The Historical Context of Quia quorundam

On 10 November 1324, Pope John XXII issued the bull Quia quorundam to condemn a group of people who contended for a rather extreme position concerning the rule of poverty and that Christ and the apostles possessed nothing in common or individually. The bull was issued for the main purpose of vindicating John’s new constitutions which seems to contradict a previous bull issued by Pope Nicholas III on these matters.


We need not get into the particular details of the dispute over the issue of poverty. What however is of greater interest to us is the ratio decidendi, or the reason for the judgement, which John employed to prove his point and condemn his detractors, an argument which directly engages the question of papal infallibility. John was compelled to engage the question because his detractors insisted that a previous Pope had immutably taught their position and that John had no power to revoke that previous teaching so infallibly taught. Since John is rather explicit here, I think it will be best to just jump straight into his text to understand his argument. Because John’s argument can get a little difficult and technical, I will be doing a line by line quote and analysis of each step of his proof to show clearly the structure and logical flow of his argument.

The Rejected Proposition

In the first paragraph John states his opponent’s case against his new constitutions in these words:

To attack the before mentioned constitutions, it is reported, they have used publicly in word and in writing the following argument. They say that whatever, through the key of knowledge, the Roman pontiffs have once defined in faith and morals persists so immutably that it is not licit for a successor to call it again into doubt nor affirm the contrary (though, they say, it is otherwise with things ordained through the key of power).

It is important from the outset to be clear concerning the distinction between the key of knowledge and the key of power for this distinction will play a very huge role in John’s subsequent arguments when he clarifies what exactly does the key which Christ has entrusted to Peter and his successors consists of. Anyway, the assertion by John’s opponents is that (1) there is a key of knowledge which (2) the Roman pontiff possesses which (3) defines matters in faith and morals, and which (4) persists so immutably that no one can doubt or assert others. Thus we have here, almost word for word, a statement which could be taken from the Vatican I dogma of papal infallibility as it has been defined in these words:

…we teach and define as a divinely revealed dogma that when the Roman Pontiff speaks EX CATHEDRA, that is, when, in the exercise of his office as shepherd and teacher of all Christians, in virtue of his supreme apostolic authority, he defines a doctrine concerning faith or morals to be held by the whole Church, he possesses, by the divine assistance promised to him in blessed Peter, that infallibility which the divine Redeemer willed his Church to enjoy in defining doctrine concerning faith or morals. Therefore, such definitions of the Roman Pontiff are of themselves, and not by the consent of the Church, irreformable.

Now what does John think of these assertions? After developing further his opponent’s case concerning the issue of poverty which his predecessors have allegedly defined “immutably”, John restates one of the basis of their assertion:

However, it is evidently clear from the following that the premiss of the above argument–namely, that those things which through the key of knowledge the supreme pontiffs have once defined in faith and morals it is not lawful for a successor to call again into doubt, or affirm the contrary, though it is otherwise (they say) with things ordained by supreme pontiffs through the key of power–is entirely contrary to truth.

(bold and underline mine)

We have thus here one of the most straightforward and explicit rejections of the dogma of papal infallibility. However it will be, I believe, useful to go into John’s arguments for rejecting this conclusion as it will be useful in illuminating what does the Key which Christ entrusted to Peter consists of and what it doesn’t involve.

The Nature of the Keys

After setting out the proposition which he rejects, John proceeds with his proof:

First, indeed, according to those who hold that the spiritual key is by no means knowledge, but the power to bind and loose, it is clear that the before mentioned assertors, in stating that it is knowledge, have erred. The definition the learned give of the key supports them [i.e. those who hold that the key is power]: It is a special power of binding and loosing, by which the ecclesiastical judge should admit the worthy, and exclude the unworthy from the Kingdom”.

While the term “key of power” cannot be found in the Bible, the phrase of “bind and loose” clearly exists in the Gospels, and in one instance is used explicitly with regards the “key” which Christ entrusted to Peter in Matthew 16:19:

I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.

Thus, this argument rejects the idea that the spiritual key is a key of knowledge, but that it is instead the power to bind and loose. Furthermore the pope cites a clear definition as to what this power of binding and loosing consists of: the power to admit and exclude from the Kingdom. In short this is the power of excommunication.

What does the Petrine Key consists of?

John then goes on to discuss how this key has been entrusted to the priests and how that is proof that it isn’t a key of knowledge since ordination clearly doesn’t confer knowledge upon the priests. Then John goes on to discuss the question of the key of knowledge explicitly in relation to the Petrine office itself:

But if they mean that those keys extend to the general power given in the commission of the pastoral office to blessed Peter, and in his person to his successors (a commission which indeed evidently seems to have granted them everything without which universal pastoral care cannot suitably take place or the office be discharged), again it is clear that they have erred. For they say that things enacted by the key of knowledge and those enacted by the key of power (supposing that some things are enacted, or even defined, by the key of knowledge and others by the key of power) have different effects [the former immutable, the latter not]. This is evidently false.

So John here explicitly once more rejects that idea that there is a key of knowledge entrusted to Peter, which provides immutable or “infallible” effects, contra a key of power which doesn’t. Why is this false?

Through the key of knowledge, or through the authority to distinguish or examine between leprosy and leprosy (if we say that that is a key), nothing else is attributed to him to whom it is given except authority {cognoscere} to examine. But to someone given authority to examine concerning some thing, [authority] to define that thing is not understood to be given.

Thus the key of knowledge is merely the authority to examine but not to define, at least, not by itself. John next sets out the way in which things can be established and defined:

Wherefore it remains, that to establish anything conveniently, or to define it, each of the keys, namely, of examining and defining, is required as necessary; or that to only the key of power does it belong to establish [anything], and even to define [it];

There are two possible interpretations of this passage.

(1) John is setting up an either-or of which only one proposition is true, which he will answer in his next argument: Either both keys, the key of knowledge and the key of power are necessary to define anything, or the key of power alone is necessary to define it.

(2) John here argues that only the key of power has the power to define anything. Yet though the key of power is a only means or instrument through which the pope can define anything, it is not a sufficient condition, for both keys, that of examining and defining “is required as necessary” to establish or define anything. The analogy would be that of a pipe. Only through the pipe does the water flow into the sink and the water cannot get into the sink without the pipe. Yet we still do need water to flow to get water into the sink. Likewise defining occurs only through the key of power, yet we still need the key of knowledge to supply the content.

Whether (1) or (2) is the correct interpretation, it is clear that, in the following argument, he confirms the necessity of the key of knowledge:

but just as physical light directs the key bearer in using a physical key, also, as it were, for this purpose knowledge is the counterpart of light.

John’s argument here is that just as with regards physical doors and keyholes, we need “material” light to help us see the keyhole and “direct” the key-bearer in how to use material, that is, physical keys, so likewise must the pope have knowledge, which is the “counterpart” to the physical light with regards physical keys, to guide the pope in his use of the spiritual keys, the key of power to bind and loose. Thus if we take interpretation (1) with regards the preceding sentence, then John is rejecting the “or”, that the key of power alone is sufficient to define anything, and that both keys of knowledge and of power are necessary. If we take (2), then he’s just saying that though the key of power is the sole instrument whereby the pope can define anything, the key of knowledge is still necessary to guide the pope in the use of his key of power. Either interpretation leads to the same conclusion: the key of knowledge is necessary for the use of the key of power in defining matters.

However John ends his arguments with the conclusion that Peter in fact has not been entrusted with the key of knowledge:

Our Saviour in the promise of the keys [“and I will give you the keys”] made to blessed Peter seems expressly to have thought this, since he added immediately after it: “And whatever you will bind upon earth will be bound also in heaven, and whatever you will loose upon earth will be loosed also in heaven”–making no mention of knowledge.

(underline mine)

As such since the Pope doesn’t possess the key of knowledge, the Pope lacks one of the necessary factors to define matters infallibly by himself at least, and as such, he couldn’t possibly define immutably certain points of doctrine asserted by his detractors.

Recapitulating the Proof

Let’s recap the proposition which the Pope specifically rejects:

that those things which through the key of knowledge the supreme pontiffs have once defined in faith and morals it is not lawful for a successor to call again into doubt, or affirm the contrary, though it is otherwise (they say) with things ordained by supreme pontiffs through the key of power–is entirely contrary to truth.

So how does he argue against this? To summarise :

  1. The Spiritual Key which the Pope possesses, by virtue of the promises given to Peter, is a Key of Power, to bind and loose, to excommunicate
  2. However this Spiritual Key, the Key of Power, is distinct from the Key of Knowledge, which is the authority to examine. The Key of Knowledge however is not sufficient in itself to be able to define anything.
  3. The only way in which anything can be enacted is with both keys of knowledge and of power. For though only the key of power has the power to enact/define, but the key of knowledge is necessary as well just as physical light is necessary to guide the key-bearer in how to use the key, likewise is knowledge necessary to guide the pope in the use of his spiritual keys.
  4. However, Matthew 16:19 deliberately omits mention of the Key of Knowledge, and explicitly only identifies the key of power to bind and loose when speaking of the Key given to Peter by Christ.

Conclusion: The Key given to Peter by Christ, is merely the Key of Power, not the Key of Knowledge, as such the Pope does not possess the power to immutably define anything because he simply does not possess the Key of Knowledge which is the necessary component to be able to define anything.

Conclusion: The Aftermath of Quia quorundam

It is interesting to note that in the bull in question, despite all the efforts of John towards arguing against the idea that the pope has the power to irrevocably define doctrine, spends most of his bull arguing against allegations that he has changed anything at all with his new constitution. Brian Tierney, a Roman Catholic church historian, has a rather intriguing explanation:

Although Quia quorundam rejected so decisively the idea of an unerring key of knowledge, this Bull marked a change in John’s attitude to the whole problem of irreformability. Previously he had been content to assert that, as a sovereign legislator, he could revoke any decrees of his predecessors whenever he saw fit. While he never withdrew this assertion, from 1324 onward John began to rely principally on another argument – that in fact he never had revoked any decree of a predecessor containing an article of faith.

It is impossible for us to know with certainty the reasons for John’s change of opinion or (if his opinions did not change) the reasons for the shift in his debating stance. Perhaps he began to see – even if confusedly – that to exclude every possibility of attributing to the pope a power of making infallible, and so irreformable, dogmatic decrees could have disadvantages for the Roman see in the long run. The most obvious reason why the pope might have had such second thoughts lies in the fact that the conciliarists of the past thirty years had frequently stressed the erringness of individual popes in arguing that the pope was subject to the council in matters of faith. And the relationship between pope and council was a very live issue in John’s pontificate. Marsilius of Padua’s Defensor pacis, which once again contrasted the erring pope with the infallible council appeared in the same year as John’s Bull Quia quorundam. The Sachsenhausen Appeal itself, to which John was replying in that Bull, was an appeal to a general council against the pope on the ground that the pope had fallen into heresy. Although he was a sound professional canonist, John was merely an irresponsible amateur as a theologian; but he had good theologians at the curia. It seems that, between 1322 and 1324, someone conveyed to him that the issues involved in his problems were too delicate to be resolved purely and simply by a dogmatic reassertion of the canonical doctrine of sovereignty.

– Origins of papal infallibility, 1150-1350: 1150 – 1350 ; A study on the concepts of infallibility, sovereignty and tradition in the Middle Ages

This curious episode in church history also reminds me of a common “two stage” Roman Catholic apologetic strategy with regards past teachings which seems to contradict present Roman Catholic church claims. Stage 1. They will insist that all past writings can be “reconciled” with what the Roman Church teaches today and that there has been no change. But when they can’t do this they simply move on to Stage 2. and argue that past ecclesiastical writings are not infallible nor irrevocable and they can always be changed or developed. This is sort of the reverse of what John XXII did which was first to insist that he has the right to change anything whatever and then later to argue that he didn’t change anything at all and that what he teaches is reconcilable with what his predecessors taught.

No doubt with regards this clear rejection of the dogma of papal infallibility, we shall be subjected to such an apologetic move where first it will be asserted that the bull in question doesn’t contradict the dogma of papal infallibility then afterwards it will be maintained that the bull is not infallible and can be altered anyway. As such, given the internal defence mechanism Roman apologetics has built into itself, I doubt any number of papal bulls rejecting present church teachings will sway the truly convinced. However, I trust, and hope, that for those who aren’t merely cheerleading for their group, this interesting papal bull will at least constitute very strong evidence against the Roman Catholic’s claims to doctrinal continuity.

Appendix: Sola Scriptura in Quia Quorundam

Pope John XXII in the later part of the bull advances a rather interesting argument against his objectors concerning the rule of poverty, that Christ and the Apostles did not possess property, only “simple use”, which seems to assume sola scriptura premises:

Further, let them tell us where they read such assertions, that it pertains to faith or morals that Christ and the Apostles had in the things they had only simple use of fact? Indeed, this pertains to faith neither directly, since there is no article about this nor any under which it can be comprehended–as is clear in the creeds, in which the articles of faith are contained–nor, also, [does it pertain to faith] reductively, as if scripture contains something like this, so that if it be denied the whole of sacred scripture is made doubtful and as a consequence the articles of faith, which have to be proved by sacred scripture, are made doubtful and uncertain. For this cannot be found in sacred scripture, but rather its opposite. But concerning the above mentioned Brothers Minor it is certain that there is in the above mentioned Creeds, in the Gospel, in the Acts of the Apostles, and in the Epistles, no mention to be found concerning their poverty and simple use of fact, or concerning the lordship of the things offered to them, which the supreme Pontiff reserved or shall have been able to reserve to himself and to the Roman Church, and which once reserved it is not licit for a successor to renounce (if this seems appropriate), or that the successor can not recall the procurators established by the authority of a supreme pontiff for the business {negotiis} of the said Order. Whence they cannot infer from the above, except falsely, anything that implies that a successor cannot order some thing else contrary to orders made concerning such things by supreme pontiffs.

(italics and underline mine)

Pope John XXII advances two kinds of arguments which are of interest to us Protestants:

(1) All Articles of Faith “have to be proved by sacred scripture”. The Creeds, which contains the articles of faith, are not stand alone sources of information from tradition or whatever but derive their legitimacy from Scriptural demonstrations. Pope John XXII simply assumes this as a premise of his argument and is not something he feels he needs to prove. Thus, it is a fair inference that it was common ground amongst all the contenders that articles of faith, and the creeds which contains those articles of faith, needs be proved by Scripture.

(2) The general assumption of the argument in this paragraph is that the absence of a certain teaching from the Scriptures and the creeds derived from them constitutes evidence against a teaching or proposition. To be sure this argument isn’t as strong and definite as the explicit point that articles of faith “have to be proved by sacred scripture”, but even as late as the 14th century medieval Catholics did generally assume that the absence of something from the Scriptures does constitute strong evidence against the claim.

Overall, it is interesting to see very Protestant premises being assumed in a papal bull.

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