The Catholic Church’s teaching on papal infallibility is one which is generally misunderstood by many from both within the Church, and outside the Church. Given these common misinterpretations regarding the basic tenets of papal infallibility, it is necessary to explain exactly what infallibility is not. In particular, below are some myths regarding papal infallibility that are common:
- The Pope is “perfect” and cannot sin
- Everything the Pope says is correct and should be believed in as a dogma of faith, because he is infallible
- The Pope can “change” established Church doctrine. The Pope can make “true” that which has been traditionally held as “not true”, and can make “false” that which is inherently “true”
Before we discuss the myths, let us first understand the exact teaching of the Church regarding papal infallibility.
Understanding the Teaching
The doctrine of papal infallibility was defined dogmatically in the First Vatican Council of 1869–1870, but had been generally believed and defended even before that, existing already in medieval theology and being the majority opinion at the time of the Counter-Reformation.
Papal infallibility is a dogma of the Catholic Church that states that, in virtue of the promise of Jesus to Peter, the Pope is preserved from the possibility of error 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.” (First Vatican Council, First Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, chapter 4, 9)
Statements by a Pope that exercise papal infallibility are referred to as solemn papal definitions or ex cathedra teachings.
Two Instances of the Exercise of Papal Infallibility
In the history of the Church, the actual exercise of papal infallibility is very rare. In fact, Catholic theologians agree that both Pope Pius IX‘s 1854 definition of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception of Mary and Pope Pius XII‘s 1950 definition of the dogma of the Assumption of Mary are instances of papal infallibility, a fact confirmed by the Church’s magisterium. However, theologians disagree about what other documents qualify.
An example of an ex-cathedra pronouncement is that of Munificentissimus Deus, in which Pius XII proclaimed the dogma of the Assumption:
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. 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.
Myth #1: “Impeccability”
Many people, particularly Protestants, often confuse the charism of papal “infallibility” with “impeccability.” They imagine Catholics believe the pope cannot sin. The dogma of papal infallibility does not say that the pope is perfect, or the pope cannot sin. Infallibility is not the absence of sin. There is no guarantee that popes won’t sin or give bad example.
Myth #2: Infallibility in All Occasions
Another major myth regarding papal infallibility is that of believing that the pope is infallible in all occasions, in all his pronouncements and teachings. Many people mistakenly think that everything the pope says – via interviews to press, homilies, written articles, etc – is infallible and must be held as absolutely true.
The dogma of papal infallibility does not claim that the pope is infallible in all occasions. In fact, the Catholic Church considers the Pope infallible only in limited circumstances.
In July 2005 Pope Benedict XVI stated during an impromptu address to priests in Aosta that: “The Pope is not an oracle; he is infallible in very rare situations, as we know.” Pope John XXIII once remarked: “I am only infallible if I speak infallibly but I shall never do that, so I am not infallible.”
A doctrine proposed by a pope as his own opinion, not solemnly proclaimed as a doctrine of the Church, may be rejected as false, even if it is on a matter of faith and morals, and even more any view he expresses on other matters. A well-known example of a personal opinion on a matter of faith and morals that was taught by a pope but rejected by the Church is the view that Pope John XXII expressed on when the dead can reach the beatific vision.
Myth #3: The Pope can Change Established Doctrine
Another major mistake by many Catholics is to think that the Pope can suddenly reverse Church teachings that have been established over the years – that he can make “true” what is inherently false, or that he can declare to be “false” that which is inherently “true”.
If for example, Pope Francis suddenly denies the existence of hell, denies the divinity of Jesus, or denies the act of Eucharistic Transubstantiation, does the dogma of papal infallibility compel us to believe the “new” teachings of the Church regarding hell, the divinity of Christ, and the Eucharist? The answer is a firm no. Canon Law 749 § 3 clearly states the limits of papal infallibility: “No doctrine is understood as defined infallibly unless this is manifestly evident.”
In other words, the doctrine being pronounced must be inherently true – the pope cannot, using an ex-cathedra statement, make something that is not true to be suddenly true. Likewise, the pope cannot, using an ex-cathedra pronouncement, make something that is clearly false suddenly true.
Furthermore, if the pope, or any bishop or priest for that matter, suddenly starts teaching manifest heresy, that act of heresy automatically procures the sanction of excommunication, and invalidates his office. The Church teaches that Catholics who are formally guilty of heresy, apostasy or schism automatically incurs the penalty of excommunication. The 1983 Code of Canon Law, repeating the sanctions of the earlier 1917 Code, states (c. 1364):
An apostate from the faith, a heretic or a schismatic incurs automatic (latae sententiae) excommunication and if a cleric, he can also be punished by the penalties mentioned in can. 1336, part 1, nn. 1, 2, and 3. If long lasting contumacy or the seriousness of scandal warrants it, other penalties can be added including dismissal from the clerical state. ∎
by Pietro Fabrizzi