Chapter V : The Catholic Position on Infallibility


In Chapter VI of the Abridgement it is objected against the Church's claim to infallibility that her actual behaviour suggests that she does not belief in it herself.

"I think it admits of historical proof that the Church of Rome has shrunk with the greatest timidity from exercising this gift....on any question which had not already settled itself without her help." [86]

Salmon goes on to suggest that several papal decisions are now known to have been wrong, and the case has to be met by "pitiable evasions" -- "the Pope was not speaking ex cathedra; that is to say, he had guided the Church wrong only in his private not his professional capacity."

Misconceptions of Infallibility

This passage suggests such a false notion of what Catholics conceive to be the nature, function, and conditions of the exercise of infallibility that it seems desirable here to give a statement of the Catholic position on these matters.

Catholics do not affirm that either the Church or the Pope, her head on earth, is omniscient (all-knowing). They do not affirm that infallibility is equivalent to revelation of new truth or to inspiration. Nor do they affirm that it covers truths which are not integral to the faith or to morality (faith and morals). Neither the Church nor the Pope has the function of settling mathematical or scientific controversies. Nor is it supposed that within the region of revealed truth the Church or the Pope has the answer ready to hand at every moment, for any question that might be raised. It is quite consistent with the Catholic claim, to hold that the Church could not have defined, for instance, the Immaculate Conception in any century earlier than the nineteenth. There is a gradual ripening of theological thought, a slow deepening of the spiritual insight of the faithful. Thomas of Aquinum (Aquinas), a Doctor of the Church and the greatest exponent of systematic theology in medieval times, denies the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception; he prefers the view that Mary was conceived in original sin and was purified of its stain in the moment after her conception. His reason for this opinion is of profound interest; it seems to him that if Mary was not conceived in original sin she was not redeemed by her divine Son, the Saviour of all mankind. Other medieval thinkers disagreed with St. Thomas, and the Council of Trent deliberately left the controversy (between the first and the second moment of Mary's existence, be it noted) undetermined.

Mary's Immaculate Conception

At last in the nineteenth century, the question is mature for decision. The decision is, on the surface, against St. Thomas, for it is defined that Mary was stainless from the first moment of her existence. But St. Thomas' theological preoccupation has justice done to it, since it is defined that (just as the holy men of Old Testament times were redeemed by the anticipated merits of Christ, so) it was as a result of the foreseen merits of her Son that Mary received this privilege of stainlessness; so far from being unredeemed, she is the most triumphantly redeemed of all the sons and daughters of Adam.

So, too, with the doctrine of the Pope's infallibility. By the middle years of the nineteenth century the effect of the great schisms in the medieval West was decaying, and practically the only point at issue between Catholic theologians was, not whether the Pope was the organ and spokesman of the Church's infallibility, but whether or not his determinations of theological controversies depended for their validity upon the subsequent consent of the Church. The uncertainty was almost at an end before the Vatican Council met, and Cardinal Manning stated that perhaps not more than a dozen of the hundreds of bishops there assembled still held the Gallican view that this subsequent consent was necessary. So far from agreeing with Salmon's suggestion that the Church can hardly believe in her own infallibility since she "shrinks from exercising this gift" on any question not already settled "without her help," I should argue that this is a most consoling thought. The infallible definition is, usually, not a sudden "snap decision" but the majestic termination of an age-long pondering by the "divine society" upon the significance of the truths and gifts entrusted to her by her Lord and Founder. [87]

Salmon writes with some asperity of the distinction between the Pope's private and "professional" capacities. He here refers to the most striking limitations placed by the Vatican Council upon its own definition:

"[The Pope is infallible] when he speaks ex cathedra [i.e. from his apostolic throne], that is when, exercising his function of shepherd and teacher of all Christians, in virtue of his supreme apostolic authority, he defines a piece of teaching, concerning faith or morals, to be held by the Church as a whole." [88]

In the interpretation and practical application of the above definition there are two principles of great importance to be observed. (1) No such definition must be taken as affirming more than it plainly does affirm. (2) If there is substantial disagreement among qualified interpreters as to the scope of such a definition, we cannot in practice enforce upon others more than what it is agreed is contained in it.

Bearing these two principles in mind, we shall say that the definition requires us to believe that when the Pope is clearly speaking, not simply as Bishop of the local See of Rome, nor simply as "Patriarch of the West", but as the universal Pastor of the whole Church of God; when it is clear that he is freely and deliberately exercising his functions, as a universal pastor, to define once for all a point of faith or a point relating to Christian morals, then he speaks the truth. (Note that it is held that "the Pope cannot delegate the exercise of his infallible authority to the Roman Congregation, for instance. And whatever issues formally in the name of these congregations, even when approved in the ordinary official way by the Pope, has no claim to be considered infallible." [E.F. Chabot, Galileo, C.T.S.]) It should be added that external pressure brought to bear upon a Pope to "bully" him into a definition is sufficient to cast doubt upon the question whether he is freely exercising his defining power.

Excerpts from Newman's "Letter to the Duke of Norfolk"

As the "Letter to the Duke of Norfolk" was published many years before the first edition of Salmon's book, it may be of interest to refer to Newman's comments on the Vatican definition in that celebrated work. He there states (p. 320) that the Church "has ever shown the utmost care to contract, as far as possible, the range of truths and the sense of propositions" of which she demands reception simply on her own word as God's representative. And in fact the "range" of the Pope's infallibility is most materially contracted by the conditions attached to it by the Vatican definition (p. 325); on this Newman quotes "the Swiss bishops" : "The Pope is not infallible as a man, as a theologian, or a priest, or a bishop, or a temporal prince, or a judge, or a legislator, or in his political views, or even in his government of the Church" since in none of these cases are the definition's conditions verified.

Again, it will hold of the Pope, as it holds of a Council, that he is not infallible in the reasons by which he is led, or on which he relies. Nor is it necessary to hold that he is directly and actually exercising his infallibility in the "prefaces and introductions" to his definitions (p. 326). Of the Pope, again, as of a Council, it is true that his infallibility in its actual exercise requires not a "direct suggestion of divine truth" (an inspiration or a special revelation) but "simply an external guardianship, keeping [him] off from error" and saving him "as far as [his] ultimate decisions are concerned, from the effects of [his] inherent infirmities" (p. 328). "What providence has guaranteed is only this, that there should be no error in the final step, in the resulting definition or dogma." (ibid).

The whole of this section of the "Letter" (p. 320-40) deserves study, and is a useful check upon the criticisms which Salmon urges against infallibility. A rather more extensive quotation may be of use to some readers:

"From these various considerations it follows that Papal and Synodal definitions, obligatory on our faith, are of rare occurrence; and this is confessed by all sober theologians. Father O'Reilly, for instance, of Dublin, one of the first theologians of the day, says:

'The Papal Infallibility is comparatively seldom brought into action. I am very far from denying that the Vicar of Christ is largely assisted by God in the fulfilment of his sublime office....that he is continually guided from above in the government of the Catholic Church. But this is not the meaning of Infallibility....'

"This great authority....I am sure, would sanction me in my repugnance to impose upon the faith of others more than what the Church distinctly claims of them; and I should follow him in thinking it a more scriptural, Christian, dutiful, happy frame of mind, to be easy, than to be difficult of belief....To be a Catholic a man must have a generous loyalty towards ecclesiastical authority, and accept what is taught him with what is called the pietas fidei....I end with an extract from the Pastoral of the Swiss Bishops, a Pastoral which has received the Pope's approbation.

'It in no way depends upon the caprice of the Pope, or upon his good pleasure, to make such and such a doctrine, the object of a dogmatic definition. He is tied up and limited to the divine revelation, and to the truths which that revelation contains. He is tied up and limited by the Creeds, already in existence, and by the preceding definitions of the Church. He is tied up and limited by the divine law, and by the constitution of the Church. Lastly, he is tied up and limited by that doctrine divinely revealed, which affirms that alongside religious society there is civil society....' " [89]

Wilifrid Ward says, of the "Letter to the Duke of Norfolk" that it was "welcomed" by the English Catholics "almost without a dissentient voice." [90] As regards the conditions of an infallible papal handbook, in which, after pointing out that the Pope is infallible, not incapable of sinning, the author states that these conditions are as follows:

"The Pope must be speaking not as a private teacher, nor as Bishop of the city of Rome, nor as a temporal prince, but as a shepherd and teacher of the whole Church in virtue of his supreme authority; he must be teaching a truth of faith or morals; he must define, i.e. finally settle what is to be held with really interior faith; and the definition must impose an obligation on the universal Church." [91]

Salmon for his part, is impatient of such limitations -- he is like the neo-Ultramontanes before the Vatican Council, and would wish, if there be an infallible authority, to extend rather than to limit its scope and range. I can understand, though I do not share, this desire; especially as the Vatican definition's limitations make Salmon's task of discrediting the doctrine of infallibility so much more difficult. He writes, a propos of Pope Honorius:

"....the only distinction in this matter that I can recognize as rational is that between the pope's official and non-official utterances...." [92]

Drawing Difficult Distinctions

Well, Catholic theologians do not find themselves in Salmon's unfortunate intellectual predicament. They recognize a perfectly rational distinction between those official papal utterances which conform to the definition's conditions and those which do not, and it may be argued that the careful wording of the definition might have been intended precisely to exclude from it official utterances such as the condemned proposition of Honorius.

The unscientific temper of Salmon's mind, so clear in this impatient rejection of an all-important theological distinction, is apparent also in a passage in which he argues that the theory of development is inconsistent with the claim that the Church's teaching is "final and perfect" :

"[The theory of development] acknowledges that the teaching of the Church may be imperfect and incomplete; and though it is too polite to call it erroneous, the practical line of distinction between error and imperfection is a fine one and difficult to draw." [93]

One is tempted to despair of a serious author who invites us to neglect or reject a line of distinction because it is "a fine one and difficult to draw." The whole process of man's deepening apprehension and understanding of reality depends upon such fine distinctions, and the really informative objects of study are "limiting cases." I hope that what has been said above may serve to answer in some measure Salmon's case against infallibility so far as that case is based upon the supreme authority's "hesitations."

Thus it is no argument against the reality of belief in the Church's infallibility that the Council of Trent did not settle the question of the Immaculate Conception. [94] The matter, we may suppose, was not ripe for decision. But Salmon argues that, since the caution observed on that occasion was partly due to fear of precipitating a schism, it is clear that those who were liable to go into schism, if an infallible decision were given, cannot have believed in infallibility, since it is absurd not to accept the decision of an authority whom you believe to be incapable of error. Absurd, I agree. But all sin is absurd, and the Church knows with unrivalled experience that this absurdity is possible. A monk who refuses the obedience he has solemnly vowed to a legitimate superior in a morally neutral manner is not necessarily dubious of the binding force of a solemn vow, or of the fact that God punishes disobedience. Yet such disobedience occurs, and some way will be found to "rationalize" it. The fact that Dollinger seceded from the Church after the Vatican Council is no proof that he disbelieved in the Church's infallibility before the Council took place.

(There is an inaccuracy in S, p. 73: "neither Bellarmine nor Milner nor many other...divines...were aware that the Church had any tradition" on the subject of the Immaculate Conception. But this is corrected by anticipation on p. 72, where Milner's own words are quoted, saying that the Church "has nothing clear and certain....in the....unwritten word." Thus Milner does not deny the existence of the tradition, but only that the Church has (yet) seen it clearly and certainly. For a view on the Immaculate Conception from one who approached the Church not from Anglicanism but Eastern Orthodoxy, see V. Soloviev, La Russie et l'Eglise Universelle, p. 18n: "The Eastern Church, both Greek and Russian, unceasingly proclaims the blessed Virgin to be all immaculate, immaculate par excellence.")

Heretics and the Death Penalty

It does not seem necessary to spend much time on Macnamara's Catholic Bible, an affair in which it is precisely Salmon's complaint that the Church's infallibility was not involved. As regards the doctrine of the "Rhemish notes" on Scripture about the attitude to be adopted by individual Catholics and by the State to heretics, it is perhaps worthwhile to point out that to "avoid heretics" (see S, 75) is an injunction whose source appears to be the Epistle to Titus 3:10 ("avoid" in Vulgate and Douay versions, "refuse" [marg. "avoid"] in RV). The claim that it is the duty of the State "to punish and even to put to death" heretics is certain to be denied as scandalous by modern critics. I wonder how far we moderns are free from hypocrisy in this matter. We in England retain capital punishment for murder and treason (Sir Roger Casement was executed for this offence in the 1914-18 war); in the latter case, presumably, because treason is a direct attack on the common good. Medieval man regarded heresy as such a direct attack, and we ourselves, in time of great national emergency, are prepared to deny liberty to "deviationists", whether red or black. Indeed, many of us can remember a period in 1940 when to express one's views on the progress of the war was liable to be a punishable offence. The notion that the common good is threatened by propaganda tending to undermine those basic convictions upon which society rests is not a Catholic or a Christian invention; it goes back at least to Plato:

"Plato appears as at once the creator of natural theology, and the first thinker to propose that false theological belief -- as distinguished from insults to an established worship -- should be treated as a crime against the State and repressed by the civil magistrate. He is convinced that there are certain truths about God which can be strictly demonstrated, and that the denial of these leads directly to practical bad living. Hence the denial of these truths is a grave offence against the social order and must be punished as such." [95]

Having said so much on a matter on which we moderns are scarcely capable of dispassionate thought, it remains that medieval man may appear to have given too much weight to the common good, too little to the sanctity of human personality and the individual conscience. We are all readier, nowadays, to admit that a "deviationist" may be in good faith in his opinions; and this, though we may still have to protect society against him, should make us more reluctant to allow the State to "punish" him. But undoubtedly a major reason for the indifferentism of the modern State is the public loss of certainty in philosophy and religion. Modern man feels that he does not know for certain that the deviationist is in error, and that he does not know that the "values" attacked by the deviationist are themselves above criticism and supremely "valuable"; in these circumstances he feels that his moral right to defend these values against attack is uncertain, and he makes a virtue of the toleration which his lack of conviction had made morally necessary. Where, as in Soviet Russia, conscientious conviction has yielded place not to confessed agnosticism but to fanaticism, toleration has no place. Man is not likely to see a new Christian civilization coming to maturity within the next five hundred years. But when it does, it may be expected to combine Plato's concern for the spiritual health of the community with a respect more profound than was common in medieval Europe for the inalienable rights of the individual conscience. [96]

"Superstitious" Devotions

Salmon's next charge is that the authorities of the Church are too prone, as in the case of St. Alphonsus Liguori's Mariology, to show indulgence to "books of devotion which, in the opinion of many, are superstitious and scandalous, not to say blasphemous and idolatrous." [97] I am not here concerned to defend devotional extravagances such as Salmon has in mind in this passage. The question at issue is the infallibility of the Church, and it is obvious that this is involved only if the Chuch's final and irrevocable approval is given to something which contradicts the principles of morality or revealed truth. But it is worthy of remark that Salmon, like many other non-Catholics, while denying the doctrinal basis of papal authority, complains that this authority is so often insert in face of what he believes to be scandalous. We are familiar with the demand, in time of war, that the Holy See should publicly condemn or even excommunicate our enemies, or forbid Catholics to fight in the armies opposed to us. It is not sufficiently recognized that the supreme doctrinal concern of the Holy See is to preserve intact and undiminished the body of truth transmitted from the past and due for transmission to the distant (perhaps remotely distant) future. Compared with this overriding responsibility, the temporary vogue, in this quarter or in that, of devotional exaggerations, is a small matter. And where the central authority does not intervene, there is always room for the countering action of a healthy and sober criticism from the body of the faithful.

In an analogous manner, we are witnessing today a great revival of patristic and biblical theology which may be expected to exert a great and beneficial influence first on general theological thought and then on the general outlook of the faithful. Meanwhile, this revival itself will be the object of the solicitude of the authorities, concerned to see that it does not run into extravagances threatening the integrity of inherited truth.

Holy House of Loretto

Salmon devotes a paragraph [98] to the Holy House of Loretto, as an example of the kind of legend that Rome tolerates yet will not sanction with the final approval of her infallible authority. It is possible that I am too easy-going in such matters, but, though the question of truth is not a light one to me, the devotion towards the divine Child of Nazareth of which the Holy House if a focus is something far more valuable than would be a determination of the truth or falsehood of the delightful legend of Loretto. [99] And as this legend certainly does not appertain to revealed truth nor threaten the principles of morality, I imagine that it is no fit matter for the intervention of infallibility. My feelings are much the same about St. Philumena: whatever the facts about this child-martyr [100] of the early persecutions, Catholics cannot but be delighted at the ingenious use to which she was put by the saintly Cure d'Ars, who (having obtained relics of the saint) proceeded to pass off from himself to her the credit for the miracles that accompanied his sublime pastorate. But of course I shall be blamed for believing in these miracles, and I must forbear to expatiate here upon the evidence for them. Salmon omits to mention that the relics of St. Philumena were found in the catacomb of St. Priscilla, covered with a slab on which was inscribed "Philumena. Peace with thee, Amen"; accompanying the tomb were the symbols of martyrdom. De Rossi held that this catacomb goes back to the second century. [101]

It really looks as though Salmon was as much concerned to abuse the Catholic Church as to prove his own thesis. Thus, with regard to alleged private revelations, he says: "Whether these revelations are genuine or not, the Pope will not tell, and it is at anyone's choice to accept or reject." [102] As this leaves Catholics in more or less the same position as Salmon himself, free "to accept or reject," it is not immediately obvious that it constitutes an argument against Catholicism.

Purgatory, "Ghost Stories," and St. Augustine

But a more serious and, it seems fair to say, a more unscrupulous charge is made on the next page: "The whole faith of the Church of Rome" on the subject of purgatory "has been built upon revelations, or, as we should call it in plain English, on ghost stories." [103] On an earlier page a reference to De Civitate Dei, xxi:26 was made in order to show that St. Augustine, in the fifth century, left the idea of purgatory an open question. Before dealing with these assertions, it may be useful to state what is the Church's belief about purgatory. It is given in the following words of extreme restraint and sobriety, of the Council of Trent:

"There exists a purgatory [i.e. state of purification], and the souls [sc. of the dead] detained there are helped by the prayers of the faithful, and especially by the acceptable sacrifice of the altar [i.e. the Eucharist]." (The Council went on to say that) "....more difficult and subtle questions, and such as do not make for edification, and which usually do not increase piety, should be excluded from sermons to the less-instructed. Nor should uncertain statements, or statements that appear to be false, be published and treated of. Anything tending to curiosity or superstition, or to ignoble gain, should be prohibited as scandalous and disturbing to the faithful." [104]

Such is the Church's official attitude, and it is open to a Catholic to wish that the exhortations of the Council here quoted had been more carefully observed.

I will not forbear to mention that the difficulty of many modern minds is not belief in purgatory, but belief in hell. The early Protestants retained the latter belief and rejected the former. There is a tendency among non-Catholics today to reject belief in hell, and to substitute for it what is in fact a belief in purgatory, with an acceptance of the practice of payer for the dead (as in the now frequent inscription: R.I.P.). The Catholic Church has constantly retained both these articles of the Christian tradition.

As regards the traditional basis of the Catholic practice of praying for the dead and of the Catholic belief that these prayers help souls in their preparation, after death, for the beatific vision, the scription source is 2 Maccabees 12:43ff, where we are told that "it is a holy and salutary thought to pray for the dead that they may be loosed from their sins." Tertullian speaks of the Christians' "annual sacrifices for the dead" [105], and St. Cyprian also speaks of sacrifices for the dead as customary. But the practice of the early Church (long before St. Augustine) in the matter is so well-known that I may be excused from giving further evidence. It was a priori most improbable that St. Augustine could hesitate about the practice and the implied belief. And, in fact, his hesitation in the passage referred to by Salmon is simply about a particular theory relating to the "fire" in which the dead are purified. His own belief is clearly stated in the following passage:

"Nor is it to be denied that the souls of the dead are relieved by the piety of their living [dear ones], when the sacrifice of the Mediator [sc., the Eucharist] is offered for them, or alms are given in Church." [106]

So little is it true that the Church's doctrine on purgatory rests upon alleged private revelations, that it seems clear that these alleged revelations rather testify (if such testimony were necessary) to the prior existence of the doctrine and the accompanying practice.

The Sacred Heart and Private Revelations

Salmon could not be expected to have much sympathy for the supposed visions of St. Bernadette of Lourdes. [107] I need not discuss them here; they have been the subject of a large literature, to which the most recent addition in this country is B.G. Sandhurst's I Saw Her, a collection of testimonies and evidence from those who had seen St. Bernadette. Nor is this the place to speak at length about the evidence of the miracles connected with the devotion of Lourdes. I will only say that this evidence is hard to refute. As usual, Salmon's direct complaint is that the "infallible guide" will not clear up any doubts about the supernatural character of St. Bernadette's visions. And as usual, one must reply that however convenient it might be if such guidance were available, in point of fact the Pope's defined infallibility relates to the faith, not to private revelations to which, as Benedict XIV (before his elevation to the Papacy) wrote in his standard work De Beatificatione, etc., the "assent of Catholic faith is not possible"; such alleged revelations he says "demand only an assent of human credence conformably with the rules of human prudence which represents them as probable and piously credible." It is perhaps desirable to add that the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception was defined in 1854, some years before St. Bernadette's visions took place, and does not therefore in any sense depend on them.

Hence Salmon's remarks on p. 95 require correction. Fr. Martindale writes:

"We do not found our worship of the Sacred Heart of our Lord on the 'private revelations' granted to St. Margaret Mary, nor our belief in the Immaculate Conception on the apparitions that were granted to St. Bernadette at Lourdes. Such events can corroborate, or elucidate, what the Church believes, but cannot add anything to it. Therefore, it is clear that when ecclesiastical authority 'approves' any special cult, which has had for starting-point some human story, the approbation goes straight to the dogmatic essence of what has been 'revealed'....Therefore, anyone who is fitted to examine evidence ought to do so, especially when some allegedly preternatural event is concerned, but also, any loyal and modest-minded Catholic will be far from lightly rejecting any 'devotion' or cultus that the Holy See has approved." [108]

This chapter (viii) ends with a paragraph about devotion to the Sacred Heart. The "foundress" of this devotion is said to be the visionary St. Margaret Mary (A.D. 1647-90). In point of fact public devotion to the Sacred Heart was inaugurated by St. John Eudes, in his office of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, composed about 1668, several years before the first revelations to St. Margaret Mary (1673), and "at once approved by several bishops." [109] It is thus quite incorrect to suggest, as I think Salmon meant to suggest, that the revelations are the basis of the doctrine implies by this devotion. A few years before 1668, Brianson de Raynier had devoted six chapters of his Homme interieur to the Heart of Jesus. [110] But "the first book expressly consecrated to this devotion" is by the celebrated Puritan Thomas Goodwin (a chaplain of Oliver Cromwell), who in 1651 published his The Heart of Christ in Heaven, towards Sinners on Earth, described by Alexander Whyte as "a gem of the purest water....pages...that have won for Goodwin the fame of being the most philosophical theologian of all the Puritans." [111]

The basis of the Church's official devotion to the Sacred Heart is of course the doctrines of the Incarnation and the Redemption, and especially that of the hypostatic union of the human and divine natures of Christ; so that it is "the very charity of God", to use Pius XI's words [112], which is honoured in this devotion. Salmon's suggestion that the devotion involved "downright Nestorianism" is peculiarly unfortunate, since the error of Nestorianism was to deny this hypostatic union on which the devotion depends doctrinally. (I have spoken here of the Church's official devotion. The Church has not committed herself to the truth of all the promises said to have been made to St. Margaret Mary in the course of her revelations. Nor on the other hand must I be taken to subscribe to Salmon's description of her visions as "what we heretics would call hysteric delusions." That is not the mood in which to seek truth in questions of religion or in any other sphere).

It is surely regrettable that a doctrine so little peculiarly "Catholic" that it had the Puritan Goodwin as one of its early exponents, a devotion so essentially Christian in its emphasis upon the boundless love of God towards sinners, should seem to count for Salmon simply as an opportunity to throw doubt upon the authority of the Church.

The Condemnation of Galileo

In a book whose purpose is, among other things, to show that the Pope is not infallible, it was almost inevitable that the condemnation of Galileo would come under discussion, and Salmon in fact spends eight pages on it. [113] The admitted facts of the case are that in 1615 the Holy Office informed Pope Pius V that in their opinion the proposition "that the sun in the unmoving centre of the universe" was absurd, false, and "formally heretical." In consequence, the Pope instructed St. Robert Bellarmine to tell Galileo that he must abandon his notions, and (if he refused) that he must abstain from teaching his doctrine. Galileo therefore promised obedience. But in 1632 there appeared his Dialogue on "The Two Principal Systems of the World." Before its publication, the Pope (Urban VIII) had stipulated that the book must conclude with an argument propounded by the Pope himself; and that the subject must be treated from a purely hypothetical standpoint. As published, however, while it failed to incorporate the revisions insisted on by the Roman censor before publication, it was found that the Pope's own argument had been put into the mouth of a character in the Dialogue who was represented as a simpleton. Galileo was summoned before the Holy Office, and in 1633 this tribunal pronounced that he was

"....vehemently suspected by this Holy Office of heresy, that is, of having believed and held the doctrine (which is false and contrary to the Holy and Divine Scriptures) that the sun is the centre of the world....and also that an opinion can be held and supported as probable after it has been declared and finally decreed contrary to the Holy Scripture...."

Sentence having been pronounced, Galileo read and signed an act of abjuration in which he declared that he was rightly suspected of heresy, and promised not in the future to maintain the condemned opinions. Such are the facts, and it is clear "that the Roman Congregations both in 1616 and in 1633...." based a disciplinary decree on what they declared to be heresy but is obviously not heresy. And in both cases the Pope acquiesced.

But it is equally clear that these decrees do not conform to the conditions laid down by the Vatican Council for an ex cathedra definition of doctrine. First, because they do not define doctrine. Church law distinguishes between disciplinary and doctrinal decrees, and the doctrinal motives stated or implied in a disciplinary decree are not part of its formal intention. Secondly, these decrees, though approved by the Pope, were each a decree of a Congregation, not formally an act of the Pope, and even his approval could not make either of them into an ex cathedra definition.

I cannot therefore agree with Salmon that if the Pope did not speak infallibly in these decrees "it will be impossible to know that he ever speaks infallibly." [114] On the contrary, the circumstances of the definition of the Immaculate Conception certainly conform to the Vatican Council's conditions for an infallible definition, while those of the Galileo decrees certainly do not. Salmon may think it regrettable that the Pope did not decide "infallibly" the truth or falsehood of the hypothesis, but this opinion will not be shared by everyone.

It is worth noticing that a Jesuit theologian and astronomer, opposed to Galileo, wrote as follows in 1651 (less than twenty years after Galileo's second condemnation):

"As there has been no definition on this matter by the Sovereign Pontiff, nor by a Council directed and approved by him, it is in no way of faith that the sun moved and the earth is motionless, at least the decree does not make it so, but only at most the authority of Holy Scripture -- for those who are morally sure that God has revealed it to be so. Still, all Catholics are obliged by prudence and obedience....not to teach categorically the opposite of what the decree lays down." [115]

It should be further noticed that Galileo might have avoided all collision with ecclesiastical authority if he had been content to remain on the scientific plane and had avoided all discussion of the theological implications of his hypothesis. He might have acted in accordance with the advice given by Ballarmine in 1615 to another Copernican:

"Your reverence and Galileo would be acting prudently if you did not speak absolutely but provisionally, as, I believe, Copernicus did; in a word, it is sufficient to say that by supposing that the earth moves and that the sun is fixed, the phenomena we know are better explained than by epicycles and eccentrics; this does not offer any difficulty and is quite sufficient for the mathematician."

(Since Einstein, modern science [or should we say "some modern scientists" ?] seems to have come round to the conclusion that the Ptolemaic system and the Copernican system both made "the important mistake of failing to stress that motion is relative. The question whether the earth goes round the sun is wrongly posed; the answer depends upon the point of view of the observer -- to an observer on the sun the earth appears to revolve, to an observer on the earth the sun appears to revolve, because the motion is relative.") [116]

On the other hand we may certainly regret that Galileo's theological opponents did not themselves insist that the matter should be kept rigidly within the confines of science, and did not take more thoroughly to heart the words of St. Thomas Aquinas:

"In astronomy, the hypothesis of epicycles and eccentrics [i.e. the Ptolemaic system] is laid down, because by it justice can be done to the appearances of the motions in the sky; but this is not a decisive consideration, since another hypothesis might [also] do justice to these movements."

And in fact, whereas Luther and Melanchthon (another great Protestant leader) had violently attacked Copernicus' hypothesis, Clement VII had apparently rather favoured it, and over eighty years elapsed before the theological tentatives of Galileo led to the unfortunate decrees which we have here discussed.

There is no need to deal at length with Salmon's apparent inclination to think that Galileo was harshly treated. He was apparently compelled to go to Rome to answer the charges against him when he was an old and sick man and his movements and social intercourse were to some extent restricted after the trial. To those who are familiar with the story of religious intolerance in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, this treatment will seem comparatively mild.

Is the Vatican Definition "Useless" ?

I hope it is not unfair to suggest that the notion of infallibility, to which Salmon's criticisms in Chapters vi-ix relate, is not that canonized by the definition of 1870. It would appear that Salmon had been collecting material for the controversy with the Catholic Church for the greater part of his adult life, and it may be that the moderateness of the dogma of the Council disconcerted him. Much of what he objects against infallibility could have been used with some effect before 1870 by a moderate Ultramontane like Ullathorne against extreme neo-Ultramontanes such as Veuillot of the Univers or W. G. Ward.

The objection will of course be made: if the conditions for an infallible definition are so stringent, and if in consequence that occasions on which a Pope has unquestionably used his powers, not to condemn false teaching but to impose a new affirmative dogma, are so few, is not the Church's infallibility practically "useless" ? To this objection I would in the first instance reply that there are many matters -- for example, the sacramental character and apostolic descent of valid Orders, the Real Presence in the Eucharist, the sacramental nature of "sacramental penance," the privileges of the Mother of God -- which are for Western non-Catholics at best matters of opinion, but in Catholic eyes belong certainly to the "deposit of faith." Some non-Catholics no doubt hold that it is preferable that these and suchlike matters should remain in the realm of opinion; but at best it cannot be claimed that a moderate doctrine of infallibility, which yet renders these points certain, is "useless."

And secondly, it is to be observed that the Church's infallibility -- with which, if we may press so far the words of the definition, that of the Pope is not only comparable but identical -- is not only operative when a formal definition is promulgated. It gives a colour and a cast to the whole teaching and mind of the Church. It means that the mind of the individual believer moves out into a world of corporate thought and belief at the back of which is a divine guarantee of objectivity. And from time to time, when the needs of the Church or the providential purpose requires, the movement of Catholic thought does actually lead up to a definition and a new dogma gives articulation to some traditional doctrine.

Finally, and at the risk of some repetition, it seems important to emphasize that the Pope is not, what Salmon seems to suggest he ought on Catholic principles to be, a sort of automatic fortune-telling machine. He cannot, under the conditions laid down by the Council, define doctrine simply in obedience to private whims or for the convenience of the Church's passing, as opposed to her permanent, needs. When he does make a definition he speaks as the voice of "tradition," as the utterance of the Church's mind; and the Church's mind like the mills of God, though grinding surely, grinds very slowly. In formal language, we are not taught that the Pope is an inspired oracle, but that he is a divinely assisted witness to the faith once delivered to God's saints (Jude 3).

END OF CHAPTER FIVE


ENDNOTES for Chapter V: The Catholic Position on Infallibility

[86] S, 66. [87] But condemnation of propositions as inconsistent with revealed truth is more frequent, and often less "pondered" than affirmative decisions. [88] Denz, No. 1839. [89] Newman, "Letter to the Duke of Norfolk", 338f. [90] Life of John Henry Cardinal Newman, ii, 406. [91] Tanquerey, Brevior Synopsis Theologiae Dogmaticae (6th ed), 119f. [92] S, 219. [93] S, 38. [94] cf. S, 71. [95] A.E. Taylor, Plato, the Man and his Work, 489. [96] On the subject of Keenan's Catechism, which appears at S, 76f, see chapter II. [97] S, 80. [98] S, 81f. [99] See. Fr. J. Brodrick, S.J. in St. Francis Exavier on the subject of this legend. Reference may made also to Thurston's lifelong work of criticism of Catholic legends. [100] See The Cure d'Ars, by the Abbe Trochu. [101] Irish Eccl Record (1903), 1:237. [102] S, 84. [103] S, 85. [104] Denz, No. 83. [105] De Coron. Mil. iii:79. [106] Enchir. CX. [107] S, 93f. [108] The Message of Fatima, 5f. [109] I follow here H. Bremond, Histoire Litteraire du Sentiment Religeux en France, vol iii, 636ff. [110] ibid, 659. [111] ibid, 641n. [112] Miserentissimus Redemptor. [113] S, 100-108. [114] S, 106. [115] Riccioli, in Almagestum Novum, Bologna, i, 52, quoted in Dictionnaire Apologetique de la Foi Catholique, ii, col 188. [116] E.F. Caldin, The Power and Limits of Science, 88.

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See also March/May 1901 issues of Irish Ecclesiastical Record replying to Salmon, about 50+ pages! (PDF)

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