The Common-Sense Argument for Papal Infallibility

By Mize, Sandra Yocum | Theological Studies, June 1996 | Go to article overview

The Common-Sense Argument for Papal Infallibility

Mize, Sandra Yocum, Theological Studies

American Catholic apologists of the 19th century argued publicly for the special place of the Petrine office, affirming papal primacy both of honor and jurisdiction. The successor of Peter served as the final arbiter in controversies over the practical applications of the divine law. Many also highlighted his role as vicar of Christ, the visible manifestation of the Church's spiritual source of authority. After the declaration of infallibility at Vatican I, these same apologists publicly defended as theologically reasonable the infallibility of Peter's successor, Christ's earthly vicar. These positions are well known.

What has not been so clearly recognized is the way in which the presuppositions of the l9th-century American intellectual scene shaped the American Catholic defense of papal infallibility. The common intellectual assumptions had their source in Scottish "common sense" realism, the nation's vernacular philosophy that shaped a variety of public discourses including those of religious apologists. Indeed, at the conservative end of the broad spectrum of American religious thought, common-sense affirmations of an infallible religious authority predominated. The very influential Princeton theologians, even as they decried an infallible pope, still insisted upon the existence of an infallible religious authority, i.e. Scripture.(1) Their arguments were rooted in the common sense that such authority was the necessary condition for faith. The point of this article is to show that the distinctive discourse of American Catholic apologetics grew out of the same root.

These matters are not merely of historical interest. Over the last two decades, common-sense approaches to religious epistemology have taken center stage in Anglo-American philosophy of religion. It is instructive to note how Catholic apologists responded to common sense in the 19th century, for analogous moves are being made today by Catholic philosophers in responding to contemporary "reformed" epistemology. This contemporary debate suggests that there may be unacknowledged religious "constants" affecting these discussions. While it is beyond the scope of this article to argue extensively for this claim, the parallels are striking.(2)

I begin from the broad intellectual context that led to a widespread assumption among orthodox Christians that an infallible religious authority must exist in the world, and then I move into the particular American Catholic ecclesiological claims that allowed for the "logical" conclusion of papal infallibility. The Catholic apologists featured are Francis P. Kenrick (1796-1863), bishop of Philadelphia and archbishop of Baltimore; John Hughes (1797-1864), New York City's prelate; Martin J. Spalding (1810-1872), bishop of Louisville and archbishop of Baltimore; Orestes Brownson (1803-1876), convert and journalist; and Isaac Hecker (1819-1888), convert and founder of the Paulist Fathers. These apologists, Protestant counterparts are the Princeton theologians, especially Archibald Alexander (1772-1851) and Charles Hodge (1797-1878).

My first section describes the epistemology that both the Catholics and the Princeton theologians used to affirm an infallible authority. The second describes the Catholics, distinctive insistence that this infallible authority must come through a society, i.e. the Church, rather than a book, i.e. the Bible. My third section describes the apologists, focus upon papal primacy as the organizational principle within this infallible Church. The fourth section focuses upon the close connection in the preconciliar literature between the visible head and its invisible one, Christ. The fifth and sixth sections demonstrate how the apologists made Vatican I's definition of papal infallibility a logical extension of their preconciliar concepts of the papacy's function within the Church, thus making a common-sense argument for papal infallibility.


Logical arguments for an infallible religious authority fit well within the theological parameters of religious conservatives in mid-19th-century America. …

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