September 27, 1894
“THE infallibility of the pope”—where does it come from? and how does he get it?
THE claim of infallibility on the part of the pope, is but the plain and logical consequence of the other claims made on his part.
THE claim of the headship of the Church of Christ, or of “the regency of God on earth,” as is claimed by the pope and for the pope—either of these logically demands that he shall claim infallibility also.
BUT as we have seen, the claim of any such thing as a regency of God is supremely ridiculous and blasphemous; and the claim that any other than “Christ himself” is head of his body, is preposterous and supremely immoral; so the claim of infallibility on the part of any man anywhere is the embodiment of all these.
LET us examine this claim of the infallibility of the pope. And in order to do this more fairly and fully, let us see what is the exact statement of the claim as officially and “infallibly” pronounced. Here it is:—
Wherefore, faithfully adhering to the tradition received from the beginning of the Christian faith, for the glory of God our Saviour, the exaltation of the Catholic religion, and the salvation of the Christian people, we, the sacred council, approving, teach, and define that it is a dogma divinely revealed: that the Roman pontiff, when he speaks ex cathedra—that is, when discharging the office of pastor, and teacher of all Christians, by reason of his supreme apostolic authority, he defines a doctrine regarding faith or morals to be held by the whole church—he, by the divine assistance promised to him in blessed Peter, possesses that infallibility with which the divine Redeemer willed that his church should be endowed in defining doctrine regarding faith or morals: and that, therefore, such definitions of the said Roman pontiff are of themselves unalterable and not from the consent of the church.
Consequently, Catholics believe that the pope is infallible when he teaches the faithful ex cathedra, that is, “from the chair” of St. Peter, in matters of faith or morals.—Catholic Belief, p. 69.
FROM this it is seen that there is no claim that infallibility attaches to the pope except when he speaks “ex cathedra that is, from the chair of St. Peter;” and he speaks “ex cathedra” only when he speaks (a) “as the father and doctor of all Christians;” (b) “discharging the office of pastor and teacher of all Christians;” (c) and then only as he speaks on a question of faith or morals. That is to say: If he speaks or writes only as a priest, a bishop, or a theologians, he is not claimed to be infallible, nor is that which is so spoken or written claimed to be infallibly true. If he speaks about the weather or the crops, or the loss of his temporal power, or politics generally, or his great “love for Protestants”—in none of this is it claimed that infallibility attaches to him or anything that he says. It is only when he speaks on a doctrine “regarding faith or morals to be held by the whole church,” that he or anything that he says is claimed to be infallible: and even then he or it is not infallible unless at the same time he speaks as the “father and doctor of all Christians,” and also “in discharge of the office of pastor and teacher of all Christians,” as the successor of St. Peter. All three of these elements are essential to ex cathedra, and ex cathedra is essential to his infallibility. And this is the doctrine of “the infallibility of the pope.”
THAT this analysis is correct, can be seen from the following statement of the case, by Cardinal Gibbons:—
Bear in mind, also, that this divine assistance that makes him infallible is guaranteed to the pope, not in his capacity as a private teacher, but only in his official capacity, when he judges of faith and morals as head of the church. If a pope, for instance, like Benedict XIV., were to write a treatise on canon law, his book would be as much open to criticism as that of any doctor of the church.
Finally, the inerrability of the popes, being restricted to questions of faith and morals, does not extend to the natural sciences, such as astronomy or geology, unless where error is presented under the false name of science, and arrays itself against revealed truth. It does not, therefore, concern itself about the nature and motions of the planets. Nor does it regard purely political questions, such as the form of government a nation ought to adopt, or what candidates we ought to vote for….
What, then, is the real doctrine of infallibility? It simply means that the pope, as successor of St. Peter, prince of the apostles, by virtue of the promise of Jesus Christ, is preserved from error of judgment when he promulgates to the church a decision on faith or morals.—Faith of Our Fathers, pp. 147, 148.
It is only fair to state also that from the dogma above quoted, as well as from the cardinal’s statement of the doctrine, it is plain that the question of just what is embraced in the phrase, “faith or morals,” is left wide open. So that whatever the pope chooses to say is faith or morals, that is faith or morals. Therefore as a matter of fact the question of how narrow or how wide the application of this infallibility is or may be, is left entirely to be decided as the wish of the pope, or the interests of the papacy may demand on the particular occasion of the application of the doctrine. It may be so narrow as to touch but one single point or phase of a single abstract question, or it may be so wide as to embrace every interest of man in all the relation sof life pertaining to this world and the next.
FROM the dogma itself and from the cardinal’s statement of the doctrine, it is perfectly clear that it is not claimed that infallibility attaches to the man at all, who happens to be a pope, but that it attaches to the pope who happens to be a man. For instance, Joachim Pecci happened to become a pope. When he was just plain Joachim Pecci and nothing else, no hint of a claim of infallibility ever attached to him. And if he had always remained plain Joachim Pecci no hint of any such thing, in the mind of anybody, would have ever attached to him. When he became “Father Pecci,” a priest, it was the same way; when he became Bishop Pecci, it was the same way; when he became Archbishop Pecci, it was still the same way; and when he became Cardinal Pecci it was yet the same way—in none of these positions was any thought of infallibility ever connected with him in the mind of anybody. And if he had always remained in any one of these positions, no thought of infallibility ever would have been connected with him.
IT is perfectly plain, then, that outside  of the office of pope there is no thought of infallibility connected with the man who happens to become pope. As priest, or bishop, or archbishop, or cardinal, no vestige of it attaches to him in the mind of anybody. Yet it was by a vote of 363, against two, bishops, archbishops, and cardinals, that the doctrine was established that infallibility does attach to him when he happens to become pope. This, too, while not one of the 363 made any kind of claim of infallibility on his own part! In this, therefore, we are treated to the absurd suggestion that 363 elements of absolute fal libility could in fallibly settle the doctrine that in fallibility is connected with one of their own absolutely fallible selves when he happens to be made pope!—No, this is not quite the full statement of the case yet; for when the 363 had voted it, it was not infallibly fixed until the pope had ex cathedra proclaimed it. That is to say, the 363 fallibles voted it infallibly so, then he of whom, till this, it was not infallibly so, proclaimed it infallibly so, and thus it became infallibly so. In other words, 363 fallibles voted his infallibility when he speaks ex cathedra; but this could not be infallibly certain till he himself had infallibly proclaimed it; and he could not infallibly proclaim it until it was infallibly so! Like produced totally unlike. Out of nothing SOMETHING CAME!
AGAIN: The pope must be chosen from among the cardinals, and this by the vote of the cardinals themselves. But not one of the cardinals makes any claim of any shadow of infallibility connected with himself. Yet these men, not one of whom has any shadow of it, elect one of themselves pope and then, lo! he has it! To-day, he is completely destitute of it, and to-morrow he is clothed with it: and all this because a number of persons as completely destitute of it as he was, put some ballots in a box which elected him pope! And so, on a second count, it is clear that “the infallibility of the pope” springs from the law of, like produces totally unlike; and, out of nothing something comes.
THIS is where the infallibility of the pope comes from. This is the source of the thing, in the abstract. Now let us inquire, How does it become so connected with him as to be available on demand? That we may arrive at the point of this inquiry in the easiest way, let us trace the thing onward from the point which we have reached. Not only is it true that as a mere man, or as a priest, or a bishop, or an archbishop, or a cardinal, there is no shadow of infallibility attaching to him; but even more than this, when he, being a cardinal, is elected pope, not even yet is he infallible. And when, by his coronation, he is duly installed in the office of pope—even yet he is not infallible. Not till all this has been passed through by him, and then, in addition, he as pope sits in “the chair of St. Peter,” and from that particular phase of the office speaks as the head of the church—not till then does any principle of infallibility attach to “the Roman Pontiff,” according to the dogma of “the infallibility of the pope.” Therefore, as infallibility does not attach to him except as he occupies that particular phase of the office, as successor of St. Peter, it follows plainly enough that it comes to him from that seat. As in the seat he has it, and out of the seat he does not have it, there is no other possible conclusion than that all the infallibility the pope ever has he gets from the seat which he occupies when he speaks, “ex cathedra, that is, from the chair of St. Peter.”
AGAIN: This is seen from the very language of the dogma of infallibility itself, and it is the inevitable logic of that language. The dogma declares that he is infallible, not by the divine assistance promised to him in himself, nor in him from those who elected him, but “by the divine assistance promised to him in blessed Peter.” As it is promised to him only “in blessed Peter,” there has to be some connection formed between him and “blessed Peter,” or else he cannot have it. But how can this connection be formed? Oh! it is claimed that Peter occupied the seat of the bishopric of Rome, and that when the “Roman Pontiff” sits in that seat the necessary connection is formed between him and “blessed Peter,” that makes infallibility available as occasion may require. Therefore it is the only logic of the dogma, that the pope gets his infallibility in its concrete form so that it is available, altogether from the seat which he occupies when he speaks, “ex cathedra, that is, from the chair of St. Peter.” By this we would not insist that this seat must necessarily be the identical, literal chair in which papal “tradition” says that Peter literally sat. We are willing to allow that the pope may speak ex cathedra from another than that identical, literal chair, and that such speech would be as much “infallible” as though spoken from that literal chair. But we do insist, and the dogma and the whole theory of papal “infallibility” demands it that as it is not in the man, nor in the ecclesiastic, nor in the election, nor in the office apart from that particular phase of it, it is inevitably derived from that seat, whether it be the identical chair in which Peter is said to have sat, or any other, or none at all.
LET no one say that in tracing the infallibility of the pope altogether to the seat which he occupies when he speaks “from the chair,” we are carrying the thing too far, and taking an advantage merely for the sake of advantage, by a mere play upon word. This is not so. It is nothing else than the plain, sober, consequence of the words of the dogma; and of the cardinal’s statement of the doctrine of the infallibility of the pope. It is not true of the doctrine of the infallibility of the pope, to say that it attaches to him by virtue of that office rather than by the seat which he occupies when he speaks ex cathedra, in the exercise of the office. For he may hold the office of pope and exercise the ordinary duties and prerogatives of that office as long as he lives, and yet no claim of infallibility attach to anything that he ever does or says, or to him in the doing or saying of anything; because during the whole time of his occupying that office there may be no occasion for him to speak ex cathedra. For it is only when so speaking that it is claimed that infallibility attaches to him or to anything that he says. It is a fact that Leo XIII. has never yet spoken “ex cathedra,” and therefore has never yet exercised the prerogative of infallibility. But he does hold the office of pope and has exercised all the duties of the office that occasion has demanded—and all this without infallibility attaching to what he has said or done, or to him in the saying or doing of it.
IT is therefore certain that the infallibility claimed for him does not come to him simply by virtue of his office as pope. The source of it is back of that yet. And as he may occupy that office and exercise all the duties of that office that occasion demands, to the end of his office and his life, without ever being called upon to speak “ex cathedra defining a doctrine regarding faith or morals to be held by the whole church;” as it is only when he so speaks that infallibility is claimed to attach to him or anything that he says; and as, so to speak—to speak “ex cathedra”—is in itself to speak “from the chair,” from the seat, “of St. Peter,” it follows plainly, soberly, and inevitably, without any play upon words, that all the infallibility that the “Roman Pontiff” ever can have, comes to him not by virtue of the office which he holds, but altogether from the seat which he occupies when he speaks “ex cathedra, that is, ‘from the chair’ of St. Peter;” defining “a doctrine regarding faith or morals to be held by the whole church.”
IT is in the seat and not in the office at all. It is not connected with the office except as that particular prerogative of the office is exercised upon the particular question of faith or morals, and in that particular way, namely, “ex cathedra, that is ‘from the chair’ of St. Peter.”
THEREFORE the only conclusion that can ever be honestly or logically derived from the dogma of the infallibility of the pope is that all the infallibility that the pope has or ever can have, he gets solely from this conception of “ex cathedra.” And as it is as plain as A, B, C, that no such thing as infallibility could ever possibly come from a sheer abstraction, it follows just as plainly that the only source of “the infallibility of the pope” is the “law” that, out of nothing something comes.
THIS is the truth. Of course it is an absurd conception; but let not the people of these States or of the United States laugh at this absurd claim on the part of the pope until they are sure they are entirely clear of all such conception in their own practice, or in their own consent even. This phase of the subject, however, will be discussed next week.