Before “Infallibility” Was a Twinkling in a Pope’s Eye

In an ongoing discussion on Facebook, [a discussion of “the Johannine Comma”], a FB friend of mine said, “It would be Orwellian doublespeak (and arbitrary) to say that a pope can guarantee absolute certainty for an individual on an issue while at the same time reserve the right to remove the absoluteness of that certainty an any time.”

While this discussion focused on an area of biblical interpretation in which he concludes that epistemologically, “They are in the same situation” as evidentialist Protestants” [Pope Leo had said one thing, then a “clarification” some 30 years later said another], this very sort of thing is what was at the foundation of the medieval discussions of papal infallibility.

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In a 13th century dispute over a papal decision (Nicholas III) regarding the rule of the Franciscans, Pope John XXII rejected the notion of “infallibility” (i.e, a later pope can’t change the decree of an earlier pope) because he viewed it as “an improper restriction of his rights as a sovereign”. In the bull “Quia Quorundam”, he said (see paragraph 6):

If therefore after an interdict of a general council it was lawful for the supreme Pontiffs to confirm orders [that] had not been confirmed, and for their successors to dissolve completely [those which] had been so confirmed, is it not wonderful, if, what only the supreme Pontiff may declare or ordain concerning the rules of [religious] orders, it is lawful for his successors to declare or to change to other things. Moreover it is clear that neither the confirmation of the aforesaid [Popes], Honorius, Gregory, Alexander, and Nicholas [III], was accomplished in general council, since no general council was celebrated by any of these. Granted that Innocent IV celebrated a general council, nevertheless during that [council] the above said declaration of his was not accomplished with the authority of any council. Nicholas IV, however, neither celebrated a general council, nor declared anything concerning the said rule. The aforesaid Gregory IX, however, neither confirmed nor declared the said rule, but in a general council, where there had been not a few orders of mendicants abolished, he did not abolish the orders of the said Friars Minor and [Friar] Preachers, but asserted them to be approved, saying thus: “To these [orders], which the resulting utility of the universal church, evident from these things, demonstrates as approved, We do not permit the present constitution to be extended”.

Bernhard Hasler wrote “the pope’s objection may strike us today a grotesque, but the point was well taken: Infallibility always constitutes a limit to the power of an individual pope, who is bound by the infallible declarations of his predecessors. For the time being, the bishops of Rome had no interest in this theory. Discussion of the issue faded away for centuries” (August Bernhard Hasler, “How the Pope Became Infallible”, Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, © 1981, pgs 36-37).

This is one reason why the “Reformation” of Hildebrand (Pope Gregory VII) looms so large. That was the “Reformation” (following the East-West split of 1054) which created the papacy as a “sovereign” in the first place. All Eastern objections to the imperial papacy were at once brushed aside, and the “Imperial papacy” was enabled for the first time to have all the earthly glory it wanted.

Published by John Bugay

"We are His workmanship," His poiema, His "poetry." If you've ever studied poetry, or struggled to write a poem, you understand the care God takes to "work all things together for good" in our lives. For this reason, and many others, I believe in the Sovereignty of God. I have seen His hand working in my life, and I submit myself to His merciful will, with all my being.

7 replies on “Before “Infallibility” Was a Twinkling in a Pope’s Eye”

  1. In the reign of Pope John XXII (1313-1334), a puritanical sect within the Franciscan Order who called themselves “the Spirituals” held that their interpretation of the rule and lifestyle of Saint Francis, especially in the matter of practicing poverty, was the ONLY LEGITIMATE WAY TO FOLLOW JESUS CHRIST. They taught that their rule of life was identically the same as the Gospel, the very way of life led by Christ and his Apostles, inspired by the Holy Spirit as were the Scriptures.

    They further held that approval of their rule by earlier popes was a matter pertaining to faith and morals; and since the rule was equal to the Gospel (they said), no subsequent Pope could change or revoke it.

    Pope John rejected this fantastic doctrine in a bull of 1324 entitled QUIA QUORUNDAM. He denied the “Spirituals'” contention that their rule and style of poverty was equal to the Gospel and he pointed out that papal approval of a religious order and its rule was a matter of Church legislation, not of faith or morals. Therefore, he taught, a pope could (and sometimes might have to ) modify an earlier pope’s legislation or revoke it.

    In the course of the encyclical, Pope John denied the existence of a “key of knowledge”, in virtue of which the “Spirituals” contended that earlier popes had unchangeably established this rule and lifestyle. (The phrase `key of knowledge’ comes from Luke 11:52, which the “Spirituals” misused).
    Pope John was not dealing with an issue of doctrinal infallibility, but with a defective understanding of the Church’s governing power as invested in the Pope.


  2. Of course, St. Francis, during his lifetime, advocated for the stricter rule. It was watered down by later generations. So calling them “puritanical” makes no sense (on top of being an anachronism, and a misunderstanding of who the Puritans actually were).

    That aside, I did not say that “Pope John” was dealing with “doctrinal infallibility”. In fact, if you look at the title, this issue came up before there ever was any other discussion of “infallibility”.


    1. Hi J.W., it’s a pretty dry reading of a “contemporary history” of Vatican I. Hasler describes many of the individuals who participated, what was at stake for them, how they got their arms twisted, etc. It’s a useful book, and it could even be interesting reading if you have an interest in the history of that time period.


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