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Papal Infallibility

Vatican View Section

Papal Insignia

Papal Infallibility

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What is Papal Infallibility?

Why is Infallibility Necessary?

Is Infallibility Scriptural?

What Are Some Limits of Infallibility?

Has Infallibility Ever Failed?

Also See...


What is Papal Infallibility?

Papal infallibility refers to the pope's protection from error when speaking "ex cathedra". As proclaimed by the First Vatican Council (emphasis added):

"But since in this very age, in which the salutary efficacy of the apostolic duty is especially required, not a few are found who disparage its authority, We deem it most necessary to assert solemnly the prerogative which the Only-begotten Son of God deigned to enjoin with the highest pastoral office. And so We, adhering faithfully to the tradition received from the beginning of the Christian faith, to the glory of God, our Savior, the elevation of the Catholic religion and the salvation of Christian peoples, with the approbation of the sacred Council, teach and explain that the dogma has been divinely revealed: that the Roman Pontiff, when he speaks ex cathedra, that is, when carrying out the office of pastor and teacher of all Christians, by virtue of his supreme apostolic authority he defines a doctrine regarding faith or morals to be held by the universal Church, through the divine assistance promised him in blessed Peter, possesses that infallibility with which the divine Redeemer willed that His Church be endowed for defining doctrine regarding faith and morals; and so such definitions of the Roman Pontiff of themselves, and not from the consensus of the Church, are irreformable. But if anyone presumes to contradict this definition of Ours, which may God forbid: let him be anathema." (Vatican Council I, 1870 A.D.)

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Why is Infallibility Necessary?  

If not for papal infallibility, there would be no certainty in matters of faith - all we would have is our fallible private judgment - and it is abundantly clear from the many clashing Protestant sects what a poor guide this is. If not for papal infallibility, we would have no means of knowing what is true and what is not. We could have no finality of doctrine and each person would be left to believe whatever he or she "felt" was right. As a result, there would be error, disunity, rejection of truths, adoption of errors, etc. We wouldn't even have a Bible since there would be no infallible authority to determine the canon of Scripture. We could never be sure that our beliefs corresponded with truth, and we could never be sure we were on the true path leading to salvation.

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Is Infallibility Scriptural?

Besides being solemnly proclaimed by the First Vatican Council and being consistently maintained by tradition, the dogma of papal infallibility has a biblical basis. For example, In Matthew 16:18, we are told that "the gates of hell shall not prevail" against the Church. Clearly, the One who is Truth itself must have secured a means to preserve truth in His Church against the gates of hell and against the prince of lies. We are also told in Matthew 28:20 that Christ will be "with you always, until the end of the age". How could this be if the Church was teaching error? And, how could the Church be "the pillar and foundation of truth" (1 Tm. 3:15) if she taught error? And furthermore, the protection of the Holy Spirit is clearly promised in Scripture: "And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate to be with you always, the Spirit of truth, which the world cannot accept, because it neither sees nor knows it. But you know it, because it remains with you, and will be in you." (Jn. 14:16-17) It is clear from Scripture that Christ's Church will be protected from error; and history proves that papal infallibility - and Christ's promises - have never failed.

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What Are Some Limits of Infallibility?

Papal infallibility is a "negative assurance" that protects against formally teaching false doctrine. It does not mean that all utterances of the pope are infallible or that everything a pope says or does is free from error and good for the Church. It also does not mean that a pope is free from sin. Infallibility does not extend to the pope as an individual, but resides in his office as Supreme Pastor.

Papal infallibility is limited in scope and does NOT...

* extend to anything prior to one's being elected pope

* prevent a pope from sinning

* extend to every doctrinal matter (it is limited to instances "when carrying out the office of pastor and teacher of all Christians, by virtue of his supreme apostolic authority [the Pope] defines a doctrine regarding faith or morals to be held by the universal Church")

* mean a pope is impeccable (or sinless / faultless)

* extend to every decree issued by a pope

* extend to everything a pope says

* extend to every regulation issued by the Church

* extend to merely pastoral matters

* extend to a pope's actions

* mean all popes are good

* extend to all disciplinary measures, judgments, legal rulings, etc.

* mean a pope is doctrinally perfect

* mean that a pope can create new dogma

* apply to a pope's private decisions or teachings

* mean all pastoral decisions are good or prudent

* extend to others who act in the pope's name

* extend absolutely to a bishop or a council ("bishops may enjoy infallibility of teaching only in certain matters, and only when exercised in union with the pope")

* apply when the pope is not intending to bind the entire Church

* mean that popes will never contradict each other (they may never contradict only in infallible matters when each is speaking ex cathedra)

* apply in areas that are not protected by infallibility (e.g. pastoral matters)

* assure that a pope is holy

* insure that a pope cannot err

* transfer to others (although each succeeding pope will be invested with papal infallibility)

* mean that a pope is infallible in all matters (disciplinary, etc.)

* mean that a pope does not personally hold erroneous views (even in matters of faith or morals)

* etc.

It should also be noted that the pope very rarely speaks infallibly and that infallibility is limited to certain doctrinal matters. Merely pastoral matters - including certain liturgical decisions - are changeable [in contrast with doctrinal matters (which are unchangeable)] and are not subject to infallibility. Pastoral decisions of a pope may be erroneous, and may not be good for the Church. Infallibility may be exercised only under certain conditions and in connection with certain matters (i.e. "when carrying out the office of pastor and teacher of all Christians, by virtue of his supreme apostolic authority he defines a doctrine regarding faith or morals to be held by the universal Church, through the divine assistance promised him in blessed Peter").

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Has Infallibility Ever Failed?

No ex-cathedra definition of a pope has ever been found to be erroneous. Although it is said that more than 40 popes have preached doctrinal error, none were speaking "ex cathedra". In other words, some popes have personally taught error, but these errors were not taught in an infallible manner, binding the entire Church. These errors of popes were carefully examined by the First Vatican Council which defined the dogma of papal infallibility, and none of them were found to violate the dogma of infallibility.

As indicated above, not everything said or believed or taught by a pope (or bishop/councils) is infallible. Some popes have held erroneous views, some have taught error (though not "ex cathedra"), and some have behaved scandalously. 

In fact, the history of the Church shows possible papal participation (or culpability) in:

* wrongful excommunications

* violations of treaties

* imprudent decisions

* poor administration

* failure to condemn heresy

* bad / scandalous decisions

* siding with / defending heretics

* scandals

* etc.

Additionally, popes may have:

* approved of ambiguous creeds 

* buckled under persecution

* engaged in secret arrangements

* ordered homicides / torture

* been guilty of simony & nepotism

* reversed / contradicted actions of predecessors (or their own)

* held erroneous views 

* etc.

 

Popes have shown weakness, made inappropriate concessions, made decisions under pressure, etc. One pope was condemned as a heretic. Another exhumed a dead pope and put his body on trial. One approved a five year old as bishop. Some periods saw the papacy controlled by powerful families. Other periods suffered from multiple claimants to the throne.

 

Despite all of this, however, papal infallibility - and Christ's promise - have never failed the Church. Even certain events in the history of the Church that are considered "close calls" for infallibility have still stopped short of breaching this doctrine. For example, the pope who was declared heretical never taught error "ex cathedra", the ambiguous creed signed by a pope could be taken in an orthodox manner, one pope died before approving a faulty translation of the Bible, and other popes who held doctrinal errors never taught them infallibility. In fact, it is a testament to Christ's promise and proof of the dogma of infallibility that despite faulty and sinful popes, the Church's doctrine has been preserved unsullied for about two thousand years. 

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Also See...

Vatican View: Facts

Vatican View: Q & A

Infallibility (Topic Page)

Infallibility (Reflections)


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Also See...

* The Pope (Topic Page)

* Infallibility (Topic Page)

* Catholic History (Topic Page)

* St. Peter (Topic Page)

* Rome (Topic Page)

* Election of a Pope/Conclave (Topic Page)

* Papal Documents (Classic Encyclicals)

 

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