A Crash Course on Papal Infallibility

By Stephen D. Mumford, DrPH | 7 September 2012
Church and State

(Credit: Riccardo De Luca – Update / Shutterstock.com)

This excerpt has been adapted from Chapter 11 of our Chairman Dr. Stephen D. Mumford’s seminal book, The Life and Death of NSSM 200: How the Destruction of Political Will Doomed a U.S. Population Policy (1996). The book is available at Kindle here and to read for free here.

Two dogmas were proclaimed at Vatican Council I on July 18, 1870 and they are linked. The dogma of the primacy of papal jurisdiction means that the pope has universal jurisdiction. He has “direct sovereignty over the entire church”: “The pope can intervene authoritatively at any time in any situation in any diocese, and in every instance where the pope intervenes the bishops are obliged to obey and submit to his decisions.” The bishops were at that moment, according to Catholic theologian Hans Küng, reduced to mere lackeys of Rome, and this arrangement continues to this day.

The second dogma proclaimed that day, the dogma of papal infallibility, means that the pope is incapable of error when he makes ex cathedra decisions on matters of faith and morals. However, virtually all matters, including political, social and economic, can be framed in terms of faith and morals. Catholic historian Bernhard Hasler describes this dogma as elastic, meaning that it expands and contracts. Whenever it seems opportune, infallibility, thanks to its vagueness, can be stretched far beyond the limits of ex cathedra decisions. The ordinary papal teaching now becomes infallible too. In a sense, such “infallible” decisions are much more important to the Vatican and the Church’s bureaucratic machine than the rare ex cathedra declarations. The aura of infallibility counts more than its actual use. Papal infallibility means that the pope has an interpretive monopoly. He no longer needs the Church’s approval. His decisions are beyond appeal.

Infallibility was first attributed to the pope in 1279 by a Franciscan priest. In 1324 Pope John XXII condemned this idea as the work of the devil (which may explain why Pope John XXIII chose this name, the first in 550 years, and then set about ignoring the dogma of infallibility). Later on, in their struggle against Protestantism, popes once more considered infallibility a practical weapon. In 1800, papal infallibility was still generally rejected except in Italy and Spain. Pope Gregory XVI (1831-46) was the first pope to claim that popes were infallible. His encyclical, Mirari, also viewed freedom of conscience as “a false and absurd concept,” indeed a mad delusion. According to him, freedom of the press could never be sufficiently abhorred.

Pope Pius IX (1846-78), was absolutely committed to making papal infallibility a dogma. Indeed, it is unlikely that it would have ever become a dogma had it not been for this man. In his first encyclical letter (1846), he laid implicit claim to infallibility. In 1854 Pius IX, on his own authority, elevated the doctrine of Mary’s Immaculate Conception—the belief that the mother of Jesus was born without any stain of original sin—to the status of dogma. With this act, he had de facto demonstrated his own infallibility.

The times set the stage for Pius IX to act. The Papacy seemed to be facing extinction. The Church was under siege from many different forces: secularization, liberalism, rationalism and naturalism. The French Revolution had changed the Catholic world permanently.

Pius IX was responding to several events of the times. It is believed that he wished to extend his spiritual jurisdiction as compensation for his loss of secular power because of the loss of the Papal States. He believed that the principle of authority would counteract the principles of the French Revolution. He desperately needed to contain the forces of unbridled journalism which were wreaking havoc. There was a hope that this principle of authority would bring about the return of lands already lost by the Papacy. The French Revolution destroyed centuries old patterns of Church government, threatening the very existence of the Church.

The Church no longer had at its disposal the option of physical coercion that ranged from detention to annihilation, which was not infrequently used by the pope. For example, in “1868 Pius IX ordered the Italian revolutionaries, Monti and Tognetti beheaded in the Piazza del Popolo for attempting to blow up a papal barracks. And just two weeks before Rome was taken by storm, a certain Paolo Muzi was hanged in Frosinone, the last citizen of the Papal States to be executed.” This hanging took place just 6 weeks after papal infallibility became a dogma. With great disappointment, the pope knew the power he derived from the threat of annihilation was rapidly coming to an end.

Professor Jean-Guy Vaillancourt, cited in Chapter 6, states, “… it has become increasingly difficult to enforce unpopular decisions through coercion and exclusion. Consequently, the Vatican must now try to exercise its control over Catholics through normative and manipulative means (e.g., through socialization and co-optation) rather than through coercive and repressive power…. The declaration of papal infallibility … was an important milestone in that direction. The stress on the absolute authority of the pope in questions of faith and morals helped turn the Church into a unified and powerful bureaucratic organization, and paved the way for the establishment of the Papacy-laity relationship as we know it today.”

In his encyclical Quanta Cura (1864), Pius IX had listed eighty contemporary errors and condemned them. This is referred to as the Syllabus of Errors. In it he condemned many of the freedoms Americans hold dearest: freedoms of conscience, speech, the press, and religion. He rightfully recognized that American style democracy gravely threatened the Papacy. (If Americans are permitted to exercise these rights, American democracy may yet bring about the extinction of the Papacy.) The Syllabus was the definitive challenge to the modern state.

With the Syllabus and numerous actions, the pope set the stage for his counterattack against the modern world and all that was threatening the Church. Now he needed the authority to carry out his wide ranging plan.

Pius IX felt that he must acquire absolute authority over the entire Church if the Papacy was to survive. Even in the early days of his Papacy, he was untrusting of his bishops to hold the line against these threats, so he forbade the formation of national bishops’ conferences and directed that there be as little contact as possible between bishops. They were to communicate with Rome. For this reason, Pius IX introduced the obligation of regular visits to the Holy See, a practice that still continues. Control was the objective. All bishops had to administer their diocese in strict subordination to the pope under the threat of coercion.

To understand what really brought about proclamation of the dogmas of papal primacy and infallibility, we must take a close look at the man himself. Hans Küng describes Pius IX as follows: “Pius IX had a sense of divine mission which he carried to extremes; he engaged in double-dealing; he was mentally disturbed; and he misused his office.”

Hasler describes Pius IX in detail. In 1850, Pius IX branded freedom of the press and freedom of association as intrinsically evil. He determined that liberalism (out of which American democracy grew) was the mortal enemy of the Papacy and the Church. His rule was reactionary and dictatorial. His followers’ practices bordered on papolatry. The most eminent bishops of the time viewed him as a great disaster for the Catholic Church. He struck “many people as dangerous above all because he wished to dogmatize a teaching which, from a historical standpoint, was worse than dubious and which overturned the Church’s basic organization.” In their eyes, these dogmas “would deprive the Catholic Church of the last shred of credibility.” In the end, it looks as if this assessment of these bishops is proving to be correct.

The leadership entrusted the future of the Church to this man. But as we continue to permit papal influence in public policy-making to spread worldwide, we are allowing Pius IX’s legacy—the legacy of an unbalanced man—to determine the future of our planet. In significant ways, our behavior today is being determined by the actions of Pius IX of 125 years ago.

Furthermore, the dogmas of infallibility and papal primacy ended any semblance of democracy in the church, and no self correction can be expected.

Dr. Stephen Mumford is the founder and President of the North Carolina-based Center for Research on Population and Security. He has his doctorate in Public Health. His principal research interest has been the relationship between world population growth and national and global security. He has been called to provide expert testimony before the U.S. Congress on the implications of world population growth.

Dr. Mumford has decades of international experience in fertility research where he is widely published, and has addressed conferences worldwide on new contraceptive technologies and the stresses to the security of families, societies and nations that are created by continued uncontrolled population growth. Using church policy documents and writings of the Vatican elite, he has introduced research showing the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church as the principal power behind efforts to block the availability of contraceptive services worldwide.

In addition to his books on biomedical and social aspects of family planning, as well as scientific articles in more than a score of journals, Dr. Mumford’s major works include American Democracy and the Vatican: Population Growth and National Security (Amherst, New York: Humanist Press, 1984), The Pope and the New Apocalypse: The Holy War Against Family Planning (Research Triangle Park, North Carolina: Center for Research on Population and Security, 1986), and The Life and Death of NSSM 200: How the Destruction of Political Will Doomed a U.S. Population Policy (Research Triangle Park, North Carolina: Center for Research on Population and Security, 1996).

The Life and Death of NSSM 200: How the Destruction of Political Will Doomed a U.S. Population Policy

By Stephen D. Mumford, DrPH
Paperback Publisher: Center for Research on Population and Security (October 1996)
Kindle Publisher: Church and State Press (February 6, 2015)
Kindle Store

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  1. The Prefect for the Congregation Of The Doctrine Of The Faith (AKA Office Of The Holy Inquisition) and the Papal Nuncio or Vatican Secretary Of State have both usurped a great deal of the power that was once wielded by the Pope. The Pope rules, but does not reign or govern. "Ex Cathedra" statements of the Pope have virtually no influence over the deep politics of the Vatican, which have been the same for at least 1500 years. Your article is mostly right though……….


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