Blessed John Henry Newman For Our Time- Dispelling the Myths surrounding Papal Infallibility


St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre (1572)

What is known as St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre was undeniably one of, if not the most, violent events of 16th France. Supposedly, as a result of the treaty of Saint-Germain-en-laye, the


Catherine de’ Medici

Catholics and Protestants had found an end to their civil war, and which put an end to the third of the French Wars of Religion. The Queen mother, Catherine de’ Medici, wanting to cement this peace, arranged her daughter to marry the Protestant Hugenot Prince Henry of Navarre in Paris on August 18th, 1572. Now, many traditional Catholic Parisians were very anti-Hugenot, and thus against the marriage, as was Pope Gregory XIII and King Philip II of Spain. Following the wedding day, on the 22nd of August, there was an assassination attempt on Admiral de Coligny, a leading Hugenot who remained in Paris to finish discussions on the peace treaty. Though he survived, this attempted assassination sparked a massacre between the Catholics versus the Protestants. Initially, measures were taken to prevent any violence, but soon enough municipal authorities had closed the city gates and armed the citizenry to prevent a Protestant uprising against Paris. Coligny was eventually killed and the tension continued to build until it was an all out massacre, with the Hugenots being the side which lost extremely high numbers. The death toll varies according to source, but altogether we can estimate around 20 to 30 thousand.


Pope Gregory XIII

Now, word of this got to Rome and apparently it was received as an act of victorious deliverance from the Hugenots. For instance, the head of Coligny was dispatched to the Pope, though it did not make it to Rome. In addition, upon the news, the Pope had the Te Deum sung as a special thanksgiving and had a metal struck with the words Ugonottorum Strages 1571, which reads Slaughter of the Hugenots and which had the image of an angel bearing the cross of Christ and a sword under which are the fallen Protestants. It was seen as an act of divine retribution since Coligny was seen as a threat to Christendom,and consequently the Pope had designated September 11th of 1572 to
be a joint commemoration of the Battle of Lepanto and the massacre of the Hugenots.

Richard Francis Littledale, an Anglo-Catholic clergyman and contemporary of Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman, was both an apologist for the Patristic heritage of the Church as well as a hard skeptic against the Papal claims. One of his letters to Newman, dated 1872, strikes real close with the questions which are posed to us today, and, I’m sure, which will continue to be posed against us. In this letter, Littledale took issue with Newman’s view of Pope Gregory XIII’s attitude toward the Massacre and went on to press the issue of Papal Infallibility. On September 15 of the same year, Newman responded by saying what we often find ourselves saying to our interlocutors:

I will but say one thing – viz that to consider Gregory’s act or acts of which you speak as


John Henry Newman in Rome 1879

a dogmatic statement on morals, such as constitute a definitive ex cathedra, appears to me one of the least logical ideas, to use your words, that ever entered into the mind of a learned and able man. It shocks my common sense – and, speaking under correction, I think it would shock the common sense of most men, certainly of Catholic theologians. Allow me to say you really have not got hold of what we mean by the Pope’s Infallibility, and what we hold by the idea, not what you hold by it, must be the starting point of any fruitful controversy”

Just two days later, in the same letter, Newman provides an apt description of the nuance which is often missed in the doctrine of Papal infallibility:

“Infallibility is not a habit in the Pope, or a state of mind – but, as the decree says, that infallibility which the Church has. The Church when in Council and proceeding by the strictest forms enunciates a definition in faith and morals, which is certainly true. The Church is infallible then, when she speaks ex cathedra — but the Bishops out of Council are fallible men. So the Pope is infallible then, when he speaks ex cathedra — but he has no habit of infallibility in his intellect, such that his acts cannot but proceed from it, must be Peter_the_apostleinfallible because he is infallible, imply, involve, an infallible judgment. He is infallible pro re nata [for a particular affair], when he speaks ex cathedra — not except at particular times and on grave occasions. Nay further than this, even on those grave questions the gift is negative. It is not that he has an inspiration of truth, but he is simply guarded from error, circumscribed by a divine superintendence from transgressing, extravagating beyond, the line of truth. And his definitions do not come of a positive divine guidance, but of human means, research, consulting theologians, etc etc. It is an ‘adsistentia’ [assistance] not an ‘inspiratio’ [inspiration] — an aid eventual, i.e. in the event, and does not act till the event, not in the process — and an adsistentia, as I have said, pro re nata. His words would be infallible one moment, not the next.” (The Letters and Diaries, 26:169-70)

We can see how Littledale was led to critique Papal Infallibility when informed of the actions of Pope Gregory VIII, and similarly, we can see how present day skeptics offer objections to the same because of things being done by contemporary Popes, most chiefly our current Holy Father. For some reason, even for intellectual giants such as this Anglo-Catholic priest, events such as the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre can often mislead one to think that this poses a threat to the Papal dogmas. Newman’s first response was perfect, though it is one of the weaker responses in our arsenals. What I think was most powerful was Newman’s distinction between “eventual aid” (i.e. an aid in the event) and “aided process”. As I have argued elsewhere, the Pope might be a theological dunce, and may not even know the answer to the theological questions which are confront him. I think one of the largest disappointments I have is Pope Paul V’s decision to postpone an official declaration vindicating the Thomistic doctrine of predestination contra Luis De Molina which had met in the De Auxiliis congregation, which had ended in 1607 with the decision that all sides can promote their beliefs until the Church see fit to answer. Now, surely, the fact that this congregation was even created to examine the question would disprove the idea of a Papal automation or Papal omniscience, (i.e. those who would think that Papal Infallibility entails that the Pope knows all doctrinal truths with a wave of his hand).  Now, granted, perhaps the Pope did understand, and did not see the wisdom in doing so. No worries; there are plenty of other examples. One of the most vivid  of these is Pope Vigilius during his confronting the objections to the “Three


Pope Paul V

Chapters” by Emperor Justinian I and the Eastern Cyrillians. Clearly, Vigilius was confused for a good portion of the time. Hopefully, our critics can recognize the lack of free deliberation here, as the Imperial forces were giving almost no breathing room for a postponement of decision, after having already kidnapped him from Rome upon his refusal to sign the Imperial Edict condemning the Three Chapters. In the end, the Pope consented rightly to their condemnation (though some still debate this issue today), as did the universal Church. In any case, the “process” by which the Pope comes to the “event” wherein he is divinely and negatively protected from transgressing the line of orthodoxy is not infallible, and could be filled with all sorts of aids given to him by the Church. We often get our ears cleaned with the emphatic complaints that the Pope is said by the Vatican Council that his ex cathedra teaching is  ex sese, non autem ex consensuEcclesiae, irreformabiles esse (in itself, and not by the consent of the Church, irreformable). Sure, but this says nothing about the process. Only the event. Pope Pius IX surely had with him the conciliar process of the Vatican Council, as well as the consultation with the World Bishops on the matter of the Immaculate Conception of the Holy Virgin, did he not? Likewise, with Pope Pius XII in Munificentissimus Deus. In fact, the Vatican Council said :

For the Holy Spirit was not promised to the successors of Peter not so that they might, by his revelation, make known some new doctrine, but that, by his assistance, they might religiously guard and faithfully expound the revelation or deposit of faith transmitted by the apostles. (Chapter 4, Paragraph 6)

Since the above is true, the “process” of the Pope’s research and deliberation prior to an ex cathedra teaching would surely be constrained by the consent of the Church, that is, by what has already been held by the faithful from the day that Christ and the Apostles deposited that single deposit of divine revelation. Thus, theoretically, ex cathedra teachings will merely be reflecting an old belief held by the Church, and  therefore, one which the Pope already felt himself bound in obedience.

Also, to bring this more to the current, how often is it we forget that the Papal office is a ministry given to sinners, from St. Peter onward. As from Peter himself, we can see how failure is not above the office. The person in office is susceptible to countless failures. What are the limits? Only God knows. We do know, however, that the Church’s voice is only given to us through the proper channels, and despite the fact that the minister who may be Pope at any given time is chipping away, it would seem, at the foundations, there is no protection against it from the Almighty. Newman compared Papal Infallibility to the truth spoken from the mouth of Balaam spoke with infallibility in the Book of Numbers (22-24), and that goes to show how far from proper things might get.

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