It is a well known fact of human history that men look back to important events of the past, particularly when the past is believed to have some bearing on the present. We reflect not only about the political and national past, but also about the church, as in our remembrance of the Counter Reformation of the sixteenth century. Such recollection involves historic consciousness of the continuity of history, of the powers of the past that are being felt in the present. When we no longer experience the actuality of the past in the present, such recollections will gradually die.

It is therefore important to discern whether or not there is concern for the past. I mention this because I have noted that within the Roman Catholic Church hardly any attention is being given to the 100th anniversary of the First Vatican Council (1870) with its declaration of papal infallibility. Is this neglect simply accidental, or is there a reason for it?

In 1951, Roman Catholic theologians meditated deeply upon the meaning of the Council of Chalcedon (451 A.D.), which formulated the confession that Christ is truly God and truly man. Excellent studies were written about this important council, even a trilogy about Chalcedon in the past, present, and future. In 1963, a congress was organized in Trent in commemoration of the Council of Trent of 1563. But in 1970, very little has been done to note the centennial of Vatican I.

In June, the Catholic Academy of Bavaria in Munich organized a weekend discussion that included several historic aspects of the First Vatican Council. I had the privilege of being there. Theologically this was a very important and instructive time. But ecclesiastically very little was said about 1870.

In the Netherlands—as far as I know—only one meeting was held to commemorate the First Vatican Council and that was sponsored by a small group of fighting fundamentalist partisans. These people advocate total subjection to the authority of the pope, and therefore 1870 is especially meaningful to them.

But one cannot say that this enthusiasm for papal infallibility is clearly evident in most Catholic circles of our day. It is true, a Second Vatican Council repeated several decisions of 1870, especially the infallibility of the pope, but it is apparent that Rome does not consider a special commemoration of the council opportune at this moment. Some Catholic scholars continue to study the meaning and consequences of 1870. For example, in 1968 H. J. Pottmeyer published a 600-page study about the First Vatican Council (Der Glaubevor den Anspruch der Wissenschaft), which digs deeply into its documents. But in 1970 nothing has been published, and I am sure that there is a good reason for this lack of interest: the crisis within the Roman Catholic Church concerning authority and especially papal infallibility.

In former days papal infallibility was a sign of assurance and safety. The pope knew the way because of what Vatican I called “Assistentia divina,” complete support of the Holy Spirit. Speaking ex cathedra through this infallibility in matters of faith and morals the pope could conquer all kinds of doubt and answer all questions of science and all questions of biblical studies. Many talked very romantically about the dogma of infallibility and often compared it to Israel’s being led by the pillar of cloud during the day and the pillar of fire during the night: “Thus the LORD went before them by day and by night to give them light that they might travel by day and by night” (Ex. 13:21). Many felt, as Israel had felt, a certain saving security and a guarantee for all ages.

But things have changed in 100 years. This romanticism of 1870 is being corroded by all kinds of uncertainties and insecurity. The church has discovered that things are less simple than this infallibility seemed to expect. When the horizon of human knowledge was enlarged many new problems appeared, particularly in areas where neither papal nor dogmatic authority always have answers. The decision of 1870 is now approached less romantically, much more humanly, and less broadly. Nobody has fought the declaration of 1870, but it has come to mean that the Lord of the church would not allow his church to perish but would keep her to the end of the ages. Even the infallible statement of the pope in 1950 (about the ascension of Mary into heaven) could not put a stop to doubts in an age when a simplistic dogma of infallibility and security is being questioned by so many in such diverse ways.

There are good reasons to wonder whether any infallible dogma will ever again be pronounced; the possibility of the pope speaking authoritatively and infallibly is being increasingly questioned, as many become impressed by his human limitations. Deficiencies in noninfallible pronouncements (remember the discussions about celibacy) also have thrown their shadows over the total authority of the pope in our day.

It is evident that Pope Paul VI is very disturbed about this crisis of authority and that he still finds the image of the pillars of cloud and fire deeply moving. But the value of this image is more and more being lost; it is as if the church itself realizes that an enthusiastic commemoration of 1870 is not only impossible at this moment but would simply produce further adverse reactions. The silence about 1870 is a remarkable sign from the ecclesiastical heaven. Romanticism has been replaced by an ecclesiastical realism that assigns to the pope a less important role functionally. The crisis of papal infallibility is a crisis of authority in the church. It becomes clearer every day that we cannot understand this authority as a formal authority (authority is authority!), that authority can only be worthy of our acceptance if seen in the light of the Gospel.

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Remarkably, the present-day critics who object to overemphasis on papal authority often use the same arguments as Luther and Calvin. No one can prophesy how this situation will develop in the future. But there are good reasons to follow this development with great interest, and it is necessary that we continue to study the meaning for us of the pillars of cloud and of fire, the nature of Christ’s promise in Matthew 16, and the 1870 declaration of papal infallibility, for just at this place the most important decisions will have to be made.


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