St. Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153) on Conditional Papal Infallibility?

The famous Medieval abbot St. Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153) was one of the chief accusers to Peter Abelard who had espoused certain errors during his time. Abelard appealed to the bishop of Sens who held a local synod at which St. Bernard attended. Bernard then appealed to Pope Innocent II with the following request to examine Abelard and give an official condemnation to his errors.

โ€œall the dangers and scandals that occur in the kingdom of God must be referred to the Holy See, but none more urgently than those which concern the faith. It is indeed just that any menace to the faith should be dealt with by the one ๐’˜๐’‰๐’๐’”๐’† ๐’‡๐’‚๐’Š๐’•๐’‰ ๐’„๐’‚๐’๐’๐’๐’• ๐’‡๐’‚๐’๐’•๐’†๐’“. To whom else has it been said : ๐˜ ๐˜ฉ๐˜ข๐˜ท๐˜ฆ ๐˜ฑ๐˜ณ๐˜ข๐˜บ๐˜ฆ๐˜ฅ ๐˜ง๐˜ฐ๐˜ณ ๐˜ต๐˜ฉ๐˜ฆ๐˜ฆ, ๐˜—๐˜ฆ๐˜ต๐˜ฆ๐˜ณ, ๐˜ต๐˜ฉ๐˜ข๐˜ต ๐˜ต๐˜ฉ๐˜บ ๐˜ง๐˜ข๐˜ช๐˜ต๐˜ฉ fail ๐˜ฏ๐˜ฐ๐˜ต? The words that follow must apply to Peterโ€™s successorโ€ฆ ๐˜ข๐˜ฏ๐˜ฅ ๐˜ต๐˜ฉ๐˜ฐ๐˜ถ ๐˜ฃ๐˜ฆ๐˜ช๐˜ฏ๐˜จ ๐˜ฐ๐˜ฏ๐˜ค๐˜ฆ ๐˜ค๐˜ฐ๐˜ฏ๐˜ท๐˜ฆ๐˜ณ๐˜ต๐˜ฆ๐˜ฅ, ๐˜ค๐˜ฐ๐˜ฏ๐˜ง๐˜ช๐˜ณ๐˜ฎ ๐˜ต๐˜ฉ๐˜ฆ๐˜บ ๐˜ฃ๐˜ณ๐˜ฆ๐˜ต๐˜ฉ๐˜ณ๐˜ฆ๐˜ฏ. The time has come for you to acknowledge your primacy, to prove your zeal and to honour your ministry.๐‘ฐ๐’ ๐’•๐’‰๐’Š๐’” ๐’š๐’๐’– ๐’˜๐’Š๐’๐’ ๐’ƒ๐’† ๐’‡๐’–๐’๐’‡๐’Š๐’๐’๐’Š๐’๐’ˆ ๐‘ท๐’†๐’•๐’†๐’“โ€™๐’” ๐’•๐’‚๐’”๐’Œ, ๐’˜๐’‰๐’Š๐’๐’† ๐’š๐’๐’– ๐’”๐’Š๐’• ๐’๐’ ๐’‰๐’Š๐’” ๐’•๐’‰๐’“๐’๐’๐’†, ๐’Š๐’‡ ๐’š๐’๐’– ๐’„๐’๐’๐’‡๐’Š๐’“๐’Ž ๐’•๐’‰๐’† ๐’‡๐’‚๐’Š๐’•๐’‰ ๐’•๐’‰๐’‚๐’• ๐’—๐’‚๐’„๐’Š๐’๐’๐’‚๐’•๐’†๐’” ๐’Š๐’ ๐’•๐’‰๐’† ๐’‰๐’†๐’‚๐’“๐’•๐’” ๐’๐’‡ ๐‘ช๐’‰๐’“๐’Š๐’”๐’•๐’Š๐’‚๐’๐’”, ๐’‚๐’๐’… ๐’‘๐’–๐’๐’Š๐’”๐’‰ ๐’•๐’‰๐’๐’”๐’† ๐’˜๐’‰๐’ ๐’„๐’๐’“๐’“๐’–๐’‘๐’• ๐’•๐’‰๐’† ๐’‡๐’‚๐’Š๐’•๐’‰, ๐’ƒ๐’š ๐’Ž๐’†๐’‚๐’๐’” ๐’๐’‡ ๐’š๐’๐’–๐’“ ๐’‚๐’–๐’•๐’‰๐’๐’“๐’Š๐’•๐’š.โ€

[๐˜š๐˜ต. ๐˜‰๐˜ฆ๐˜ณ๐˜ฏ๐˜ข๐˜ณ๐˜ฅ. ๐˜ˆ๐˜ฅ. ๐˜๐˜ฏ๐˜ฏ๐˜ฐ๐˜ค. ๐˜—. ๐˜Œ๐˜ฑ. ๐˜Š๐˜น๐˜ค๐˜ช.; ๐˜Œ๐˜ฏ๐˜จ. ๐˜›๐˜ณ๐˜ข๐˜ฏ๐˜ด. ๐˜š๐˜ต. ๐˜‰๐˜ฆ๐˜ณ๐˜ฏ๐˜ข๐˜ณ๐˜ฅ ๐˜ฐ๐˜ง ๐˜Š๐˜ญ๐˜ข๐˜ช๐˜ณ๐˜ท๐˜ข๐˜ถ๐˜น, ๐˜ต๐˜ณ๐˜ข๐˜ฏ๐˜ด. ๐˜Ž๐˜ฆ๐˜ฐ๐˜ง๐˜ง๐˜ณ๐˜ฆ๐˜บ ๐˜ž๐˜ฆ๐˜ฃ๐˜ฃ & ๐˜ˆ๐˜ฅ๐˜ณ๐˜ช๐˜ข๐˜ฏ ๐˜ž๐˜ข๐˜ญ๐˜ฌ๐˜ฆ๐˜ณ (๐˜ž๐˜ฆ๐˜ด๐˜ต๐˜ฎ๐˜ช๐˜ฏ๐˜ด๐˜ต๐˜ฆ๐˜ณ, ๐˜”๐˜‹: ๐˜›๐˜ฉ๐˜ฆ ๐˜•๐˜ฆ๐˜ธ๐˜ฎ๐˜ข๐˜ฏ ๐˜—๐˜ณ๐˜ฆ๐˜ด๐˜ด, 1960), 102.]

As I was reading this letter (#191 in Bernardโ€™s epistolary), I came to a couple observations.

The first was that what St. Bernard says here appears to be a full endorsement of what would later be called โ€œPapal Infallibilityโ€. That is confirmed simply by reading many other things that St. Bernard had written. However, once could find this kind of thing (even stronger) in the Church Fathers before the end of the 7th century, but Orthodox readers typically give it more of a โ€œflowery hyperboleโ€ kind of explanation so that the words being said are to be read as if going along with the elasticity of a musical note. In other words, ๐˜ฏ๐˜ฐ๐˜ต ๐˜ญ๐˜ช๐˜ต๐˜ฆ๐˜ณ๐˜ข๐˜ญ. I really donโ€™t think that could be used in reading St. Bernard who gives, more or less, the same kind of claim to Papal authority as Pope St. Agatho did in 680.

Secondly, I noticed here is that though Bernard gives a blanket claim to general immunity from error by โ€œwho faith cannot falterโ€, which matches what some of the ancient fathers comment on the prerogatives of the Apostolic See (cf. Leo, Gelasius, Hormisdas, et. al), he nevertheless implies that the Pope has to rise up and act in a certain way in order for the Petrine charism to take its effect. With that said, it doesn’t answer whether he would have believed that if Peter’s successor did rise up to the occasion of giving a teaching, it could be heretical content that gets put out. It seems he did not think so.


11 thoughts on “St. Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153) on Conditional Papal Infallibility?

  1. What does it mean for “the Petrine charism to take effect”? Sounds rather mechanical and formulaic. And, whatever this is, is it solely within the purview of the Bishop of Rome, or shared by all bishops? If the former, and given Latin belief in the universal jurisdiction of the Pope, the extent of his footprint of power is the whole world. Which trumps the power of ordinaries in their footprint. Which renders them, what, agents only of the Pope?

  2. What does it mean for “the Petrine charism to take effect”? Sounds rather mechanical and formulaic. And, whatever this is, is it solely within the purview of the Bishop of Rome, or shared by all bishops? If the former, and given Latin belief in the universal jurisdiction of the Pope, the extent of his footprint of power is the whole world. Does this trump the power of ordinaries in their footprint? Which renders them, what, agents only of the Pope?

    • Hi Stephen,

      Thanks for your questions. So what it means for the Petrine charism to take effect is , perhaps, taking from the paradigm of Peter’s conversion. When Peter was confronted by the Jews, he denied the Lord three times. Christ predicted this but also said He prayed for Peter to have a turn around and to strengthen the brethren in the faith. This served as typology for the prerogative of the Roman See, i.e. Peter’s throne.

      And St. Bernard is speaking of exclusive rights to Peter’s see, i.e., the Apostolic See of Rome. That would indeed extend to the whole world. That does welcome the question, as you posed, of whether the other ordinaries of the world are mere agents of the Pope. The Catholic Church has always been emphatic answer answering this question in the negative, though the explanation given is not always easily or apparently true. This might be communicated via analogy. Just like a general of an army is at the top-head position in authority over the army, and indeed all inferior officers are subordinated to him, that does not mean that the colonel, captain, and sergeants do not have a unique office with real prerogatives that are native to their offices. It just means they are held in subordination to the chief position of the General, who himself is subordinate to the Commander-and-Chief the President of the US. No one would urge that all inferior offices are mere “extensions” of the Commander-and-Chief.

      A section of the Catholic Encylopedia entry “The Pope” explains this as well:

      “It is frequently objected by writers of the Anglican school that, by declaring the pope to possess an immediate episcopal jurisdiction over all the faithful, the Vatican Council destroyed the authority of the diocesan episcopate. It is further pointed out that St. Gregory the Great expressly repudiated this title (Epistle 7:27 and Epistle 8:30). To this it is replied that no difficulty is involved in the exercise of immediate jurisdiction over the same subjects by two rulers, provided only that these rulers stand in subordination, the one to the other. We constantly see the system at work. In an army the regimental officer and the general both possess immediate authority over the soldiers; yet no one maintains that the inferior authority is thereby annulled. The objection lacks all weight. The Vatican Council says most justly (cap. iii):

      This power of the supreme pontiff in no way derogates from the ordinary immediate power of episcopal jurisdiction, in virtue of which the bishops, who, appointed by the Holy Spirit [Acts 20:28], have succeeded to the place of the Apostles as true pastors, feed and rule their several flocks, each the one which has been assigned to him: that power is rather maintained, confirmed and defended by the supreme pastor (Enchir., n. 1828). “

      • Erick, thanks for the thoughtful reply. What I don’t understand is how what you cited for the Petrine charism is triggered is exclusive to the Bishop of Rome, as every bishop is called to do the same. And, I understand how the military analogy would be a welcome comparison, but at least two things come to mind that give me pause. The first is the degree to which what appears so reasonable in theory breaks down in practice. One need spend only a week in boot camp to realize the wide degree of capriciousness and subjectivity is possible, especially those higher up countermamding their subordinates at whim, changing directives, etc. If you had used a juridical analogy with Rome as the court of last resort, that would have been a more defensible one. And, reality is that the Rome has , in its centralization of power trajectory these past few centuries (concordats in the secular world, approving all bishops in the sacred as examples),demonstrated greater capacity to act more like the military, with all the upside and downside. The other thing is whether or not that eccessiological model is a time-bound man made construct, or a timeless part of the deposit of faith. How different might have the full blown magisterial-military model if Lepanto, for example, had gone the other way, or the Poles did not come to Vienna and the Ottomans overan Italy?

    • Hey Ed!

      We are both familiar with this question, and I know you have a manner of looking at this that certainly poses a challenge to Catholic doctrine. With that said, I’ll try to address this in a way that seeks compatibility within the Catholic tradition.

      As you know, the *kind of* Papal infallibility that we read from guys like Pope Leo, Gelasius, Hormisdas, Agatho, and Hadrian I are couched in descriptions which do not seem to allow for any error whatsoever. They use language such as “The See of Peter cannot be tarnished by error” or “The Apostolic See has been immune from all stain”. With statements like this, it seems like the bar is set to the highest standard. Any and all mistakes, errors, let alone heresies, would certainly contradict that claim.

      However, with Pope Leo II, it began to be undeniable that Popes can and have erred. Hadrian II in the Roman synod 869 speaks of the legitimate condemnation of Honorius by Pope Leo II because Honorius had committed heresy.

      So Latin theologians had to come up with a way to reconcile the age-old theory of Peter’s see being the infallible ministry of Peter himself while also allowing for the capacity of error. This kind of uncomfortable dynamism might have been existent in the Apostles, for examples. Perhaps Peter was fallible at Antioch, but infallible when he wrote his 2 epistles. I understand this gets us into the question of recognition, reception, and how things are confirmed as “infallible” or “inerrent”, but it serves as a small analogy.

      From the 11th/12th centuries, theologians would speak of the difference between the Pope’s “private person” versus his “official person”. When the Pope speaks from his private capacity, he is just as capable of erring as anyone else. When he makes use of his office to teach universally, since his office is a universal reach (the see of unity), then he is protected from error.

      So if we are comparing the official teaching of a Pope with the private teachings of a Pope, we can permit variance with no falsification. However, if two official ex cathedra decrees contradict one another, then we would have reached a falsification-point, or a defeater to the doctrine of Papal infallibility, especially the 1st Vatican Council.

      • Hi Erick!

        That’s helpful, but I have a specific case in mind that’s just come to my attention.

        Pope Innocent III, in a sermon on the first anniversary of his papacy, taught:

        “The sacrament between the Roman pontiff and the Roman church perseveres so firm and unshakable that they cannot be separated from one another ever, except by death. The Apostle says that after her husband dies, a wife โ€œis released from the rule of her husband.โ€ A husband joined to his wife, does not seek a release, does not leave her, and cannot be dismissed, for ‘it is according to his Lord that he either stands or fallsโ€”and it is the Lord who judges.'”

        It would seem that Innocent is teaching that a pope may NOT resign the Roman See, “a husband joined to his wife, does not seek a release;” he has a sacramental/marital relationship. This is ironic, since it was Innocent, who being the first to take the title “Vicar of Christ,” declared he had the “divine” power to “dispense” a bishop from his wife (his see) and allow him to be translated to another. (Against the teaching of St. Athanasius and the Council of Nicaea.)

        But the contradiction I am concerned about is between Innocent’s sermon and Pope Boniface’s insertion into canon law (Liber Sextus) that a pope MAY voluntarily resign. (Indeed, he owed his papacy to that very act of Celestine, whom he hounded to his death in 1296). Obviously, this was later inserted into the 1917 Code and the 1983 Code. And Benedict XVI acted as he did.

        Either the Roman Pontiff has an indissoluble sacramental bond with the Roman See, or he doesn’t. So which pope to believe???

      • That is interesting, especially since Innocent III said that a Pope might be brought out of his office by heresy. There is only one explanation, and that is that within the official capacity of Papal doctrine, there is fallible-official-capacity and infallible-official-capacity, namely, a distinction between doctrine that is authoritative versus doctrine that is decreed that has the teeth of excommunication to it.

  3. I don’t want to monopolize your combox. Perhaps you can drop me a line and we can discuss further?

    And yes, heresy severs the relationship. He analogizes Our Lord’s words in St. Matthew’s Gospel “except in the case of porneia”:

    “The Roman church can dismiss the Roman pontiff only because of fornicationโ€”I mean not carnal, but spiritual fornication, for the marriage is not carnal but spiritualโ€”and this fornication is the sin of heresy. For โ€œWhoever does not believe is already condemned.โ€ In that sentence you can understand what is written in the Gospel you have heard, โ€œYou are the salt of the earth, if the salt loses its savor, how shall it be salted?โ€™โ€™ I, however, can hardly believe that God would permit the Roman pontiff to sin against faith, because he prayed specifically for him in the person of Peter himself. โ€˜I,โ€™ he said, โ€˜have prayed for you, Peter, [that your faith may not fail, and you, being once converted, confirm your brothersโ€ฆโ€™ โ€œ

  4. It seems from this quote alone that it’s a conditional clause. St. Bernard is saying that a pope must strive to be Peter’s true successor by confirming the faith of the brethren: “๐‘ฐ๐’ ๐’•๐’‰๐’Š๐’” ๐’š๐’๐’– ๐’˜๐’Š๐’๐’ ๐’ƒ๐’† ๐’‡๐’–๐’๐’‡๐’Š๐’๐’๐’Š๐’๐’ˆ ๐‘ท๐’†๐’•๐’†๐’“โ€™๐’” ๐’•๐’‚๐’”๐’Œ, ๐’˜๐’‰๐’Š๐’๐’† ๐’š๐’๐’– ๐’”๐’Š๐’• ๐’๐’ ๐’‰๐’Š๐’” ๐’•๐’‰๐’“๐’๐’๐’†, ๐’Š๐’‡ ๐’š๐’๐’– ๐’„๐’๐’๐’‡๐’Š๐’“๐’Ž ๐’•๐’‰๐’† ๐’‡๐’‚๐’Š๐’•๐’‰” – note the “if” in this statement, which suggests that perhaps a successor of Peter might at times *not* respond to his duties as he should.

    But again, that’s from this quote alone – I’m not familiar with St. Bernard’s works enough to put this in complete context.

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