The archbishop of Buenos Aires became the supreme pontiff of the Roman Catholic Church when he pronounced the word “accepto” — Latin for “I accept” — in the Sistine Chapel last week. From that moment, according to Catholic theology, Pope Francis had “full, supreme, and universal power over the whole Church.” Most notably, he was endowed with what the catechism calls “the charism of infallibility”: When the pope, in his role as the church’s supreme pastor and teacher, definitively proclaims “a doctrine pertaining to faith or morals,” he is incapable of error.
The dogma of papal infallibility, approved at the First Vatican Council in 1870, was fiercely challenged by Lord Acton, the celebrated English historian and champion of liberty. Though a devout lifelong Roman Catholic, Acton fervently opposed papal absolutism — so fervently that he traveled to Rome to organize a campaign against the infallibility doctrine, which he was convinced would be used to justify wrongdoing and suppress freedom of conscience. “The theory of infallibility . . . stands on a basis of fraud,” he wrote.