Authority of Rome: A Catholic Perspective

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.

4 thoughts on “Authority of Rome: A Catholic Perspective

  1. EJ,

    A few things…

    As I understand it, the pope only acts infallibly along with the bishops, not alone. Your catechism quote does not necessarily contradict Rome’s position in light of this. Could it be saying that it’s wrong to assume that the pope would act infallibly all by himself? Because that seems to be a common misconception.

    In a letter to Pope Damasus, ca. 376, St. Jerome said this…

    “My words are spoken to the successor of the fisherman, to the disciple of the cross. As I follow no leader save Christ, so I communicate with none but your blessedness, that is with the chair of Peter. For this, I know, is the rock on which the Church is built! This is the house where alone the paschal lamb can be rightly eaten. This is the ark of Noah, and he who is not found in it shall perish when the flood prevails.”

    You keep using the word “infallibility”. I think that word can confuse the overall question of authority. Because while the pope’s infallibility has been a development in its definition, the authority of the pope can be more clearly traced back to the early centuries of the Church. So my question to you is this…

    Setting aside the word “infallible” and its complexities, to what extent do you accept the authority of the pope? Do you recognize that it existed in the early centuries but claim it was lost? If so, how and when? Was it lost much later? How and when? Did the bishop of Rome never have authority over other bishops and the Church?

    To debate the question of infallibility seems to me to be putting the cart before the horse. To debate how the pope exercises authority it seems necessary to determine whether the pope has authority in the first place. I would like to submit for your consideration CCC834, noting the footnotes referencing St. Ignatius of Antioch and St. Ignatius, both 2nd century writers.

    I want to get a better idea of where you stand on this if I can.

    Thanks brother!



      • I would take specific issue with the authority of the pope as defined today. He is infallible on his own when speaking of matters of faith and morals. The congregation of bishops requires the Holy Father to be present in order for any action on matters of faith and morals. I am unsure to what extent authority was exercises and understood in the pre-Vatican I and II period of the church, and I am now very much interested in learning more about that (I will follow up on your quotes). But this whole exercise has convinced me that there was a change in 1870 and a further change in 1960 and that change caused rifts within the catholic church, and that is not something to be disregarded.


  2. Hi EJ,

    I think it inaccurate to say “the doctrine of 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.” As I pointed out before, papal “supremacy” has very early roots, which even some non-Catholic scholars recognize. (Ben has pointed out some evidence too.)

    If something is defined clearly in council, then the belief was around a long time before that. For example, the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215 dogmatically defined transubstantiation. This does not mean the doctrine was not believed before then or that it was “relatively a very new concept” in 1215.

    The same goes for the Trinity. It took at least 4 councils between 325 and 451 to definitively define very important aspects of Christology (aspects we take for granted these days). We can imagine ourselves in 451. It’s easy to imagine people sitting around saying, “If this is so important and orthodox, why did it take 400 years to definitively define the two natures of Jesus? That’s plenty of time for corruption to enter the Church. Therefore, I do not believe it’s ‘catholic’ doctrine, regardless of what a pope or council says.”

    The same goes for the canon of Scripture. There was no dogmatic list of Scriptures in an Ecumenical Council until the Council of Florence (1438-1449) and again in the Council of Trent (1545-1563). Does that mean no one believed those writings were Scripture before 1449 or 1563? Or that holding those writings as Scripture was a new concept in 1449 or 1563? Of course not.

    The same goes for papal “infallibility.” Just because the doctrine was not defined definitively until 1870 does not mean it was a new concept.

    Saint Francis de Sales in the 1590s, in trying to explain Roman Catholic doctrine to Protestants, wrote about papal infallibility in a way that sounds very much like current Roman Catholic understandings.

    When he teaches the whole Church as shepherd, in general matters of faith and morals, then there is nothing but doctrine and truth. And in fact everything a king says is not a law or an edict but that only which a king says as king and as a legislator. So everything the Pope says is not canon law or of legal obligation; he must mean to define and to lay down the law for the sheep, and he must keep the due order and form….we must not think that in everything and everywhere his judgment is infallible, but then only when he gives judgment on a matter of faith in questions necessary to the whole Church, for in particular cases which depend on human fact he can err, there is no doubt, though it is not for us to control him in these cases save with all reverence, submission, and discretion. Theologians have said, in a word, that he can err in questions of fact, not in questions of right, that he can err extra cathedram, outside the chair of Peter, that is, as a private individual, by writings and bad example.

    But he cannot err when he is in cathedra, that is, when he intends to make an instruction and decree for the guidance of the whole Church, when he means to confirm his brethren as supreme pastor, and to conduct them into the pastures of the faith. For then it is not so much man who determines, resolves, and defines as it is the Blessed Holy Spirit by man, which spirit, according to the promise made by Our Lord to the Apostles, teaches all truth to the Church. (The Catholic Controversy, Article 6, chapter 14)

    De Sales isn’t making up something new here. He is explaining something that is already a well-known belief in the Church. So we could easily say this more specified definition—with the specific word “infallible”—was taught long before even Francis de Sales was alive. So the concept of specifically papal infallibility easily predates Vatican I by several hundred years.

    I think the proper attitude is found in the Bishop of Little Rock who had voted against papal infallibility at Vatican I. But in the same session when the doctrine was voted on and passed, he approached the papal throne and said, “Holy Father, now I believe.”

    Those are some of my thoughts at the moment.

    Liked by 2 people

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