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.