What Infallibility Doesn’t Mean

When I was a Protestant, I honestly believed that I understood what Catholics meant when they said that the Pope was infallible. Turns out I didn’t understand at all. Since becoming Catholic, I have probably fielded more questions regarding this dogma of the Church than any other. Having been on both sides of the issue, I can say with confidence,

Most people have no idea what papal infallibility means.

As I’ve already admitted – I was one of those people. So I thought it would be helpful to write a short post on what papal infallibility isn’t.

[Side note: For the purposes of this particular post, I have no intention of trying to prove the doctrine of papal infallibility either Scripturally or historically. Here I am only concerned with trying to correct the false assumptions associated with the doctrine itself.]

— 1 —

First a brief definition as to what papal infallibility is. Papal infallibility is a negative charism (gratia gratis data) that prevents the possibility of error. By virtue of the promise which Jesus made to Peter, the pope is preserved from the possibility of error “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.”1 With that in mind, infallibility is not the same as inspiration or revelation which are positive divine actions.

With infallibility there is no divine influence or assistance (as in the case of inspiration) and God does not make manifest some new truth supernaturally (as in the case of revelation). In fact, the Catholic Church teaches that God’s divine revelation to humanity culminated in the person of Christ and ended with the death of the last apostle, St. John. Since infallibility is only a negative charism, it does not inspire a pope to teach what is true or even defend revealed truths, nor does it “make the pope’s will the ultimate standard of truth and goodness”,2 but rather, it simply prevents him from teaching in error under certain limited conditions. During an address given at the First Vatican Council, Bishop Grasser, who was referred to as “the most prominent theologian at the Council”, said the following:

“In no sense is pontifical infallibility absolute, because absolute infallibility belongs to God alone, Who is the first and essential truth and Who is never able to deceive or be deceived. All other infallibility, as communicated for a specific purpose, has its limits and its conditions under which it is considered to be present. The same is valid in reference to the infallibility of the Roman Pontiff. For this infallibility is bound by certain limits and conditions…”

Therefore:

Infallibility is concerned with the trustworthy interpretation and effective safeguarding of truths which are already revealed.

— 2 —

Papal infallibility doesn’t mean that the pope is perfect.

This has got to be the number one most common misconception about infallibility. It also doesn’t mean that the bishops are perfect, or the priests, or the people. No one in the Catholic Church is perfect okay? Essentially infallible just means without error, and it only applies to very specific teachings which are to be held by the whole Church. It doesn’t require a particular holiness of life on the part of the pope, much less imply impeccability; sinful and wicked men may be used by God in defining doctrine infallibly for His Church.

We see this constantly reflected in Scripture itself. Simply look at the “heroes” of faith listed in Hebrews 11. Noah, “a righteous man, blameless in his generation.” ?3 Saved the world, planted a vineyard, got drunk and lay naked in front of his family. Abraham the father of faith? He tried to fulfill God’s promise by sleeping with his maidservant – Yep, you can blame the “tensions” in the Middle-East on him. King David who was a murderer and adulterer and a man after God’s own heart?!

And it’s the same thing in the New Testament. Barely two seconds after Jesus states that the Church will be built upon St. Peter, confers to him the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven, and gives him the power to bind and loose on heaven and earth, Peter rebukes Christ who says to him, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me; for you are not on the side of God, but of men.”4 Not a very auspicious beginning for the man whom Catholics call the first pope! Fortunately, our human weaknesses and failings do not prevent the Almighty from working through us. In fact, as Christ reminds St. Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”5 The Apostle’s response? “I will all the more gladly boast of my weaknesses, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities; for when I am weak, then I am strong.”6

Trust me when I say that the pope isn’t perfect. In fact, there have been at least half a dozen popes throughout the last two millennia whom we would have to honestly describe as wicked men. By God’s grace, infallibility has nothing to do with the personal character or impeccability of the pope – rather it is a protection for the Church which Christ instituted.

— 3 —

Papal infallibility doesn’t guarantee that the pope will speak well or even clearly.

This one is pretty straightforward, but you would be surprised at how many people don’t seem to realize this. Infallibility is an extremely limited charism (we’ll get to that next). It doesn’t guarantee that the pope will be current on all world events, be a proficient public speaker, experienced world leader, never say anything that is incorrect, always explain things with perfect clarity, etc., etc. In fact, I would suggest that anytime a new pope is elected there is an incredibly steep learning curve, all of which takes place in front of the entire world while the media tries their best to twist everything he says to suit their personal agenda.

— 4 —

Papal infallibility isn’t unlimited. 

It’s actually very limited. According to the teaching of the First Vatican Council and Catholic tradition, the conditions required for ex cathedra (from the chair) papal teaching are as follows:

  1. The pontiff must teach in his public and official capacity as pastor and doctor of all Christians, not merely in his private capacity as a theologian, preacher or allocutionist, nor in his capacity as a temporal prince or as a mere ordinary of the Diocese of Rome. It must be clear that he speaks as spiritual head of the Church universal.
  2. Then it is only when, in this capacity, he teaches some doctrine of faith or morals that he is infallible.
  3. Further it must be sufficiently evident that he intends to teach with all the fullness and finality of his supreme Apostolic authority, in other words that he wishes to determine some point of doctrine in an absolutely final and irrevocable way, or to define it in the technical sense.
  4. Finally for an ex cathedra decision it must be clear that the pope intends to bind the whole Church to this teaching.

It’s also important to note that papal infallibility is a personal and incommunicable charisma, which is not shared by any other agent in the Church – even a pontifical tribunal. It was promised directly to Peter, and to each of Peter’s successors in the primacy, but not as a charisma which could be delegated to others. Any doctrinal decisions or instructions issued by Roman congregations, even when approved by the pope in the ordinary way, have no claim to be considered infallible. To be infallible they must be issued by the pope himself, in his own name and according to the conditions already mentioned above as a requirement for ex cathedra teaching. However, …

— 5 —

Infallibility isn’t limited to the pope.

This may seem like somewhat of a contradiction to the point above, but let me clarify – the promise of papal infallibility is limited to the pope – but there are other means by which God provides for infallible teaching within His Church. As a matter of fact it is far more common to see infallible Church teaching come to us by means of the ordinary magisterium of the Church rather than through the infallible pronouncements of popes.

So what is the magisterium ordinarium or ordinary magisterium of the Catholic Church? Essentially, the ordinary magisterium is the episcopal body which has succeeded to the college of Apostles. They are the bishops dispersed throughout the world but nevertheless united in bonds of communion to Peter’s successor (the pope), who is its visible head and centre. Another means of infallible dogma would be the ecumenical councils of the Church (under the headship of the pope) which are prime examples for us when it comes to the exercise of the Church’s infallible teaching authority. An ecumenical council is an assembly of the bishops from throughout the world representing the Church catholic (or universal) which is called by the pope.

All of our doctrines and dogmas regarding Christological truths, the Trinity, the Creeds of Christendom, and even the very canon of Scripture itself came out of these ecumenical councils and are held to be infallible truths – necessary beliefs for any who calls themselves Christian. If there is any such a thing as Christian “essentials” versus “non-essentials” (and I would personally disagree with the modern version of this claim), then we would see these “essentials” reflected in the dogmas and statements of faith which came from these infallible ecumenical councils.

— 6 —

Papal infallibility is not dispensed at a whim.

As we have already discussed, infallibility can come through various means within the Church. Lets list these from most common to least:

  1. The Ordinary Magisterium of the Catholic Church – the bishops dispersed throughout the world in union with the Holy See (most common)
  2. Ecumenical councils under the headship of the pope (less common)
  3. The pope himself separately (least common)

With that in mind, the vast majority of Church teaching falls under the Ordinary Magisterium of the Church, and as the Catholic Encyclopedia points out, “…is liable to be somewhat indefinite in its pronouncements and, as a consequence, practically ineffective as an organ.” This may sound like pretty dismissive language to use, but the point is this: While the ordinary, everyday exercise of episcopal authority is largely sufficient guidance in the life of the Church, it is when heresies arise and threaten the integrity of divine revelation that it becomes necessary to be able to dogmatically define the truth for the faithful. “And while…it continues to be theoretically true that the Church may, by the exercise of this ordinary teaching authority arrive at a final and infallible decision regarding doctrinal questions, it is true at the same time that in practice it may be impossible to prove conclusively that such unanimity as may exist has a strictly definitive value in any particular case, unless it has been embodied in a decree of an ecumenical council, or in the ex cathedra teaching of the pope, or, at least, in some definite formula such as the Athanasian Creed.”7 That’s a lot to take in. Let me rephrase:

It is only when the historic, apostolic, and universal teaching of the Church is challenged by heresy that it becomes necessary to carefully define dogma for the faithful through means of an infallible ecumenical council or (and even more rarely) an infallible papal declaration.

— 7 —

In July 2005 Pope Benedict XVI stated during an impromptu address to priests in Aosta that: “The Pope is not an oracle; he is infallible in very rare situations, as we know.” His predecessor Pope John XXIII once remarked: “I am only infallible if I speak infallibly but I shall never do that, so I am not infallible.”8 

A doctrine proposed by a pope as his own opinion, not solemnly proclaimed as a doctrine of the Church, may be rejected as false, even if it is his personal opinion on a matter of faith or morals, and all the more so if it is a view which he expresses on a non-relgious matter.

Properly understood, papal infallibility has far less to do with, “special powers” for the pope, and far more to do with the protection which Christ promises to His Church. I found this concept expressed quite well in the Catholic Answers tract on papal infallibility which states:

“Since Christ said the gates of hell would not prevail against his Church,9 this means that his Church can never pass out of existence. But if the Church ever apostasized by teaching heresy, then it would cease to exist; because it would cease to be Jesus’ Church. Thus the Church cannot teach heresy, meaning that anything it solemnly defines for the faithful to believe is true. This same reality is reflected in the Apostle Paul’s statement that the Church is ‘the pillar and foundation of the truth.’10 If the Church is the foundation of religious truth in this world, then it is God’s own spokesman. As Christ told his disciples: ‘He who hears you hears me, and he who rejects you rejects me, and he who rejects me rejects him who sent me.’11

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  1. First Vatican Council, First Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, chapter 4, 9 

  2. Van Noort, Dogmatic Theology (DT), pg 290, published in 1959 

  3. Genesis 6:9 

  4. Matthew 16:23b 

  5. 2 Corinthians 12:9b 

  6. 2 Corinthians 12:10 

  7. Catholic Encyclopedia, Infallibility, III Organs of Infallibility 

  8. John Wilkins, “The ‘straight arrow’ theologian and the pope” 

  9. Matt. 16:18b 

  10. 1 Tim. 3:15 

  11. Luke 10:16 

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