It was exactly 150 years ago last week that the pope was declared infallible. This happened during the First Vatican Council, when Pius IX was pope. On Monday, July 18, 1870, the council fathers voted on this new dogma and supported the proposal to further strengthen the authority of the Holy Father with 433 votes for and two against. During the promulgation of the dogma an unprecedented thunderstorm broke out over the Vatican. Some historians saw it as a sign of divine indignation, but others compared it to the phenomena that accompanied God’s revelation on Sinai.
The declaration of infallibility was not a sudden whim of the church leaders who were gathered in Rome. It was the result of a fierce battle that had raged for a long time between those who wanted to give “Rome” more power and those who wanted to reduce Rome’s influence. In 1870 the so-called ultramontanists (literally: “over the mountains”) were victorious. The fact that the pope was declared infallible did not mean that henceforth people believed that the pope is right in everything he does and says. The infallibility only applies to official papal statements about ecclesiastical doctrine and morality. In fact, the pope has very rarely made use of it in the past 150 years.
Now, after 150 years, the discussion within the Roman Catholic Church about the authority of the Pope is still continuing. There are still groups in the church who feel that the role of the pope should receive greater emphasis, while many others oppose this idea and consider the concept of infallibility an ancient relic. The popes of recent decades have tempered pontifical triumphalism in various ways. In the Nederlands Dagblad of July 18 Hendro Munsterman summed it up succinctly: “Pope Paul VI abolished the papal tiara in 1964 and sold it to give the proceeds to the poor. John Paul II was the first pope in 1978 who was not ‘crowned’ and who was no longer carried on the sedia gestatoria into the St. Peter. Pope Benedict XVI had the tiara removed from the papal coat of arms and replaced it with a simple mitre. The pontificate of St. Francis continues along this same path.
Seventh-day Adventists have always been very critical of Catholicism, and especially of the role of the pope. There was, and often is, little attention for the fact that a lot has changed in the course of time and that today’s Catholicism-even though, as a Protestant, I still object to many things—does not equal the medieval church. Moreover, it must be taken into account that the Catholic Church does not have the same face all over the world. And who knows what developments will take place in the future? I think it is wrong to assume that future developments must be negative, as many of my fellow believers think.
But let’s not just point accusingly in the direction of other faith communities. There is no infallibility dogma in the 28 Fundamental Beliefs of the Adventist Church. But in practice, the voice of a world congress has been given such a stamp. The discussion about women’s ordination has clearly shown this. And for many, the statements of Ellen G. White are infallible, or approach that status. It can also not be denied that the Church has gradually become more hierarchical in many ways, and that the “president” of the Church has steadily become more influential, and in some ways is even more influential than the pope is in his Church. This is a tendency, which has been noted by many, and especially by George Knight, a voluminous author and historian, who has emphasized this (and substantiated with facts) in a number of his publications in recent years. Hopefully, there will be a turning point in this regrettable development in the Adventist Church, because the basic idea of the church in which all believers share in the “priesthood” and have the same status before Christ, has been seriously compromised. And that is a deplorable situation.