The Fictional Beginnings of Papal Infallibility, Part 1

It is no stretch at all to call this fictional. The concept of “papal infallibility”, the foundation of the Roman Catholic IP, the epistemological foundation of certitude for a narrow band of Roman Catholics, never existed for the first 1200 years of church history.

Michael Liccione wrote of “papal ratifications of dogmatic canons issued by general councils meant to bind the whole Church”. Of these he says:

Whether purely papal or conciliar, such definitions are exercises of the “extraordinary magisterium” of the Church, and thus require the assent of faith from all believers. All are set forth infallibly.

Of course, it’s not like “popes” had called these councils, or were leading these councils, or even present at these councils, or were even afterthoughts at these councils. In some cases, they didn’t even know about them until after-the-fact.

Of course, “Pope Sylvester” was not present at the First Ecumenical Council (Nicea 325AD). Only two priests from Rome were present (among the 300+ Eastern bishops at the council) and he is neither mentioned by, or even apparently though of at this council. At the Second Ecumenical Council, Constantinople (381AD), from which we have “the Nicene Creed” in its present form, “Pope Damasus” (366–384) didn’t even know it was occurring, and only received reports about the council later.

What was “the papacy” like at this time? This is from Hans Küng: “Infallibility, an Inquiry”:

[the murderer] Bishop Damasus was the first to claim the title of Sedes Apostolica (“Apostolic See”) exclusively for the Roman See; Bishop Siricius (contemporary of the far more important Ambrose, Bishop of Milan), was the first to call himself “pope,” began peremptorily to call his own statutes “apostolic,” adopted the official imperial style, and energetically extended his official powers on all sides; Bishop Innocent I wanted to have every important matter, after it had been been discussed at a synod, put before the Roman pontiff for a decision, and tried to establish liturgical centralization with the aid of historical fictions, and so on.

The historian Eamon Duffy writes of this “official imperial style”:

They [bishops of Rome] set about [creating a Christian Rome] by building churches, converting the modest tituli (community church centres) into something grander, and creating new and more public foundations, though to begin with nothing that rivaled the great basilicas at the Lateran and St. Peter’s. Over the next hundred years their churches advanced into the city – Pope Mark’s (336) San Marco within a stone’s throw of the Capitol, Pope Liberius’ massive basilica on the Esquiline (now Santa Maria Maggiore), Pope Damasus’ Santa Anastasia at the foot of the Palatine, Pope Julius’ foundation on the site of the present Santa Maria in Trastevere, Santa Pudenziana near the Baths of Diocletian under Pope Anastasius (399-401), Santa Sabina among the patrician villas on the Aventine under Pope Celestine (422-32).

These churches were a mark of the upbeat confidence of post-Constantinian Christianity in Rome. The popes were potentates, and began to behave like it. Damasus perfectly embodied this growing grandeur. An urbane career cleric like his predecessor Liberius, at home in the wealthy salons of the city, he was also a ruthless power-broker, and he did not he did not hesitate to mobilize both the city police and [a hired mob of gravediggers with pickaxes] to back up his rule… (Duffy, 37:38).

It was Siricius (384-399), who was the successor of Damasus, who “self-consciously … began to model their actions and style as Christian leaders on the procedures of the Roman state. … [Siricius responded to an inquiry from a neighboring bishop in Spain] in the form of a decretal, modeled directly on an imperial rescript, and like the rescripts, providing authoritative rulings which were designed to establish legal precedents on the issues concerned. Siricius commended the [inquiring] Bishop for consulting Rome ‘as to the head of your body’, and instructed to him to pass on ‘the salutary ordinances we have made’ to the bishops of all the surrounding provinces, for ‘no priest of the Lord is free to be ignorant of the statutes of the Apostolic See’” (Duffy 40)

Regarding the way that “historical fictions” worked their way into papal consolidation of their power, Roger Collins, Keeper of the Keys (New York, NY: Basic Books (Perseus Books Group), ©2009) writes:

In 416 Pope Innocent I (401–417) declared ‘in all of Italy, Gaul, Spain, Africa, Sicily and the isles that lie between them no churches have been established other than by those ordained bishop by the venerable Apostle Peter or his successors”…. (58)

This was totally historically inaccurate, although it wasn’t the only such incident giving sanction to historical inaccuracy.

The purpose of such “novelties”, according to Collins, was “always the” invention “maintenance of tradition” (59).

Later, Collins writes about the “Symmachan forgeries”:

This was the first occasion on which the Roman church had revisited its own history, in particular the third and fourth centuries, in search of precedents…. Some of the periods in question, such as the pontificates of Sylvester (314–355) and Liberius (352–366), were already being seen more through the prism of legend than that of history, and in the Middle Ages texts were often forged because their authors were convinced of the truth of what they contained. Their faked documents provided tangible evidence of what was already believed true.

The Symmachan forgeries reinterpreted some of the more embarrassing episodes in papal history, both real and imaginary. … How convincing these forged texts seemed in the early sixth century is unknown, but when rediscovered in later centuries, they were regarded as authentic records with unequivocal legal authority. … (Collins, 80–82).

This is how Rome does “interpretation”. The reliance of these bishops of Rome on fictions and forgeries to expand their realm is truly staggering. Collins says “It is no coincidence that the first systematic works of papal history appear at the very time the Roman church’s past was being reinvented for polemical purposes.” We have only seen the tip of the iceberg.

* * *

There was a representative of a pope present at the third Ecumenical council. History records a speech from “Philip the Roman Legate” at the Council of Ephesus (431 AD). It is important to note that this was at the third session – after all of the major issues had been decided, “after the conclusion of the whole matter”, after many of the important players had left. Philip stood up in front of an almost-empty room and said:

No one doubts, but rather it has been known to all generations, that the holy and most blessed Peter, chief and head of the Apostles, the pillar of the faith, the foundation stone of the Catholic church, received the keys of the kingdom from our Lord Jesus Christ the Savior and Redeemer of the human race, an that the power of binding and loosing sins was given to him, who up to this moment and always lives in his successors, and judges (D. 112).

For Roman Catholics, this counts as “papal ratification” of a council.

In reality, this speech of Philip’s was a novelty, a burp after a meal, a “don’t-forget-about-me” moment” which wasn’t on anybody’s mind at the time (except for those at Rome), and at Vatican I, we see here the real-life practice of what I’ve been calling “The Roman Catholic Hermeneutic”, returning “to the sources of divine revelation” – interesting how this afterthought of a speech turns into “a source of divine revelation” for the great and certain Roman Catholic IP, that fountain of all epistemological certainty.

This unimportant speech was cited at Vatican I (D. 1824), as precedent for and evidence of “the Perpetuity of the Primacy of Blessed Peter among the Roman Pontiffs.”

(The “D.” stands for Denzinger’s “Sources of Catholic Dogma”).