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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 8



Among the recent items of a more than ordinary religious interest is the dogma of Infallibility just confirmed by the Roman Catholic Church. Now said Infallibility being a word of six syllables, and otherwise invested with a degree of notoriety, we should like to devote a moment to its explanation, and relieve it, it may be, of some of those erroneous conceits often unjustly fathered upon it. We constitute ourselves no page 233 apologists of the Church of Rome; we are not of her communion; and she can well fight her own battles like her sturdy bishops of old, giving and taking knocks with equal bravery. But she is apt at times, in zealously guarding her citadel, to be somewhat neglectful of her outworks; and seldom condescends, in the confidence of a secure position, to dwell on the materials of their structure. Some of her dogmas, we repeat it, are apt to be misconceived and to be charged with an interpretation they by no means carry with them. Among others is that of Infallibility. Nearly two hundred bishops sanctioned this tenet in the middle of the sixteenth century, and a still greater number the other day confirmed it by the placet of an Œcumenical Council. What is its meaning then, and its ordinarily supposed bearing on the conduct of those who are contented to abide by it?

Infallibility, fairly explained, means, we take it, incapability of error. This interpretation might be thought by many to set the whole question at rest; for, argues the ready disputant, surely some doctrines of Romanism are erroneous; Infallibility is a doctrine of Rome; ergo, &c., &c. Leaving the syllogism to fight its own way, and to do duty in the absence of anything better, we would still confine our observations to the more general intention of the word and not restrict it to a meaning that serves only as a bugbear to the mouthy roisterer, or a stalkinghorse to the platform orator. In the confirmation, then, of infallibility by the late (Ecumenical Council, we would suggest that the Church of Rome has only once more asserted a freedom from such error as shall tear her internal organisation to pieces, and leave her to exist, like Protestantism, the laughing-stock of the religious world. In solemnly announcing her incapability of error, she virtually directs our attention to her world-wide faith, seemingly saying to us in no empty words—Si monumentum quæris, circumspice. But as to error, what is it? Who shall define it? What else can our humanity do at best than ever to hold judgment in some degree of suspense, and, in the well-grounded conviction how closely truth and error trench on one another, to maintain such decent reserve as may possibly bring us no fame but commit us to no folly. When a church, that at least has the prestige of antiquity and oneness—a church invested with the charm of ancient memories, and for well nigh fifteen centuries the acknowledged sole depository of religious truth—when a church like this could evince such capacity for moulding multiform and scattered thought to her dominion, for so meeting the circumstances around her as to capture the very conqueror and make the civilised world her vassal, even as Greece did Rome in the contest of art and intelligence—an incapability of error may well be allowed, though reason may think fit to hold up an indignant hand and record its lordly veto. Is it to go for nothing her being declared age after age to be founded upon a rock and to be the sole guardian and nurse of page 234 human intelligence, until a period came that produced a sovereign to whom fallibility and infallibility were all one, if they either ran counter to his lusts or to that Tudor arrogance that would at any convenient moment as summarily violate a marriage tie as throw off all allegiance to a church, or bully a house of commons? For centuries past the church had encountered the turmoil and trouble that surged fearfully around her at intervals; but, based upon a rock, she was neither engulfed nor shattered by the rude hand of contending factions. The Reformation came; the rock was denominated a stone of stumbling, and what neither Lollards, Wycliffe, nor the burly monk of Eisleben could have brought about was to be achieved by the roving appetite of a royal sensualist. Infallibility had been virtually admitted until a political expediency thought fit to determine it. And so biblical interpretation went with the times. What had been formerly a ground of truth, now became a foundation of error. St. Peter was impoverished as well as snubbed, and Protestants were well content for at least three reigns to put on their religion as they would their breeches, and change it as often. National vanity had been egged on to fever heat; the monastic spoil lay ready for the rifling; and thousands recognised but too late how desperately they had sacrificed substance for shadow, and only played into the hands of that privileged and higher class of tender and conscientious souls who had, in vulgar parlance, swallowed the oyster and left them the shell. But in the meantime what said our lady on the banks of the Tiber? Ever "una et eadem," she simply now enunciates what had before been tacitly allowed—her Infallibility. Even though some branches had been lopped off the parent stem, it stood erect, firm and undecaying. Professing to hold the keys of Heaven and of the gates of Hell, she withdraws no claims, admits no compromise.

"Quantum vertice ad auras

Ætherias, tantum radice in Tartara tendit."

A later intellect with its metaphysical acumen, and biassed by the complexion of surrounding events may babble if it will about the absurdity of infallibility, and busy itself in collecting proofs to gainsay it. But disdaining to tilt with so lightly armed an adversary, with one whose armour is as loose as his ideas, Rome points with no undue pride to that one undivided church that not only dares assert her privileges, but as resolutely maintains them, and so far differing, toto cælo, from that religious motley, that patchwork of Protestantism whose episcopal defenders are but so many dumb dogs, wont to flinch at any moment of trial, and seldom ready to give other than an ambiguous answer for the faith that is in them.

But let us, for a moment longer, crave our readers' patience. Who is it that impugns the dogma of Infallibility with most noticeable rancour—with an intolerance that would almost lead page 235 one to suppose the existence of some inward sense of spiritual dissolution? Who is it that urges on a strife with the rapture of the renegade who hates the cause he injures? Who is it so ready to adduce a thousand and one reasons to upset another's faith, when he cannot allege half a dozen to support his own? Who is it, in fine, that is the greatest scoffer at the infallibility of the Catholic Church, from an inward and scarcely self-admitted scorn of the manufacture of his own orthodoxy, and from a poorness of spirit and intellect that grovels in fear and inanition? Who else than our Protestant, with as many features as Proteus, and as slippery withal! And is it such a sciolist as this who takes upon him to throw the stone at Infallibility, or at any other dogma of the Church of Rome! Proh divum numina sancta! He had need have his own glass house secure and unassailable. But is it so? Ask him under whatever master in Israel he may sit, to demonstrate the object of his existence here—to tell us why evil should be and whence it originates—why he should rather credit something than nothing—why virtue itself is a real blessing independent of any consideration of a future state—why death should be viewed as a mere necessity of our common nature and not as a horror too terrible for contemplation. Ask him these or such other questions, as shall compel him to look within his breast and tumble up and down what he finds there, undeterred by the lazy influences that would shift on to another shoulder the allotted burden of his own. Will he do this, or something like it, or else reply, from inertness of intellect or unmanly shifting, that his teachers have settled all these points for him, vouching for their reality and truth. But go into the next street and you will both see and hear another phase and order of things; while under the respectable roof of the Establishment the whole mise en scène will be changed, parts and character to boot. Now, perhaps, the only conclusion we can safely arrive at is that all persuasions have their peculiar infallibilities or incapability of error; but why they should refuse the Church of Rome a liberty they assume themselves completely passes our comprehension. They profess to be shocked at an infallibility they are really exercising themselves—scandalised at the very notion of incapability of error when the daily increasing and not unreasonable call for a revision of the Liturgy and retranslation of the Bible, more consonant to the spirit of the age and to the progress of intelligence, are being viewed by those in authority with the greatest aversion. Do but hear these tender strainers at gnats and swallowers of camels, and neither Liturgy, Bible nor Formularies require any emendation—in fact they are exempt from error, they are infallible. Blind of vision, warped in understanding, they shut their eyes to the world-wide benefits that a venerable and time-honoured church has conferred upon its children by constituting herself, and by her actions proving her- page 236 self too, sole depository of religious action and individual responsibility: yet all the while they are blowing their own little trumpets of uncertain sound, leaving the minds of thousands upon thousands a complete blank, and urging not a few in despair of all spiritual ease into the sombre depths of irreligion or atheism.

In resolutely maintaining Infallibility, and impressing it even in this nineteenth century with the sanction of an (Ecumenical Council, the Romish Church has done good service to Catholicism. Here, as throughout her eventful career, we cannot but notice with admiration how her instinct has ever led her patiently to watch the circumstances of the world, and while ever upholding her own independence of action, to offer, with a confidence in herself that helps to secure the confidence of her votary, a haven of rest and of guaranteed security within the precincts of holy church. Unconnected with her in any degree other than by the interests of a common humanity, we cannot for all that help regarding her as a motive power unspeakably important in this age of ours, going out, as she does, into the lanes and byways of the world inviting with gentle words and soothing influences those many waifs and strays of society who but for her might be for ever buffeted about on the storm-tossed waves of the religious world.