Category Archives: Theology

Art, Architecture and Papal Infallibility

Standing in the Sistine Chapel last week raised an interesting question in my mind: is the Sistine Chapel infallible?

Wikipedia lists an excellent set of quotes on the requirements for infallibility as follows:
1. “the Roman Pontiff”
2. “speaks ex cathedra” (“that is, when in the discharge of his office as shepherd and teacher of all Christians, and by virtue of his supreme apostolic authority….”)
3. “he defines”
4. “that a doctrine concerning faith or morals”
5. “must be held by the whole Church” (Pastor Aeternus, chap. 4)

The Sistine Chapel was certainly built under the direct supervision of a pope and makes certain doctrinal definitions concerning faith according to his wishes. I think an argument could be easily made that the doctrines espoused in the Sistine Chapel must be held by the whole Church, if only by the fact that the Papal conclave is held within it.  This last point is important, if a cardinal were to believe that the theology of the Sistine Chapel were in error, he would be required to refuse to pray or participate in the papal election in the chapel by the requirements of the ancient cannons.  This is an implicit anathema at the least.

One might also suggest that the “definition” must be written.  Yet the 7th ecumenical council is quite clear that icons do with colors what the scriptures do with words.  Further, there is a clear tradition of condemning heretical icons.  Another argument might be that Michelangelo is the author of the Chapel, not the pope.  Yet it is doubtless that other infallible statements were worded by an author other than the Roman Pontiff, but which were overseen by him or given his later approval.  Thus, the argument from agency is invalid.  Some might suggest that the chapel is not built Ex Cathedra.  Yet, if I might be pedantic, the churches/chapels of Rome are his cathedra.  Stated less pedantically, upon his election, if the pope is already a bishop, the office is assumed directly from the Chapel and he immediately vests.

In short, Pope Julius II spoke from his chair, by the hand of Michelangelo, defining doctrine (at the least certain papal claims among others) and a refusal to assent to the doctrines espoused results in separation from the Catholic Church.

Now, I certainly suspect that most Catholics would say that the Sistine Chapel is not infallible. I’m just not particularly sure what argument would be put forward to defend such a position. What do you think? Is the Sistine Chapel infallible? St John Lateran? St Peter’s?  Finally, if it can be demonstrated that the Sistine Chapel in particular does not meet this definition, is there any art or architecture that does?

In closing I must say that praying at St Paul’s in Rome was one of the most moving experiences of my life.  All saints of God, especially the Holy Apostles Peter and Paul, pray to God for us.