There has been a lot in the news about the passing of a pope and the election of another. It caused me to revisit a copy of a speech by a Catholic bishop at the Council of 1870 when the doctrine of papal infallibility was officially confirmed. At this council, Bishop Strossmayer from Croatia made a fearless and scriptural stand against this doctrine, and that of papal supremacy.
In the following I have condensed his speech. It can be found in full in a publication “Against Papal Infallibility”, Wittenberg Publications, 136 Main Street, Toronto Canada M4E 2V8. ISBN 0-921716-12-5
In 1870 the First Vatican Council declared the pope to be infallible – incapable of error in matters of faith and morals when speaking “ex cathedra”, in the exercise of his office. This teaching is still current in the Roman Catholic Church. The Second Vatican Council of 1962-1965 produced the statement that “This teaching concerning the institution, the performance, the nature and import of the sacred primacy of the Roman pontiff and his infallible teaching office, the sacred synod proposes anew to be firmly believed by all the faithful”.
Strossmayer told the Council that he had studied the whole New Testament and “had found no trace of the papacy as it exists at this moment”. He found not one little verse where Christ gave Peter supremacy over the other apostles. Indeed, he “forbad the apostles to reign or to exercise lordship, or to have authority over the faithful like the kings of the Gentiles (Luke 22:5). If Peter had been elected pope, Jesus would not have spoken thus; but according to our tradition, the papacy holds in its hands two swords, symbols of spiritual and temporal power”.
He gave an example of Peter being an active participant, but by no means supreme, at the assembly to settle a vital question of doctrine in Acts 15. Peter neither called the meeting, nor controlled it, nor did he sum up the findings - James did that. “And when the conclusions were promulgated, it was in the name of the apostles, the elders, and the brethren. Is it thus that we do in our church?”
Strossmayer then went on to show that Paul lists the gifts in the church as apostles, prophets, evangelists, teachers and shepherds. He raised the question: If the papacy had been divinely instituted, would he have forgotten it? Impossible. In none of Paul’s epistles is there any mention of Peter’s supremacy. He says further, “If Peter was what we proclaim him to be – the vicar of Christ on earth – he surely would have known it; if he had known it, how is it that not once did he act as a pope?”
He quoted a learned and respected authority as saying that the story that Peter’s residence and episcopy was at Rome was a ridiculous legend. [At this point there were cries, ‘Shut his mouth, shut his mouth; make him come down from the pulpit.’]
He used history to show that there were no popes in the first four centuries of Christianity. Then followed his outline of the truth regarding Christ building the church, not on Peter (super Petrum), but “on the rock (super petram) of the confession of the faith of the apostle”. He goes on, “I conclude victoriously, with history, with reason, with logic, with good sense, and with Christian conscience, that Jesus Christ did not confer any supremacy on Peter, and that the bishops of Rome did not become sovereigns of the church, but only by confiscating one by one all the rights of the episcopate.” [Voices – ‘Silence, impudent Protestant! Silence!] “I am not an impudent Protestant.”
“History is neither Catholic, nor Anglican, nor Calvinistic, nor Lutheran, nor… Write against it if you dare! But you cannot destroy it. Monsignor Dupanloup has said, and with reason, that if we declare Pope Pius IX [the then Pope] infallible, we must necessarily, and from natural logic, be obliged to hold that all his predecessors were also infallible. Well then, venerable brethren, here history raises its voice with authority to assure us that some popes have erred. Pope Victor first approved of Montanism, and then condemned it.
Marcellinus was an idolater. He entered the temple of Vesta, and offered incense to the goddess.” He then traced over the centuries numerous inconsistencies among the popes – down to Sixtus V (1585-90) who published an edition of the Bible, and by a Bull recommended it to be read; Pius VII condemned the reading of it. “I should never finish if I were to put before your eyes the contradictions of the popes in their teaching.” He then proceeded to outline the sins and excesses of many popes, the details of which we will not go into here. As he declared again, these are not fables, it is history.
He cried out: “If you decree the infallibility of the present bishop of Rome… you must establish the infallibility of all the preceding ones, without excluding any… Could you do it and maintain that avaricious, incestuous, murdering, simoniacal popes have been vicars of Jesus Christ? Oh venerable brethren! To do it would be to betray Christ worse than Judas. [Cries, ‘Down from the pulpit, quick; shut the mouth of the heretic!’].
Strossmayer brought his address to a conclusion by appealing to the authority of the Scriptures alone. “Let us avail ourselves of our reason, and our intelligence to take the apostles and prophets as our only infallible masters with reference to the question of questions, ‘What must I do to be saved?’ When we have decided that, we shall have laid the foundation of our dogmatic system firm and immovable on the rock, lasting and incorruptible, of the divinely inspired holy Scriptures … we ‘will know none other than Jesus Christ and Him crucified’.” To more protests from the audience who declared him to be a Protestant, a Calvinist, a traitor of the church, he responded: “Your cries, Monsignori, do not frighten me. If my words are hot, my head is cool. I am neither of Luther, nor of Calvin, nor of Paul, nor of Apollos, but of Christ.” [Renewed cries, ‘Anathema to the apostate.’]
He warned them that the papacy had departed from the gospel of the Son of God. If the apostles were to be raised from the dead, and confronted them, would they say that they preferred the teachings of their own popes to that of the apostles? “No, a thousand times, no! unless you have shut your ears that you may not hear, closed your eyes that you may not see, blunted your mind that you may not understand.” He then warned them against making Pope Pius IX a god, “as we have made a goddess of the Virgin. Stop, stop, venerable brethren, on the odious and ridiculous incline on which you have placed yourselves. Save the church …asking from the holy Scriptures alone for the rule of faith which we ought to believe and to profess. I have spoken: may God help me!”
I am encouraged that even in the darkest hour, God will have a witness to the truth. We see this at the cross of Christ – a converted thief defends the Lord as one who has done nothing amiss, and the centurion acknowledged that he was truly the son of God.
Strossmayer was not alone in his opposition to papal infallibility, but the Jesuit controlled papal party “won the day”. Sadly, after his address, he remained inside the Roman Catholic system. May we learn from this and seek grace to separate from what dishonours Christ, as the Scripture says: Come out of her, my people, that ye have not fellowship in her sins. Revelation 18:4.