberalism.

After the middle of the nineteenth century the Italian states burned with a desire for political unity. When they were finally coalesced into “One Italy with Rome as its Capital” even the ecclesiastical state, which the popes had ruled over as kings for long centuries, was, first of all vastly diminished in territory and then, in the year 1870, completely subjugated by military might. The following year the new government through its “law of grants” decided to bestow upon the pope a personal privilege of sovereignty and inviolability, free commerce with foreign nations, and an annual pension. But since all these things depended exclusively on the good pleasure of the Italian government the pope could not accept the arrangement.

First, Pius IX and then the succeeding popes protested strongly against the injury done to the Holy See and the resultant shameful and intolerable conditions forced upon the pope. (1) They did not recognize the Italian government with Rome as its capital until Feb. 11, 1929 when “the Roman Question” was definitively settled by a solemn concordat. By this concordat the Holy See recognized: “the kingdom of Italy under the dynasty of the house of Savoy together with Rome, the capital of the Italian nation”; and at the same time Italy recognized: “Vatican City as a state under the supreme sovereignty of the supreme pontiff.” (2)

To understand why the popes insisted so strongly and so unwaveringly: (1) that they should not be deprived of their temporal sovereignty; (2) that the plunder committed should be repaired, at least to the degree that the head of the universal church might cease to find himself in that deplorable condition to which he had been reduced in the year 1870, we mention the following points:
The protests of the popes always reiterated the same point: it is of immense concern to the entire Christian world that the pope in ruling the Church should not only be free, but should be clearly seen to be free and subject to no earthly government:

the individual faithful all over the world and various nations would never cease suspecting, or at least fearing, that the pope might bend his actions to meet the whims of the prince or government on whose bounty he lived. As a result, various peoples might not hesitate to refuse to obey his decisions on this pretext. (3)

But the pope will always be the citizen of some government, unless he has a territory of his own. Consequently some sort of temporal sovereignty is a necessity for the pope.
The pope's need of temporal sovereignty, then, is viewed in relation to the exercise of his spiritual power. Obviously this necessity of temporal sovereignty is not an absolute necessity. Since the Church in the early centuries lacked all temporal sovereignty, it is clear that she could, strictly speaking, exist without it. In other words, the popes could exercise the duties and rights of their primacy in some fashion without that temporal sovereignty. The necessity for temporal sovereignty, therefore, is a moral necessity. It amounts to this: the pope's spiritual power cannot be exercised in suitable fashion and with unhampered fruitfulness without such temporal sovereignty.

Since from very ancient times, viz., the collapse of the Roman Empire: "it came about by the very striking plan of Divine Providence that the Roman pontiff should be possessed of civil sovereignty," (4) the popes did not feel free to simply abandon at whim this guarantee of their liberty which they had justly acquired and possessed peacefully throughout so many centuries. That explains why the popes who succeeded Plus IX took an oath to strive to the best of their power to restore the temporal sovereignty.

In this constant demand the popes quite reasonably prescinded from the question of whether perhaps some other guarantee might be found to safeguard and make plain to the world the complete liberty of the Roman pontiff. Since up to this time "neither Divine Providence has pointed out, nor have human suggestions hit upon anything similar which might suitably compensate for the protection brought about [by ones own sovereignty],” (5) the popes rightly demanded the restitution of that one safeguard which throughout so many centuries had suitably guaranteed their liberty – a safeguard which was destroyed by obvious injustice and military might.

In demanding restitution for the territory that had been stolen from them, the popes refrained from laying down the exact amount of restitution to be made. Since the freedom of the head of the Church does not necessarily depend upon the size of the papal territory, and since it is up to the popes alone to decide how much territory would suffice for their purpose, Pius XI deserves great praise for his wise generosity. He was content with the tiny state of Vatican City and decided to leave all the rest of the papal territory to Italy so that the Roman Question might be finally and definitively brought to an end.


1. See DB 1775-6 and the statements of Pius IX cited in 1776a; Leo XIII, encyclical Inscrutabili (April 21, 1878) in Allocutiones Leo XIII (Desclée ed.), I, 10; Pius X, allocution of Nov. 9, 1903 in Civ. Catt. S. 18, vol. 12, p. 386; Benedict XV, encyclical, Ad beatissimi (Nov. 1, 1914) in AAS (1914), p. 511. Pius XI, encyclical, Ubi arcano (Dec. 23, 1922) in AAS (1922), p. 699.

2. See AAS (1929), p. 221.

3. Pius IX, allocution, Quibus quantisque (April 20, 1849 ).

4. Pius IX, apostolic letter, Cum catholica (March 28, 1860).

5. Pius XI, encyclical, Ubi arcano, loc. cit., p. 699.

(Monsignor G. Van Noort, S.T.D., Dogmatic Theology, Volume II, Christ's Church, Translated and Revised by John J. Castelot, S.S., S.T.D., S.S.L. & William R. Murphy, S.S., S.T.D., The Newman Press, Westminster, Maryland, 1957. pp 288-315.)