Papal infallibility: What it is and what it isn’t

In this post, I would like to try and outline, as simply as possible, what papal infallibility does and doesn’t mean – what it is, and what it isn’t. I am not sure how successful my endeavours will be, as I have seen some incredibly persuasive, clear and succinct presentations of this doctrine put forward by others in the past, only for them still to be misconstrued. Anyway, I shall try to explain it as best as I can here, and I welcome any clarifications or critiques. I will also add that it is not my intention to put forward arguments for the primacy of the pope, but merely to try and explain this particular doctrine. Proofs, either scriptural or historical, are not on today’s menu.

What papal infallibility isn’t

I thought it best to begin by clearing the ground so to speak, in addressing some common misconceptions about papal infallibility. First amongst these is the idea that anything the pope says is to be taken as an infallible statement – this is sometimes (rare but it does happen) as silly as the perception that he can infallibly predict the weather, more often the case that any proclamation he makes on faith and morals is infallible. Neither of these is the case – his infallibility is limited to an adherence to the following criteria:

  1. The pope must be speaking ex cathedra (‘from the chair’), i.e.; when he is officially exercising his office as pastor and teacher of all Christians, by virtue of the apostolic authority he holds as the successor of Saint Peter.
  2. He must be clearly teaching, without any confusion that this is the case, that the doctrine being taught is to be held by the whole Church.
  3. The doctrine being taught must be concerning faith and morals.

So, for a papal pronouncement to be infallible, the pope must be unmistakably acting in the above capacity, and making clear that this is something that must be believed by all. Thus papal encyclicals, apostolic letters and such like, although they should be taken seriously by the faithful, do not meet these criteria and so are not to be seen as infallible statements. Furthermore, the teaching is limited to the area of faith and morals – for example, if the pope issues an authoritative statement on economics or politics that meet the other two criteria (highly unlikely though this is), infallibility should not be attributed to it.

Another common misconception regarding papal infallibility, and perhaps a more serious one, is its conflation with impeccability – an absence of sin. Thus it is often argued that the immoral lifestyle of some popes, or their engagement in military action, renders any claim to infallibility null and void. This is not the case – as outlined above, infallibility is limited to the teachings restricted by certain, very limited criteria, and, more importantly here, is attributed to the office of the papacy, not the person of the particular pope incumbent in that office.

It is one of the four marks of the Church to be Holy, but this is not to say that each and every member of the Church is without sin – instead it is a reminder that Christ has joined the Church to Himself and given her the gift of the Holy Spirit to provide the means of sanctification and guidance into truth. Similarly, the promises given to Saint Peter (c.f. Matthew 16:16ff) are a gift to the Church to guide and preserve her in the midst of changing times and cultures, not a guarantee that each of Peter’s successors would be sinless. After all, Saint Peter himself had many failings, which Jesus surely knew about, yet He still bestowed upon him a special authority (again, this is something I am assuming for the purposes of this post – I am not arguing for it here.)

What papal infallibility is

I have discussed much of what papal infallibility really means above, in trying to clarify what it is not, but there is one more aspect of this doctrine that I feel needs to be emphasised – that infallibility is a gift given to the whole Church, and the special charism reserved for the pope is but a particular, though important, manifestation of this. It is easy to misrepresent the idea that the whole Church is in some way infallible, so I shall try and avoid any confusion by using the clear words of the Catechism as a summary:

In order to preserve the Church in the purity of the faith handed on by the apostles, Christ who is the Truth willed to confer on her a share in his own infallibility. By a “supernatural sense of faith” the People of God, under the guidance of the Church’s living Magisterium, “unfailingly adheres to this faith”…

…It is this Magisterium’s task to preserve God’s people from deviations and defections and to guarantee them the objective possibility of professing the true faith without error. Thus, the pastoral duty of the Magisterium is aimed at seeing to it that the People of God abides in the truth that liberates.

(Catechism of the Catholic Church: 889 – 890)

            What is being described here is the sensus fidei (‘sense of the faith’) – a recognition of and adherence to the divinely revealed truths of the Catholic faith by all within the Church, lay and clerical. This is not simply to be identified with prevailing opinion, and depends absolutely on a proper dynamic relationship between the Magisterium, which plants the seeds of doctrine, and the rest of the Church, which nurtures those seeds and helps them to grow. This relationship can also work in the reverse direction, where the Magisterium recognises a particular devotion or concept beloved and preserved by the faithful, and gives it official status as infallible teaching – an example of this would be the dogma of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary in 1854.

The Catechism continues to explain (891) that infallibility is thus also extended to Ecumenical Councils, when the whole college of bishops, together with Peter’s successor, propose a doctrine as being infallible:

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. When the Church through her supreme Magisterium proposes a doctrine “for belief as being divinely revealed”, and as the teaching of Christ, the definitions “must be adhered to with the obedience of faith.”

That the bishops are in union with the pope when proposing a particular teaching in such a manner is an important point, as the office of the papacy also acts as a symbol of unity in the Church – because the pope enjoys a primacy amongst the college of bishops, he is thereby able to strengthen his brethren (c.f.; Luke 22:32) in their decisions and provide a voice of final decision, should an impasse or any dissension emerge between the bishops, and in so doing preserve unity amongst them. But the main point here is that infallible doctrine is not limited to ex cathedra pronouncements.

I cannot think of anything else central to papal infallibility and this is as clear and comprehensive a presentation of the doctrine that I could muster. Anyway, I hope that I haven’t left anything out, or misrepresented the teaching of the Church in any way – as I said, if I have done either of these things, I would welcome any critiques offered.

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