Il Papa! Papal Infallibility, part 1: What it is and isn’t.

I think the role of the papacy and more specifically, the idea of papal infallibility, serves as one of the bigger barriers between Catholics and non-Catholic Christians, and I think it’s been the subject of a lot of misunderstanding and even misinformation. One Protestant I spoke to recently said, “I just have issues with the whole Pope idea,” because Catholics “sort of worship him and think that his word is infallible and that he is the ultimate word on so many issues. ” It seems important, for the sake of dialogue between Catholics and Protestants, to clarify: (a) what papal infallibility is, and is not; and (b) why it’s important (and Scriptural!). I’ll address (a) today, and (b) tomorrow and (hopefully) Tuesday. Time permitting, I’ll address some of the arguments against papal infallibility on Wednesday.

Peter and Infallibility. Let’s start with the one pope that almost all Christians acknowledged spoke infallibly: St. Peter. Most Protestants, as well as Catholics, believe that the Apostles were infallible when they were writing Scripture, but not infallible in their personal lives. The first pope, St. Peter, exemplifies this perfectly. Christians don’t think Peter was personally infallible: in fact, we know he wasn’t (Galatians 2:11; Matthew 16:23). Nor were all of his writings infallible. However, we do think he was infallible when he wrote 1 Peter and 2 Peter. And we think that his other writings and teachings were often inspired, and a 1st century Christian would have done well to listen and obey St. Peter.

Catholics don’t believe modern popes enjoy the same level of authority from the Holy Spirit as did the Apostles: they can define and interpret, but not introduce something hitherto unknown (the way that St. Paul did with the so-called “Pauline exception,” for example: 1 Corinthians 7:10-17). The Catholic view of the infallibility of modern popes is actually much more limited than the general Christian view of the infallibility of the Apostles. And rightfully so. The Apostles were tasked with writing down much of what consitutes “the faith that was passed down to the saints once and for all” (Jude 1:3), and as that term “once and for all” suggests, no one since that time has had the authority to add or subtract a thing. What this in mind, here’s a primer on the Catholic view of papal infallibility:

What papal infallibility is not: It’s not a declaration that the pope never sins. It’s not a claim that the pope is always right. And it’s not a claim that the pope knows everything, or even everything about Catholicism. It doesn’t mean that the Pope can introduce anything to the content of the Faith: in fact, he is forbidden from doing so. About these things, there’s no debate amongst Catholics at all (unless they misunderstand their own faith pretty radically). While the pope can change how we worship, he cannot change what we believe, as long as that “we” is understood as the historic Catholic faith (rather than the beliefs of some individual Catholic).

What papal infallibility is: Infallible doctrines are those which have been defined ex cathedra (meaning that it’s the pope speaking “from the chair” of St. Peter), a term which has been subject to some misdirected attacks. Lorraine Boettner (1901-1990), a fervent anti-Catholic, argued in his book Roman Catholicism that ex cathedra was wrong because the modern papal chair is only from the 9th Century. Of course, Catholics mean “ex cathedra” in the metaphoric sense, just like Jesus meant when he acknowledged the authority of the Pharisees to teach ex cathedra Moses (Matthew 23:2-3).

So how do you tell when a statement is ex cathedra? I think that Vatican II explains it best, when it says that infallibility is a charism (a gift of the Holy Spirit) granted the pope which he:

enjoys in virtue of his office, when, as the supreme shepherd and teacher of all the faithful, who confirms his brethren in their faith (Luke 22:32), he proclaims by a definitive act some doctrine of faith or morals. Therefore his definitions, of themselves, and not from the consent of the Church, are justly held irreformable, for they are pronounced with the assistance of the Holy Spirit, an assistance promised to him in blessed Peter.”

Let’s break that down a little bit. First, the pope enjoys this power “in virtue of his office.” In other words, the first Pope (St. Peter) enjoyed this as Peter the pope, not as Simon the man. Joseph Ratzinger doesn’t enjoy papal infallibility: Pope Benedict XVI does. Second, and related to the first, it must be in his role of “supreme shepherd and teacher of all the faithful.” This means, for example, that Ratzinger’s book Jesus of Nazareth, while excellent, is fallible. Any musing he makes as an individual and private theologian are. It’s only those things done by a pope, in the role of pope. Third, it must be to confirm his brethren, which is to say, that it must be directed to the Church. In other words, something the Pope says to a particular nation or individual isn’t infallible: only those things said to the entire Church. Fourth, and probably most importantly, it is limited to matter of faith and morals. So if the pope says, “everyone in the Church must worship according to the Novus Ordo Mass,” for example, or “all priests must be unmarried,” these are matters of discipline, and not doctrine (provided that he isn’t saying, Jesus requires that no priests marry, or the Novus Ordo Mass be used).

So that’s the skinny on what papal infallibility is. Vatican I has a three-prong test, which make the same points as Vatican II in different wording:

  1. in the exercise of his office as shepherd and teacher of all Christians
  2. in virtue of his supreme apostolic authority
  3. he defines a doctrine concerning faith or morals to be held by the whole church

These conditions have been met extremely rarely.
There have only been a handful of things which have met this. You can count on one hand (two fingers, even!) the number of times the pope has invoked this authority since 1800 A.D. They are: the definition of the Immaculate Conception by Pope Piux IX in 1854 (in Ineffabilis Deus), and the definition of the Assumption of Mary, by Pope Piux XII in 1950 (in Munificentissimus Deus). Given how rarely this power is invoked, it’s perhaps strange that it should be the subject of so much controversy, but it’s important to Catholics that when a doctrinal conflict is irresolvable, or further definition on an issue is badly needed, there is a source where resolution of that can come from. I’ll address this in much more depth in tomorrow’s post.

An Important Coda. The pope is the earthly head of the Catholic Church. He isn’t just in charge when he speaks ex cathedra, or 8 of the last 10 popes were never in charge (since only two of them ever wrote ex cathedra). Rather, he’s in charge all the time, but it’s a fallible authority. Catholics are still bound to follow him, as they are all legitimate authority, unless that authority goes against the Faith.

Hopefully, this provides a little more insight into an admittedly confusing Catholic doctrine. Tomorrow, I’ll tackle some of the meatier topics – where we get this papal infallibility from, and why I think it’s right.


  1. Might it be correct to say that it is really not the Church (or the Pope) that speaks infallibly, but that instead infallibility occurs when Christ (or perhaps it is better to say the Holy Spirit) speaks through the Church? I also wonder if this infallibility is different from the infallibility of scripture. Is the Holy Spirit “dictating” what is to be said or simply insuring that what is said is free from error?

    1. Good questions. The second one is easier to answer. Scripture isn’t just infallible, it’s also inspired. Inspiration is a positive charism (the Holy Spirit tells you what to say, in some way*), while infallibility is a negative charism (the Holy Spirit keeps you from saying something heretical).

      Through inspiration, the Holy Spirit also added content to the Deposit of Faith. In contrast, infallibility doesn’t include the ability to add new doctrines to the faith delivered once for all to the Apostles.

      As for your first question, I think that the best answer is that it’s still the pope (or Church Council) speaking infallibly, and things are in the wording chosen by the Church/pope, but we can trust the content of what is said as if it were said by the Holy Spirit Himself.



      * “Dictation” is one theory of inspiration, but I don’t think it’s the strongest one.

  2. Thank you, Joe, especially since you must be very busy now. Shameless Popery is always helpful – best blog I’ve ever read (pray note the intentional lack of a qualifier before the word “blog”).

    “‘Dictation’ is one theory of inspiration, but I don’t think it’s the strongest one.” – Well, perhaps there’s a future article there.

    1. Thank you very much — you’re all too kind. As for the post on theories of inspiration, I may have to defer to someone more knowledgeable on the subject. I just know that the dictation theory runs into serious problems in explaining passages like 1 Cor. 1:14-16. In v. 14-15, Paul lists those he baptized in Corinth, then realizes he forgot a few, and adds them, before concluding, “I do not remember if I baptized anyone else.”

      I can’t figure an easy way to make that fit neatly into the idea that the Holy Spirit was telling him word-for-word what to say.



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