Papal Absolutism

There is a new article by Fr Hunwicke – The Montini years: a sadly maximalising Papacy. May it rest in peace. He makes a point that Vatican I defined the limits of papal power. The Pope’s office is limited by his office and ministry in the Church. He can’t just do what he wants by “feeling infallible”.

The big test will be seeing whether Paul VI will also be canonised to complete the post-Vatican II cycle.

* * *

Only this morning, someone sent me links to the harrowing situation of the Church’s death in France – La Grande Misère des Diocèses de France and a summary in English – The Terrible Misery of the French Church (and not just that Church). One advantage with the big close-down is that people will be less scrupulous about going to liturgies outside diocesan jurisdiction – when the dioceses get closed down. In the end of the day, the Church isn’t about getting people into the pews to keep paying for the old dinosaur – but the spirit of Christ.

Perhaps the light will return only after a very long dark age. We have to rely on ourselves and God.

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17 Responses to Papal Absolutism

  1. Rubricarius says:

    I have never understood the animosity towards Paul VI. I can think of far worse ones…

    • So can I, since Pius XII started the Bugninian reform in the Roman rite. John XXIII out of the modern Popes was about the most interested in the liturgy. The real problem is the concept of reform going back to 1570 and the Tridentine era.

      Btw, it was good to see you last Saturday!

  2. Patricius says:

    None dare call him Antichrist…

    • Frankly, I would see such an epithet as exaggerated and unnecessary. I don’t see any of the modern Popes as evil, simply prisoners of their system and mistaken in their notion of law against custom. I think that Antichrist, as in devil incarnate as prophesied for the last times, is inappropriate. There is a better way to state our case.

  3. Dale says:

    What I have noticed is that most modern Roman Catholic apologia for Papal Infallibility is fairly dishonest. As defined in Vatican I (the reason that I personally would never consider Romanism as a viable alternative) is that indeed there are no controls or limits to the Pope’s personal Infallibility. The actual document states that Papal Infallibility is personal and not in any way dependent upon the consent or agreement of the Church at all: “In defining doctrine concerning faith or morals—should be equipped: And therefore, that such definitions of the Roman Pontiff of themselves—AND NOT BY VIRTUE OF THE CONSENT OF THE CHURCH—are irreformable” (Bettenson “Documents” of the Christian Church” 276-274) ; the New Catholic Encyclopedia states that the Pope’s Infallibility “is a personal and incommunicable charisma, which is not shared by any pontifical tribunal” ( But, many modern Roman Catholics tend to reject this personal infallibility and try to play games about the Pope’s Infallibility being in some ways an expression of the magisterium (a very odd term) of the whole Church and can get very nasty in their refusal to accept the actual documents that declare the Pope’s Infallibility as personal and without limits. So they are trying to modify this doctrine, but let us face it, the documents do not support such modification.

    They then tend to do a song-and-dance about this infallibility ONLY being used a few times since its proclamation, but even if it had never been used, it is still a strange and unCatholic doctrine. The next song-and-dance is to declare that infallibility can only be used for questions of faith and morals, but again, EVERYTHING is fundamentally a question of faith and morals for a practicing Christian (simply take a look a the Syllabus of Errors…another document that no one likes to mention today).

    The most damning indictment of this modern dogma is “The Pope and the Council” by Janus (Ignaz von Doellinger). A lesser, now available as a reprint, but more popular treatment is In Dr. Littledale’s “Plain Reasons against joining the Church of Rome”; and whilst written before the doctrine of Papal Infallibility was pronounced in Vatican I intimated that the movement in Roman Catholicism was towards such a pronouncement.

    • This quotation is well-known from the nineteenth-century Catechism by the Reverend Stephen Keenan. The third edition of 1854, published by Marsh and Beattie of Edinburgh and Charles Dolman of London and Manchester says on page 112:

      Q: Must not Catholics believe the Pope in 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.

      • Dale says:

        Oh yes, I remember that one! Also, the first Catechism published in Baltimore, Maryland, made the same remark. It is interesting to note that when Littledale’s small book was first published it was attacked for mentioning the movement, amongst chiefly the Italian and Spanish churchmen, to have to Pope proclaimed infallible, declaring that this would never happen and was NOT what Catholics, then, believed.

        Of course, if one accepts Newman’s theory of the evolution of doctrine,anything is permissible.

    • Stephen K says:

      The apologia for infallibility, Dale, is not only disingenuous but inconsistent. Alongside the reductionism that would have it that it has only been exercised once since its formal definition (or only a few previous occasions), there is the implicit papal infallibility (‘pi’) claimed for Humanae Vitae or Ordinatio Sacerdotalis etc. In other words, proponents for pi want their cake and eat it too. It all gets very selective! The hollowness of the doctrine is revealed because it becomes impossible to escape its vortex: if a pope is truly only infallible when he says he is, then (a) the criterion for infallibility effectively becomes his saying he is, a self-referentialism; and (b) the question of how one is to regard everything and anything else he says arises: if he does not say he is infallible, then anything he says is accordingly rejectable, including both of the above encyclicals (and everything else).

      I hazard a guess and say it is only Roman Catholic traditionalists who still want to believe in the doctrine of papal infallibility, and this, not because they scrupulously and consistently abide by it but because anything defined by the Roman Catholic Church is an a priori act of the ‘true church’ and nothing can be allowed to undermine this ultimate and fundamental conviction.

      It’s all rather like papal elections: the choice is rationalised as the work of the Holy Spirit, but this does not stop Catholics of all stripes denouncing or hating those popes with whom they disagree. This demonstrates the difficulty arising on the one hand from attributing human action to God’s ultimate authorship, and denouncing or living with what we think is human evil or defective personality.

      That the Popes may only rarely officially pronounce on things and then without too much radical departure from ancient predecessors, may be more a reflection of the entrenched stare decisis or precedent-bound nature of the Roman Catholic church than a sign of divine insight guaranteeing truth.

      My own view is that in religious matters, words and teachings must be judged on individual fruits: if something inspires one to greater virtue, then it is a useful thing; if it arouses only the usual ‘wailing and gnashing of teeth’ of the religiously occupied, then it has at least no more worth or authority than any other opinion, and probably less. It behoves us, of course, to study and reflect and try to discern what truth might lie in particular ideas or propositions, but they simply cannot, in my view, be made rules of compulsion. Matt. 16:18-19 presents two such ideas. If Jesus did say them, what did he mean? Maybe he did mean that Peter, and those claiming to have inherited his mantle, could bind and loose heaven itself as well as the earth, but I don’t think he would have meant anything so preposterous. If he did, he over-reached himself.

      • Dale says:

        Very well stated! Of course, there is also the problem that even if one accepts the Roman interpretation of “Thou art Peter…” line. If infallibility was granted to Peter and his successors, would this not also include the Patriarch(s) of Antioch as well? The whole thing is a mess.

        Personally, I accept the Orthodox interpretation of these words; Christ asked, “Whom do you say that I am” to which Peter replied, “Thou art the Christ the son of the living God” to which Christ replied, “This is the Faith and upon this Faith I will build my Church.” The foundation of the Church is not Peter, but the acceptance that Christ is the Son of God. What the modern Roman Catholics have done to the old Faith is almost monstrous.

        I should mention that I am by no means anti-Roman Catholic, actually I have often been attacked for being a Roman Catholic on more than one occasions when I have pointed out, shall we say, their good side, but I believe that these modernist changes in dogma are reprehensible.

      • Dale says:

        Stephen, one could also mention that one of the earliest uses of documents to support the, at the time, “universal authority” of the Popes did not use Matt. 16:18-16 at all, but the “Donation of Constantine.” In this document it was the first Christian Roman Emperor who on his deathbed gave his Empire to the Pope; the problem with this is that the document, used as proof for the Pope’s universal power and authority over all breathing creatures for centuries is a forgery, and not a very good one at that.

        It makes one rather satisfied to be an old-fashioned, and in my case rather dowdy, Anglo-Catholic!

  4. Fr. Ryerson says:

    I read today that Paul V! will be beatified in October. Prayers to him are reported to have healed an incurable unborn infant.

    • OK, fair enough, since I am no longer a Roman Catholic and I wasn’t originally one. From the 20th century, there’s only Benedict XV, Pius XI and Pius XII to go – oh, and John Paul I (martyred from having been bumped off by Cardinal Villot as some write in their books?) from the post-conciliar era other than the Popes still living.

      Yeah… It all makes me weary and glad to be away from the thronging crowds and busloads of Spaniards and Italians.

      Frankly, canonisation no longer has anything to do with holiness or miracles. It’s about putting final stamps of approval on ideologies.

      • ed pacht says:

        At its origin ‘canonization’ is no more than permission to add a name to the calendar. Historically it came only when desire on the part of the people became strong enough that it was now appropriate to do so. This top-down declaration of ‘sanctity’ has long appeared to me as alien to the spirit of Christianity. It’s more a proclamation of papal power than anything else, especially when the recipient is himself a pope. I’ll sit out this dance, thank you very much.

      • Dale says:

        My own take, worth nothing by the way, on all of this is simply telling traditionalist Catholics who still reject Vatican II, that forget it, it is now the law and all the popes connected with the council are saints, NO GOING BACK.

        It is very political in that respect.

      • Well, that lot has succeeded in alienating me – and 95% of their faithful in Europe as well. I don’t suppose many of their churches will find their way into other worthy hands. Yes, very political – and very hollow.

  5. Rubricarius says:

    And after the canonisation any criticism of the deceased pope is met by the response ‘But he is a Saint!’ All quite clever really and a way of reinforcing and protecting the system.

    • Dale says:

      Rubricarius, I think that you have hit the proverbial nail on the head, this is exactly why and how the recent quickie canonizations were done and how they will be used.

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