While Roman Catholics are now mainly agreed on the principle that the Pope is infallible, the greatest differences of opinion will be found among them as to whether any particular papal utterance is infallible; and any Roman Catholic who does not like to accept any decision of the Pope need have no difficulty in producing a parallel case of some previous decision, to all appearance possessing the same claims to reverence, but which is now acknowledged to have been wrong. So that, in short, I do not know how to sum up the Roman Catholic doctrine on this subject except by the formula, The Pope is always infallible, except when he makes a mistake.
Although the question of the Infallibility of the Pope is that with which I am directly concerned in this course of Lectures, yet in treating of the matter historically I have found it necessary, before entering on the discussion of it, to trace the growth of Roman Supremacy because the claim to Infallibility was the last stage in the progress of Roman ambition.
It remains now to speak of that theory of Infallibility which makes the Pope personally its organ. It is the theory now in the ascendant and, since the Vatican Council, may be regarded as the theory recognised exclusively by the Roman Church: and it is the only theory which satisfies the demands of the a priori arguments showing the necessity of an infallible guide. What these arguments try to show to be needful is a guidable infallibly to resolve every controversy as it arises and this need can only be satisfied by a living speaking voice, not by the dead records of past councils.
It is plain how the chance of arriving at truth is prejudiced by the claim to infallibility. If no such claim were made, the majority would be forced to weigh the arguments of the minority, to count the risk of driving them into schism, to take care not to seem before the world to have the worst of the argument. But when infallibility is supposed to rest with the ultimate vote, the majority have no need to care about the arguments advanced. Secure a vote, no matter how, and all is gained.
I shall presently produce evidence that even those Councils, to whose decisions we cordially assent, were composed of frail and fallible men that the proceedings of some of them were conducted in a way that does not command our respect, and that the ultimate triumph of orthodoxy was due to other causes besides the decisions of these Councils.
The branch of the subject which I will now take up is the discussion of the different theories as to the organ of the Church’s infallibility which have been held in the Roman Church. I will not dwell on what I have already said: that if the gift of infallibility had been believed in and exercised from the first, it was impossible that controversy as to its seat should ever arise.
There is no error committed by the Popes or their councillors which we ought to be more ready to pardon and to sympathize with for their mistake was prompted by reverence for Scripture, and quite similar mistakes have been since committed by highly respected men in our own communion. But still if we make mistakes we confess them and profit by them. We do not pretend to be possessors of any infallibly accurate interpretation of Scripture, and we therefore cannot omit to use one of the few opportunities open to us of testing the pretensions of those who do make this claim.
I have heard Roman Catholic laymen express the utmost astonishment at hearing their Church charged with want of positiveness in her utterances, this being, in their opinion, the last fault that can be charged upon her. But this is because they only know how she speaks to those who will not venture to challenge the correctness of her teaching.
Let us examine, then, by the evidence of facts, whether the Church of Rome believes her own claim to infallibility. Acting is the test of belief. If a quack claimed to have a universal medicine, warranted to cure all diseases, we should not need to inquire into the proofs of its virtues if we saw his own children languishing in sickness, and found that he never tried his medicine on them. If an alchemist asserted that he possessed the philosopher’s stone, and could turn the baser metals into gold, his pretensions would be disposed of if we saw his own family starving, and that he made no attempt to make any gold to relieve them.
The question is, therefore, whether God hates error so very much more than He hates sin, that He has taken precautions against the entrance of the one which He has not seen fit to use in order to guard against the other. We hold that what He has done in both cases is strikingly parallel. First, His great gift to His people, that of the Holy Spirit, is equally their safeguard against sin and against error. He is equally the Spirit of Truth and the Spirit of Holiness. It is His office to inform our understanding, by taking of the things of Christ and showing them to us and to direct our wills, and make them conformed to that of Christ.
I have already expressed my opinion that if you concede Milner his axioms, and then try to take your stand on the Bible as a guide which satisfies the conditions which these axioms impose, you will certainly be defeated. But, in real truth, Milner might have spared himself the trouble of writing the rest of his book, when he begins by taking for granted that God has provided us with an infallible guide, or, to use his own words, with ‘a never failing rule, which is never liable to lead a sincere inquirer into error of any kind.’ Observe the monstrous character of the claim. We are to be supernaturally guarded not merely against deadly error, but against error of any kind.
The simple answer to Newman’s talk about certainty is got by observing what is the kind of things about which we can have practical certainty. They are the things about which our own judgments agree with those of all other men. The truths which we have the highest confidence in accepting are those which commend themselves as plain and self-evident to everyone else as well as to ourselves. Is the infallibility of the Roman Church a truth of this class? We know, as a matter of fact, that it is not.
Now before we can use these texts to prove the Church’s infallibility, private judgment must decide that the books cited are the Word of God, and private judgment must interpret the texts brought forward and if private judgment can be trusted to do this, it would seem that it might be trusted to decide other questions too.
The Infallibility Of The Church. Chapter 2: The Cardinal Importance of the Question of Infallibility
You must carefully observe that the Doctrine of Development would be fatal to the Roman Catholic cause if separated from the doctrine of the Infallibility of the Church. Without the latter doctrine the former, as I have already pointed out, leads to Protestantism or to infidelity rather than Romanism. In fact, the motto of the doctrine of Development is ‘We are much wiser men than our fathers.’
George Salmon • 19th Century • From The Infallibility of the Church • Council of Trent, Doctrine of Development, Doctrine of Infallibility, Henry Edward Manning, John Henry Newman, Old Catholics, Oxford Movement, Rule of Faith, Vatican Council