Myth of Papal Infallibility

The novel doctrine of papal infallibility was defined dogmatically in the First Vatican Council of 1870–and not with popular support of bishops and/or cardinals, but pushed through by one of the most hated popes in recent history: Pius IX.  (See: Hasler, Bernhard (1979). Wie Der Papst Unfehlbar Wurde: Macht und Ohnmacht eines Dogmas, R. Piper & Co. Verlag).  The dogma of infallibility claims that any statement made by any pope, including those living in sin, are inspired by the Holy Spirit when the pope speaks on matters of faith or morals as it is argued that any statement on faith or morals contains divine revelation, or at least is intimately connected to divine revelation as it appears in three categories or actions: Sacred Scripture (the Bible), Sacred Tradition, and the Sacred Magisterium (the “teaching authority of the Roman Catholic Church”; see: Boyle, John (1995). Church Teaching Authority: Historical and Theological Studies. University of Notre Dame Press).  Since the day that the solemn declaration of Papal Infallibility was proclaimed by Vatican I on July 18, 1870, this power has been (according to its apologists) used only once–in the full ex cathedra sense: in 1950 when Pope Pius XII (popularly known as Hitler’s pope) defined the Assumption of Mary as being an article of faith for Roman Catholics (See: Pope Pius XII: “Munificentissimus Deus – Defining the Dogma of the Assumption”, par. 44. Vatican, November 1, 1950).   The issue of the Assumption has always been an arguing point in Christianity, and the Roman Catholic church’s push to upgrade a primitive belief to a matter of faith and doctrine hit a raw nerve of disbelief not only among Protestants but also among many leading Roman Catholics. Reality gives a different account than the publication of Pius XII’s apologia, for scholars of the time were already tracing the “Assumption of Mary” back to far older mythologies, especially those in Sumeria and Babylon. In those societies the myth of the assumption of a goddess were common.

In ancient Sumeria and Babylon the Great Mother Goddess Semiramus was assumed into heaven to be with her divine son.  But even these fables were not new nor unique.  In the most ancient accounts the god Bacchus went down into hell to rescue his mother from the fiery pit and carried her into heaven–a story recorded as early as 3000 BCE.  (See: Hislop, Alexander [1953, reprint; original (copy in my personal library; second copy in the Library of Congress) published anonymously in 1858 from which this is cited]. The two Babylons; or, The papal worship proved to be the worship of Nimrod and his wife. With 61 woodcut illus. from Ninevah, Babylon, Egypt, Pompeii, etc. New York: Loizeaux Bros., chap. 3, sec. 4: Feast of the Assumption.)  The Babylonian and Sumerian theologies became a part of redacted mythology in the Old Testament. Here the Queen of Heaven had a prominent place in the ever-expanding pantheon of ancient Hebrews (See: Jeremiah 7:18) .

To strengthen his hand, Pius XII ruled autocratically. He wrote:  “Hence if anyone, which God forbid, should dare willfully to deny or to call into doubt that which We have defined, let him know that he has fallen away completely from the divine and Catholic Faith.”   The words of Pius XII meant little to reputable scholars, for they had already brought up cogent arguments against the earlier ex cathedra pronouncement of Pius IX.

Pope Pius IX proclaimed the Immaculate Conception of Mary an ex cathedra dogma on December 8, 1854.  His proclamation was met with contempt and scorn by many Roman Catholic prelates.  Most saw it as nothing less than a revisitation and rewriting of far older pagan mythologies from Persia (See: Malcolm, John, The history of Persia, from the most early period to the present time; London, J. Murray [etc.] 1815), Egypt, and Babylon–and is found even in ancient China (See: The history of that great and renowned monarchy of China. Wherein all the particular provinces are accurately described: as also the dispositions, manners, learning, lawes, militia, government, and religion of the people. Together with the traffick and commodities of that countrey. Lately written in Italian by F. Alvarez Semedo … Now put into English by a person of quality, and illustrated with several mapps and figures … To which is added the history of the late invasion, and conquest of that flourishing kingdom by the Tartars. With an exact account of the other affairs of China, till these present times. London, Printed by E. Tyler for I. Crook, 1655; the original is also found to be succinct: Relação da grande monarquia da China. Traduzida do italiano por Luis G. Gomes. [Macau-Oriente] Notícias de Macau, 1956), all predating Jesus and Pius IX. Most scholars in the Middle Ages rejected the concept of an Immaculate Conception. The Normans tried vigorously to stamp it out, as did other major houses. It was rejected by St. Bernard of Clairvaux and his order of Cistercian monks, Alexander of Hales, and St. Bonaventure (who, teaching at Paris, called it this foreign doctrine), and by St. Thomas Aquinas who expressed questions about the subject, but said that he would accept the determination of the Church. Aquinas and Bonaventure, for example, believed that Mary was completely free from sin, but that she was not given this grace at the instant of her conception, and St. John Chrysostom (Homilies on John 21. in J-P Migne, Patrologiae cursus completus … Series Graeca; Lutetiae Parisiorum, 1857-1866. vol. 59. 130 ff), tried to enumerate her sins.  John Henry Cardinal Newman famously responded with his Letter to the Duke of Norfolk. In the letter he argues that conscience, which is supreme, is not in conflict with papal infallibility—though he toasts “I shall drink to the Pope if you please–still, to conscience first and to the Pope afterwards”.  (See: Letter to the Duke of Norfolk in The Genius of John Henry Newman: Selections from His Writings. Ed. I. Ker. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990.)

Dissent, mostly among German, Austrian, and Swiss Catholics, swiftly arose over the definition of Papal Infallibility. The dissenters, holding that only the General Councils of the Church were infallible, were unwilling to accept the dogma of Papal Infallibility. This lead to a schism within the existing Roman Catholic church, rising a strong barrier between Rome and those Roman Catholics who saw themselves as the only orthodox Christians in the western world.   Many of these Catholics formed independent communities in open defiance of Rome. They became known as the Old Catholic Churches.

Dissent spread further when the papacy used the old Celtic phrase in the Latin Partura Virginis “the virgin about to bring forth”, and attempted to attribute it to its Mariology and Jesus.  It had, long ago, been found on Pagan temples in Celtic countries and was seen  by the papacy as posing an increasing threat to Roman Catholicism in nations predominately Roman Catholic.  It did, however, push to the front a strong interest in biblical textual criticism.

The main Biblical passage used to support this declaration of Infallibility rests is Matthew 16:18 (“thou art Peter; and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it”) which is buttressed by John 1:42, and Mark 3:16 (“And to Simon he gave the name “Peter”, “Cephas”, or “Rock”). However, the unique claim that this “speaking for the Holy Spirit” by “Peter” and therefore his successors is rejected at Acts 15:28  (“For it hath seemed good to the Holy Ghost and to us, …”) where it is applied to all of those in the Upper Room–including the women and elders (Acts 15:6) and brethren (Acts 15:22-23) of whom were especially the now forgotten Judas Barsabus and Silas (Act 15:27) who were “chief among them” (Acts 15:22, and proclaimed prophets, v. 32).

While Pius IX and later Pius XII claimed that church (ecumenical) councils had always been accepted papal statements as infallible, and that the councils themselves spoke infallibly, history offers no such evidence. On the contrary, the first theologian to claim that ecumenical councils spoke infallibly was Theodore Abu-Qurrah (a Christian Arab who was one of the first Christian authors to use Arabic and Syriac when writing Christian doctrine using Islamic concepts and language, thus making himself seen as a Christian mutakallim) in the 9th century. (See: Juan Pedro Monferrer Sala, ‘Una muestra de kalam cristiano: Abu Qurra en la sección novena del Kitab muyadalat ma’ al-mutakallimin al-muslimin fi maylis al-Jalifa al-Ma’mun’, in Las raíces de la cultura europea : ensayos en homenaje al profesor Joaquín Lomba, edd. Elvira Burgos Díaz, José Solana Dueso & Pedro Luis Blasco Aznar (Institución Fernando el Católico, 2004); cp. S.H. Griffith, ‘Theodore Abū Qurrah’s Arabic Tract on the Christian Practice of Venerating Images’, Journal of the American Oriental Society 105:1 (1985), pp. 53-73, at p. 53 who argues that  Abu-Qurrah was a Christian mutakallim).

Ex cathedra statements had long plagued the Church of Rome. They did not begin with Pius IX. Long before his pontificate other popes issued pronouncements from the Chair of Peter.

“Tome to Flavian”, by Pope Leo I, in 449, was an ex cathedra pronouncement on the two natures in Christ, and was received as such by the Council of Chalcedon. Pope Agatho issued a stern ex cathedra Letter in 680, on the two wills of Christ, and it was received ex cathedra by the Third Council of Constantinople.

In 1075, Pope Gregory VII asserted 27 statements (theses) regarding the powers of the papacy in Dictatus Papae. The most critical one for this discussion is  “22.  That the Roman church has never erred; nor will it error to all eternity, the Scripture bearing witness.”   While few accepted this grab for power, Rome’s bishop was further eclipsed by the arguments of bolder theologians and later popes continued to issue ex cathedra pronouncements,  including:

  • Benedictus Deus, by Pope Benedict XII, written in 1336, on the beatific vision of the just prior to final judgment;
  • Cum occasione, written by Pope Innocent X, in 1653, condemning five propositions of Jansen as heretical;
  • Auctorem fidei, authored by Pope Pius VI, in 1794, condemning seven Jansenist propositions of the Synod of Pistoia as heretical;
  • Ineffabilis Deus, promulgated by Pope Pius IX, in 1854, defining the immaculate conception; and
  • Munificentissimus Deus, declared by Pope Pius XII, in 1950, defining the assumption of Mary.
  • (See: Sullivan, Francis A. (1966). Creative Fidelity: Weighing and Interpreting Documents of the Magisterium. New York : Paulist Press, chap. 6).

    The problem with infallibility is in the misreading of Matthew 16:18.  In this passage Peter (Πέτρος) is in the second person (“you”: I say to you).  But, “this rock” is in the third person (αυτό το βράχο) and refers to the Christ, (the subject of Peter’s truth confession in the verse 16, and the revelation referred to in v. 17), and who is uniquely and explicitly affirmed to be the foundation of the church (petra: Romans 8:33; 1 Cor. 10:4; 1Pet. 2:8; lithos: Mat. 21:42; Mk.12:10-11; Lk. 20:17-18; Act. 4:11; Rm. 9:33; Eph. 2:20; 1Pet. 2:4-8; cf. Deut. 32:4, Is. 28:16).  Augustine of Hippo wrote, “On this rock, therefore, He said, which thou hast confessed. I will build my Church. For the Rock (petra) is Christ; and on this foundation was Peter himself built”. (See: Augustine, “On the Gospel of John,” Tractate 12435, The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers Series I, Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1983, 7:450).  Paul of the New Testament (Saul of Tarsus) did not recognise Peter as primary nor infallible and took it upon himself to publicly reprove Peter (Gal. 2:11-14) claiming to have such authority. Furthermore, Peter never once claimed himself superior to any other Apostle.  Instead the Bible records Peter only as “an apostle,” or “an elder” (1 Pet. 1:1; 5:1).  If the first ecumenical council was truly held at Jerusalem, Peter is not seen as the infallible head of the church; instead James exercised the more decisive leadership, and provided the definitive sentence. (See: Bruce, F. F. (1979), Peter, Stephen, James and John, Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., pp. 86ff).   Nor is he seen elsewhere being the final and universal arbiter about any doctrinal dispute about faith in the life of the church. (See: De Rosa, Peter (1988). Vicars of Christ : the Dark Side of the Papacy, New York : Crown Publishers.) Titus 1:5-7 claims all bishops are equal.

    When will infallible teachings of the Roman Catholic church cease? Not as long as there are those gullible to believe in such absurdities. Already there is a move to make the “Purification of the Ever Virgin Mary” dogma–arch conservative bishops arguing for it citing Luke 2:22; yet, as Godfrey Higgins notes, “The Goddess Februa, or Februata Juno, became the Purificata Virgo Maria. The old Romans celebrated this festival in precisely the same way as the moderns—by processions with wax lights, and so on, and on the same day, 2 February. The author of the Perennial Calendar observes, that it is a remarkable coincidence that the festival of the miraculous conception of Juno Jugalis, the blessed Virgin, the Queen of Heaven, should fall on the very same day the modern Romans have fixed the festival of the conception of the blessed Virgin Mary. Being merely a continuation of an ancient festival, there is nothing remarkable in it.” (See: Higgins, Godfrey (1965), Anacalypsis : an attempt to draw aside the veil of the Saitic Isis : or an inquiry into the origin of languages, nations, and religions. New Hyde Park, NY: University Books). The Purification is now seen as essential so that Mary “Ever Virgin”  would be known to never have had sex nor experienced the agony of child-birth–making her first-born son (Luke 2:7)–it does not read only born son–a unique being (The New Living Translation reads: “But he [Joseph] did not have sexual relations with her until her son was born. And Joseph named him Jesus.” This rejects Matthew 1:27 where Yahweh tells Mary what to call her unborn).


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    Filed under Church history, Pope Pius XII, Roman Catholicism, Uncategorized

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