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Papal infallibility is a dogma of the Catholic Church which states that, in virtue of the promise of Jesus to Peter, the pope when appealing to his highest authority is preserved from the possibility of error on doctrine “initially given to the apostolic Church and handed down in Scripture and tradition“. This doctrine was defined dogmatically at the First Vatican Council of 1869–1870 in the document Pastor aeternus, but had been defended before that, existing already in medieval theology and being the majority opinion at the time of the Counter-Reformation.
The infallible teachings of the Pope are part of the Church’s magisterium, which also consists of ecumenical councils and the “ordinary and universal magisterium”. In Catholic theology, papal infallibility is one of the channels of the infallibility of the Church.
The doctrine of infallibility relies on one of the cornerstones of Catholic dogma: that of papal supremacy, and his authority as the ruling agent who decides what are accepted as formal beliefs in the Roman Catholic Church. The use of this power is referred to as speaking ex cathedra. The solemn declaration of papal infallibility by Vatican I took place on 18 July 1870. Since that time, the only example of an ex cathedra decree took place in 1950, when Pope Pius XII defined the Assumption of Mary as an article of faith. Prior to the solemn definition of 1870, the only agreed upon infallible definition of a pope apart from a council was that of the Immaculate Conception by Pope Pius IX in Ineffabilis Deus of 1854. In both cases the pope checked with bishops worldwide that this was the belief of the Church before proceeding to a formal definition.
Nature of infallibility
The church teaches that infallibility is a charism entrusted by Christ to the whole church, whereby the Pope, as “head of the college of bishops,” enjoys papal infallibility. This charism is the supreme degree of participating in Christ’s divine authority, which, in the New Covenant, so as to safeguard the faithful from defection and guarantee the profession of faith, ensures the faithful abide in the truth. The church further teaches that divine assistance is also given to the Pope when he exercises his ordinary Magisterium.
Conditions for teachings being declared infallible
According to the teaching of the First Vatican Council and Catholic tradition, the conditions required for ex cathedra papal teaching are as follows:
- the Roman Pontiff (the Pope alone or with the College of Bishops)
- speaks ex cathedra, that is, when, (in the discharge of his office as shepherd and teacher of all Christians, and by virtue of his supreme apostolic authority,) he defines a doctrine
- concerning faith or morals
- to be held by the whole Church.
The terminology of a definitive decree usually makes clear that this last condition is fulfilled, as through a formula such as “By the authority of Our Lord Jesus Christ and of the Blessed Apostles Peter and Paul, and by Our own authority, We declare, pronounce and define the doctrine . . . to be revealed by God and as such to be firmly and immutably held by all the faithful,” or through an accompanying anathema stating that anyone who deliberately dissents is outside the Catholic Church.
For example, in 1950, with Munificentissimus Deus, Pope Pius XII’s infallible definition regarding the Assumption of Mary, there are attached these words: “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.”
As with all charisms, the church teaches that the charism of papal infallibility must be properly discerned, though only by the Church’s leaders. The way to know if something a pope says is infallible or not is to discern if they are ex cathedra teachings. Also considered infallible are the teachings of the whole body of bishops of the Church, especially but not only in an ecumenical council (see Infallibility of the Church).
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Pastor aeternus does not allow any infallibility for the Church or Pope for new doctrines. Any doctrines defined must be “conformable with Sacred Scripture and Apostolic Traditions”:
For the Holy Spirit was not promised to the successors of Peter that by His revelation they might make known new doctrine, but that by His assistance they might inviolably keep and faithfully expound the Revelation, the Deposit of Faith, delivered through the Apostles.
It gives examples of the kinds of consultations that are appropriate include assembling Ecumenical Councils, asking for the mind of the church scattered around the world, Synods, and so on.
- to be believed as divinely revealed
- to be held definitely
- following a solemn defining act by a Pope or Ecumenical council
- following a non-defining act by a Pope, confirming or re-affirming a thing taught by the ordinary and universal teaching authority of bishops worldwide
- otherwise, to be respected or submitted to (in the case of priests and religious) as part of the ordinary teaching authority of bishops, but without any claim of infallibility.
Examples of doctrines to be believed as divinely revealed include the sayings of Jesus in the Gospels, since the Gospels are part of the Bible, which is part of the deposit of divine revelation. Examples of doctrines to be held definitely include the Immaculate Conception of Mary, the Assumption of Mary, Transubstantiation, the Sacramental Seal, women not being allowed to be ordained as priests, and papal infallibility itself.
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. The limitation on the pope’s infallibility “on other matters” is frequently illustrated by Cardinal James Gibbons‘s recounting how the pope mistakenly called him Jibbons.
“Ex cathedra” redirects here. For the early music ensemble, see Ex Cathedra. For the 2009 film, see Ex Cathedra (film).The only ex cathedra application of papal infallibility since its solemn declaration has been for the Marian Dogma of Assumption in 1950. Painting of the Assumption, Rubens, 1626See also: Dogma in the Catholic Church
Cathedra and sedes are Latin words for a chair, the symbol of the teacher in the ancient world; the “chair” is still used metaphorically as the office of a university professor, and to the “see” of a bishop (from sedes). The pope is said to occupy the “chair of Peter” or the “Holy See“, since Catholics hold that the pope is the successor of Peter. Also, Catholics hold that Peter had a special role among the apostles as the preserver of unity, and that the pope therefore holds the role of spokesman for the whole church among the bishops, whom Catholics hold to be the successors of the apostles.
The doctrine of papal infallibility, the Latin phrase ex cathedra (literally, “from the chair”), was proclaimed by Pius IX in 1870 as meaning “when, in the exercise of his office as shepherd and teacher of all Christians, in virtue of his supreme apostolic authority, [the Bishop of Rome] defines a doctrine concerning faith or morals to be held by the whole Church.”
The response demanded from believers has been characterized as “assent” in the case of ex cathedra declarations of the popes and “due respect” with regard to their other declarations.
Scripture and primacy of Peter
On the basis of Mark 3:16, 9:2, Luke 24:34 and 1 Corinthians 15:5, the Catechism of the Catholic Church describes Peter as holding first place among the apostles. It speaks of Peter as the rock on which, because of Peter’s faith, Christ said in Matthew 16:18 he would build his Church, which he declared would be victorious over the powers of death. In Luke 22:32, Jesus gave Peter the mission to keep his faith after every lapse and to strengthen his brothers in it. The Catechism of the Catholic Church sees the power of the keys that Jesus promised to Peter alone in Matthew 16:19 as signifying authority to govern the house of God, that is, the Church, an authority that Jesus after his resurrection confirmed for Peter by instructing him in John 21:15–17 to feed Christ’s sheep. The power to bind and loose, conferred on all the apostles jointly and to Peter in particular (Matthew 16:19), is seen in the Catechism of the Catholic Church as authority to absolve sins, to pronounce judgments on doctrine and to make decisions on Church discipline.
Historical support for the Primacy of the Roman pontiff
Doctrine-based religions evolve their theologies over time, and Catholicism is no exception: its theology did not spring instantly and fully formed within the bosom of the earliest Church.
The doctrine of the Primacy of the Roman Bishops, like other Church teachings and institutions, has gone through a development. Thus the establishment of the Primacy recorded in the Gospels has gradually been more clearly recognised and its implications developed. Clear indications of the consciousness of the Primacy of the Roman bishops, and of the recognition of the Primacy by the other churches, appear at the end of the 1st century. (L. Ott)
Pope St. Clement of Rome, c. 99, stated in a letter to the Corinthians: “Indeed you will give joy and gladness to us, if having become obedient to what we have written through the Holy Spirit, you will cut out the unlawful application of your zeal according to the exhortation which we have made in this epistle concerning peace and union” (Denziger §41, emphasis added).
St. Clement of Alexandria wrote on the primacy of Peter c. 200: “the blessed Peter, the chosen, the pre-eminent, the first among the disciples, for whom alone with Himself the Savior paid the tribute” (Jurgens §436).
The existence of an ecclesiastical hierarchy is emphasized by St. Stephan I, 251, in a letter to the bishop of Antioch: “Therefore did not that famous defender of the Gospel [Novatian] know that there ought to be one bishop in the Catholic Church [of the city of Rome]? It did not lie hidden from him” (Denziger §45).
St. Julius I, in 341 wrote to the Antiochenes: “Or do you not know that it is the custom to write to us first, and that here what is just is decided?” (Denziger §57a, emphasis added).
Catholicism holds that an understanding among the apostles was written down in what became the scriptures, and rapidly became the living custom of the Church, and that from there a clearer theology could unfold.
St. Siricius wrote to Himerius in 385: “To your inquiry we do not deny a legal reply, because we, upon whom greater zeal for the Christian religion is incumbent than upon the whole body, out of consideration for our office do not have the liberty to dissimulate, nor to remain silent. We carry the weight of all who are burdened; nay rather the blessed apostle PETER bears these in us, who, as we trust, protects us in all matters of his administration, and guards his heirs” (Denziger §87, emphasis in original).
Many of the Church Fathers spoke of ecumenical councils and the Bishop of Rome as possessing a reliable authority to teach the content of scripture and tradition.
Klaus Schatz asserts that “it is impossible to fix a single author or era as the starting point” for the doctrine of papal infallibility. Others such as Brian Tierney have argued that the doctrine of papal infallibility was first proposed by Peter Olivi in the Middle Ages. Schatz and others see the roots of the doctrine as going much further back to the early days of Christianity.
Brian Tierney argued that the 13th-century Franciscan priest Peter Olivi was the first person to attribute infallibility to the pope. Tierney’s idea was accepted by August Bernhard Hasler, and by Gregory Lee Jackson, It was rejected by James Heft and by John V. Kruse. Klaus Schatz says Olivi by no means played the key role assigned to him by Tierney, who failed to acknowledge the work of earlier canonists and theologians, and that the crucial advance in the teaching came only in the 15th century, two centuries after Olivi; and he declares that, “It is impossible to fix a single author or era as the starting point.” Ulrich Horst criticized the Tierney view for the same reasons. In his Protestant evaluation of the ecumenical issue of papal infallibility, Mark E. Powell rejects Tierney’s theory about 13th-century Olivi, saying that the doctrine of papal infallibility defined at Vatican I had its origins in the 14th century – he refers in particular to Bishop Guido Terreni – and was itself part of a long development of papal claims.
Schatz points to “… the special esteem given to the Roman church community [that] was always associated with fidelity in the faith and preservation of the paradosis (the faith as handed down).” Schatz differentiates between the later doctrine of “infallibility of the papal magisterium” and the Hormisdas formula in 519, which asserted that, “The Roman church has never erred (and will never err).” He emphasizes that Hormisdas formula was not meant to apply so much to “… individual dogmatic definitions but to the whole of the faith as handed down and the tradition of Peter preserved intact by the Roman Church.” Specifically, Schatz argues that the Hormisdas formula does not exclude the possibility that individual popes become heretics because the formula refers “… primarily to the Roman tradition as such and not exclusively to the person of the pope.”
The 12th-century Decretum Gratiani contained the declaration by Pope Gregory I (590–604) that the first four ecumenical councils were to be revered “… like the four gospels” because they had been “established by universal consent”, and also Gratian’s assertion that, “The holy Roman Church imparts authority to the sacred canons but is not bound by them.” Commentators on the Decretum, known as the Decretists, generally concluded that a pope could change the disciplinary decrees of the ecumenical councils but was bound by their pronouncements on articles of faith, in which field the authority of a general council was higher than that of an individual pope. Unlike those who propounded the 15th-century conciliarist theories, they understood an ecumenical council as necessarily involving the pope, and meant that the pope plus the other bishops was greater than a pope acting alone.
Further information: Franciscans § Renewed controversy on the question of poverty
Several medieval theologians discussed the infallibility of the pope when defining matters of faith and morals, including Thomas Aquinas.
The Dictatus papae have been attributed to Pope Gregory VII (1073–1085) in the year 1075, but some have argued that they are later than 1087. They assert that no one can judge the pope (Proposition 19) and that “the Roman church has never erred; nor will it err to all eternity, the Scripture bearing witness” (Proposition 22). This is seen as a further step in advancing the idea that “… had been part of church history and debate as far back as 519 when the notion of the Bishop of Rome as the preserver of apostolic truth was set forth in the Formula of Hormisdas.”
In the early years of the 14th century, the Franciscan Order found itself in open conflict between the “Spirituals” and the Conventual Franciscans over the form of poverty to observe. The Spirituals adopted extremist positions that eventually discredited the notion of apostolic poverty and led to condemnation by Pope John XXII. This pope determined to suppress what he considered to be the excesses of the Spirituals, who contended that Christ and his apostles had possessed absolutely nothing, either separately or jointly. The “Spirituals” argued that John XXII’s predecessors had declared the absolute poverty of Christ to be an article of faith and that therefore no pope could declare the contrary. Appeal was made in particular to the 14 August 1279 bull Exiit qui seminat, in which Pope Nicholas III stated that renunciation of ownership of all things “… both individually but also in common, for God’s sake, is meritorious and holy; Christ, also, showing the way of perfection, taught it by word and confirmed it by example, and the first founders of the Church militant, as they had drawn it from the fountainhead itself, distributed it through the channels of their teaching and life to those wishing to live perfectly.”
By the bull Ad conditorem canonum of 8 December 1322, John XXII, declaring it ridiculous to pretend that every scrap of food given to the friars and eaten by them belonged to the pope, forced them to accept ownership by ending the arrangement according to which all property given to the Franciscans was vested in the Holy See, which granted the friars the mere use of it. He thus demolished the fictitious structure that gave the appearance of absolute poverty to the life of the Franciscan friars, a structure that “… absolved the Franciscans from the moral burden of legal ownership, and enabled them to practise apostolic poverty without the inconvenience of actual poverty.” This document was concerned with disciplinary rather than doctrinal matters, but leaders of the Franciscans reacted with insistence on the irreformability of doctrinal papal decrees, with special reference to Exiit. A year later, John XXII issued the short 12 November 1323 bull Cum inter nonnullos, which declared “erroneous and heretical” the doctrine that Christ and his apostles had no possessions whatever.
The next year, the Pope responded to continued criticisms with the bull Quia quorundam of 10 November 1324. He denied the major premise of an argument of his adversaries, “What the Roman pontiffs have once defined in faith and morals with the key of knowledge stands so immutably that it is not permitted to a successor to revoke it.” He declared that there was no contradiction between his own statements and those of his predecessors; that it could not be inferred from the words of the 1279 bull that Christ and the apostles had nothing: “indeed, it can be inferred rather that the Gospel life lived by Christ and the Apostles did not exclude some possessions in common, since living ‘without property’ does not require that those living thus should have nothing in common”; that there were many things in the Franciscan rule “… which Christ neither taught nor confirmed by his example,” and that there was neither merit nor truth in pretending Christ and the apostles had no rights in law.
In his book on the First Vatican Council, August Hasler wrote, “John XXII didn’t want to hear about his own infallibility. He viewed it as an improper restriction of his rights as a sovereign, and in the bull Qui quorundam (1324) condemned the Franciscan doctrine of papal infallibility as the work of the devil.”
Brian Tierney has summed up his view of the part played by John XXII as follows:
Pope John XXII strongly resented the imputation of infallibility to his office – or at any rate to his predecessors. The theory of irreformability proposed by his adversaries was a “pestiferous doctrine”, he declared; and at first he seemed inclined to dismiss the whole idea as “pernicious audacity”. However, through some uncharacteristic streak of caution or through sheer good luck (or bad luck) the actual terms he used in condemning the Franciscan position left a way open for later theologians to re-formulate the doctrine of infallibility in different language.
In 1596, in The Catholic Controversy, Francis de Sales wrote:
[E]verything a king says is not a law or an edict, but that only which a king says as king and as a legislator. So everything the Pope says is not canon law or of legal obligation; he must mean to define and to lay down the law for the sheep, and he must keep the due order and form. …We must not think that in everything and everywhere his judgment is infallible, but then only when he gives judgment on a matter of faith in questions necessary to the whole Church; for in particular cases which depend on human fact he can err, there is no doubt. …Theologians have said, … in a word, that he can err extra cathedram, outside the chair of Peter, that is, as a private individual, by writings and bad example. But he cannot err when he is in cathedra, that is, when he intends to make an instruction and decree for the guidance of the whole Church, when he means to confirm his brethren as supreme pastor, and to conduct them into the pastures of the faith. For then it is not so much man who determines, resolves, and defines as it is the Blessed Holy Spirit by man, which Spirit, according to the promise made by Our Lord to the Apostles, teaches all truth to the Church.
In the period following the Counter-Reformation the Dominican school of theology at the Roman College of Saint Thomas in Rome, the future Pontifical University of Saint Thomas Aquinas, Angelicum was active in defending the doctrine of papal infallibility. Vincentius Ferre (+1682), Regent of College of St. Thomas from 1654 to 1672, writes in his De Fide in defense of papal Infallibility that Christ said “I have prayed for thee, Peter; sufficiently showing that the infallibility was not promised to the Church as apart from (seorsum) the head, but promised to the head, that from him it should be derived to the Church.” Dominic Gravina, professor of theology at the College of St. Thomas in Rome wrote concerning papal infallibility: “To the Pontiff, as one (person) and alone, it was given to be the head,” and again, “The Roman Pontiff for the time being is one, therefore he alone has infallibility.” Vincenzo Maria Gatti, also a professor of theology at the College of St. Thomas, defending papal infallibility, says of Christ’s words “I have prayed for thee,” etc., that “indefectibility is promised to Peter apart from (seorsum) the Church, or from the Apostles; but it is not promised to the Apostles, or to the Church. apart (seorsum) the head, or with the head,” adding: “Therefore Peter, even apart from (seorsum) the Church, is infallible.”
Pastor aeternus: Dogmatic definition of 1870
The infallibility of the pope was formally defined in 1870, although the tradition behind this view goes back much further. In the conclusion of the fourth chapter of its Dogmatic Constitution on the Church Pastor aeternus, the First Vatican Council declared the following, with bishops Aloisio Riccio and Edward Fitzgerald dissenting:
We teach and define that it is a dogma Divinely revealed that the Roman pontiff when he speaks ex cathedra, that is when in discharge of the office of pastor and doctor 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, by the Divine assistance promised to him in Blessed Peter, is possessed of that infallibility with which the Divine Redeemer willed that his Church should be endowed in defining doctrine regarding faith or morals, and that therefore such definitions of the Roman pontiff are of themselves and not from the consent of the Church irreformable.
So then, should anyone, which God forbid, have the temerity to reject this definition of ours: let him be anathema. (see Denziger §1839).— Vatican Council, Sess. IV, Const. de Ecclesiâ Christi, Chapter iv
According to Catholic theology, this is an infallible dogmatic definition by an ecumenical council. Because the 1870 definition is not seen by Catholics as a creation of the Church, but as the dogmatic revelation of a truth about the papal magisterium, papal teachings made prior to the 1870 proclamation can, if they meet the criteria set out in the dogmatic definition, be considered infallible. Ineffabilis Deus is the only generally accepted example of this.
The dogmatic constitution Lumen gentium of the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, which was also a document on the Church itself, explicitly reaffirmed the definition of papal infallibility, so as to avoid any doubts, expressing this in the following words:
This Sacred Council, following closely in the footsteps of the First Vatican Council, with that Council teaches and declares that Jesus Christ, the eternal Shepherd, established His holy Church, having sent forth the apostles as He Himself had been sent by the Father;(136) and He willed that their successors, namely the bishops, should be shepherds in His Church even to the consummation of the world. And in order that the episcopate itself might be one and undivided, He placed Blessed Peter over the other apostles, and instituted in him a permanent and visible source and foundation of unity of faith and communion. And all this teaching about the institution, the perpetuity, the meaning and reason for the sacred primacy of the Roman Pontiff and of his infallible magisterium, this Sacred Council again proposes to be firmly believed by all the faithful.
Frequency of infallible declarations
There is debate in the Church between those who believe that infallibility is exercised rarely and explicitly and those that believe that it is common. However, the Catholic Church does not teach that the pope is infallible in everything he says; official invocation of papal infallibility is extremely rare.
The encyclical of Humani generis of Pope Pius XII states that (unless explicitly stated) papal encyclicals are not infallible documents but are teachings that Catholic theologians must follow: “Nor must it be thought that what is expounded in Encyclical Letters does not of itself demand consent, since in writing such Letters the Popes do not exercise the supreme power of their Teaching Authority. For these matters are taught with the ordinary teaching authority.”
An example of where there is dispute over whether a subject matter is within the limits of infallibility is the canonization of a saint by a pope. If they are, then they would represent a very common occurrence during a papacy. However, those are usually regarded as not of divine faith, as they depend on facts that post-date New Testament revelation. The status of individuals as saints in heaven is not taught in the Catholic Catechism or Creeds as required for belief. However, some Catholic theologians have in the past held that the canonization of a saint by a pope is infallible teaching that the person canonized is definitely in heaven with God, because it relates to Faith. A decree of canonization invites the whole Church to venerate the person as a saint, while beatification merely permits it.
Instances of infallible declarations
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. Both followed wide consultation with the bishops, as to whether these doctrines were already believed worldwide. However, theologians disagree about what other documents qualify.
Regarding historical papal documents, Catholic theologian and church historian Klaus Schatz made a thorough study, published in 1985, that identified the following list of ex cathedra documents (see Creative Fidelity: Weighing and Interpreting Documents of the Magisterium, by Francis A. Sullivan, chapter 6):
- Tome to Flavian, Pope Leo I, 449, on the two natures in Christ, received by the Council of Chalcedon;
- Letter of Pope Agatho, 680, on the two wills of Christ, received by the Third Council of Constantinople;
- Benedictus Deus, Pope Benedict XII, 1336, on the beatific vision of the just after death rather than only just prior to final judgment;
- Cum occasione, Pope Innocent X, 1653, condemning five propositions of Jansen as heretical;
- Auctorem fidei, Pope Pius VI, 1794, condemning several Jansenist propositions of the Synod of Pistoia as heretical;
- Ineffabilis Deus, Pope Pius IX, 1854, defining the Immaculate Conception;
- Munificentissimus Deus, Pope Pius XII, 1950, defining the Assumption of Mary.
There is no complete list of papal statements considered infallible. A 1998 commentary on Ad Tuendam Fidem issued by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith published on L’Osservatore Romano in July 1998 listed a number of instances of infallible pronouncements by popes and by ecumenical councils, but explicitly stated (at no. 11) that this was not meant to be a complete list.
One of the documents mentioned is Pope John Paul II‘s apostolic letter Ordinatio sacerdotalis on reserving priestly ordination to men alone, which the Congregation earlier stated to be infallible, although not taught ex cathedra (i.e., although not a teaching of the extraordinary magisterium), clarifying that the content of this letter has been taught infallibly by the ordinary and universal magisterium. This was confirmed in a commentary by the same Congregation and in commentaries by Cardinals Joseph Ratzinger and Tarcisio Bertone. Many eminent theologians dispute that this is truly infallible, including Nicholas Lash, an ex-priest and Emeritus Professor of Divinity at the University of Cambridge. The Catholic Theological Society of America in a report, “Tradition and the Ordination of Women”, concluded that Ordinatio sacerdotalis is mistaken with regard to its claims on the authority of this teaching and its grounds in Tradition.
As well as popes, ecumenical councils have made pronouncements that the Church considers infallible.