Tag Archives: history

Infallibility On Hold


Some journalists were fascinated by the fact that Pope Benedict XVI freely surrendered his infallibility in giving up the Papacy.  But however wonderful Papal infallibility may seem in theory, it really has not been of much significance in the history of the Church.  It is very limited, and works only for faith and morals.  It has never solved any problem for the Church, but rather has led to problems when there was an overlap between matters of faith and matters of science.

The Church authorities have sometimes extended their competence in matters of faith to cover other matters, like when they said that the bible taught that the sun goes round the earth, and therefore it was heretical to teach that the earth moves round the sun. At the time of Galileo (1564-1642) all writings that claimed that the earth was in motion were placed on the Index of Forbidden Books.  That remained in force until 1741 when the Roman authorities quietly relaxed the ban.  They learned that they were not always infallible.

I have often wondered why Pope Pius IX was so anxious to get the Council of Vatican I (1870) to confirm his claim to infallibility as Pope.  Some historians suggested that Pius was upset because he was in the process of losing the Papal States to Garibaldi and the Italian nationalists, and desperately wanted some new symbol of power to help him stay relevant in the world of politics.  But Pius claimed that the Pope had full and supreme power over all the Church, so it puzzles me that he did not simply declare the dogma of Papal infallibility.  To insist on confirmation from the Council seems to hint at some degree of self-doubt.

Anyway, Papal infallibility is not always what it is talked up to be.  Pope Boniface VIII tried it in 1302, and it fell flat. He should have known better.  Boniface VIII immediately succeeded Pope Celestine V (1294), who resigned after just 5 months as Pope.   Before Celestine there was no Pope for two years, as the Cardinals could not agree on a candidate after the death of Pope Nicholas IV in 1292.  But the fact that they dawdled for two years without electing a Pope seems to indicate that they thought the Church could manage quite well without somebody infallible in charge.

 Boniface got into a head to head struggle for power with the Emperor Philip the Fair. To establish the Pope’s superiority over the Emperor he issued a Papal Bull, Unam Sanctam, in which he refers to the two swords (Luke 22, 38) as the sword of temporal power (of the Emperor) and the sword of spiritual power (of the Pope).

According to Boniface, the Papal sword always trumps the Imperial sword.  He concludes the document with these words: “We state, declare and define that every human being, in order to be saved, must submit to the Roman Pontiff”. (Denzinger n.874)
With this solemn choice of words it seems that Boniface wanted to appear to speak infallibly. Unfortunately for him, his declaration was so obviously self-serving that nobody took him seriously.

Centuries earlier there was the case of Pope Honorius I (625-638).  As Pope he got involved in correspondence with some bishops and theologians in discussions about the human nature of Christ.  The words used by Pope Honorius implied that Christ had no human will.  This led to Pope Honorius after death being declared anathema by the Ecumenical Council of Constantinople (680) and condemned by Pope Leo II (681-683) for “fanning the flame of heresy”.  That was a sad fate for a Pope who could have taught infallibly if only he had remembered.

Even the first Pope Saint Peter was not immune from teaching error as the apostle Paul pointed out in his letter to the Galatians (Galatians 2, 11-14).  Peter approved the ruling that gentile converts to Christianity were obliged to observe Jewish religious law.  Paul objected to this and later wrote, “I opposed Kephas (Peter) to his face because he was clearly wrong” (Galatians 2, 11).  Paul prevailed, and his teaching on this issue became official Church teaching.

With the history of occasional Papal mistakes it seems unreasonable to demand unquestioning assent to every public statement of a Pope as if it were infallible.  I think the framers of the doctrine would have done better to insist on infallibility for the Church while admitting Popes as individuals can be wrong occasionally.  Even in the contests with the Roman Emperor, history shows that the power of excommunication proved to be a much more effective weapon for the Pope than the claim to infallibility.

Benedict XVI must have been aware of all this when he handed in his infallibility badge on February 28, 2013.  But I am sure he was quite confident that the Church, with the guidance of the Holy Spirit, would not go astray even while Papal infallibility was temporarily placed on hold.




Pentecost Sunday 2012 happened to fall on the last Sunday of May.  For that reason I found myself officiating on that day at a Filipino Santacruzan at Saint Barnabas parish in Portsmouth, Rhode Island.

I help out regularly with the weekday Mass schedule at Saint Barnabas, and last February I received a call from the parish office.  The call was a request to officiate a Sunday afternoon Mass for a Filipino celebration on the last Sunday in May.  I willingly accepted, and was put in touch with a Filipino couple who were organizing the event.

The couple visited me to brief me on their plans, and explained that the celebration they were organizing was called the SantaCruzan.  They were pleasantly surprised when I told them that not only was I familiar with the celebration, but that I had spent several years as a young missionary in the Philippines many years ago.

The SantaCruzan really celebrates two different practices carried out in the Philippines during the month of May.  The first is the Flores de Mayo (the Flowers of May) which consists of devotions every evening in May to honor the Virgin Mary by offering flowers and prayers before her image.  The second devotion being celebrated is in honor of the cross on which Christ was crucified, believed to have been located by Queen Helena, mother of Constantine, the Roman Emperor who halted the persecution of Christians at the beginning of the 4th century.

The SantaCruzan is really a complicated event, and it is to the credit of the Filipinos how they masterfully weave the two together in one celebration.  The three main elements in the celebration are a procession, the Mass, and a banquet.

The procession was due to leave from the community hall under the parish church starting at 2 p.m.   I arrived just before 2 o’clock to find the parish hall filled with people in, what looked to the inexperienced eye, a state of chaos.  Filipinos from all over New England and further afield were smiling and enjoying one another as they stood or sat around tables chatting animatedly. Loudspeakers were playing instrumental and vocal Filipino music.  The lady who had briefed me about the event was there with her microphone, trying to organize the procession against the competition from the loudspeakers and the animated conversations.

It looked like a hopeless task, but with that infinite patience in which Filipino women excel, slowly but surely she coaxed order out of chaos.  In a surprisingly short time, the procession was ready to move.

The procession was led by a cross-bearer, followed by two flag bearers, carrying the American flag and the flag of the Philippines.  After them came the Knights of Columbus, Couples for Christ, and the Legion of Mary.  They were followed by about 30 angels, all in white, average age about 4.

Then came the queens with their escorts.  First was a young woman dressed in a long dress, carrying a triangular flag.  She is the Banner Queen, representing the arrival of Christianity to the Philippines.  After her came another young woman in a long dress, the Moor Queen representing the Filipinos who embraced the religion of Islam, which arrived in the Southern Philippines two centuries before Christianity, through traders from the Persian Gulf .

The last queen in the procession was a young woman chosen for her beauty to represent the Empress Helena.  She carried a small wooden cross to indicate that she found the True Cross in the Holy Land, and brought it to Constantinople.  Before her walked her escort, a young boy wearing a crown and representing her son the Roman Emperor Constantine.

At the end of the procession, in the position of honor, came the flower-decked image of the Blessed Virgin Mary, carried shoulder-high by four men wearing black pants and the long-sleeved barong tagalog, the traditional dress of Filipino men.

After the image came the priest and all the members of the faithful.  The procession wound its way slowly through the Church grounds in the warm sunshine, while the crowd prayed the Rosary, led by the Hermanas, the women who had sponsored the daily devotions to Our Lady during the month of May.

After the procession entered the Church the image of the Virgin was placed before the altar, where it was blessed by the priest, and crowned by the Empress Helena.  This was followed by Mass celebrated in English, with hymns and prayers in Spanish and Tagalog.

After Mass the Virgin was carried in procession to the community hall, where she presided at a happy and lively banquet of mouth-watering Filipino and American food.

I commended the organizers for their working together to show their young people how the Faith was handed on in the Filipino tradition. The Santacruzan is a prayerful history lesson.  The young Filipinos, by following the religious tradition of their elders, are keeping in touch with their cultural roots, while at the same time enriching the life of the Church in the country of their adoption.