"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Monday, August 20, 2012

Does Papal Infallibility Actually Weaken Claims to Authority?

In writing my Orthodoxy and the Roman Papacy: Ut Unum Sint and the Prospects of East-West Unity I was aware that the First Vatican Council probably needed more attention than I was able to give it. In the past few months I have been able to return to some of the issues raised before, during, and after that council, including the influence of the French Revolution, the thought of Joseph de Maistre (on whom see the fascinating interview I did recently with two Maistre scholars), and the whole problem of "sovereignty," about which I wrote recently

Part of my recent research has allowed me to return to a book by the historian Brian Tierney. Though I have read other works of Brian Tierney over the years, it is only recently that I have been able to return to and read more deeply from his early book, Origins of Papal Infallibility, 1150-1350: A Study on the Concepts of Infallibility, Sovereignty and Tradition in the Middle Ages (Brill, 1966, 1988). 

Tierney begins with Maistre's famous declaration that "Infallibility in the spiritual order and sovereignty in the temporal order are two perfectly synonymous words." No, Tierney insists, they are not synonymous, and in fact those two concepts are at war with one another. Longstanding notions of sovereignty, until at least the nineteenth century, held that no sovereign, precisely as sovereign (i.e., beholden to nobody's authority other than his own), was bound by the decrees of his predecessors--to be so bound would be an intolerable infringement precisely on his sovereignty. And yet, as defined today, papal infallibility means precisely being so bound: doctrines proclaimed as infallible are ipso facto held to be irreformable. This is made very clear in Pastor aeternus of Vatican I and its famous conclusion that "when the Roman Pontiff speaks ex cathedra....such definitions are of themselves, and not by consensus of the Church, irreformable" (ex sese, non autem ex consensu Ecclesiae irreformabiles esse).

Aware of the conflict between freedom and infallibility, Tierney discusses in detail early papalists from the late Middle Ages who wanted to maximize papal authority and therefore shied away from infallibility precisely because they felt it would restrict the freedom of movement and maneuverability of popes. In reading this, I am once more put in mind of an idea I came to many years ago now in reading papal history: that history is one long illustration of the law of unintended consequences.

Tierney concludes on a note that should give all defenders of the papacy very great and serious pause: “After a hundred years of papal infallibility the main practical result…has been to weaken the authority of the pope’s ‘ordinary’ pronouncements on faith and morals….The ordinary Catholic is left with a vague feeling that, if the pope were really certain of the truth of his own teaching, he would ‘make it infallible’” (275). This paradox, it seems to me, remains lost even today on most apologists for a strongly centralized papacy, a few of whose more fatuous (and ironic) ravings (e.g., Patrick Henry Reardon) I took on in my book

No comments:

Post a Comment

Anonymous comments are never approved. Use your real name and say something intelligent.

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...