Exploring Doctrine: Papal Infallibility

There are some protestant-minded Anglicans who are showing an excessive interest in the practical details of the implementation of Anglicanorum coetibus.  In fact, a few seem to have gone off the deep end in an effort to describe the chamber of horrors waiting for those unsuspecting individuals who plan to enter an Ordinariate, broadcasting warnings that people will be having to convert and submit and believe all sorts of abhorrent things.

Amongst the Catholic doctrines most troublesome to many Protestants (and many Orthodox, too) is that of papal infallibility.  Perhaps it conjures up visions of flabella and the sedia gestatoria, or a not-so-subtle Vatican form of mind control, or even an abuse of our valued freedom of conscience.

Actually, it’s a rather straightforward sign of God’s love for His Church.

First of all, papal infallibility is not to be confused with impeccability.  Most people understand this, but there are some who think Catholics are supposed to believe that the Pope cannot sin.  Infallibility has nothing to do with the absence of sin.  It’s a charism – a gift – which God imparts.  Although it is rightly referred to as “papal infallibility," nonetheless it is something shared with the whole body of Catholic bishops.  Although they do not have this charism individually, they do exercise the gift when they teach in doctrinal unity with the Successor of St. Peter.  This is defined in Lumen Gentium, n. 25:

Although the individual bishops do not enjoy the prerogative of infallibility, they can nevertheless proclaim Christ’s doctrine infallibly. This is so, even when they are dispersed around the world, provided that while maintaining the bond of unity among themselves and with Peter’s successor, and while teaching authentically on a matter of faith or morals, they concur in a single viewpoint as the one which must be held conclusively. This authority is even more clearly verified when, gathered together in an ecumenical council, they are teachers and judges of faith and morals for the universal Church. Their definitions must then be adhered to with the submission of faith.

Despite the myths held by some, the Pope doesn’t wake up in the morning and think to himself, “I think I shall proclaim something infallibly today,” nor are Catholics inhabitants of an ecclesiastical Wonderland in which they are required to believe “six impossible things before breakfast.”

So what is papal infallibility?  It is defined in the First Dogmatic Constitution on the Church of Christ, Pastor Aeternus, Chapter 4, n. 9:

Therefore, faithfully adhering to the tradition received from the beginning of the Christian faith, to the glory of God our savior, for the exaltation of the Catholic religion and for the salvation of the Christian people, with the approval of the Sacred Council, we teach and define as a divinely revealed dogma that when the Roman Pontiff speaks EX CATHEDRA, that is, when, in the exercise of his office as shepherd and teacher of all Christians, in virtue of his supreme apostolic authority, he defines a doctrine concerning faith or morals to be held by the whole Church, he possesses, by the divine assistance promised to him in blessed Peter, that infallibility which the divine Redeemer willed his Church to enjoy in defining doctrine concerning faith or morals. Therefore, such definitions of the Roman Pontiff are of themselves, and not by the consent of the Church, irreformable.

This was confirmed by the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council in Lumen Gentium, n. 25:

And this infallibility with which the Divine Redeemer willed His Church to be endowed in defining doctrine of faith and morals, extends as far as the deposit of Revelation extends, which must be religiously guarded and faithfully expounded. And this is the infallibility which the Roman Pontiff, the head of the college of bishops, enjoys in virtue of his office, when, as the supreme shepherd and teacher of all the faithful, who confirms his brethren in their faith, by a definitive act he proclaims a doctrine of faith or morals. And therefore his definitions, of themselves, and not from the consent of the Church, are justly styled irreformable, since they are pronounced with the assistance of the Holy Spirit, promised to him in blessed Peter, and therefore they need no approval of others, nor do they allow an appeal to any other judgment. For then the Roman Pontiff is not pronouncing judgment as a private person, but as the supreme teacher of the universal Church, in whom the charism of infallibility of the Church itself is individually present, he is expounding or defending a doctrine of Catholic faith.

The doctrine of papal infallibility did not abruptly appear in the 19th century.  It was found implicitly from the earliest days of the Church, and indeed has its foundation in Holy Scripture itself.  In St. John’s Gospel (21:15-17) Christ makes it clear to St. Peter that he, Peter, is to tend the flock and feed the sheep; in St. Luke’s Gospel (22:32) our Lord tells Peter that He will pray for him, so that his faith will not fail, and for him to strengthen the other apostles; in St. Matthew’s Gospel (16:18) Christ proclaims Peter to be the Rock on which He would build His Church.

The Church, founded by our divine Saviour, was commanded by Him to teach everything that He had revealed to His apostles (St. Matthew 28:20), and He promised them that they would be guided into all truth by the Holy Spirit (St. John 16:13).  As the teaching authority of the Church, along with the primacy of St. Peter and his successors, was more and more comprehended, there came a clearer understanding of the protection God provides through the gift of infallibility.  From the scriptural testimony, on through such witnesses as St. Cyprian of Carthage and St. Augustine of Hippo, it is clear the Church has always understood that God reveals and safeguards His truth through this charism.

There is an erroneous idea that a formal statement of infallible truth marks the occasion when the Church only began to teach a particular doctrine – in other words, that belief in papal infallibility began in only in 1870.  However, infallible pronouncements are usually made only when some doctrine has been called into question.  Most doctrines have never been doubted by the large majority of Catholics, and so have never required a formal and infallible statement.  We see this even with a cursory reading of the Catechism, where most of the doctrines outlined in its pages require no corresponding papal document to confirm what is simply part of the ordinary magisterium of the Church.

If we scratch the surface of most arguments against the doctrine of papal infallibility, we will often find that there is confusion between infallibility and impeccability (“look at the sinful popes in history”), along with an independent streak of protestantism (“no one is going to tell me what I have to believe”).  I find it to be both amazing and amusing, that those who are most vociferous against papal infallibility present their arguments with a certitude which could only be described as infallible.

It takes no great leap of faith to accept the fact that the God who created the universe and raises the dead, would also ensure that His children are given the truth.  That He protects His Vicar on earth from solemnly defining something as true, if it’s really false, not only harmonizes with Scripture, but it is reflected in the unbroken history of the Church.  We should derive great comfort from the doctrine of infallibility, because it’s a beautiful act of God’s divine love.

Author: Fr. Christopher Phillips

Fr. Christopher G. Phillips is the pastor of Our Lady of the Atonement Catholic Church in San Antonio, Texas, where he has served for the past twenty-eight years. He is the founding pastor of the first Anglican Use parish, erected in 1983 under the terms of the Pastoral Provision. Fr. Phillips was ordained as an Anglican for the Diocese of Bristol, England, in 1975. After serving as Curate for three years at St. Stephen Southmead, he returned to the United States and served in two Episcopal parishes in the Diocese of Rhode Island. In 1981 he left the Episcopal Church and moved with his family to Texas, where he was subsequently ordained as a Catholic priest in 1983. Fr. Phillips and his wife, JoAnn, have been married for forty years. They have five children, all grown and married, and three grandchildren.

19 thoughts on “Exploring Doctrine: Papal Infallibility”

  1. There are leaders of churches and ecclesial communities who due to their interpretation of the Bible, believe that their flock should take every word them as infallible. The Pope who has the grace of infallibility does not declare a dogma as infallible due to his own interpretation, but how the whole Church has lived the dogma in history as expressed in her belief and practice. Examples are 1) The Assumption of Mary and 2) The Immaculate Conception of Mary, two dogmas some Catholic Anglicans have trouble accepting.

    These two infallibly declared dogmas have been held in the Eastern and Western churches. There are many Orthodox churches and cathedrals dedicated to the Assumption or even to an earlier appreciation of the dogma, the Dormition. The Eastern churches have always maintained that Mary was preserved from sin, even if they largely never accepted the Augustinian views on Original Sin.

    The two times that the Pope declared these Marian beliefs as dogma is largely due to petitions by the faithful and their pastors rather than because the Church is faced with heresy.

    The Pope when teaching on faith and morals does not expect us to think that all he says are infallible unless he declares such is so (which is very rarely done). But as Catholics, we should be aware that Papal teaching on faith and morals are based on how the Church has lived these principles. We have to accord these teachings with great regard with adequate reflection tied with reason, guided by the Holy Spirit and in the end signify our acceptance. The ministry of the Bishop of Rome is an expression of God's love for his flock.

    In fact if Catholics insist that the Pope declares his teaching as infallible every time is actually contrary to Catholic tradition, the intent of the doctrine of Papal infallibility and is rather insulting to the intelligence!

  2. Good points, Ben. When the Pope declares something infallibly, there's no doubt in anyone's mind, that's exactly what he's doing.

    Infallible doctrinal statements are fairly rare — its more frequent use is in the canonization of saints.

  3. Hmm! To live under Papal infallibility (rarely declared) or the 'infallibility' of General Convention declared every several years?

  4. J.M.J.

    This Apostolic Constitution, MUNIFICENTISSIMUS DEUS, may be read at: http://www.ewtn.com/library/papaldoc/p12munif.htm

    The last part which reads as follows:

    44. For which reason, after we have poured forth prayers of supplication again and again to God, and have invoked the light of the Spirit of Truth, for the glory of Almighty God who has lavished his special affection upon the Virgin Mary, for the honor of her Son, the immortal King of the Ages and the Victor over sin and death, for the increase of the glory of that same august Mother, and for the joy and exultation of the entire Church; by the authority of our Lord Jesus Christ, of the Blessed Apostles Peter and Paul, and by our own authority, we pronounce, declare, and define it to be a divinely revealed dogma:

    that the Immaculate Mother of God, the ever Virgin Mary, having completed the course of her earthly life, was assumed body and soul into heavenly glory.

    45. Hence if anyone, which God forbid, should dare willfully to deny or to call into doubt that which we have defined, let him know that he has fallen away completely from the divine and Catholic Faith.

    46. In order that this, our definition of the bodily Assumption of the Virgin Mary into heaven may be brought to the attention of the universal Church, we desire that this, our Apostolic Letter, should stand for perpetual remembrance, commanding that written copies of it, or even printed copies, signed by the hand of any public notary and bearing the seal of a person constituted in ecclesiastical dignity, should be accorded by all men the same reception they would give to this present letter, were it tendered or shown.

    47. It is forbidden to any man to change this, our declaration, pronouncement, and definition or, by rash attempt, to oppose and counter it. If any man should presume to make such an attempt, let him know that he will incur the wrath of Almighty God and of the Blessed Apostles Peter and Paul.

    48. Given at Rome, at St. Peter's, in the year of the great Jubilee, 1950, on the first day of the month of November, on the Feast of All Saints, in the twelfth year of our pontificate.

    I, PIUS, Bishop of the Catholic Church, have signed, so defining.

  5. A good current example of where the Popes use extreme caution and discretion in pronouncing infallible dogmas is the issue of proclaiming a dogma on the Blessed Virgin Mary being "Coredemptrix." Apparently a large number of people from many countries have been petitioning the Popes for some time to proclaim such a dogma and are somewhat disappointed that they have not as yet seen fit to do so.

    1. Again Rome is exercising ecumenical restraint. She wants the Orthodox to be on board when she proclaims what people call the "Last Marian Dogma"

      1. Thanks for posting the link, Father. I remember when Ordinatio Sacerdotalis was issued, there was such a great scramble among the "usual suspects" to declare that this is *not* an infallible statement, when it so obviously is!

        1. Then it needs to be clarified. For the Catholic bishop, priests and laity I have spoken to on the subjuect of ordination of women, all have told me that neither the Pope nor the Church has spoken. John Paul II only issued his opinion.

          The Catholic College at which I did some study recently also presents the position that this was only Pope John Paul II's opinion and not an infallible statement.

          If there are bishops, priests and Catholic colleges teaching contrary to Catholic Doctrine, are they not self excommunicating themselves? Unless they are misinformed or woefully poorly educated in the doctrines of the Church?

          If the Pope has spoken infallibly, that means Church, Tradition and Scripture all refute this issue and there no need for further discussion.

          So my question is this: Did Pope John Paul II speak infallibly? If so, why has the Church not disciplined those who teach contrary to doctrine? Why are we (the Church) allowing bishops and others to be protestants on this or any other issue?

          Just trying to understand how those who are suppose to be upholding Catholic doctrine can ignore it without consequence. I can not become a Catholic, much less a priest, if I cherrypick the doctrines with which I agree.

          If these same bishops, priests, etc. were to speak against the Marian doctrines, would they get the same pass from the Vatican?

          Hence my concern and confusion, not with the concept, but how the Church responds to infallibility.

          Fr. Mark

          1. The doctrine limiting priestly ordination to men is part of the ordinary and universal magisterium of the Church. Pope John Paul II was restating that truth (much the same as if he had made a statement about the Resurrection, or any other doctrine), and so therefore was making a statement of infallible truth. It wasn't the document itself which attached infallibility to the doctrine — it was already part of the infallible teaching of the Church.

            1. That's what I read about. The Church cannot ordain women since it has no authority to do so. This is already part of the infallible teaching of the Church.

              And this is the reason why Cardinal Ratzinger dissuaded Pope John Paul II to declare this an infallible teaching. There was no need to.

          2. The document *Ordinatio Sacerdotalis* was not an ex cathedra definition of the "extraordinary magisterium" of the papacy, but in the year following its issuance, the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith issued a clarification authored by its then Prefect, Cardinal Ratzinger, to the effect that that while the document was an act of the "ordinary magisterium" of the papacy, its effect was to clarify that the "unordainability" of women was an "irreformable" (that is, unchangeable), and that, consequently, it was an infallible teaching of the "Ordinary Magisterium." See:


            for that CDF statement; and for OS itself, see:


          3. Fr. Mark,

            It's a matter of moving from words to deeds. Any Catholic participating in the ordination of a woman, presuming to either so ordain or be ordained, is excommunicated. Foolish and idle talk, on the other hand, is not usually considered sufficient grounds for excommunication, else the pews would be largely empty.

  6. Thank you for the links. I read the documents; they are clear and very easy to understand.

    I would like to look at what Michaël de Verteuil said concerning foolish and idle talk.

    Is it foolish and idle talk to actively teach contrary to the Magisterium? Does not teaching contrary to the Magisterium undermine the Church and the faith of the people? Teaching strange and false doctrine… Should not the foolish and idle talk be addressed strongly prior to Catholics being lead into committing acts leading to excommunication? For by that time, the heresy is firmly entrenched in the mind of the person. Would it not be better for the souls of all those women and men who have self excommunicated themselves if the Church wer firm and very clear?

    Maybe my background, not being a cradle Catholic, tends to lead me to want to make a firm stand. For Anglicanism has seen the result of foolish and idle talk becoming normative in its theology. Foolish and idle talk has destroyed Anglicanism: we should be on guard to confront it and defeat it when it rears its pointed head in the Church.

    Just some concerns I still have…

    Fr. Mark

    1. Fr. Mark,

      I don't really wish to engage in debate here, but perhaps my initial response was too terse. The individuals you cited do not argue that the Church actually teaches that ordaining women is acceptable, merely that they think it should do so while acknowledging that it does not. Their view is that the subject is still up for discussion, not that it has been decided in their favour. It is those who feel free to act on their misconceptions in willful disregard of what the Church actually teaches who are liable to excommunication. Your sensitivities as a traditionalist Anglican are understandable, given an ecclesial background where "foolish and idle talk" can lead and has led to change in doctrine. In the Catholic Church, however, it can't.

      Bishops who depart from the faith are quietly told by Rome or their colleagues to conform or step down. Theologians who insist on teaching error get their licenses suspended and the imprimaturs for their published works revoked (e.g. Hans Küng). Heretical musings, however, usually are dealt with pastorally until they lead to acts. Excommunication is the disciplinary measure of last resort.

      The Catholic position on ordination is clear, even to dissidents, and you can't expect the Church to micromanage in every detail the thoughts of over a billion Catholics. Wishing to see a woman ordained is not going to send you to Hell any more than wishing to see a man give birth to a child, so long as you accept the Church's discipline in the matter.

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