It was called the day “the little rock voted against the big rock.”
On July 18, 1870, Bishop Edward Fitzgerald of Little Rock cast one of only two votes in Rome against the proposed doctrine of papal infallibility.
Voting for the doctrine were 535 bishops and archbishops still present for a Vatican Council called in December 1869 at St. Peter’s Basilica.
“From the back of the hall, in his big booming Irish brogue, Fitzgerald became a footnote in the history of the universal Catholic Church,” wrote James Woods in his 1993 “Mission and Memory: A History of the Catholic Church in Arkansas.”
Just as boldly, after the vote was cast, Fitzgerald strode through the assembly to the papal throne, knelt before Pope Pius IX, and submitted to the doctrine, saying, “Holy Father, now I believe.”
Fitzgerald and the Sicilian bishop who joined him in voting no weren’t the only opponents. Eighty-eight prelates voted no on a draft of the proposal. Twenty Americans called to Rome, including Fitzgerald, opposed the doctrine — largely because they thought it would hurt their evangelical efforts in the United States, Woods writes. But by the time the fourth vote was taken, the rest of the minority prelates were missing in action.
Fitzgerald, since praised (by a non-Catholic) as being a man Arkansas could be proud of “in an age of spineless yes-men, time-serving sycophants and vacillating crowd-pleasers,” was 34 when he arrived by steamboat in Arkansas in 1866. The state’s population of nearly 500,000 people included only 1,600 Catholics and five priests. Before he retired in 1891, there were 15,000 Catholics, 32 priests and 31 schools. Fitzgerald also presided over the building of today’s St. Andrew’s Cathedral.
According to “The History of Catholicity in Arkansas,” a 1939 publication of the Diocesan newspaper, Fitzgerald brought in members of the Order of the Holy Ghost to evangelize black people and was known for his “extraordinary business talents” that put the church on solid financial footing. (“The History of Catholicity,” while noting that Fitzgerald took part in Vatican I, did not address his vote on papal infallibility.)
Would Catholic clergy vote to preserve papal infallibility today? Probably so, Msgr. Richard Oswald of Rogers said in an interview.
The doctrine is “commonly misunderstood,” Oswald said. “Some people say the pope can get up in the morning and say that the Red Sox are going to win the World Series” and that would be that. But the doctrine is narrowly defined as statements the pope makes ex cathedra (as the head of the church) on faith and morality, and which he makes clear are binding on all Catholics.
The doctrine isn’t controversial among Catholics “because it is so rarely used,” said Diocesan finance director Greg Wolfe, who holds degrees in theology and is interested in church history. The pope has spoken ex cathedra only once since Vatican I, when in 1950 Pius XII declared that Mary was “assumed into heaven … body and soul,” as was Jesus.
Other church teachings — such as the church position on birth control — have come in forms such as encyclicals or letters, in which the pope is not speaking ex cathedra.
Pope John XXIII, who reformed the Catholic Mass and reached out to other faiths with Vatican II, once said, “I am not infallible. I would be if I spoke ex cathedra, which I don’t intend to do.”
Fitzgerald’s temporary dissent at Vatican I did not, apparently, make him unpopular at home. When he returned to Arkansas, historian Woods writes, “well-wishers, Catholic and non-Catholic alike, crammed into the old St. Andrew’s Cathedral to welcome home this Christian leader.”
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