I know it’s been quite a while since my last post. I wish I could say I’ve been taking a break from the blog to study in Rome this winter. Someday, maybe …
I recently heard a radio news announcer almost deify the Holy Father when he asked whether Pope Benedict would “continue to be infallible” in his retirement. Even after another journalist tried to clarify the teaching on papal infallibility, the program host persisted in his error.
With such confusion around us, I thought it might be good to look at what the Church really teaches on infallibility.
Popes themselves are not infallible
First of all, popes themselves are not infallible, which means to be exempt or immune from liability to error. Most have been holy men but also bearers of original sin like the rest of us. The Church teaches that only papal proclamations connected to doctrinal authority are considered infallible.
According to the Catechism, “The Roman Pontiff, head of the college of bishops, enjoys this infallibility in virtue of his office, when, as supreme pastor and teacher of all the faithful – who confirms his brethren in the faith – he proclaims by a definitive act a doctrine pertaining to faith or morals …” (CCC891)
Since infallibility comes with the office, any statements Pope Benedict makes after he retires will not be considered infallible. Though history tells us some popes led less than exemplary lives, none of them compromised the Church’s Magisterium (teaching authority).
We hear a lot about papal infallibility but in reality, Catholics believe Christ granted this attribute not just to St. Peter and his successors but to His Church. He desires the unity of faith. Belief in the Church’s infallibility in defining faith and morals is Church dogma established at the first Vatican Council (1869-1870). Many Church fathers also wrote in support of the Church’s infallibility.
Evidence in Scripture
The concept of infallibility is not found explicitly in a particular scripture verse but the following passages, together with explanation from Catholic Encyclopedia, offer evidence that the Lord intended it.
- Matthew 28:18-20; The Church believes Christ gave the Apostles teaching authority, not just for themselves but to pass on to their successors.
- Matthew 16:18; “The gates of hell will not prevail” against the Church, which implies the assurance of infallibility in the exercise of her teaching office.
- John 14, 15, and 16; Jesus promises the Holy Spirit’s presence and assistance to His Church; the Spirit of truth is responsible for the veracity of Church teaching.
- I Timothy 3:14-15; St. Paul states that the Church is the “pillar and foundation” of truth.
- Acts 15:28 The authority of the Holy Spirit in Church teaching.
Since papal infallibility was defined at Vatican I, it has only been used directly once, to define the doctrine of the Assumption in 1950. Bl. John Paul II used it indirectly to declare in a 1994 apostolic letter that the Church doesn’t have authority to ordain women. The following year the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith declared that teaching belongs to the deposit of faith — the body of saving truth entrusted by Christ to the Apostles to be preserved and proclaimed.
Besides the pope himself, the college of bishops also speaks infallibly when exercising the Church’s Magisterium.
Drawing from Vatican II documents the Catechism states: “ … The infallibility promised to the Church is also present in the body of bishops when, together with Peter’s successor, they exercise the supreme Magisterium, above all in an Ecumenical Council. When the Church through its supreme Magisterium proposes a doctrine ‘for belief as being divinely revealed,’ and as the teaching of Christ the definitions ‘must be adhered to with the obedience of faith.’ This infallibility extends as far as the deposit of divine Revelation itself.” (CCC891)
The Holy Spirit’s 2,000-year guidance of the Catholic Church is evidence of the infallibility of her Magisterium. Not that it hasn’t been rocky sometimes. Still, it’s why I have confidence that the new pope will continue the tradition of teaching authoritatively — and infallibly — on faith and morals.