The nineteenth-century posed a number of unique challenges to the Roman Catholic Church, among them the continued rise of Protestantism and its heretical theology, the influence of modernism, and the development of biblical criticism. Catholicism developed several responses to these challenges, most notably through Pope Pius IX’s Syllabus of Errors, published in 1864 C.E., and the canons of the First Vatican Council which were published in 1870 C.E. In these writings, both of which have become well accepted Catholic doctrine, Rome affirmed the veracity of the tradition of the Church in opposition to the world, dogmatically affirming the accuracy and infallibility of the teachings of the Church and Pope.
Of the canons coming from the First Vatican Council, the decree concerning papal infallibility, “On the infallible teaching authority of the Roman pontiff,” remains one of the most noteworthy and influential. While the office of the Pope had long held primacy in the Catholic Church, Vatican I sought to solidify that authority by conciliar decree. The first portion of the argument for the doctrine of papal infallibility, the argument for the authority of the pope, is argued from three perspectives: tradition, scripture, and the overarching agreement of Christian faith.
First, arguing from the tradition of the Church, the council writes that the Apostolic primacy of Rome must be understood to include the “supreme power of teaching.” Appeals are made to a variety of historical sources, including the history of the bishopric of Rome, the “constant custom of the church,” and the affirmation of ecumenical councils throughout time concerning the authority of the Bishop of Rome. This first argument is considered to have been the latest to have developed, sometime in the mid-1860s C.E.
The second argument for papal infallibility comes from scripture, namely the interpretation of Matthew 16.18-19 that understands Christ to have appointed Peter as head of the Church and chief of the apostles, an interpretation affirmed by the Fourth Council of Constantinople which occurred in 870 C.E. As the Gospel of Matthew is considered by most scholars to have been written sometime between 70 C.E. and 110 C.E. taken together with the dates of the Fourth Council of Constantinople, the second argument for papal infallibility is considered to be the oldest.
The third and final argument given for the basis of papal authority derives from the historic agreement between sacred scripture, apostolic tradition, and the teachings of the popes, continuity that affirms for the council the authority and accuracy of the pope. Thus, the foundation for the authority of the pope is understood to be well supported from the perspective of Christian tradition, scripture, councils, and past teachings. This final argument does not have a definite date, but most scholars consider it to have developed during the late middle ages (around 1400 C.E.) as the Catholic Church consolidated its geographical and political power.
Interestingly, many believe the First Vatican Council’s canon on papal infallibility to be a restatement of Pius IX’s Syllabus of Errors, as it was clear that in both, the doctrine of papal infallibility was stemming from papal authority, and remained based in the understanding that the Holy Spirit was promised to Peter and his successors to lead and guide them in all matters of faith and morals. Both argued that the gift of the Holy Spirit not only preserves the faith of the successors of Peter but also allows them to authoritatively lead the entire Church so that they may be protected from the “poisonous food of error and be nourished with the sustenance of heavenly doctrine.”
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