Papal infallibility

Here’s the Catholic doctrine of papal infallibility in a nutshell: If the pope speaks ex cathedra on matters of faith and morals, then what he says is protected from error. Let’s break that sentence down:

“If the pope speaks ex cathedra…”
Ex cathedra literally means “from the chair”, meaning the chair of Peter. This means if the pope speaks in an official capacity as pope. Most of the time the pope is speaking for himself, or in his role as bishop of the diocese of Rome, or in his role (if he has one) as Catholic theologian, and under none of those circumstances would what he said be infallible.

“…on matters of faith and morals…”
That means he’s either talking about a doctrinal issue or a moral teaching of the Church. Most of what the pope does, even in his official capacity as pope, involves routine administrative matters like appointing people to various positions, conducting diplomacy with secular governments, meeting and chatting with visitors, and things like that. None of that falls under the protection of infallibility.

“…what he says is protected from error.”
The word “infallible” means “without error”. It should be distinguished from the word “impeccable” which means “without sin”. The Church does not claim that popes are impeccable.

The pope is the chief shepherd of the Church, in that he is chief among the bishops, and serving the Church as pope is a very demanding and time-consuming calling. But it is only on extremely rare occasions that a pope feels the need to exercise his infallibility, and most popes never do. The last time papal infallibility was exercised was in 1950, and the time before that was in 1854.

If you would like to read more, check out the article on, Papal Infallibility. The old Catholic Encyclopedia, available online, has a lengthy article on the Church’s Infallibility in general, of which papal infallibility is only a part. If you’re a Baha’i who wants to teach Catholics, the Catholic Encyclopedia article is essential reading.


The holiday of Easter

In the Christian tradition, the year is basically divided into three big chunks. There is the time associated with Christmas, the time associated with Easter, and then there’s everything else. Our whole year is structured around the timing of Christmas and Easter.

Christmas and Easter each have two seasons associated with them, one leading up to it and one after it. For Christmas there’s the seasons of Advent and Christmas, and for Easter there’s the seasons of Lent and Easter.

As I have discussed before, Christianity has three basic ideas, what you might call its “fundamental verities”. These are the incarnation, death and resurrection of Christ. The incarnation, when Christ took on a human body, is remembered at several times during the year, but especially at Christmas. The death of Christ is remembered every Friday, but in a special way on Good Friday. And the resurrection, commemorated every Sunday, is commemorated especially at Easter. That’s why Christmas, Good Friday and Easter are so important for Christians.

Although the secular culture makes a bigger deal of Christmas, within Christianity Good Friday and Easter are considered holier. Easter is so holy, in fact, that it does not occur on day only, but extends for an entire week. Every day this week is considered to be Easter.

The whole Easter season lasts 50 days.  The fortieth day is Ascension, when Christ rose bodily into heaven 40 days after his resurrection.  Ten days after that is Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit descended upon Mary and the Apostles.

“The faith which does not reject any peoples’ customs”

The Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith, the Vatican department in charge of missionary work, gave the following instructions to Catholic missionaries in 1659 on how to deal with the cultures they were to encounter in the Far East:

Put no obstacles in their way; and for no reason whatever should you persuade these people to change their rites, customs, and ways of life, unless these are obviously opposed to religion and good morals. For what is more absurd than to bring France or Spain or Italy or any other part of Europe into China? It is not these that you should bring but the faith which does not spurn or reject any peoples’ rites and customs, unless they are depraved, but on the contrary tries to keep them … Admire and praise what deserves to be respected.