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Infallible Since When?

In response to:

Wars Over the Printed Word from the December 6, 2007 issue

To the Editors:

In his otherwise excellent article [“Wars Over the Printed Word,” NYR, December 6, 2007], Frank Kermode commits an anachronism by referring to the Pope pronouncing “infallibly on doctrinal matters” as early as the sixteenth century. Although the notion has its roots in the Middle Ages and was actually discussed by Saint Thomas Aquinas, it was only formalized in the declaration by the First Vatican Council on July 13, 1870—a triumph for reactionary Church politics and a legitimization of controversial actions already taken by Pius IX and others yet to come. Prior to 1870 the Pope’s infallibility was no more justified than our current president’s arrogations of extraconstitutional authority.

Arthur M. Shapiro

Center for Population Biology

University of California

Davis, California

Frank Kermode replies:

Mr. Shapiro is correct in saying that the dogma of infallibility was pronounced by Pius IX and the First Vatican Council in 1870, but the conviction that the Holy Spirit would prevent error in the deliberations on faith and morals of the Church and its head was much more ancient. Shapiro’s final sentence therefore misses its mark.

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