Papal Infallibility

While the First Vatican Council defined papal infallibility in 1870, one must understand that the date on which a doctrine is officially defined is not the date on which it becomes true. Rather, it was always true. It's just that different aspects of the Faith are challenged at different periods of history, and when a challenge occurs, or a serious concern or question arises, then the Church will settle the difficulty by formally stating what the truth of the matter is -- to end the confusion. So papal infallibility has always been true, and, moreover, was accepted and practiced from the earliest times in Church history.

The evidence that papal infallibility is part of the Christian Faith comes from 3 sources:

1) SCRIPTURE. Such passages as: "Thou art Peter and upon this rock I will build my Church; to you I give the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven. Whatever you bind on earth is bound in heaven; whatever you loose on earth is loosed in heaven" (Matt 16), and to Peter Jesus also said, "Do you love me?. . . Feed my sheep" (John 21), and again to Peter, Jesus said, "I have prayed for you, Peter, that your faith may not fail. You in turn must confirm your brethren" (Luke 22), have always been taken to refer to a special role for Peter in the establishment of the Church, and special divine protection for Peter in the exercise of his authority. One could also cite Scripture that promises the protection of the Holy Spirit in the Church after Jesus ascends to the Father; this promise has been achieved by the Holy Spirit through the papacy: John 14:16, 'And I will ask the Father, and He will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever.' Or, John 14:26, '…the Holy Spirit…will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.' In Luke 22:32, 'I have prayed for you that your own faith may not fail…' [The word 'fallibility' comes from the same verb fail, therefore, fail = fallibility, and, not fail = infallibility.]

2) HISTORY. Right from the start we see the bishops of Rome acting as if they had special authority in succession from St. Peter, and we also see the rest of the Church accepting their authority as if they knew it was genuine. Thus, Pope Clement wrote to settle a problem in the Church of Corinth before the end of the 1st century. During the first few hundred years of Church history, moreover, many who were accused of heresy appealed from every corner of the known world to Rome for vindication or condemnation. The Early Church Fathers too repeatedly attest to the authority of the Popes. And the Popes always had the decisive word at general Councils, as when the Fathers of the Council of Chalcedon (451 AD) said in response to the Papal definition of the two natures of Christ, "Peter has spoken through Leo" and accepted it unhesitatingly. Christ came to fulfill, in Himself, the three Davidic ministries of the Old Law, namely, PRIEST (who provided for the spiritual LIFE of the people), PROPHET (who taught the people the TRUTH about God), and KING (who showed the people the WAY in secular matters). When, later, Jesus established the Church on Peter (the rock, later called the papacy) Jesus willed that the papacy would perpetuate the divine mandate by acting as custodians of His message: that Jesus is the WAY, TRUTH and the LIFE for all.

3) LOGIC. There are only 2 Covenants: the Old and the New. But the first Christians under the New Covenant had a living and infallible guide to the truth in Christ himself. Surely the lack of such a guide in future times would constitute yet another covenant, which is impossible, because there are only 2 Covenants.

The argument runs as follows:

It is clear, even from Scripture, that Peter had a special commission and special powers from Christ to care for the flock of Christ, to bind and loose, and to confirm his brothers in faith -- indeed he had the very powers of the keys to the Kingdom. Obviously, these powers were essential to the Church as constituted by Christ. And Christ promised to be with the Church always to the end of time, and said that the powers of hell would not prevail against it. Now, clearly Christ knew that Peter would not live until the end of time, so he must have intended that the power he gave to Peter would be carried on until His return. After all, Peter was to feed "my" (Christ's) sheep, and so was serving as the Vicar of Christ in Christ's absence. When Peter died, a new vicar would take his place, and so on, until Christ returned to claim his own. The parable of the steward awaiting his Master's return is very much to the point. Just as clearly, Peter's authority also enabled him (and his successors) to set forth the manner in which their successors would be selected, either by choosing the successor personally before death, or by setting forth some other means - eventually, election by the college of cardinals.

Moreover, if these special and essential powers were to pass out of existence, it would be proof that Christ was no longer with his Church and that the powers of Hell had indeed prevailed. Therefore, again, Christ must have intended successors to Peter. For this reason, we are not at all surprised that subsequent popes claimed to have the Petrine power and that the early Christian community accepted it without question. As indicated already, this authority was exercised by the fourth Pope, Clement, while St. John the Evangelist was still alive. The earliest Christians were in a position to know Christ's will from other sources than Scripture (just as we today, under the guidance of the Church, are able to learn from Tradition).

Infallibility Itself

Now we come to the specific question of infallibility, by which the successors of Peter continue to confirm the brethren. Since the successors of Peter have the same Petrine authority, which comes ultimately from Christ, to bind and loose, they have the authority to bind the faithful in matters pertaining to salvation, that is, in faith or morals. Now, if a Pope could bind the faithful to error, it would be a clear triumph of the powers of Hell, because the entire Church would be bound to follow the error under Christ's own authority. Obviously, this cannot happen because God has given His Word and He does not lie.

Therefore, the logic of the situation demands that the Petrine power of confirming the brethren must be an infallible power. When the Pope intends by virtue of his supreme authority to teach on a matter of faith or morals to the entire Church, he MUST be protected by the Holy Spirit from error (or else the powers of hell would prevail). This is the logic behind infallibility. But, of course, it is not based solely on logic, since it is attested in Scripture and was held by the earliest Christians and the Early Church Fathers and, indeed, by the majority of Christians up to the present day.

Further, it is not a new thing. It was precisely defined at Vatican Council I in order to clarify what was at that time a confusing issue, but this was by way of stating clearly what Christ's teaching was, not by way of adding anything new. Vatican I therefore carefully enumerated the conditions under which the Pope was in fact infallible; the same conditions which logic demands, which Scripture suggests, and which Tradition shows us in action down through the centuries.

When the Pope (1) defines (2) by virtue of his supreme authority (3) on a matter of FAITH or MORALS (4) to the whole Church, he is preserved by the Holy Spirit from error. His teaching act is therefore called "infallible" and the teaching which he articulates is termed "irreformable".

However, infallibility does not extend to ecclesiastical discipline (e.g. the Church's approval of torture and burning at the stake in bygone days), or to the judgement of people (e.g. the Church judgements of women wrongly accused of witchcraft), or to diplomacy (e.g. the Church's relationship with the World Council of Churches), or to what the Pope wrote or said prior to being pope (such as Karol Wojtya's poetry or short stories), or to his personal opinions, or to the Pope's impeccability (such as the personal sinlessness of pope saint Pius X ), or his personal sinfulness (such as the immoral personal lifestyle of Pope Alexander VI).

In spite of the personal character of any pope, no pope has ever taught error whilst fulfilling the 4 criteria above. In spite of Simon Peter's flaws, Jesus chose him to lead the Apostles. Where the Papacy is concerned we must distinguish the office (established by God) with the personal characteristics of the Pope. Infallibility is not open to the vote. It comes from Jesus' power, not Peter's faith. The job of the Papacy is to teach the way to salvation. The Magisterium (magister = teacher) of the Catholic Church is a teaching job. The Magisterium is the pontifical teaching mission of the Pope and the bishops in union with him. The Pope is also called the Pontiff, a word derived from pontifex which means bridge-maker, hence the Pope is seen as a bridge-maker between Earth and Heaven. ['Papacy' = the Pope's office or system of government. 'Office' = a position with specific duties]

Infallibility can be extraordinary, when the Pope defines a specific dogma of faith or morals, such as the Assumption of the Virgin Mary in 1950. Or it can be ordinary, being part of the faith and Tradition of the Church, such as the consistent and universal condemnation of contraception.

All canonisations are infallible in nature. The doctrine of the Trinity was infallibly defined at the council of Nicea by the Catholic Church (325 AD). The canon of the New Testament was infallibly defined at the Council of Trent in 1546. Therefore, anyone who accepts the teaching of the Trinity or the authenticity and accuracy of the Bible has the infallible Catholic Church to thank.

References: and FAQ on FAITH forum " NB name of principal contributor unknown

* Please note that this text should be read in the context of the whole work and in recognition of the appropriate paragraphs of the Catechism of the Catholic Church highlighted in the index.