Monthly Archives: June 2012

Rebuttal: Infallibility

[NB: This article came up in Facebook conversation about a year after I was received into full communion with the Catholic Church. I felt compelled to answer it. I can probably give better answers, now, but these seemed worth bringing across from the original posts.]

[Broken link: …but article is available here and here, with extensive response here.]

Michael Horton said, among other things:

7) Ancient Christian leaders of the East gave special honor to the bishop of Rome, but considered any claim of one bishop’s supremacy to be an act of schism. Even in the West such a privilege was rejected by Gregory the Great in the sixth century. He expressed offense at being addressed by a bishop as “universal pope”: “a word of proud address that I have forbidden….None of my predecessors ever wished to use this profane word [‘universal’]….But I say it confidently, because whoever calls himself ‘universal bishop’ or wishes to be so called, is in his self-exaltation Antichrist’s precursor, for in his swaggering he sets himself before the rest” (Gregory I, Letters; tr. NPNF 2 ser.XII. i. 75-76; ii. 170, 171, 179, 166, 169, 222, 225).

8) Nevertheless, building on the claims of Roman bishops Leo I and Galsius in the 5th century, later bishops of Rome did claim precisely this “proud address.” Declaring themselves Christ’s replacement on earth, they claimed sovereignty (“plenitude of power”) over the world “to govern the earthly and heavenly kingdoms.” At the Council of Reims (1049) the Latin Church claimed for the pope the title “pontifex universalis“—precisely the title identified by Gregory as identifying one who “in his self-exaltation [is] Antichrist’s precursor….” Is Pope Gregory the Great correct, or are his successors?

9) Papal pretensions contributed to the Great Schism in 1054, when the churches of the East formally excommunicated the Church of Rome, and the pope reacted in kind.

Let’s take this a bit at a time. [Gregory the Great is Gregory I; Leo the Great is Leo 1; we will also likely be mentioning Gregory VII and Leo IX, who lived about 500 years after them]

a) “Ancient Christian leaders of the East gave special honor to the bishop of Rome, but considered any claim of one bishop’s supremacy to be an act of schism” …except when they didn’t. Hence the debate about the canon of Chalcedon which was not received at Rome because it exceeded the brief of Pope Leo the Great’s representatives. Hence the debate of Gregory with John the Faster, bishop of Constantinople (which Horton refers to). Hence the debate with Photius, and eventually the ugly mess between Humbert and Cerularius of the Great Schism.

b) “Even in the West such a privilege was rejected by Gregory the Great in the sixth century. He expressed offense at being addressed by a bishop as ‘universal pope'” — this is actually close to a misrepresentation of the source (but I actually think it’s a good-faith misreading; I can see how reading only selected references would create this impression).  Horton’s main reference here is to this letter ( ) in which Gregory expresses the clear sense of the Pope’s third major title, Servus servorum Dei, “Servant of the servants of God.” Gregory argues that

my honour is the honour of the universal Church: my honour is the solid vigour of my brethren.

It is important to note, though, that Gregory does this in the wake of stridently decrying the Bishop of Constantinople’s effort to be recognized as “Universal Pope” or “Ecumenical Bishop.”

Here are some of the letters in that particular letter-writing campaign (these overlap Horton’s references): — this letter to John the Faster, Bishop of Constantinople, bewails that

having confessed thyself unworthy to be called a bishop, thou hast at length been brought to such a pass as, despising thy brethren, to covet to be named the only bishop.

Gregory may or may not, depending who you read, be extremely well-informed about some of the history he mentions (ah! popes can make mistakes!)–but his point is that John is taking a title which, for pastoral reasons, even the popes in the See of Peter have not used:

yet not one of them has ever wished to be called by such a title, or seized upon this ill-advised name, lest if, in virtue of the rank of the pontificate, he took to himself the glory of singularity, he might seem to have denied it to all his brethren.

And it is in that tradition that Gregory the Great later refuses to be treated by Eulogius after the fashion he has just chastised John for behaving. Note that even here Gregory clearly considers himself to be ultimately responsible for, and authorized to act with, the whole Church as a Body here on Earth (the church militant). — this letter to Anastasius, Bishop of Antioch, shows that Gregory was under pressure from the East to let the matter of John’s aggrandizement of his See go. Gregory offers two prudent counsels against the idea that “this is a matter of no consequence”: “you know how many not only heretics but heresiarchs have issued from the Constantinopolitan Church. And, not to speak of the injury done to your dignity, if one bishop is called Universal, the Universal Church comes to ruin, if the one who is universal falls.”

The letter to Eulogius, above, comes after that letter (by some time). In the meantime, it seems that Cyriacus had succeeded John as Bishop of Constantinople, and that Cyriacus was more agreeable on the matter. — to Cyriacus; Gregory is clearly making a point of conciliation, here, but not conceding the point. Similarly the letter to the Emperor (the emperors, it must be remembered, lived in Constantinople and *loved* to get involved in Church politics, a matter which the Church struggled with then as now) which follows it closely:

Now, Gregory clearly thought no bishop, especially one of Constantinople (which had been bucking to be “next after Rome” or “new Rome” on account of the Empire’s move from Rome to Constantinople–an emulation for honor which affected Ravenna, the sometime seat of the divided Western Empire, as well), should aggrandize himself or his See with titles which came at the expense of other bishops or other Sees. In opposing the pretensions of Constantinople, he maintained the continuity of Sacred Tradition (which granted primacy to the See of Rome) as well as managing current norms to good pastoral effect (by preventing the absorption of the Church into a wholly owned subsidiary of the Empire, as well as by preventing competition among bishops). It should be pointed out that jurisdictional matters–ensuring unanimity in faith and morals while preventing busybodies from running their neighbor’s churches–were major issues throughout the conciliar period, with bishops being closely regulated in their possessions, households, movement, and manners by their peers. (Gregory the Great actually writes a lot of letters saying “c’mon, guys, they can’t *all* be heretics!” as well as the occasional thundering condemnation of heresy.)

But Gregory the Great is clearly an odd choice as poster child for anti-papal sentiment, given his obvious stature as the Bishop of Rome who, more firmly than any other, marked the papacy as we now know it. He’s the one usually chosen by the English as their bete noir for just this reason (and to be frank, his legate Augustine made some pretty harsh use of the Anglo-Saxon brutes he was converting–see Bangor). Let me list a few other letters, to give you a flavor of how reticent Gregory was about the authority of the Apostolic See:

At some point, one encounters Newman’s paradox, here: “From my boyhood and in 1824 I considered, after Protestant authorities, that St. Gregory I. about A.D. 600 was the first Pope that was Antichrist, though, in spite of this, he was also a great and holy man; but in 1832-3 I thought the Church of Rome was bound up with the cause of Antichrist by the Council of Trent.” ( )

c) “building on the claims of Roman bishops Leo I and Galsius in the 5th century, later bishops of Rome did claim precisely this ‘proud address.'”

Right. That would be popes who exercised and helped to define the authority Gregory the Great was using, the authority of the Apostolic See of Rome, which had throughout antiquity first place among the churches; it was the focal point for the authority and intercommunion of the churches. By placing Gregory the Great first, then Leo the Great, Horton creates the illusion of a “primitive” refusal of title from which the Church “fell away” into papism. Again, though, Gregory may have been willing to forego the frivolity of a title for himself in order to insure that unity which it was his calling to insure, and for which he had ample authority (though at times he had to use prudently his limited and strained secular power); he may have said accurately that others had been similarly prudent; that by no means establishes him as the original norm and others as the departures.

Leo the Great, for example, regarded the authority of the Apostolic See as coordinate with, rather than merely a constituent of, the authority of councils; he wisely sent delegates, as was the custom, so that the work of the council (including his clearly instructed delegates) could proceed to the point of unanimity, before receiving his ratification. In this way, any division within any part of the Church could not become a division of the whole Church; the Pope regarded the Council as a whole while it sat, whatever his dealings with various bishops before and after. History is always messier than that, especially Church history.

But see the precedent in the correspondence between the Council of Ephesus and Pope Coelestine:

Thus when Leo the Great wanted to ensure that new divergences from the faith concerning the nature of Christ did not take root, though they were popular in Constantinople for a time, he sent an authoritative compendium of Apostolic teaching with his delegates to the Council:

…and he did so based on a clear conception of the nature of his authority:

d) “Declaring themselves Christ’s replacement on earth”

Scurrilous. Slanderous. Cheap shot. The Popes claims to be Christ’s delegates after the manner of the Apostles, from whom their authority derives (together with the whole of the College of Bishops, in fact). To take just one, St. Paul would not have been confused about the idea of delegated authority and the duality of Christ’s absence bodily and His presence in His Body:

e) “they claimed sovereignty (‘plenitude of power’) over the world ‘to govern the earthly and heavenly kingdoms.'”  …how much authority? where?

f) “At the Council of Reims (1049) the Latin Church claimed for the pope the title ‘pontifex universalis’—precisely the title identified by Gregory as identifying one who ‘in his self-exaltation [is] Antichrist’s precursor….’ Is Pope Gregory the Great correct, or are his successors?”

Canonically, the answer is, of course, quite simple: If a dogmatic definition of the Church disagrees with some arguments a Pope makes in a letter, then the Pope’s arguments may well have been wrong. Gregory the Great also nods, sometimes. Papal infallibility is not verbal plenary inspiration of everything a pope ever utters or writes, anymore than inspiration of Scripture is inspiration of every word Peter or Paul ever uttered or wrote (bearing in mind they had sharp words over the very Gospel, and that there was disagreement among the original Apostles over such serious issues that they had to convene a council, whose decrees still seem a little opaque to us).

Reims was a local council in one of the great periods of reform within the Church (by the way–that corruption in the Church? we know about it. That’s one of the reasons God sends popes like Leo I, Gregory I, Leo IX, Gregory VII–great reformers, all). The language Horton is thinking of here was prefixed to the condemnation of a corrupt bishop who–history repeating itself–was claiming the title “apostolic bishop” in his own right (the title Apostolic applies, in one sense, to the whole College of Bishops; and, in another sense, to the See of Rome). The bishops under the supervision of Leo IX, and undoubtedly with reference to the controversies of Leo the Great and Gregory the Great (bear in mind the next concern for them is dealing with the claims of Constantinople again), declared in keeping with the teachings of the orthodox fathers “quod solus Romanae sedis Pontifex universalis Ecclesiae Primas esset et Apostolicus.” (Another writer, St. Peter Damian, probably independently offers the formula “papa vero, quia solus est omnium ecclesiarum universalis episcopus.”)

To find the track of these developments, try

But the dogmatic definition on the subject is not derived from this formulation directly, though there is nothing wrong in it (nor does Horton’s reading even follow necessarily from it: the subject of considerable parsing within the Church was precisely whether “universalis” belonged properly to “Pontifex” or “Ecclesiae”; that the See of Rome had primacy in the Universal, or Catholic, Church was never really in question). Pastor Aeternus, the document which in 1870 made it clear that Catholics were obliged to acknowledge the Pope’s authority, and his infallibility when speaking ex cathedra, relies on the definition from the Council of Florence, which was ecumenical, rather than Reims (which was only incorporated into an ecumenical council with regard to its canons). That definition avoids even the appearance of verbal disagreement with Gregory the Great:

We also define that the holy apostolic see and the Roman pontiff holds the primacy over the whole world and the Roman pontiff is the successor of blessed Peter prince of the apostles, and that he is the true vicar of Christ, the head of the whole church and the father and teacher of all Christians, and to him was committed in blessed Peter the full power of tending, ruling and governing the whole church, as is contained also in the acts of ecumenical councils and in the sacred canons

( ).

So Gregory the Great is right, and he stands on the precedent of his predecessors, such as Leo the Great, and in unity with Leo IX, and Gregory VII, and many another. This is no surprise, for (in the words of Pastor Aeternus)

the Holy Spirit was promised to the successors of Peter not so that they might, by his revelation, make known some new doctrine, but that, by his assistance, they might religiously guard and faithfully expound the revelation or deposit of faith transmitted by the apostles.

And it is no subject for a mere “gotcha!” tactic when the Church speaks as one, saying,

we teach and define as a divinely revealed dogma that when the Roman Pontiff speaks EX CATHEDRA, that is, when, in the exercise of his office as shepherd and teacher of all Christians, in virtue of his supreme apostolic authority, he defines a doctrine concerning faith or morals to be held by the whole Church, he possesses, by the divine assistance promised to him in blessed Peter, that infallibility which the divine Redeemer willed his Church to enjoy in defining doctrine concerning faith or morals. Therefore, such definitions of the Roman Pontiff are of themselves, and not by the consent of the Church, irreformable.