Much like Purgatory, the doctrine of papal infallibility is one of the most misunderstood and scrutinized teachings of the Catholic Church. Misconceptions abound that papal infallibility means the pope is never wrong, or even that the pope is incapable of sin when confused with the concept of impeccability. However, even the Vicar of Christ is just a man and capable of being wrong and sinning just like anyone else. If that’s the case, what exactly is papal infallibility?

What does papal infallibility mean?

Infallibility does not mean free from sin, nor is it a special charism limited only to the Supreme Pontiff. Infallibility also belongs to the entire College of Bishops when they proclaim a teaching, in doctrinal unity with the Pope as Bishop of Rome, proclaim a teaching to be true (e.g. when gathered together in an ecumenical council).

Infallibility refers to the theological concept that the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church is not only free from error, but also free from the possibility of error when clearly defining a matter of faith or morals. The implicit doctrine was first explained by the First Vatican Council in 1870:

“When the Roman Pontiff speaks ex cathedra, that is, when in exercising his office as shepherd and teacher of all Christians he defines with his supreme apostolic authority that a doctrine on faith and morals is to be held by the whole Church, through the divine assistance promised him in the person of Saint Peter, he enjoys that infallibility with which the divine Redeemer wished to endow his Church in defining a doctrine on faith and morals.” – Vatican Council I: DS 3074

The Second Vatican Council also took on the matter of infallibility, confirming and further explaining the doctrine. The Catechism, promulgated in 1992, succinctly defined the doctrine following its further explanation at Vatican II.

“The Roman Pontiff, head of the college of bishops, enjoys this infallibility in virtue of his office, when, as supreme pastor and teacher of all the faithful – who confirms his brethren in the faith he proclaims by a definitive act a doctrine pertaining to faith or morals. The infallibility promised to the Church is also present in the body of bishops when, together with Peter’s successor, they exercise the supreme Magisterium, above all in an Ecumenical Council. … This infallibility extends as far as the deposit of divine Revelation itself.” – CCC 891

When is the pope infallible?

From the doctrinal definitions above, its clear that the pope nor the College of Bishops aren’t always making infallible proclamations. For a doctrine to be declared infallible, specific conditions must be met, and it is often rare they are. In 2005, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI commented that “the pope is not an oracle; he is infallible in very rare situations, as we know.”

For a papal teaching to be infallible, the requirements are: to be the Roman Pontiff, speak extraordinarily via ex cathedra (with full authority of his office as shepherd and teacher of all Christians, and by virtue of his supreme apostolic authority), and define a doctrine that concerns faith and morals to be held the whole Church. For an ecumenical council teaching to be considered infallible, it must be a decision by the whole College of Bishops in alignment with the Bishop of Rome that concerns faith or morals, and bind the universal Church as something to be held immutably.

Speaking ex cathedra is apart of the extraordinary magisterium and has only been theologically recognized twice in the entire history of the Church. The first was Pope Pius IX’s 1854 dogmatic definition on the Immaculate Conception in his Apostolic constitution Ineffabilis Deus. The second was Pope Pius XII’s 1950 dogmatic definition on the Assumption of Mary in his Apostolic constitution Munificentissimus Deus.

While papal ex cathedra doctrine proclamations as part of the extraordinary magisterium have only been theologically recognized twice, that does not mean only two teachings of the Church are infallible. Ecumenical councils have also defined doctrine infallibly. For one example, the Council of Chalcedon in 451 defined infallibly the two Natures of Christ. Additionally, the ordinary and universal magisterium is also considered infallible as it does not proclaim new teachings, but instead explains one that is ubique, semper et ab omnibus – Latin for everywhere, always, and by all.

Where does the infallibility derive its basis?

While infallibility was first explicitly defined at the First Vatican Council, it was an implicit belief held since the earliest beginnings of the Church and never questioned until the Protestant Revolt. Only our understanding of infallibility has developed and been more clearly understood over time.

Infallibility has a clear basis in Sacred Scripture, with many verses clearly laying out the concept from Christ himself through instilling special authority in Peter as the leader of His Church on Earth. A selection of verses is listed below:

“Whoever listens to you listens to me. Whoever rejects you rejects me. And whoever rejects me rejects the one who sent me.” – Luke 10:16

“Amen, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” – Matthew 18:18

“I have prayed that your own faith may not fail; and once you have turned back, you must strengthen your brothers” – Luke 22:32

“He said to him, ‘Feed my lambs.’ …  He said to him, ‘Tend my sheep.’ … ‘Feed my sheep.'” – John 21:15-17

Infallibility also has a clear basis in Sacred Tradition. From the earliest days of the Church the Bishop of Rome acted with special authority in succession from Saint Peter, and the rest of the Church accepted that authority as genuine. The first example of such authority was exercised by Pope Saint Clement I in his First Epistle to the Corinthians. In it, he asserted the authority of presbyters as rulers of the Church in Corinth on the grounds that the Apostles has been appointed as such.

If you want to read more, a transcript of the March 17th, 1993 general audience by Pope Saint John Paul II in which he speaks on and supports papal infallibility is available here.

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  1. Papal Infallibility is a vast stretch from Matthew 16:18, especially in the context of Matthew 16:15-19. The problem with the Immaculate Conception dogma is that it is absolutely not accepted by the Orthodox, for good reasons. This has set up an obstacle against ecumenism.

  2. I think it is simpler than the article expresses.

    Position: Pope of all the Faithful (not just Bishop of Rome being the Bishop of diocesan Romans).
    Definitive Act: A formal document from the Pope as the Pope which includes teachings or decisions intended for all of the Faithful to accept, from the Pope.
    Content: What is to be believed and/or what action is / is not moral.

    What theologians have recognized can be a guide but is not as reliable (since that can be political and theologians do not really know the hearts of the Popes past or present); it is wrong to take a generalization from Pope E Benedict XVI and make it generally redefine what is and is not an infallible teaching from the Popes since, he also does not know the hearts of Popes past and present except for himself. What matters is what the Popes have taught and what the Pope, as the Pope, teaches the Faithful in matters of faith and morals.

    • Which leaves open the question of what the Roman church has taught since 1054 which is not and was never taught by the Orthodox. This now includes Original Sin, Purgatory, the Immaculate Conception, use of statues, unleavened bread, communion under one kind, transubstantiation and the timing of the appearance of the Real Presence, liturgical practices, the formulae used for Baptism and Confession, the calender, the canon of saints, post-schism feasts and devotions – on top of the underlying differences in ecclesiology, appointment of bishops, etc.

      Rome has been doing its own thing for a millennium without reference to the wider body of Christ.
      When one compares contemporary liturgies at an average Orthodox church and a typical Catholic one, the question that immediately arises is “Who has lost the plot?”

  3. So thankful to the LORD God for giving us His Word ( Holy Bible ) to be the final judge in all matters concerning what we should believe in matters of faith and practice. We are taught never to trust the teaching of any man, Pope included, unless it can be deduced from scripture. The scripture is silent on such teachings as the immaculate conception etc. Its a dangerous thing to insist that people believe anything that can’t be proven by His word alone, the heart of every man is decitful and desperately wicked (Jeremiah 17:9. See also Isaiah 8:20. Regards, Roni

    • So thankful to our Father, Lord Jesus Christ and Holy Spirit for the divine intervention to the Bishops (Catholic Church) who assembled the Bible for us. We can thank the Catholic Church for the Bible because they formed it. Peter was the first Pope instructed by our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ to lead His Church. Jesus said to Peter “upon you I will build My Church”, “not Churches”. With so many denominations and beliefs, which belief is the truth? Who is right? who misinterprets? who was misled? That is why there has to be a Supreme Pontiff and the college of Bishops to help guide God’s children, “one truth”. If not, one might interpret the Bible any way one chooses and sometimes in a way that will help benefit oneself individually rather than spiritually. The Catholic Church doesn’t insist someone believe something, it only tries to help increase one’s faith and guide them as instructed by Jesus. This originated when Jesus commanded the Apostles to do it and they have been passing this tradition down since His Glorious Resurrection. My prayers go out to you. Please pray for me as well.

  4. Actually there has been THREE times that the papal ex cathedra doctrine proclamations as part of the extraordinary magisterium have been used! The third time was by Pope John Paul II when he proclaimed that priesthood is reserved to men only.


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