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The “Error” of Pope Nicholas I

QUESTION: I’ve been having a debate with someone about sedevacantism. To prove that the Pope taught error in an official document, my opponent pointed out the letter of Pope Nicholas I to the Bulgars (Dz 335), in which the Pope says that those baptized in the name of Christ are not to be rebaptized (see Ott, 353, and Summa III, Q66, A6.)

Ott says it is an open question. St. Thomas in the body of the article seems to say that you need to use the explicit Trinitarian formula, while in the answers to the objections, he says the Apostles baptized in the name of Christ by a special inspiration.

Was Pope Nicholas in error?

RESPONSE: No. The theologian Pesch (Praelectiones Dogmaticae de Sacramentis 1:389) reproduces the whole response of Pope Nicholas, and states that the pope was not being asked about the form for baptism, but about the person of the minister; and so he correctly responded that as regards the minister, all depended on his intention.

QUESTION: My opponent also fired several statements at me, one of which was from Pope Adrian VI: Many Roman Pontiffs were heretics, the last of them was John XXII. Apart from not being able to find any Pope Adrian VI in any handy reference work, John XXII says himself that he never taught any such doctrine or even taught any such thing. Is the quote of Adrian genuine?

RESPONSE: The supposed quote from Adrian VI has been floating around for years.

The only source I have seen cited for it is Paul-Marie Viollet, Papal Infallibility and the Syllabus, (1908). During the reign of St. Pius X, this work was placed on the Index of Forbidden Books. (Decree, 5 April 1906. See R. Naz, “Viollet, Paul-Marie,” Dict. Droit. Can., 7:1511)

I have never been able to locate Viollets book to check the primary source alleged for the quote.

QUESTION: Thanks for your response on Adrian VI and on Nicholas I. Im not satisfied with your citation from Pesch — that the Pope was referring to the person of the minister and to his intention — because the passage in Ott (353) is speaking of the form.

RESPONSE: Ott is only a one-volume overview. It is unwise to rely upon Ott alone when discussing complex or disputed issues in the history of dogmatic theology.

Pesch was indeed correct. Other longer treatises on the sacraments say that the phrase in the response in nomine Christi did not refer to the form of baptism but to (a) a quality of the minister such as his intention (Doronzo, de Baptismo, 70; Pohl, Sacraments 1:224), or to (b) the distinction between the baptism of Christ and the baptism of John (Solà, de Sacramentis, ¶47-8).

All are agreed, however, that the response of Nicholas I was a private response — so it would not have any bearing on the sede vacante issue. The authorities we sedevacantists cite all refer to a pope who is a public heretic.

QUESTION: Moreover, St.Thomas (III.66.6) is also treating of whether the form in the name of Christ is sufficient for validity, and Dz 335 reads:..if indeed they have been baptized in the name of the Holy Trinity or only in the name of Christ (Here he speaks of either/or.)

I dont want to be a pest, but I dont want to give an answer I cant defend. However at the bottom of my Denziger Hunermann, there is a footnote that goes with this passage (Dz.H. 646): For the interpretation of this sentence, cf. O. Faller, “Die Taufe im Namen Jesu bei Ambrosius”: Festschrift 75 Jahre Stella Matutina I (Feldkirch/ Vorarlberg 1931) 139-150; G. Barielle: DThC 2/I (1905) 184.”

If you have the time and the access to any of this material could you see what they say about this issue?

RESPONSE: The last citation is to an article in the Dictionnaire de Thélogie Catholique that discusses at great length the phrase in the name of Christ in the Fathers. The DTCs explanation of the passage in St. Ambrose cited in Nicolas Is response is in part as follows:

Sometimes in the Fathers, a question arises about baptism conferred in the name of the Lord or in the name of Christ. Such an expression does not permit one to believe that there existed a baptism conferred in the name of Jesus Christ alone, to the exclusion of the Father and the Holy Ghost.… The passage that follows in the treatise clearly shows that St. Ambrose was not speaking about the formula to be pronounced while conferring baptism, but rather about the faith in the Trinity required [on the part of the adult recipient] for the validity of baptism. Baptême daprès les Pères Grecs et Latins, DTC 2:184.

Finally, SSPX-ers and those who hold a similar position inevitably point to cases of alleged papal errors (Honorius, Liberius, John XXII, etc.) in order to justify their contention that one may “recognize” someone as a true pope, yet simultaneously “resist” his teachings and laws. Catholic apologists, historians and theologians, however, have repeatedly — and I mean repeatedly — demonstrated that the allegations against these popes are false.

By continuing to circulate these allegations, SSPX-ers and the like put themselves in the theological company of the Gallicans, the Old Catholics and many other enemies of papal infallibility — not a great place to be for anyone who claims to defend Catholic tradition.

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  2. […] Pope Nicholas goes, a brief summary of the controversy with some insightful finds can be found in The “Error” of Pope Nicholas I. Finally, let us not forget that Abp. Purcell himself qualified that the earlier Popes he was […]