Papal infallibility

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In Roman Catholic theology, papal infallibility is the dogma that, by action of the Holy Spirit, the Pope is preserved from even the possibility of error when he solemnly promulgates, or declares, to the Church a dogmatic teaching on faith or morals as being contained in divine revelation (and thus being based on, or at least not contradicting, Sacred Tradition or Sacred Scripture), or at least being intimately connected to divine revelation. The Holy Spirit also works through the body of the Church to ensure that all infallible teachings will be received by all Catholics.

This doctrine was defined dogmatically in the First Vatican Council of 1870. In Catholic theology, papal infallibility is one of the channels of the infallibility of the Church. The infallible teachings of the Pope are part of what is called the Sacred Magisterium. Papal infallibility does not signify that the Pope is impeccable, i.e., that he is specially exempt from liability to sin.

According to the Complete Idiot's Guide to Understanding Catholicism, "In reality, the pope seldom uses his power of infallibility. The last time an infallible doctrine was declared was in 1950 when Mary's assumption into heaven was proclaimed an article of faith. In other words, rather than being some mystical power of the pope, infallibility means the Church allows the office of the pope to be the ruling agent in deciding what will be accepted as formal beliefs in the Church."

Conditions for papal infallibility

Statements by a pope that exercise papal infallibility are referred to as solemn papal definitions or ex cathedra teachings. These should not be confused with teachings that are infallible because of a solemn definition by an ecumenical council, or with teachings that are infallible in virtue of being taught by the ordinary and universal magisterium. For details on these other kinds of infallible teachings, see Infallibility of the Church.

According to the teaching of the First Vatican Council and Catholic tradition, the conditions required for ex cathedra teaching are as follows:

1. "the Roman Pontiff"
2. "speaks ex cathedra" ("that is, when in the discharge of his office as shepherd and teacher of all Christians, and by virtue of his supreme apostolic authority….")
3. "he defines"
4. "that a doctrine concerning faith or morals"
5. "must be held by the whole Church" (Pastor Aeternus, chap. 4)

For a teaching by a pope or ecumenical council to be recognized as infallible, the teaching must make it clear that the Church is to consider it definitive and binding. There is not any specific phrasing required for this, but it is usually indicated by one or both of the following: (1) a verbal formula indicating that this teaching is definitive (such as "We declare, decree and define..."), or (2) an accompanying anathema stating that anyone who deliberately dissents is outside the Catholic Church. For example, in Munificentissimus Deus, 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."

An infallible teaching by a pope or ecumenical council can contradict previous church teachings, as long as they were not themselves taught infallibly. In this case, the previous fallible teachings are immediately made void. Of course, an infallible teaching cannot contradict a previous infallible teaching, including the infallible teachings of the Holy Bible or Holy Tradition. Also, due to the sensus fidelium, an infallible teaching cannot be subsequently contradicted by the Catholic Church, even if that subsequent teaching is in itself fallible.

It is the opinion of the majority of Roman Catholic theologians that the canonizations of a Pope enter within the limits of his infallible teaching authority. Therefore, it is considered certain by this majority of theologians, that such persons canonized are definitely in heaven with God. However, this opinion of infallibility of canonizations has never been definitively taught by the Magisterium. Other theologians, even those of earlier times, refer to this majority opinion, as a "pious opinion, but merely an opinion".[citation needed] Before the height of Middle Ages, saints were created not by the Bishop of Rome, but by the bishops of the local dioceses, confirming or rejecting the acclamation of the people calling for declaration of sanctity of a particular Christian person who passed away "in the odor of sanctity". In Roman Catholic teachings, diocesan bishops do not themselves possess the charism of infallibility, leaving these early Church canonizations without certainty of infallibility.

Ex cathedra

In Roman Catholic theology, the Latin phrase ex cathedra, literally meaning "from the chair", refers to a teaching by the Pope that is considered to be made with the intention of invoking infallibility.

The "chair" referred to is not a literal chair, but refers metaphorically to the Pope's position as the official teacher of Catholic doctrine: the chair was the symbol of the teacher in the ancient world, and bishops to this day have a cathedra, a seat or throne, as a symbol of their teaching and governing authority. The pope is said to occupy the "chair of Peter," as Catholics hold that among the apostles Peter had a special role as the preserver of unity, so the pope as successor of Peter holds the role of spokesman for the whole church among the bishops, the successors as a group of the apostles. (Also see Holy See and sede vacante: both terms evoke this seat or throne.)

Theological history

Catholic apologists trace the history of this doctrine back to Scripture, while non-Catholics believe its origins came later.

Support for infallibility in Scripture

Within Catholic theology, a number of Scriptural passages can be brought together to argue for the primacy of the Roman Pontiff and the theological dogma of his infallibility, including:

The early church

Religions evolve their theologies over time, and Catholicism is no exception: its theology did not 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).

Many of the Church Fathers spoke of ecumenical councils and the Bishop of Rome as possessing a reliable authority to teach the content of Scripture and tradition.

The Middle Ages

In the Middle Ages and the Renaissance the doctrine of infallibility developed further.

The first theologian to systematically discuss the infallibility of ecumenical councils was Theodore Abu Qurra in the 9th century.

Several medieval theologians discussed the infallibility of the pope when defining matters of faith and morals, including Thomas Aquinas and John Peter Olivi. In 1330, the Carmelite bishop Guido Terreni described the pope’s use of the charism of infallibility in terms very similar to those that would be used at Vatican I.

Dogmatic definition of 1870

In the conclusion of the fourth chapter of its Dogmatic Constitution on the Church Pastor Aeternus, solemnly promulgated by Pope Pius IX, the First Vatican Council in 1870 declared the following:

According to Catholic theology, this is an infallible dogmatic definition by an ecumenical council. The infallibility of the pope was thus formally defined in 1870, although the tradition behind this view goes back much further, as described above.

The Dogmatic Constitution Lumen Gentium of the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, that was also a document on the Church itself, explicitly reafirmed the definition of papal infalibility, so as to avoid any doubts, expressing this in the following words:

Because the 1870 definition is not seen by Catholics as a creation of the Church, but as the dogmatic revelation of a Truth about the Papal Magisterium, Papal teachings made prior to the 1870 proclamation can, if they meet the criteria set out in the dogmatic definition, be considered infallible. Ineffabilis Deus is an example of this.

A detailed analysis of the First Vatican Council, and how the passage of the infallibility dogma was orchestrated, is contained in the book by the Catholic priest August Bernhard Hasler: HOW THE POPE BECAME INFALLIBLE: Pius IX and the Politics of Persuasion, Doubleday (1981) [translation of WIE DER PAPST UNFEHLBAR WURDE: Macht und Ohnmacht eines Dogmas, R. Piper & Co. Verlag (1979)].

Instances of papal infallibility

Many non-Catholics, and even some Catholics, wrongly believe that the doctrine teaches that the Pope is infallible in everything he says. In fact, the use of papal infallibility is rare.

Catholic theologians agree that both Pope Pius IX's 1854 definition of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception of Mary, and Pope Pius XII's 1950 definition of the dogma of the Assumption of Mary are instances of papal infallibility, a fact which has been confirmed by the Church's magisterium [1]. However, theologians disagree about what other documents qualify.

Regarding historical papal documents, Catholic theologian and church historian Klaus Schatz made a thorough study, published in 1985, that identified the following list of ex cathedra documents (see Creative Fidelity: Weighing and Interpreting Documents of the Magisterium, by Francis A. Sullivan, chapter 6):

For modern-day Church documents, there is no need for speculation as to which are officially ex cathedra, because the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith can be consulted directly on this question. For example, after Pope John Paul II's apostolic letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis (On Reserving Priestly Ordination to Men Alone) was released in 1994, a few commentators speculated that this might be an exercise of papal infallibility (for an example, see [2]). In response to this confusion, the Church's magisterium has unambiguously stated, on at least three separate occasions [3] [4] [5], that Ordinatio Sacerdotalis was not an ex cathedra teaching, although the content of this letter has been taught infallibly by the ordinary and universal magisterium.

The Vatican itself has given no list of papal statements considered to be infallible. A 1998 commentary by Cardinal Ratzinger and Cardinal Bertone, the leaders of the CDF, listed a number of instances of infallible pronouncements by popes and by ecumenical councils, but explicitly stated that this was not meant to be a complete list.

The number of infallible pronouncements by ecumenical councils is significantly greater than the number of infallible pronouncements by popes.

Common Alleged Misconceptions About Papal Infallibility

If all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God then the Pope can not be infallible.

The Pope practices the sacrament of confession. Papal infallibility has nothing to do with the Pope's free will to sin.

If a teaching is already known about or taught by the Ordinary Magisterium, then it cannot be proclaimed ex cathedra.

The Vatican has indicated that ex cathedra teaching can eliminate doubt about existing teachings: "The reason for ex cathedra definitions is almost always to give this certification to the truths that are to be believed as belonging to the "deposit of faith" and to exclude all doubt..." [6]

Both the doctrines of the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption were well known before they were declared ex cathedra. The doctrine of papal infallibility itself is an excellent example. This doctrine was held by the ordinary magisterium long before it was taught definitively by the extraordinary magisterium:

"...the Vatican Council introduced no new doctrine when it defined the infallibility of the pope, but merely re-asserted what had been...and had even been explicitly more than one of the early ecumenical councils." [7]

A teaching is not ex cathedra until the Church states that it is or until there is a consensus among clergy and laity.

From Vatican I it is clear that an ex cathedra teaching requires absolutely no further confirmation or consent of others. The pope is the supreme authority. It may be that others don’t immediately recognize that a teaching is ex cathedra but this does not change the fact that it is ex cathedra. Vatican I: “…such definitions of the Roman pontiff are of themselves, and not in consequence of the Church's consent, irreformable."

“…This means that these definitions do not need the consent of the bishops in order to be valid,…” [8]

A current fallible Church teaching can be rejected because it contradicts a prior infallible teaching.

The Holy Spirit does more than merely ensure that infallible teachings are true. The Holy Spirit also works to ensure that infallible teachings will be accepted throughout the entire body of the Church. Thus, it is impossible for any current Church teaching, whether fallible or infallible, to contradict a prior infallible teaching, just as it is impossible for an infallible teaching to be wrong.

Lumen Gentium, paragraph 25, states (emphasis added):

And this infallibility with which the Divine Redeemer willed His Church to be endowed in defining doctrine of faith and morals, extends as far as the deposit of Revelation extends, which must be religiously guarded and faithfully expounded. And this is the infallibility which the Roman Pontiff, the head of the college of bishops, enjoys in virtue of his office, when, as the supreme shepherd and teacher of all the faithful, who confirms his brethren in their faith, by a definitive act he proclaims a doctrine of faith or morals. And therefore his definitions, of themselves, and not from the consent of the Church, are justly styled irreformable, since they are pronounced with the assistance of the Holy Spirit, promised to him in blessed Peter, and therefore they need no approval of others, nor do they allow an appeal to any other judgment. For then the Roman Pontiff is not pronouncing judgment as a private person, but as the supreme teacher of the universal Church, in whom the charism of infallibility of the Church itself is individually present, he is expounding or defending a doctrine of Catholic faith. The infallibility promised to the Church resides also in the body of Bishops, when that body exercises the supreme magisterium with the successor of Peter. To these definitions the assent of the Church can never be wanting, on account of the activity of that same Holy Spirit, by which the whole flock of Christ is preserved and progresses in unity of faith.

Disagreement with this doctrine

Dissenters within, and schismatics that break away from, the Roman Catholic Church

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, and thus a schism arose between them and the Church. Many of these Catholics formed independent communities in schism with Rome, which became known as the Old Catholic Churches.

A few present-day Catholics, including priests and bishops, 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 Roman Catholics are apparently unfamiliar with the significance or meaning of the doctrine. A recent (1989-1992) survey of Catholics from multiple countries (the USA, Austria, Canada, Ecuador, France, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Korea, Peru, Spain and Switzerland), aged 15 to 25 who may not yet fully understand the theology of infallibility, 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.)

Historical objections to the modern dogma of infallibility often appeal to the important work of Brian Tierney, Origins of Papal Infallibility 1150-1350 (Leiden, 1972). See also Ockham and Infallibility. The Rome-based Jesuit Wittgenstein scholar Garth Hallett argued that the dogma of infallibility was neither true nor false but meaningless; see his Darkness and Light: The Analysis of Doctrinal Statements (Paulist Press, 1975). In practice, he claims, the dogma seems to have no practical use and to have succumbed to the sense that it is irrelevant.

Orthodox churches

The views of the Eastern Orthodox Church concerning infallibility differ from those of the Roman Catholic Church. All Orthodox churches agree that the Holy Spirit will not allow the whole Church to fall into error, but leave open the question of how this will be ensured in any specific case. Most Greek Orthodox theologians agree that the first seven ecumenical councils were infallible, whereas Russian Orthodox theologians believe that the infallibility of these councils was derived from their reception by the Christian faithful. For details, see Infallibility of the Church.It is also said by Orthodox churches that if Peter can make a mistake, his successor can too.

Anglican churches

The Church of England and its sister churches in the Anglican Communion, having seceded from the Roman Church centuries ago, reject papal infallibility, 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.


John Wesley amended the Anglican Articles of Religion for use by Methodists, particularly those in America. The Methodist Articles omit the express provisions in the Anglican articles concerning the errors of the Church of Rome and the authority of councils, but retain Article V which implicitly pertains to the Roman Catholic idea of papal authority as capable of defining articles of faith:

V. Of the Sufficiency of the Holy Scriptures for Salvation. The Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation; so that whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man that it should be believed as an article of faith, or be thought requisite or necessary to salvation...

Reformed churches

Presbyterian and Reformed churches also reject papal infallibility. The Westminster Confession of Faith [9] 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.

See also


  • Bermejo, Luis. Infallibility on Trial: Church, Conciliarity and Communion, 1990 (ISBN 0-87061-190-9) [Imprimi potest by Julian Fernandes, Provincial of India]
  • Chirico, Peter. Infallibility: The Crossroads of Doctrine (ISBN 0-89453-296-0)
  • Gaillardetz, Richard. By What Authority?: A Primer on Scripture, the Magisterium, and the Sense of the Faithful (ISBN 0-8146-2872-9)
  • Hasler, Bernhard Hasler. HOW THE POPE BECAME INFALLIBLE: Pius IX and the Politics of Persuation, Doubleday (1981) [translation of WIE DER PAPST UNFEHLBAR WURDE: Macht und Ohnmacht eines Dogmas, R. Piper & Co. Verlag (1979)].
  • Küng, Hans. Infallible?: An inquiry (ISBN 0-385-18483-2)
  • Lio, Ermenegildo. Humanae vitae e infallibilità: Paolo VI, il Concilio e Giovanni Paolo II (Teologia e filosofia) (ISBN 88-209-1528-6)
  • McClory, Robert. Power and the Papacy: The People and Politics Behind the Doctrine of Infallibility (ISBN 0-7648-0141-4)
  • O'Connor, James. The Gift of Infallibility: The Official Relatio on Infallibility of Bishop Vincent Gasser at Vatican Council I (ISBN 0-8198-3042-9 cloth, ISBN 0-8198-3041-0 paper)
  • Sullivan, Francis. Creative Fidelity: Weighing and Interpreting Documents of the Magisterium (ISBN 1-59244-208-0)
  • Sullivan, Francis. The Magisterium: Teaching Authority in the Catholic Church (ISBN 1-59244-060-6)
  • Tierney, Brian. Origins of Papal Infallibility, 1150-1350: A Study on the Concepts of Infallibility, Sovereignty and Tradition in the Middle Ages (ISBN 90-04-08884-9)

External links