June 12, 2009

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Basic Catholicism: The pope is not infallible

John F. Fink(Eighteenth in a series of columns)

Many people are confused by what the Catholic Church teaches about infallibility.

For example, to the surprise of many, it does not hold that the pope is personally infallible. Many people think that the Catholic Church does teach that, and it has been a stumbling block for ecumenism, but the actual teaching is more nuanced.

“Infallibility” is a double-negative word meaning “the inability to err.” It’s not the same as “being correct” because one could be correct without being unable to be incorrect. Infallibility for humans is possible only with divine assistance.

The Catholic Church believes that Jesus promised that divine assistance to Peter and the other Apostles when he said, “Thou art Peter and upon this rock I will build my Church . … I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on Earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on Earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Mt 16:18-19).

The infallibility of the pope was debated during the First Vatican Council in 1870. Some of the bishops, led by Archbishop Henry Edward Manning of England, thought that the pope was personally infallible, that he could not err. Others at that time, led by Lord Acton and John Henry Newman (who was made a cardinal nine years later), thought that the pope could make decisions binding on the whole Church only when he acted in agreement with the other bishops.

After lengthy discussion, the debate focused on the infallibility of the pope’s doctrinal decisions rather than on the infallibility of the pope himself.

Finally, the council decreed that the pope teaches infallibly under three conditions: when he exercises his office as pastor of all Christians (known as ex cathedra or “from the chair” of St. Peter), when he teaches on matters of faith or morals, and when he indicates that the doctrine must be held by the universal Church.

This is a subtle distinction between the infallibility of the pope himself and the infallibility of what he teaches, but it was considered an important distinction. Plus, not everything the pope teaches is infallible, but only what he teaches under those three conditions. For example, when Pope Benedict XVI wrote his best-selling book Jesus of Nazareth, he made it clear that people were free to disagree with his analyses and conclusions.

The Second Vatican Council, in 1964, elaborated on the doctrine of infallibility. It stated that infallibility resides not only in the pope, but also in the body of bishops “when that body exercises supreme teaching authority with the successor of Peter.”

The bishops’ infallible teaching authority has been exercised in 21 councils through the centuries, most recently during the Second Vatican Council. Doctrines concerning faith and morals defined by councils, after they have been promulgated by the pope, are considered to be infallible. That is how most doctrines have been defined.

Popes rarely speak ex cathedra. However, Catholics are expected to submit their wills and minds to the pope’s teaching authority whether or not he is speaking infallibly. †

Local site Links: