Papal Infallibility

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vatican i and infallibility
governmental reactions to the definition

Papal infallibility, for the exponents of the doctrine in the nineteenth century, referred to the inerrancy of official papal pronouncements and to the unfailing character of the papal teaching mission; the rock of Peter, it was claimed, would not succumb to the tide of doctrinal error that had engulfed the modern Western world. The promotion of this doctrine was bound up with the rise of ultramontanism from the late eighteenth century. Ultramontanism asserted the pope's absolute sovereignty over the Catholic Church, in opposition to Gallicanism, a tradition of the French church, and to German Febronianism (after "Febronius," pseudonym of Johann Nikolaus von Hontheim, assistant bishop of Trier [1701–1790]); these latter doctrines portrayed the leadership of the church in collegiate terms, as belonging to the body of the bishops, among whom the pope simply had primacy. Those who pressed for an official declaration of the doctrine of papal infallibility saw it as a precondition for a

closing of ranks within the Catholic Church around the papacy, in the face of threats from liberalism and anticlericalism. The doctrine was primarily promoted initially by lower clergy and lay publicists and had widespread support among the Catholic faithful by the mid-nineteenth century; the attitudes of bishops, who often saw their own position as threatened, were mixed. It was a central issue of the First Vatican Council of 1869–1870, an assembly of bishops called by Pope Pius IX. His primary objective, following on from the notorious Syllabus of Errors of 1864 condemning liberalism and the principle of religious toleration, was to arm the church doctrinally in the face of the "errors" deriving from rationalism. Clergy, nuns, and the devout laity were mobilized by ultramontane zealots to petition the pope to have papal infallibility declared a church doctrine; the initiative did not really come from the Vatican in the first instance.

vatican i and infallibility

The council was divided between, on the one hand, an infallibilist "majority," led by the extremists Henry Edward Manning, archbishop of Westminster, and Ignaz von Senestrey, bishop of Regensberg in Bavaria, and, on the other hand, the "minority" opposed to a declaration of papal infallibility. Of the latter, some regarded the doctrine as positively false, but most asserted its declaration to be "inopportune," on account of its likely impact in the world at large; it would further alienate Protestants and Eastern Christians and would deepen the gulf between the church and the world of liberalism. They also feared a form of declaration that would strengthen the extreme ultramontane party. Leaders of the "minority" within the council were Feélix Dupanloup, bishop of Orleéans, Georges Darboy, archbishop of Paris, Wilhelm Emmanuel von Ketteler, archbishop of Mainz, Cardinal Friedrich von Schwarzenberg, archbishop of Prague, and the forceful Joseph Georg Strossmayer, bishop of Djakovo, a spokesman of the Slav minority in Hungary. Outside the council, Johann Joseph Ignaz von Döllinger, professor of church history at Munich, was the most combative opponent of infallibilism. His pupil the historian Lord John Acton played a key role in cementing the group of those opposed to an infallibilist definition, liaising between the bishops in Rome and exploiting his links with the government of William Gladstone in Britain and that of Prince Chlodwig zu Hohenlohe-Schillingsfürst in Bavaria. The British, French, Italian, and sundry German governments feared that it would be used to buttress theocratic claims to papal oversight over state affairs, while the Italian government was apprehensive that it would aggravate the developing "Roman question." Gladstone feared that it would jeopardize his policy of religious toleration in Ireland and provide fuel for Protestant intolerance in Britain. It was the liberal ministry of Hohenlohe in officially Catholic Bavaria that took the initiative, in liaison with Döllinger. On 9 April 1869 Hohenlohe sent a circular to all European governments suggesting joint intervention to prevent a conciliar declaration of papal infallibility, which, he claimed, would subject civil to ecclesiastical power and give a seal of approval to the Syllabus. The initiative was unsuccessful. The governments of France, Austria-Hungary, Baden, and Prussia, however much they shared Hohenlohe's concerns, declined to intervene with the papacy.

The clause on papal infallibility, in the fourth section of the constitution Pastor aeternus (The eternal pastor) of 18 July 1870, voted by the council after the committed anti-infallibilists had left, stated that when the pope declared a doctrine ex cathedra—that is, by virtue of his supreme apostolic authority—he exercised the infallibility that Christ had promised to the church and there was no appeal from his decision. This was an ambiguous formula that met the demands neither of the "minority" nor of the extreme infallibilists (including now Pius IX), who had wanted the pope to be declared to enjoy the privilege of infallibility independently of the body of the church. The extremists, however, presented it as a triumph, and pressure was exerted against liberal interpretations of the formula. The French bishops accepted the definition with varying degrees of alacrity, those with reservations being under strong pressure from lower clergy and militant laity. A strong anticonciliar reaction in Germany, spearheaded by Döllinger, provoked a closing of the ranks in favor of acceptance among the German bishops, under the leadership of Ketteler. Reservations were especially marked among Czech and Hungarian bishops. In Germany, anti-infallibilists, led by the layman Johann Friedrich von Schulte, professor of canon law at Prague, broke away to form the Old Catholic Church, founded at the Munich congress in September 1871, which recruited particularly among officials, academics, and the middle class generally.

governmental reactions to the definition

On 25 July 1870 the Habsburg government of Austria-Hungary abrogated the concordat it had signed with the papacy in 1855 and whereby it had relaxed state control over the church. Now it stated that the definition of its infallibility had made the papacy an institution different from the one with which it had contracted in 1855. Reactions in Italian governing circles were muted, and, in fact, the issue of papal infallibility was not used by the papacy to support its claims regarding its lost temporal power. In 1872 Otto von Bismarck, who, ironically, had opposed Bavarian calls for diplomatic intervention in 1869, used the pretext of the definition of papal infallibility to launch the Kulturkampf (war for culture) in Prussia, setting a model for governments of other German states. Doubtless he sought to exploit divisions among German Catholics and, in particular, those between liberal Catholic officials who favored a unified Germany and militant popular clericalists, who were often anti-Prussian. In the event, however, the Kulturkampf tended to provoke greater unity among German Catholics and a certain healing of divisions over the issue of papal infallibility.

See alsoCatholicism; Kulturkampf; Manning, Henry; Papacy; Pius IX; Roman Question.


Aubert, Roger. "The Victory of Ultramontanism." In The Church in the Age of Liberalism, edited by Roger Aubert et al., 304–334. London, 1981.

Chadwick, Owen. A History of the Popes, 1830–1914. Oxford, U.K., 1998.

Tanner, Norman P., ed. Decrees of the Ecumenical Councils. Vol. 2: Trent–Vatican II. London, 1990.

Oliver Logan