In a recent article translated and posted at Rorate Caeli, Prof. Roberto de Mattei presents the case of Pope John XXII (1316-1334) as an example of “a pope who fell into heresy and a Church that resisted.” Recognizing de Mattei’s article to be an attempt to dismantle the sedevacantist conclusion, Father Anthony Cekada offered his rebuttal here.
The question of a heretical pope also raises questions related to the doctrine of papal infallibility. From a historical and canonical perspective, these questions are a bit disconcerting as the origins of the doctrine itself as defined by the Council Fathers at Vatican I do not appear to find the level of support one might expect in the writings of the canonists. In this regard, we wish to call attention to an important study authored by Prof. Brian Tierney, Origins of Papal Infallibility 1150-1350: A Study of the Concepts of Infallibility, Sovereignty and Tradition in the Middle Ages (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1972). Tierney is a Cambridge educated medievalist whose contributions to the contemporary academic literature in the history of canon law are not undeserving of serious scholarly attention. To shake things up a bit, we present here the text of Prof. James Brundage’s review of Tierney’s study which appeared in The Jurist in 1973.
J. BRUNDAGE, Rev. of Origins of Papal Infallibility 1150-1350: A Study of the Concepts of Infallibility, Sovereignty and Tradition in the Middle Ages by Brian Tierney (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1972) in The Jurist 69 (1973) 69-73.
This is an important book: its theme is basic to an understanding of the history, theology, and law of the Christian Church. The book is strikingly original, convincingly documented, and trenchantly argued. It deserves to be read, studied, and pondered by any serious canonist, historian, theologian-indeed, by any Christian who cares seriously about the nature of his Church at all.
At the close of his work, Professor Tierney summarizes his three basic arguments in one sentence: “There is no convincing evidence that papal infallibility formed any part of the theological or canonical tradition of the church before the thirteenth century; the doctrine was invented in the first place by a few dissident Franciscans because it suited their convenience to invent it; eventually, but only after much initial reluctance, it was accepted by the papacy because it suited the convenience of the popes to accept it.”
The first and third clauses of this statement are not, to be sure, wholly novel. There was a considerable controversial literature in the years just before and just after 1870, for example, which argued essentially that the notion of papal infallibility was neither particularly ancient nor especially venerable. Within the past century, however, it has not been fashionable among Catholic scholars to write in this vein. It is startling, then, to find a well-known, highly respected, and completely serious Catholic scholar adopting this particular position.
The central clause of the sentence I have quoted is very novel indeed. Tierney’s assertion that papal infallibility was the invention of some late thirteenth-century Franciscan Spirituals is surely the most novel and the most clearly original feature of his book.
Professor Tierney’s first thesis asserts that infallibility was not a part of the theological or canonical tradition of the Church prior to the thirteenth century. In support of this argument, Tierney draws his evidence from the canonistic literature of the classical period, namely from the time of Gratian (ca. 1140) down to the fourteenth century. This is a literature in which Tierney is particularly well-versed, as he has demonstrated in his earlier work. In order to define the scope of papal power in the classical period of the canon law, it is necessary for Tierney to deal first with the theme of tradition: what relation did the canonists of the classical period see between Scripture, tradition, and papal power? Essentially, he finds that they conceived of the pope as having no power to modify scriptural doctrines; the canonists did not treat him as a spokesman for a tradition of revealed truth distinct from the scriptures and the councils. The canonists were primarily concerned with the notion of papal sovereignty as an instrument for reform and disciplinary unity within the Christian Church. Tierney flatly rejects the argumentum ex silentio, which has sometimes been advanced to account for the silence of the canonists on the topic of papal infallibility. This argument maintained that the classical canonists took papal infallibility as a settled matter which they did not need to discuss because it had never been questioned. On the contrary, Tierney finds, the leading canonists of the classical period frequently discussed the notion of the inerrancy of the Church’s faith and invariably concluded that the pope alone could not guarantee that inerrancy. Further, he contends that although the canonists voiced statements which at a hasty reading might be interpreted to imply agreement with a doctrine of infallibility, these statements upon careful analysis turn out to be concerned with something else: the notion of indefectibility. Far from saying that papal powers guaranteed the continuous existence of a Church which was free from error, the canonists were really getting at the notion that at least some part of the Church would always maintain the true faith, whatever doctrinal aberrations the rest of the Church (including even the pope) might fall into. Moreover, Tierney reports that the canonists believed that the decrees of the pope, even in matters of faith, could be changed by succeeding popes. For the canonists this was a crucial issue, since it was central to their notions about papal sovereignty. A pope who is sovereign, they reasoned, cannot be bound by the decisions of his predecessors: par in parem non habet imperium was a concept central to their notion of sovereignty. It is true that in some places the canonists did say that the pope was bound by law, that he could not innovate or abrogate earlier decisions in matters of faith. Such references as these, according to Tierney, always refer to situations where the “matters of faith” in question are contained in the decrees of a general council or in the scriptures. But the classical canonists, as Tierney sees it, clearly did not regard papal pronouncements, even in matters of faith, either as irreformable ex sese or as infallible.
As for the theologians, Tierney maintains that they did not much concern themselves with ecclesiological themes down to about 1250. Thereafter, theologians began to interest themselves increasingly in such matters. Tierney concentrates his investigation of the theologians primarily on the positions adopted by the Franciscan theologians in general and by Saint Bonaventure in particular. On the basis of his soundings in this literature, Tierney concludes that Bonaventure’s thought was entirely compatible with the positions adopted by the canonists: Bonaventure treated the pope as a supreme judge in doctrinal matters; but he did not consider papal judgments either infallible or irreformable.
If the doctrine of infallibility cannot be found in the writings of the canonists or the theologians of the forty-odd Christian generations prior to St. Bonaventure’s time, as Tierney maintains, then where did the doctrine come from, who originated it, and when is all this supposed to have happened? Professor Tierney’s answer is that Peitro Olivi did it, toward the end of the thirteenth century.
Pietro Olivi was a Franciscan theologian who flourished in the decades just following the death of Saint Bonaventure. And Peitro Olivi was also, according to Tierney, the first Christian theologian-indeed, the first Christian writer of any kind-to formulate a doctrine of papal infallibility.
The sequence of events which led to this remarkable development was, as Tierney reconstructs it, uncommonly strange. Pietro Olivi was a Franciscan Spiritual, a fervent advocate of apostolic poverty. In August 1279, Pope Nicholas III promulgated the bull Exiit. In this bull the pope asserted that the Franciscan ideal of poverty was meritorious and holy; it was, in fact, the way of perfection taught by Christ Himself and confirmed by His example. The pope also taught in Exiit that the Rule of St. Francis was directly inspired by the Holy Spirit. This conclusion might be expected to have a certain appeal for devout and convinced Franciscans, such as Olivi. In Exiit the pope explicitly singled out the Franciscan way of life, in the sense that it was understood by the Spiritual wing of the Order, as the path to Christian perfection. Shortly after the publication of Exiit, Pietro Olivi composed a Quaestio in which he quite clearly enunciated a doctrine of papal infallibility. According to Tierney this was a theological novelty; moreover, it was entirely inconsistent with the accepted views of the canonists of Olivi’s period about the nature of papal sovereignty. Olivi felt compelled to construct his novel and unprecedented doctrine of papal infallibility precisely because he lived in fear that the Church would soon come to be ruled by a pseudo-pope. Olivi’s fears on this score were based upon his belief in the Joadimite prophecies which were popular in the thirteenth century. The coming pseudo-pope, Olivi feared, would subvert the very bases of Christian truth; in particular, he would disavow the position established by Exiit, which identified the life of Franciscan poverty with the way of perfection taught by Christ himself. Olivi reasoned, according to Tierney, that the decision of Nicholas III on Franciscan poverty would be binding on future popes only if the papacy were infallible.
If Tierney is right in his reconstruction of Pietro Olivi’s thought and fears, then Olivi’s worst premonitions were quickly fulfilled. Pietro Olivi died in 1298. In 1322 Pope John XXII did in fact revoke the teachings of Nicholas III in the bull Exiit of 1279. John XXII, moreover, bitterly resented and strongly attacked the attempts by the Spiritual Franciscans of his own day to deny him the right to overturn the doctrinal position embraced by Nicholas III. The Spirituals, adopting the lead provided for them by Olivi, argued that Pope John could not undo what Pope Nicholas had done because the pope was infallible. Pope John replied in a blistering bull, Quia Quorundam, in which he stigmatized the idea of papal infallibility as a “pestiferous doctrine” and a “pernicious audacity.” We are thus confronted with a striking paradox: on the one side, the Spirituals insisting as vehemently as they could that the pope was infallible; on the other side, the pope protesting as vigorously as he could that he was not infallible at all.
The reason for this paradoxical-seeming situation, according to Professor Tierney, is that both John XXII and his Franciscan opponents were aware that papal infallibility inevitably limits papal sovereignty quite seriously. The Franciscans wanted to do precisely that in order to preserve their own vested interests; while the pope was determined to keep his options open by insisting on his sovereignty, at the expense of his alleged infallibility.
The ensuing debates were at once labyrinthine in their logic and tedious in their elaboration. Professor Tierney traces the threads of argumentation through the glosses of Zenzelinus de Cassanis, the manifestos of Michael of Cesena, and the ecclesiology of William of Ockham, to the tractates of Guido Terreni. Guido, a fourteenth century Carmelite, in Tierney’s words, “rescued the doctrine of infallibility from the dissident Franciscans who, up to this time, had been its principal exponents and domesticated it for the use of the papal curia.”
On July 18, 1870, the First Vatican Council adopted a dogmatic constitution defining papal infallibility as a divinely revealed doctrine. In so doing, the Council proclaimed that it was “faithfully adhering to a tradition received from the beginning of the Christian faith.”
It would be difficult to reconcile the language of the First Vatican Council’s constitution with the conclusions of Professor Tierney: they cannot both be right. True, one might interpret the passage quoted above from the constitution as a mere obiter dictum. That passage might be construed, perhaps, not as a part of the doctrinal definition itself, but rather as accessory to it. Nonetheless, the notion that the doctrine of infallibility was an ancient one, that it was a part of a continuous Christian tradition, and that its claims to credence were based upon that ancient and continuous tradition-all of these ideas were basic to the thinking of the bishops who accepted the dogmatic constitution of 1870. Professor Tierney has called into question the historical foundations of the belief about infallibility which was held by Vatican Council I.
Professor Tierney makes a compelling case for his view. He examines the evidence with care, his handling of his material is exact, and his use of the testimony is honest. In the face of the evidence which he cites, it is clear that infallibility, at least as the Fathers of Vatican I understood it, was not a doctrine accepted by the canonists of the period from Gratian to Boniface VIII. The canonists could not have accepted that doctrine because they did not know it: it was not a part of the Church’s tradition as they understood it. Indefectibility is something else and indefectibility is a doctrine which the classical canonists both understood and commonly accepted-though not necessarily in the same sense that nineteenth century ultramontane theologians understood and accepted it. On these points Professor Tierney has established a position which will henceforth be extremely difficult to assail.
As for his view that Pietro Olivi was the creator of the doctrine of papal infallibility, Professor Tierney’s position is highly persuasive. It is, of course, possible that somewhere, sometime, some scholar may exhume a manuscript of a still earlier author who held views that were the same as or similar to those of Pietro Olivi. What seems certain is that Professor Tierney has demonstrated that Olivi is the earliest author now known to have written about theory of papal infallibility in a proper sense of the term.
James A. Brundage
Department of History
University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee