Page 4, 2nd January 1959

2nd January 1959
Page 4
Page 4, 2nd January 1959 — England's Parliament thought itself infallible

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England's Parliament thought itself infallible

By Fr. J. H.


IN the first year of Elizabeth I, and starting in the months of Janu

ary, I 559, the lawyers and politicians decided to screw down the reformation settlement by enacting that Parliament could not go wrong in its religious proceedings.

With infinitely less care than the Vatican Council (which came to the definition of papal infallibility only after more than a century of theological debate had continued, with Gallicans and Ultramontanes locked in argument), these English Parliamentarians decreed their own infallibility in matters of religious doctrine.

The words arc seldom considered by historians but are brutally simple: "Be it enacted . . . that no manner of order, act or determination for any matter of religion or cause ecclesiastical, had or made by the authority of this present Parliament, shall be accepted, deemed, interpreted or adjudged at any time hereafter to be any error, heresy, schism or schismatical opinion; any order, decree, sentences, constitution or law, whatsoever the same be, to the contrary notwithstanding."

Anticipating a decree THEY could of course expect that there would be a decree from the Pope sooner or later annulling their religious proceedings in some way or other and they were determined to anticipate it.

There was a rough logic in their idea that only an infallible body could stand up against the infallible Church, but they did not go into the further implications of the

position they had taken up by asking (or explaining) how Christ could have arranged for two infallible bodies in mutual contradiction.

It does not appear that any subsequent Parliament has ever repudiated this statute, and in fact the rejection of the revised "Book of Common Prayer" in 1928 would seem to show that it is still in force. It is a fearsome thought that a political majority can be legally regarded as incapable of "error, heresy, schism or schismatical opinion." After all, the infallibility of the Pope does not go so far.

Unwise to celebrate

ONE should notice that the next clause of the statute did give the legislators some guidance in this matter of heresy, for it enacted that the individuals who were to be appointed commissioners to judge the heresy

"shall not adjudge any matter to be heresy but only such as heretofore have been determined ordered or adjudged to be heresy by the authority of the canonical Scriptures or by the first four General Councils (or any of them) or by any other General Council where in the same was declared heresy by the express and plain words of the said canonical Scriptures, or such as hereafter shall be ordered, judged or determined to be heresy by the High Court of Parliament of this realm, with the assent of the clergy in their Convocation."

No attempt is made here to decide how Parliament is to be able to recognise what is canonical Scripture or when a Council is a General Council.

One wonders what the judges would have to say by way of interpretation of this statute if faced with the decree of the Council of Trent that the plain words of Christ in the Scripture about "what God hath joined together" established the permanence of marriage. It is hardly to be expected that Parliament will be celebrating the fourth centenary of the creation of its infallibility at this time.

How long will it last?

nNE can, of course, " see why Perlisrnent was then so exercised about its own infallibility. Some five years before. lords and Commons

had petitioned the Papal Legate, Cardinal Pole, to be allowed to return to the obedience of the Roman Church and to be absolved from their schism.

They were now making sure that no one was going to go back on their proceedings about the Royal Supremacy and call them heretics or schismatics at a future date. To secure this they had to make the claim that their decision was irreformable.

It still stands, but for how long will it last?

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