Understanding Infallibility of the Pope

Feb 1, 2019

On February 22, the church celebrates the feast day of the Chair of Peter.  It is a feast in which the church celebrates the pastoral responsibility and authority of the bishop of Rome.  The chair that is referred to is of course his “cathedra,” the throne that represents his authority.

The actual cathedra of the pope is not in St. Peter’s Basilica but in the Cathedral of the Diocese of Rome, St. John Lateran.

No doubt, one of the most misunderstood beliefs of the Catholic faith is the infallibility of the pope.  It is a subject that confuses both Catholics and non-Catholics alike.

There are two types of infallibilty, ordinary and extraordinary.

Ordinary infallibility concerns the subject of faith and morals that bishops teach in union with the pope.  An example would be the teaching of abortion as being wrong.  The church does not have to make a formal proclamation of the subject because it is commonly held by the teaching magisterium.  In other words, ordinary infallibility is something that is commonly held to be true.

Extraordinary infallibility comes in two forms.  First is an ecumenical council, when all the bishops gather as a group (a college) together with the pope as the head of the college.  The most recent example of course is the Second Vatican Council.  Councils on average happen about once every century.  The second form of extraordinary infallibility is the controversial one because it is the most misunderstood: “ex cathedra,” which means “from the chair.”

Ex cathedra statements are even rarer than the ecumenical councils because they average out to happen only one a millennium.  There have been only two ex cathedra statements in the history of the church: when Blessed Pius IX declared the Immaculate Conception in 1854 and again in 1950 when Pope Pius XII declared the Assumption of Mary to be infallibly taught.

Both of these declared dogmas, as well as any future ex cathedra dogmas are only to affirm a long held belief.  Both the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption of Mary have been a part of the Catholic faith since the first generations of Christians.  We know this because both are the subjects of the writings of the early church fathers.  There is nothing new under the sun when it comes to these rare papal proclamations of infallibility.

The pope has an independent responsibility to guard the faith because his authority does not depend on other bishops but on Christ alone.  The Holy Father is infallible because of his role in an infallible church, that is, a church that is the voice of Christ in the world.  The church cannot err on issues of faith and morals because Christ cannot err on issues off faith and morals.

Infallibility does not imply any special supernatural insight or wisdom.  Rather it is a safeguard for the whole church, not in order to give new teachings but rather to support and protect the teachings that have always been present.

Someone might be tempted to bring up the whole issue surrounding the Galileo condemnation.  How can the church be infallible if it can make mistakes?

The use and practice of infallible statements never have to do with anything other than faith and morals, hence infallibility does not spill over to natural sciences of human wisdom.

Infallibility does not mean impeccability—that is, freedom from sin.  The church is made up of sinners.  The popes are sinners too.  The sinfulness of the members does not affect the truthfulness of the church’s teachings.  We have had a whole slew of sinful popes.  This has never compromised their roles as supreme teachers in the area of faith and morals.  Some of the early church fathers used to refer to the church as the chaste prostitute: chaste because it is divinely inspired, a prostitute because it is made up of sinners.

Finally, few things get my dander up as much as someone saying, “I don’t have to believe it because it is not infallibly taught.”  Because ex cathedra infallibility is the one that makes the headlines, most often that is the only infallibility that people know.  But ordinary infallibility binds us, too.  And because the pope is the Vicar of Christ (vicar means ”voice”), we need to trust his non-infallible teachings as well: for instance when the pope applies an infallible teaching to a new technology or world situation.

We need to be people of faith, believing that Christ has not and will not abandon his church.  He is with the church guiding the church, so having faith in the teachings of the church is one and the same as having faith in the teachings of Christ.

previously published February 2007