The Importance of Papal Infallibility to Roman Catholicism

By Stephen D. Mumford, DrPH | 11 September 2012
Church and State

(Credit: giulio napolitano /

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.

The Dogmas’ Importance to Some Catholics

Infallibility made Roman Catholicism even more attractive to many. People often seek religion because of their fear of uncertainty and the unknown in their lives and in death. It provides emotional relief. According to Catholic theologian Hans Küng, “Infallibility performed the function of a metadogma, shielding and insuring all the other dogmas (and the innumerable doctrines and practices bound up in them). With infallibility—and the infallible aura of the ‘ordinary,’ day-today magisterium is often more important than the relatively rare infallible definitions—the faithful seemed to have been given a superhuman protection and security, which made them forget all fear of human uncertainty…. In this sense the dogma of infallibility has undoubtedly integrated the lives of believers and unburdened their minds …” So now the Church offers a final, unsurpassable guarantee of security to believers. This is a powerful attraction to all who fear insecurity—which includes most of us. Infallibility provided many believers with a great sense of religious security all through life, imparting stability and freedom from anxiety, relieving emotional pressure and softening the cruel blows of reality.

On the other hand, the dogma of infallibility is binding on the conscience of the entire Catholic world. According to Catholic historian Bernhard Hasler, “For the Roman Catholic Church, the dogmas defined by the Council are strictly obligatory. Anyone who doesn’t accept them is threatened with excommunication, that is, with exclusion from the Catholic community.”

Infallibility’s Importance to the Pope

The dogma of Papal infallibility was important to the pope and the Vatican in many ways. States Küng, “[It] most effectively furthered the unity, uniformity, and power of Roman Catholicism.” Enhancement of the power of the Church was an important motivating factor. Indeed all three of these outcomes were vital if the Papacy was to avoid extinction. He says, “What could be better for legitimizing, stabilizing, and immunizing this system against criticism than the dogma of the infallibility of its highest representative(s)?”

The Church still derives enormous power from the claim of infallibility. “Paul VI laid aside his tiara” writes Hasler. “Both his successors, John Paul I and John Paul II, dispensed with the throne and crown. But the pope’s claim to infallibility has remained, and hence so has their position of power. For power was the issue in 1870 …” But, if the essential foundation of the Church laid by the dogma of infallibility is destroyed, faith collapses and the whole Church will crumble. For this reason, it is imperative to the Vatican that this dogma be protected.

Hasler describes in two paragraphs why infallibility was important to both the leadership and their followers:

[I]n the Middle Ages there was a conspicuous trend to look for an infallible authority, whether it be pope or council, to buttress the great edifice of the Catholic system. Its original religious power had been lost, and yet the entire social structure still rested on religion as much as ever. Behind the perfectly intact facade doubts and uncertainty began to spread. Signs of disintegration became apparent in philosophy and theology. The old spontaneity and unquestioning naturalness of the faith were largely gone. The quest for infallibility looks like a desperate attempt to recover a lost sense of security.

The endeavor to shore up doctrinal structures was unusually momentous because religion still played such a unique part in most people’s lives. Their personal happiness depended on it, first of all in this world, and still more in the next. The great majority of the population had neither the skill nor the desire to judge questions of faith: They wanted to rely on authorized teachers. This only heightened the power and influence of the religious elite, which held the fate of so many in its hand. This arrangement thoroughly suited the mutual interest of both groups. Only those who could offer certainty in matters of salvation would be of any use to the people of that time. And so it didn’t sound like blasphemy when men of the Church appeared, claiming they had been given all power in heaven as well as on earth (Boniface VIII).

The promoters of the infallibility dogma believed that by raising the pope’s authority to its upward limit they could gradually break society of its liberal and democratic tendencies. A bishop of that day describes the advocates’ position, “The great evil of our day is that the principle of authority lies prostrate. Let us strengthen it in the Church and we shall save society.” Stated one supportive newspaper of the day: “The infallible pope must counteract and cure the prevailing abuses of unbridled freedom of the press, thanks to which journalists daily spread lies and calumny.”

The Powerless Press

According to Hasler, “The plan was to enhance the pope’s authority as much as possible, not only in hopes of strengthening the old hierarchical order within the Church but, above all, in society at large.” This objective was largely achieved, especially in the United States, as bishops and lay Catholics marched in lock-step until 1968 when the encyclical Humanae Vitae was issued. During the period 1870 to 1968, the American press was almost completely tamed.

The Knights of Columbus, the largest organization of Catholic laity in the world, was founded soon after the dogma of infallibility was adopted (1882) by a priest in New Haven, Connecticut. The mission: protect the faith. By 1914, the Knights had evolved into a national organization with considerable capability to intimidate those who spoke out against the Church regardless of whether the criticisms were justified. They created the Commission on Religious Prejudices, chaired by Patrick Henry Callahan, to shut down the press criticism of the Church. According to their 1915 report, the Commission sponsored an education campaign by “informing and correcting editors and journalists who allowed religious prejudices to surface in their newspapers.” Callahan pointed out that between August 1914 and January 1917, the number of publications which published material critical of the Church dropped nationwide from 60 to two or three.

Until this time, the American press was free to be critical of the pope, the Vatican and the bishops, who are undeniably agents of a foreign-controlled power. But since the days of Callahan’s Commission, the American press has not been free to report on the considerable political activities, and, most important, the motivations behind those activities. As a result, few Americans are aware of just how much their access to information is restricted by the Church.

The free presses of Europe and North America were gravely undermining papal authority. The proponents of the doctrine of papal infallibility were convinced that this doctrine would lead to control of the world press on matters vital to papal authority. The control of individuals in the press, as well as individuals who could be used to manipulate the press in various ways, including intimidation, in order to protect papal authority, was a key argument for adoption. The proponents were correct on this account as we shall see in Chapters 13 and 14.

The dogma of infallibility is important because it shields the entire doctrinal structure of the Catholic Church from criticism. According to Hasler, “This claim extends not to one doctrinal statement but to all of them; it covers every single one. Papal infallibility—the formal principle, as it were, of Catholicism—becomes the crowning conclusion of the system. The insurance policy is flawless: There can be no appeal from the pope to any other authority…. Presupposing the fundamental principle of infallibility, the Church’s entire operation can run smoothly.”

Absolute control of the entire Church structure by a despotic pope was made much easier by this dogma. The majority rule on questions of dogma that had existed for nearly 2000 years ended the day infallibility officially became dogma.

A New Image for the Pope

Papal infallibility and universal jurisdiction resulted in a new image for the pope—which was quite intentional. He became God’s representative on earth. Pius IX also became an idol and papolatry came so much into vogue that even many of his supporters were embarrassed. He was now referred to as “exalted king,” “most beloved of kings,” “supreme ruler of the world,” “king of kings,” and “vice-God of humanity.” This of course was the desired outcome. One journal wrote, “When the pope meditates, it is God who thinks in him.” St. John Bosco referred to the pope as “God on earth” and asserted: “Jesus has put the pope on the same level as God.”

The school of thought that worked so diligently to achieve a favorable vote of the bishops at Vatican Council I was referred to as the Infallibilists. It was their view that “the Church, as a community incapable of erring in matters of faith, had to have an infallible leader and judge. Otherwise it would not be safe from error, it would lack both unity and order, and it would be vulnerable to fragmentation, as could be seen so clearly in Protestantism.” And they had a second line of thinking similarly based on papal primacy. “Since the pope had a universal jurisdiction and therefore the supreme teaching authority, he had to be infallible. Otherwise he might lead all the faithful into error, carrying the entire Church with him into the abyss, since all Catholics were obliged to obey him on questions of faith.”

The Jesuits were the chief manipulators in the campaign for papal infallibility. Apparently, the Jesuits felt that their never ending political agenda would be best served if the pope became an infallible despot. The Jesuits were chosen to write the official history of Vatican Council I some 20 years later.

More than anything else, even the manipulation of the bishops by the Jesuits, it was the fear of schism, that was considered a worse misfortune than infallibility, that kept the bishops in line. A schism did occur but unfortunately for America and the rest of humanity it was small, resulting in the creation of what is known today as the Old Catholic Church.

Dissenters’ Predictions Come True

Negative reactions to the two new dogmas was extensive—and most telling. Hasler notes that even at the Vatican Council some individuals perceived this claim of infallibility—this claim to total truth—would ultimately be self-destructive: “The Papacy, they thought, had gone down a blind alley from whence there could be no escape without a critical loss of authority. ‘The results of the Vatican decree of 1870 are only now beginning to come to light,’ the Catholic Church historian Franz Xaver Kraus noted in his diary on February 9, 1900. ‘Rome has locked the door leading to its only way out. There seems to be nothing left but for the whole papal system to break down.’”

The Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Baltha called the Vatican dogma a “gigantic disaster.” One bishop described the pope as “an authority subject to no other control than his own whims and preferences. The new dogma, he felt, must lead to despotism.” Wrote Henri Icard, a priest, “This is truly a difficult situation for the Church. The most absolute power—in the hands of a man who will only listen to the people who think—or, rather, speak—the way he does.” The French bishops, in a minority petition, wrote, “The new dogma, which must lead to such grave consequences, is demanded of a Council which is both deeply divided and not free.” Different bishops referred to the new dogmas in the following way: “the Vatican farce,” “the pope is devouring us,” “we have to eat what we have vomited up,” “a crime against the Church and humanity.” Says Hasler, “For them [the Council minority], the credibility of the Church was on the line.” Professor Friedrich Michelis described Pius IX as a “heretic and devastator of the Church.” Neither his cardinal nor his bishop contradicted him.

An English bishop wrote, “The bishop of St. Gall was so violent in his speech against infallibility that through the very force of his enunciation he lost a false tooth. He had to pick it up from the ground and put it back into place before he could go on.” One archbishop “viewed the fetishist adoration of the Church’s hierarchy (and especially of the pope) as the chief error of Catholicism…. It had, he said, transformed the office of the supreme shepherd into a despotic sultanate of Mohammed and Christ’s sheepfold into a herd of slaves.”

In German-speaking countries alone, twenty professors of theology and clerical teachers of philosophy were excommunicated within a short time after the Council. Two-thirds of all Catholic historians teaching at German universities left the Church.

But there is no turning back. Says Icard,

To affirm that the Council lacked the freedom necessary to validate its ordinances is impossible…. Under no circumstances would God abandon his Church in such a way that we should one day be justified in going back and questioning what the great majority of the bishops, together with the pope, decided on matters of faith! … Can we run the risk of such a scandal? And what would then become of the Holy Church?

Objections to the adoption of the dogmas of papal primacy and infallibility were extensive, thoughtful and loud but to no avail. We can be certain that the Church, as an institution, will become extinct before these two dogmas are terminated.

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)
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