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.