This post is the third and final instalment on a series concerning the authority of Rome and the infallibility/supremacy of the pope. We will explore the doctrine of papal infallibility from the lens of Christians who still call themselves catholic despite no longer being in official communion with Rome. For some, this is because they do not see Rome has holding the monopoly over what is and is not catholic. For others, this is because they believe that the Roman Catholic church has departed from true catholic teaching or “that faith which has been believed everywhere, always, by all” (Fr. Vincent of Lérins). This post will examine those positions specifically from the Old Catholic Church and the Anglican Catholic Church. For the purpose of this post Roman and catholic will be distinguished terms; it shall not be assumed when one reads catholic that this means Roman.
The only place to start when we discuss the position of non-Roman catholics on papal infallibility and supremacy is the First and Second Vatican Councils– more so the First Vatican Council. As we learned in the Roman perspective on the issue, the doctrine of papal infallibility/supremacy that we understand today is relatively a very new concept within the Roman Catholic Church having been defined clearly in the 1870s and then further refined in the 1960s. When speaking of papal authority within the church there is a definite pre- and post- Vatican Councils era that any honest observer should take into account when reflecting on a supposed catholic position on the doctrine itself. A period before the doctrine was defined where there today exists a dispute between Romans and catholics as to whether said authority was exercised without resistance (and hence not requiring definition) or was not exercised and hence didn’t require any resisting. And a period after the doctrine was defined when a portion of the Roman Catholic church broke away on the issue itself and many Roman catholics now attend Sunday services in Anglo-Catholic churches– and the established Roman Catholic church insists that the doctrine makes up a core component of the catholic faith requiring strict obedience.
There is no dispute that in the pre-Vatican I council period of the church there was no definitive (let’s say written down, at least) definition of the the doctrine of papal supremacy. Today, proponents of papal supremacy (the Roman Catholic church as a whole) maintain that the doctrine existed during this period but, as Cardinal Newman said, did not require defining because it was held to the evident by the church and her faithful. However, there is a segment of those who call themselves catholic (but not Roman), who would maintain that the doctrine was not defined because it did not exist and was never truly held to be evident by any single person. These faithful point to catholic textbooks and catechisms such as the one I quoted in the previous post that clearly stated there was no authority granted to the pope of that kind.
(Q.) Must not Catholics believe the Pope himself to be infallible?
(A.) This is a Protestant invention: it is no article of the Catholic faith: no decision of his can oblige under pain of heresy, unless it be received and enforced by the teaching body, that is by the bishops of the Church.
Another good example from history is that of the use of oaths of office, especially throughout England, Scotland, Whales and Ireland (and even into Quebec and Canada) because of the historical religious tension between catholics and protestants in those regions. In the early 1800s during the reign of the King George III, a catholic who wished to take public office in any form had to swear an oath that protected against a (now defined false, and therefore heretical) claim by popes that they could forgive regicide and directly guide state affairs through their office (what was in the pre-Vatican councils period, the fundamental question of papal supremacy, it was not about faith or morals at this point). Part of the oath stated, “it is not an article of the Catholic Faith, neither am I thereby required to believe or profess that the Pope is infallible.” And this was supported by the Irish bishops in 1826 when they stated in a pastoral letter to the faithful:
[t]he Catholics of Ireland not only do not believe, but they declare upon oath … that it is not an article of the Catholic faith, neither are they required to believe, that the Pope is infallible, and that they do not hold themselves ‘bound to obey any order in its own nature immoral’, though the Pope or any ecclesiastical power should issue or direct such an order; but, on the contrary, that it would be sinful in them to pay any respect or obedience thereto. (Pastoral letter, 25 January 1826)
Contrary to what the Roman church and her theological authorities continue to repeat, it does not appear that there was a clear definition or understanding of papal supremacy/infallibility in the early church, nor was there indications of a consensus among Bishops, clergy and faithful. This is the position of many catholics who fall outside of the Roman church. They do not see a legitimate claim that the doctrine of papal infallibility/supremacy has existed clearly through-out the history of the church– and some consider this to be new doctrine.
Along the same lines of there being no clear consensus on the authority of the pope through-out the bulk of the history of the Roman church, Old Catholics specifically charge the Roman church with the error of adding doctrine to the faith. This point was touched on in the post on the protestant position on Roman authority as well. The premise is that the whole collection of what has been revealed to mankind concerning God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit as well as the mission and intention of the Church has been handed down in what is called the Deposit of Faith, this Deposit can be accessed by the church and she does regularly as a source of her teaching and preaching of the Good News around the whole world. However, she cannot add to this Deposit, because what has been revealed has been done by God and cannot be altered or added to by the church– not even the pope. And the Roman church does hold to this belief as well. It is without question a catholic doctrine which is professed in the Apostle’s Creed when we say that we believe in One Holy Catholic Church– meaning whole and complete as well as united and together. However, the Roman church does not consider the doctrine of papal infallibility– first defined in the 1870s and again in the 1960s– to be new doctrine because it is a fruit on the tree of faith which has grown over time– or, as Cardinal Newman pointed out, it has existed the whole time (which as we explored earlier, is not entirely conclusive). Old Catholics maintain that what has been taught within the faith throughout the ages and for all time was altered during the course of the First Vatican Council and then again during the Second Vatican Council. Admittedly, there has been some significant controversy within the Old Catholic movement (the “leader” who I quoted in the opening of this post never even associated himself directly with the break from the Roman church) and today the Old Catholic church permits the ordination of married male Priests.
The fallout of not adhering to the authority of Rome but still holding catholic value (or attempting to), is clear in the Anglican Catholic church of today. Members of this church often see themselves as catholic, and would even consider themselves as individuals to be in communion with Rome and still catholics despite the official position from Rome being that they are not in communion. They take issue with certain non-essential elements of the Roman faith which within the Roman church are taken very seriously. These are the trivial cultural practices that although very important, are often presented within the Roman church as being on an equal footing with tenant of the Creeds, for example. This is often because of the zero-sum-game that is created an organization is establish along the blind adherence to how a single man does something in a specific part of the world. Anything you do, regardless of where it falls along the hierarchy of importance within the faith, becomes taboo when it is not in line with what Rome does, it puts the actions and will of the pope on equal, if not very, very near footing with the Will of God for His Church. That is a problem to many Anglican Catholics who have left the Roman church as a result.
A summarizing sentence for the catholic position on papal infallibility/supremacy and the authority of Rome could be: it was never part of the catholic faith to profess the infallibility/supremacy of the pope, that is a new doctrine and it is an error of the Roman church to continue to teach it.