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Papal Infallibility

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In Catholic theology, papal infallibility is the dogma that the Pope, when he solemnly defines a matter of faith and morals ex cathedra (that is, officially and as pastor of the universal Church), is always correct, and thus does not have the possibility of error. This doctrine was defined dogmatically by the First Vatican Council of 1870. It is easy to cast serious doubt on this doctrine by recourse of simple logic. When in 1870, Pope Pius IX defined the doctrine of papal infallibility, he was still considered fallible, and so it could very well be that said doctrine is in fact false. Put in another way, no one was required to believe this doctine since it came from a pope who was not (until then) to be considered infallible.


Theological history

Within Catholic theology, a number of Scriptural passages coalesce to indicate the primacy of the Roman Pontiff and the theological dogma of his infallibility, including:

  • Jn 1:42; Mk 3:16 ("And to Simon he gave the name Peter", Cephas or Rock)
  • Mt 16:18 ("thou art Peter; and upon this rock I will build my church"; cf. Mt 7:24-28, the house built on rock)
  • Jn 16:13 ("when he, the Spirit of truth, is come, he will teach you all truth.")
  • Jn 14:26 ("the Holy Ghost, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things")
  • Jn 21:15-17 ("Feed my lambs/sheep") (stated three times)
  • Lk 10:16 ("He that heareth you, heareth me; and he that despiseth you, despiseth me; and he that despiseth me, despiseth him that sent me.")
  • 1 Tim 3:15 ("behave thyself in the house of God, which is ... the pillar and ground of the truth.")
  • 1 Jn 2:27 ("let the unction, which you have received from him, abide in you. And you have no need that any man teach you; but as his unction teacheth you of all things, and is truth, and is no lie. And as it hath taught you, abide in him.")
  • Ac 15:28 ("For it hath seemed good to the Holy Ghost and to us, ...") (the Apostles speak with voice of Holy Ghost)
  • Mt 10:2 ("And the names of the twelve apostles are these: The first, Simon who is called Peter,...") (Peter is first)
  • Mt 28:20 ("Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and behold I am with you all days...")
  • Ludwig Ott points out the many indications in Scripture that Peter was given a primary role with respect to the other Apostles: Mk 5:37, Mt 17:1, Mt 26:37, Lk 5:3, Mt 17:27, Lk 22:32, Lk 24:34, and 1 Cor 15:5 (Fund., Bk. IV, Pt. 2, Ch. 2, §5).

The early church

Theology didn't spring instantly and fully formed within the bosom of the earliest Church. "The doctrine of the Primacy of the Roman Bishops, like other Church teachings and institutions, has gone through a development. Thus the establishment of the Primacy recorded in the Gospels has gradually been more clearly recognised and its implications developed. Clear indications of the consciousness of the Primacy of the Roman bishops, and of the recognition of the Primacy by the other churches appear at the end of the 1st century" (Ott, Fund., Bk. IV, Pt. 2, Ch. 2, §6).

St. Clement, c. 99, stated in a letter to the Corinthians: "Indeed you will give joy and gladness to us, if having become obedient to what we have written through the Holy Spirit, you will cut out the unlawful application of your zeal according to the exhortation which we have made in this epistle concerning peace and union" (Denziger §41, emphasis added).

St. Clement of Alexandria wrote on the primacy of Peter c. 200: "...the blessed Peter, the chosen, the pre-eminent, the first among the disciples, for whom alone with Himself the Savior paid the tribute..." (Jurgens §436).

The existence of an ecclesiastical hierarchy is emphazised by St. Stephan I, 251, in a letter to the bishop of Antioch: "Therefore did not that famous defender of the Gospel [Novatian] know that there ought to be one bishop in the Catholic Church [of the city of Rome]? It did not lie hidden from him..." (Denziger §45).

St. Julius I, in 341 wrote to the Antiochenes: "Or do you not know that it is the custom to write to us first, and that here what is just is decided?" (Denziger §57a, emphasis added).

It is apparent, then, that an understanding among the Apostles was written down in what became the Scriptures, and rapidly became the living custom of the Church. From there, a clearer theology could unfold.

St. Siricius wrote to Himerius in 385: "To your inquiry we do not deny a legal reply, because we, upon whom greater zeal for the Christian religion is incumbent than upon the whole body, out of consideration for our office do not have the liberty to dissimulate, nor to remain silent. We carry the weight of all who are burdened; nay rather the blessed apostle PETER bears these in us, who, as we trust, protects us in all matters of his administration, and guards his heirs" (Denziger §87, emphasis in original).

In summary, the dogma of primacy of the bishop of Rome evolved into the dogma that "what is just is decided" by the bishop of Rome, who has not even the right to fail in this regard.

Dogmatic definition of 1870

Vatican Council, Sess. IV, Const. de Ecclesiâ Christi, c. iv, holds:

We teach and define that it is a dogma Divinely revealed that the Roman pontiff when he speaks ex cathedra, that is when in discharge of the office of pastor and doctor of all Christians, by virtue of his supreme Apostolic authority, he defines a doctrine regarding faith or morals to be held by the universal Church, by the Divine assistance promised to him in Blessed Peter, is possessed of that infallibility with which the Divine Redeemer willed that his Church should be endowed in defining doctrine regarding faith or morals, and that therefore such definitions of the Roman pontiff are of themselves and not from the consent of the Church irreformable (see Denziger §1839).

Solemn definitions promulgated by ecumenical councils of the Catholic Church and affirmed by the Pope, such as the dogmatic definition quoted above, are themselves considered infallible.

Use of infallibility

The only statements of the Pope that are infallible are statements that either reiterate what has always been taught by the Church or are ex cathedra solemn definitions (which can never contradict what has formerly been taught; see e.g. Gal 1:8-9). Infallible statements in the former category are said to exercise the "Universal" or "Constant" Magisterium (and the doctrine which strictly and merely repeats what the church has always taught is considered infallible); infallible statements in the latter category are said to exercise the "Extraordinary" or "Solemn" Magisterium. Statements that exercise neither the Universal Magisterium or the Extraordinary Magisterium (i.e., statements that do not simply reiterate what has always been taught or which are not solemn definitions expressed ex cathedra) are not infallible, and are said to be an exercise of the merely authentic Magisterium. Such teaching is to be obeyed and given religious assent as long as it does not contradict infallible Magisterium and does not harm the faith or lead to sin.

The conditions required for ex cathedra teaching are mentioned in the Vatican decree:

  • The pontiff must teach in his public and official capacity as spiritual head of the Church universal, not merely in his private capacity as a theologian.
  • He must be teaching some doctrine of faith or morals in a manner that explicitly and solemnly defines an issue.
  • His teaching cannot contradict anything the Church has taught officially and previously.
  • It must be evident that he intends to teach with his supreme Apostolic authority. In other words, he must convey his wish to determine some point of doctrine in an absolutely final and irrevocable way. There are well-recognized formulas that are used to express this intention, such as "We declare, decree and define, . . .".
  • It must be clear that the Pope intends to bind the whole Church. Unless the Pope formally addresses the whole Church in the recognized official way, he is assumed to not intend his teaching to be ex cathedra and infallible (unless he is reiterating what has always been taught).
  • There will be an anathema attached to the definition that outlines consequences for not assenting to it. For example, in Pope Pius XII's infallible definition regarding the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, there are attached these words: "Hence if anyone, which God forbid, should dare willfully to deny or to call into doubt that which we have defined, let him know that he has fallen away completely from the divine and Catholic Faith."

Invocations of the Pope's Solemn (or "Extraordinary") Magisterium are rare. Since 1870 only one statement exercising the Solemn Magisterium has been made, Pope Pius XII's explicitly defining in 1950 the doctrine concerning the Assumption of Mary into Heaven. Some commentators regard the dogmatic definition of Papal Infallibility itself in 1870, and the dogma of the Immaculate Conception of Mary in 1854, to be other recent examples of infallible pronouncements.


Following the first Vatican Council, 1870, dissent, mostly among German, Austrian, and Swiss Catholics, arose over the definition of Papal Infallibility. The dissenters, holding the General Councils of the Church infallible, were unwilling to accept the dogma of Papal Infallibility. Many of these Catholics formed independent communities which became known as the Old Catholic Church.

A few Catholics refuse to accept papal infallibility as a doctrine of faith, such as the theologian Hans Küng, author of Infallible? An Inquiry, and historian Garry Wills , author of Papal Sin. Other Catholics appear to be unfamiliar with the significance or meaning of the doctrine. A recent (1989-1992) survey of Catholics aged fifteen to twenty-five from multiple countries (the USA, Austria, Canada, Ecuador, France, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Korea, Peru, Spain and Switzerland), showed that 36.9% accepted the dogma of papal infallibility, 36.9% denied it, and 26.2% said they didn't know. (Source: Report on surveys of the International Marian Research Institute, by Johann G. Roten, S.M.)

According to Roman Catholic theology, to the extent that their rejection of a dogma is deliberate, they separate themselves from the Church and are no longer members of the Body of Christ. In the case of laymen it is plausible that they are ignorant to the point that they are not culpable; Catholic theology does teach, however, that it is a duty to be familiar with the details of one's faith (e.g., 1 Pet 3:15).

Many Catholics and non-Catholics wrongly believe that the doctrine teaches that the Pope is infallible in everything he says.

Orthodox churches

The Orthodox Church has a related but less clear-cut doctrine, Infallibility of the Church. This means that the Holy Spirit will not allow the whole Church to fall into Error, but leaves open the question of how this will be brought about in any specific case.

Anglican churches

The Church of England and its sister churches in the Anglican Communion reject papal infallibility, as do other Protestant churches, a rejection given expression in the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion (1571):

XIX. Of the Church. The visible Church of Christ is a congregation of faithful men, in which the pure Word of God is preached, and the Sacraments be duly ministered according to Christ's ordinance, in all those things that of necessity are requisite to the same. As the Church of Jerusalem, Alexandria, and Antioch, have erred, so also the Church of Rome hath erred, not only in their living and manner of Ceremonies, but also in matters of Faith.
XXI. Of the Authority of General Councils. General Councils may not be gathered together without the commandment and will of Princes. And when they be gathered together, (forasmuch as they be an assembly of men, whereof all be not governed with the Spirit and Word of God,) they may err, and sometimes have erred, even in things pertaining unto God. Wherefore things ordained by them as necessary to salvation have neither strength nor authority, unless it may be declared that they be taken out of holy Scripture.

Reformed churches

Presbyterian and Reformed churches also reject papal infallibility. The Westminster Confession of Faith [1] which was intended in 1646 to replace the Thirty-Nine Articles, contains the following:

(Chapter one) IX. The infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture is the Scripture itself: and therefore, when there is a question about the true and full sense of any Scripture (which is not manifold, but one), it must be searched and known by other places that speak more clearly.
(Chapter one) X. The supreme judge by which all controversies of religion are to be determined, and all decrees of councils, opinions of ancient writers, doctrines of men, and private spirits, are to be examined, and in whose sentence we are to rest, can be no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture.
(Chapter Twenty-Five) VI. There is no other head of the Church but the Lord Jesus Christ. Nor can the Pope of Rome, in any sense, be head thereof; but is that Antichrist, that man of sin, and son of perdition, that exalts himself, in the Church, against Christ and all that is called God.

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Last updated: 05-06-2005 14:52:41