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 catholic.com, 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.

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9 Responses

  1. Alláh-u-abhá Jonah!
    Thanks for this, I am intrigued. I can see how a legitimate biblical case for Papal infallibility can be made, but not such a narrow and semantic case. I would tend to believe that the Catholic Church, if direct succession from the Apostles is provable, has a valid claim to infalllibility in some way or another, but I won’t claim to understand it.

    Good post, and honestly, I like seeing you post about Catholicism more lately, I am learning a lot!

    God Bless,
    Gerald

  2. Hi Jonah,

    I sometimes use the Old Catholic Encyclopedia when I want to find out information about a specific figure in church history, but how useful is it in finding out what Catholics believe today? This encyclopedia, after all, was written in 1918 before Vatican II. On the other hand this new Pope seems to be undoing a lot of what Vatican II accomplished in terms of ecumenicalism.
    I’m curious as to what decision was made in 1950 that you think is covered under Papal Infallibility?

    warmest, Susan

  3. “…it is only on extremely rare occasions that a pope feels the need to exercise his infallibility, and most popes never do. ”

    How many times has the pope spoken “ex cathedra”?

    Puc Fada.

  4. ruhiwarrior19 wrote,

    Thanks for this, I am intrigued. I can see how a legitimate biblical case for Papal infallibility can be made, but not such a narrow and semantic case.

    Thank you for your kind words. The “narrow and semantic” nature of the definition can’t be helped. Otherwise people will get the wrong idea.

    Dr. Maneck wrote,

    I sometimes use the Old Catholic Encyclopedia when I want to find out information about a specific figure in church history, but how useful is it in finding out what Catholics believe today? This encyclopedia, after all, was written in 1918 before Vatican II.

    That doesn’t matter. Vatican II didn’t change Church doctrine.

    On the other hand this new Pope seems to be undoing a lot of what Vatican II accomplished in terms of ecumenicalism.

    Can you give an example of a specific action or statement by Pope Benedict that has undone a specific passage in the documents of Vatican II?

    I’m curious as to what decision was made in 1950 that you think is covered under Papal Infallibility?

    This was Munificentissimus Deus, which defined the dogma of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

    Puc Fada wrote,

    How many times has the pope spoken “ex cathedra”?

    Some time ago I read an article on this subject, and it presented a list of what are widely regarded by Church historians as infallible statements. I can’t remember now where I read that. It wasn’t a long list – something like 15 to 20 instances. I don’t think there’s a definitive list, and scholars disagree with regard to some of them, whether they count. If anyone comes across more information, please let me know.

  5. “I don’t think there’s a definitive list…”

    Thanks for explaining that. Some of my Roman Catholic friends tell me there are only two instances.

    Puc Fada

  6. Jonah,

    This question might sound trite, but I don’t mean it that way. If the Pope made a statement declaring which previous Papal declarations fell under the doctrine of infallibility, would that be considered an infallible statement? It seems to meat the qualifications.

    God Bless,
    Gerald

  7. Puc Fada: Thanks for explaining that. Some of my Roman Catholic friends tell me there are only two instances.

    Yeah, I’ve heard that too, but I’m skeptical.

    ruhiwarrior19: If the Pope made a statement declaring which previous Papal declarations fell under the doctrine of infallibility, would that be considered an infallible statement? It seems to meat the qualifications.

    It wouldn’t be necessary. We don’t depend solely on the pope to give us clear assurance of what the Church teaches. Most of what we know to be true doctrine has never been formally defined by a pope and doesn’t need to be.

    Really it’s the Church that’s infallible. The bishops, as the shepherds of the Church, are tasked with communicating her infallible teaching and so partake in her infallibility, and the pope, as successor of Peter and chief bishop, can exercise the Church’s infallibility in a special way.

  8. Jonah,
    Thanks, that makes sense with what else I know and understand about the Catholic Church. The idea of “exercising” infallibility, as an ability rather than a quality is interesting, I tend to think of it as the latter, but I suppose it is a bit of both.

    God Bless,
    Gerald

  9. Jonah,
    Could you do a post comparing the infallibility accorded to the Universal House of Justice with that of the pope? How often has the UHJ used its infallibility? Is it any different?

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