Papal Infallibility

Definition of Terms:

  • Impeccability: the quality or state of being incapable of sinning or making moral mistakes. It suggests moral perfection or the absence of any wrongdoing.
  • Inspiration:  the belief that the Holy Spirit guides and influences individuals to receive insights, understanding, and guidance from God enabling them to grasp and communicate spiritual truths and carry out God’s will.

    Inspiration is not limited to specific individuals, such as the authors of Sacred Scripture, but can manifest through various means, including prayer, theological teachings, the sacraments, and the guidance of the Church’s Magisterium.

  • Revelation: the divine communication or disclosure of truth by God to humanity, encompassing both Sacred Scripture (the Bible) and Sacred Tradition, which complement each other, forming a unified and authoritative source of divine revelation. The Catholic Church, through its Magisterium (the teaching authority of the Church, consisting of the Pope and bishops in communion with him), is entrusted with the task of preserving and interpreting this revelation for the faithful.

  • Infallibility:  the belief that under certain specific conditions, the Pope, as the successor of Saint Peter, is preserved from error when defining matters of faith and morals for the entire Church. Infallibility is considered a charism or gift of the Holy Spirit, bestowed upon the Pope when he speaks ex cathedra, meaning “from the chair” of Peter, in his capacity as the supreme teacher and shepherd of the Church. Infallible declarations are limited to matters of faith and morals that are binding on all believers. The Pope must express his intention to make an infallible pronouncement, and the content of the declaration must be consistent with the existing deposit of faith.

    The doctrine of infallibility does not imply that the Pope is personally without sin or incapable of making mistakes in other areas of his life.  It also does not imply Divine inspiration or Revelation, but only the protection from error when further defining or clarifying already revealed truths.

The doctrine of Papal Infallibility is often misconstrued by both Catholics and non-Catholics. It’s important to understand that infallibility is distinct from revelation and inspiration. While revelation and inspiration involve the unveiling of new truths to the Church, infallibility serves as a safeguard against error when further defining or clarifying truths that have already been revealed by God.  Neither should Infallibility be confused with impeccability, as it does not imply that Popes or clergy are without sin or morally flawless in their personal lives. It also does not guarantee that a Pope will possess a perfect understanding of orthodoxy or refrain from personally endorsing erroneous teachings. Additionally, infallibility does not ensure prudence in a Pope’s decisions, disciplinary actions, or unofficial comments on matters of faith and morals. Private theological opinions held by a Pope are not considered infallible; only solemnly defined teachings are regarded as such, and even then, further clarification may be required. The first six Ecumenical Councils provide a prime example of this process in their efforts to define Christ’s divinity and personhood.

In other words, the Pope and the Church do not possess omniscience, but by the will of God, the Church is safeguarded from error, allowing her to faithfully transmit the teachings of the apostles. The infallibility of a papal pronouncement arises only when it is made “ex cathedra” or “from the chair” of Peter. For a declaration to be considered infallible, the Pope must intend to speak with his full authority as the supreme teacher on matters of faith and morals. Such declarations are typically made in response to challenges to established doctrines.

The underlying principle of this doctrine is not only theologically sound, but when carefully considered, is a theological necessity; Christ established His Church as a visible society, with the intention of it being one, universal body characterized by unity in faith, governance, and worship. To ensure this unity, He granted the Apostles and their successors the authority to teach, govern, and administer the sacraments and liturgy. This authority necessitates the Church’s infallibility in her objective and definitive teachings concerning faith and morals, while acknowledging that individual believers are not infallible in their subjective interpretations of these teachings.  Historically, it is evident that bishops have held differing interpretations of Scripture, Tradition, and even previously defined doctrines. To maintain unity, Christ foresaw the need for a final authority in matters of theology. Thus, He instituted the Successor of Peter as the head of the Magisterium to ensure the integrity and accuracy of Church doctrine, providing a unifying and authoritative voice in matters of faith and morals.

The authority and discernment required to establish the canon of the Bible, a foundational aspect of Christianity, is sometimes overlooked by believers. It is important to recognize that the Bible owes its existence to the infallible Church, which provided guidance in determining which books should be included. Without the presence of an infallible Church, Christians would lack certainty regarding the inspiration of each book and the completeness of their collection. The Bible itself contains verses that suggest the existence of a Church entrusted with the authority to infallibly teach the revealed truth of Christ.  In Matthew 28:18-20 and Mark 16:15-16, Jesus gives a solemn commission to the Apostles, bestowing upon them the authority to teach and baptize all nations. Jesus instructed his apostles to preach everything he taught (Matt. 28:19–20) and promised them the protection of the Holy Spirit to “guide you into all the truth” (John 16:13), implying a greater understanding over time. Paul calls the Church the “pillar and bulwark of the truth” (1 Tim. 3:15). This description supports the understanding that the Church is infallible since it would be misleading to apply such a description to a fallible institution.

In addition, Jesus prays that his disciples, the Church, “be one,” as he and the other Father “are one” (John 17:20–23). Unity is only possible if there is a recognized authority to make definitive proclamations on the faith. Hebrews 13:7 and 17 calls us to obey this authority. Just as authority is necessary for maintaining the unity of faith, Infallibility is necessary for upholding the truths essential to Christianity. Without it, there would be no finality to controversy within the Church.  The history of heresies and Protestant sects demonstrates the need for an infallible authority capable of decisively pronouncing judgments regarding doctrines like the Trinity and Incarnation.

The ultimate promise of the Church’s infallibility is fulfilled in Matthew 16:18, where Christ promises that the gates of hell will not prevail against it. This promise denies the possibility of the Church erring in its dogmatic definitions. In addition, when Matthew 16:18-19 is read in view of Isaiah 22:21-23, it indicates that Peter and his successors would be the visible head of the Church with the power to make infallible pronouncements on matters of faith and morals. In Luke 22:31-32, Jesus tells Peter, “Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned again, strengthen your brothers” implying Peter’s privileged position. At the Council of Jerusalem, the Apostles claimed to speak in the name and with the authority of the Holy Spirit, making apparent their confidence in an infallible Divine guidance in their declarations.

Although the development and formal definition of papal infallibility as a doctrine took place over centuries, culminating in the First Vatican Council in 1870, the historical evidence and interpretations of the early Church and the Church Fathers contribute to the theological foundation upon which this doctrine was later established. During the early centuries, although there was no explicit discussion of ecclesiastical infallibility, the Church operated on the assumption of its infallibility in matters of doctrine. The orthodox teachers of that time firmly believed in the Church’s infallibility, while those who contradicted its teaching were regarded as representatives of Antichrist and were excommunicated.

Prominent figures like St. Ignatius of Antioch and St. Polycarp displayed intolerance toward error and firmly believed in the divine guidance of the episcopal body, which implies infallibility. St. Irenaeus argued against the Gnostics, relying on the principle of a living ecclesiastical authority, for which he virtually claimed infallibility. Tertullian ridiculed the idea that the universal teaching of the Church could be wrong, emphasizing the role of the Holy Spirit as the teacher of truth. St. Cyprian compared the Church to an incorruptible virgin, highlighting its integrity.

A Note on Papal Corruption:

Accusations of corruption in the Church is nothing new nor denied. However, it’s important to consider the historical context in which the papacy has operated. The Church has faced numerous challenges throughout its history, and it is unfair to judge the actions of past popes solely through a modern lens. While some popes may have faced accusations of corruption, others have been recognized for their virtues, personal holiness, and commitment to the Gospel. Many of the popes in the early centuries died as martyrs for the faith. It is important to acknowledge the contributions of those popes who have strived to lead the Church with integrity.

Although periods of widespread corruption have been known in the Church, corruption itself is something that has been present within the Church since it’s inception, even amongst the Apostles. Most of Paul’s letters were written in response to corruption within the church. The Catholic Church has undergone significant reforms throughout history to address issues of corruption and abuse. Reforms such as the Council of Trent and the Second Vatican Council demonstrate the Church’s commitment to addressing internal problems.

In fact, the Catholic Church’s enduring presence for over two millennia can be seen as a testament to its ability to withstand and overcome challenges. In that time, the Catholic Church has made significant contributions to society in areas such as art, music, philosophy, and social justice. Despite accusations of corruption, the Catholic Church has a long history of engaging in charitable activities, such as providing education, healthcare, and relief to those in need. The Catholic Church is currently the largest charitable organization in the world, bar none. No other organization even comes close, or even has the man power to possibly match what the Church has been able to accomplish.

While the papacy represents the highest authority in the Church, it is crucial to recognize that individual popes are fallible human beings. There is no doubt that certain behavior is inexcusable and, in some cases, downright contemptuous, but the Church has established various structures and processes to hold clergy accountable, including the establishment of tribunals and the implementation of stricter guidelines for the handling of misconduct allegations. Reform is a constant endeavor.

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Bible Verses:

Matthew 28:18-20 (NRSVCE):

“And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.'”

Mark 16:15-16 (NRSVCE):
“And Jesus said to them, ‘Go into all the world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation. The one who believes and is baptized will be saved; but the one who does not believe will be condemned.'”

John 16:13 (NRSVCE):
“When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come.”

1 Timothy 3:15 (NRSVCE):
“If I am delayed, you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and bulwark of the truth.”

John 17:20-23 (NRSVCE):
“I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.”

Hebrews 13:7 (NRSVCE):
“Remember your leaders, those who spoke the word of God to you; consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith.”

Hebrews 13:17 (NRSVCE):
“Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls and will give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with sighing—for that would be harmful to you.”

Matthew 16:18-19 (NRSVCE):
“And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”

Isaiah 22:21-23 (NRSVCE):
“I will clothe him with your robe, and bind your sash on him. I will commit your authority to his hand, and he shall be a father to the inhabitants of Jerusalem and to the house of Judah. I will place on his shoulder the key of the house of David; he shall open, and no one shall shut; he shall shut, and no one shall open. I will fasten him like a peg in a secure place, and he will become a throne of honor to his ancestral house.”

Luke 22:31-32 (NRSVCE):
“Simon, Simon, listen! Satan has demanded to sift all of you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your own faith may not fail; and you, when once you have turned back, strengthen your brothers.”

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Church Father Quotes:

Ignatius of Antioch
“Wherever the bishop appears, let the people be there; just as wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church” (Letter to the Smyrnaeans, 8, 1 [A.D. 110]).

Irenaeus of Lyons
With that church, because of its superior origin, all the churches must agree, that is, all the faithful in the whole world, and it is in her that the faithful everywhere have maintained the apostolic tradition ((Against Heresies 3:3:2 [A.D. 189]).

“But since it would be too long to enumerate in such a volume as this the succession of all the churches, we shall confound all those who, in whatever manner, whether through self-satisfaction or vainglory, or through blindness and wicked opinion, assemble other than where it is proper, by pointing out here the successions of the bishops of the greatest and most ancient church known to all, founded and organized at Rome by the two most glorious apostles, Peter and Paul, that church which has the tradition and the faith which comes down to us after having been announced to men by the apostles. With that church, because of its superior origin, all the churches must agree, that is, all the faithful in the whole world, and it is in her that the faithful everywhere have maintained the apostolic tradition” (Against Heresies 3:3:2 [A.D. 189]).

Cyprian of Carthage
If someone does not hold fast to this unity of Peter, can he imagine that he still holds the faith? If he [should] desert the chair of Peter upon whom the Church was built, can he still be confident that he is in the Church? (The Unity of the Catholic Church 4; 1st edition [A.D. 251]).

Augustine of Hippo
“Rome has spoken; the case is concluded” (Sermons 131, 10).

Pope Sixtus III
“all know that to assent to [the Bishop of Rome’s] decision is to assent to St. Peter, who lives in his successors and whose faith fails not.” (Pope Sixtus III, 433 A.D.)

Pope Hormisdas
The first condition of salvation is to keep the norm of the true faith and in no way to deviate from the established doctrine of the Fathers. For it is impossible that the words of Our Lord Jesus Christ who said, “Thou are Peter and upon this rock I will build my Church” (Matt. 16:18), should not be verified. And their truth has been proven by the course of history, for in the apostolic see [Rome] the Catholic religion has always been kept unsullied (Eno, The Rise of the Papacy, 131).

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Non-Catholic Quotes:

Fr. Alexander Schmemann, an Eastern Orthodox theologian
“Even more characteristic of this eternal compromise with Rome was the signing of the formula of Pope Hormisdas by the Eastern bishops in 519, ending the thirty-year schism between Rome and Constantinople. The whole essence of the papal claims cannot be more clearly expressed than in this document, which was imposed upon the Eastern bishops” (Historical Road of Eastern Orthodoxy, 241).

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