The Limits of Papal Infallibility

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By Grady Stuckman, Franciscan University of Steubenville

This may seem paradoxical.  A leader who supposedly has been given unlimited power to teach as God’s representative on earth, is limited in some way.  Yet, such is true in the Catholic religion, so as to protect all Catholics—including the Pope himself.  

For starters, Catholic teaching on authority in general must be properly understood.  Any authority figure, whether he be a father, policeman, priest, president, or pope, has the primary duty to protect those under his care (Summa Theologica, I-II.90.4).  This implies that as a father should provide his children with food so that their bodies develop properly, the “Holy Father” of all Christians, analogously, ought to provide his subjects with spiritual goods (that is, true teaching in accordance with the rest of Divine Revelation).

However, any sort of human authority, even those of authorities within the Church, is subject to error and failing, some of which the person in authority might not even be aware of.  To protect the Pope from subverting the wonderful task he has been given, which is to guard Christian revelation as it has been handed down through the ages (and clarify it if necessary), a distinction is made between fallible and infallible teaching.  Most teaching, or “ordinary” teaching, would be considered fallible. Such statements would be found in encyclicals and apostolic exhortations (frequent letters the Pope writes regarding certain themes). Despite not being infallible, the Pope still writes authoritatively in these situations, and so if you’re going to disagree with him, you’d better have a good reason steeped in the deposit of faith.  

As for infallible, or “extraordinary” teaching, it is done through ex cathedra statements and ecumenical councils.  As history shows us, the latter is the preferred mode of teaching, as it highlights the Pope’s harmony with his fellow bishops.  Traditionally, the teaching of an ecumenical council is given through “canons,” which essentially are statements condemning false beliefs.  

On the contrary, an ex cathedra (“from-the-chair”) statement is phrased positively.  As it was not fully defined until the nineteenth century at the First Vatican Council, it has not been invoked much in Church history.  Four conditions, according to the decree Pastor Aeturnus, are required for infallible teaching to occur:

  1. The Pope, speaking from the chair of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome,
  2. Intending to exercise his office of teaching all Christians
  3. Intending to exercise supreme apostolic authority
  4. To define a statement concerning faith or morals to be held by all Catholics.

Only two such statements have definitely been made.  Some theologians argue for more, but these are the only two that have been unmistakably made according to the four conditions above: the dogma of the Immaculate Conception (Pope Pius IX, 1854) and the dogma of the Assumption (Pope Pius XII, 1950).  In both cases, each dogma was already held in belief by many Catholics, but the Pope made the dogma binding so as to not leave Catholics confused about the true belief. Such is particularly true of the Immaculate Conception, which two saints in the Middle Ages disagreed on.  Therefore, the pope is not adding “extra” teaching to what Christ has already taught, but is clarifying confusion about true Christian doctrine.

Usually, the objection arises here: Would a bad pope deliver false, infallible teaching, thus invalidating the whole premise of infallibility?  Such would never happen in God’s providential plan. It would be better for a brick to crush the Pope’s head than for him to deliver false infallible teaching and confound the whole Church.  Scripture tells us: “You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of hell will never prevail against it.” (c.f. Matthew 16:18).

In conclusion, it would, in fact, be erroneous to think that everything the Pope says or does is direct word of God.  Such would contradict the critical belief that all the revelation a Christian needs is within Scripture (God’s word) and Tradition (the context of receiving God’s word), as interpreted by the Magisterium (the joint teaching authority of the Pope and bishops).  This would make one guilty of two heresies: “Montanism,” or the false belief that God reveals new, binding teaching after the age of Christ and the Apostles, and “Ultramontanism,” or the false belief that all papal teaching is infallible. Rather, as the U.S. president defends the Constitution for the sake of all Americans, the pope defends true Christian teaching for the sake of all Catholics. 

3 Responses

  1. If we are going to use the Council of Jerusalem in Acts 15 as a model for future councils, the letter to the Gentiles from the council was sent by the “The apostles and elders and brethren” (15:23), and said that “it seemed good to the Holy Ghost and to us” (15:28). The letter was sent by the whole Church; and the Holy Ghost was the final authority even though Peter and Paul were both present at the council.
    Vatican II, in Dei Verbum 21 says: “Therefore, like the Christian religion itself, all the preaching of the Church must be nourished and regulated by Sacred Scripture. Sacred Scripture is the authoritative response to critical issues, when necessary, if there is anything earthly needed for a manifestation of Divine Revelation.
    When Scripture was compiled in the fourth century by the councils, the whole Church was present, both east and west, and not just the Roman Church.

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