What Does Rome Mean By Papal Infallibility?

The impending arrival of the Bishop of Rome to Twitter (@Pontifex) has raised the question of papal infallibility in a new, late modern way. This seems like a good time to remind ourselves of what Rome teaches about the infallibility of papal teaching, when the Bishop of Rome speaks ex cathedra i.e., from his throne, with the special charism given to him, as Peter’s successor.

The General Audience (March 17, 1993), entitled, “The Successor of Peter Teaches Infallibly” says:


…there are cases in which the papal Magisterium is exercised solemnly regarding particular points of doctrine belonging to the deposit of revelation or closely connected with it. This is the case with ex cathedra definitions, such as those of Mary’s Immaculate Conception, made by Pius IX in 1854, and of her Assumption into heaven, made by Pius XII in 1950. As we know, these definitions have provided all Catholics with certainty in affirming these truths and in excluding all doubt in the matter.

It’s fascinating to observe that the two examples of papal infallibility cited both have to do with Marian dogma, that which has perhaps the least amount of support in Holy Scripture of any of Rome’s exaggerated claims. One is also certain that whole generations of medieval conciliarists were spinning in their individual graves

  1. at the assertion of papal infallibility (Avignon Papacy anyone?) and
  2. that infallibility was asserted in regards not to genuinely catholic (universal) truths confessed by Christians in all times and places but to the most sectarian of Rome’s tendentious doctrinal claims, which were hotly contested through the medieval period.

The explanation continues:

The reason for ex cathedra definitions is almost always to give this certification to the truths that are to be believed as belonging to the “deposit of faith” and to exclude all doubt, or even to condemn an error about their authenticity and meaning. This is the greatest and also the formal concentration of the doctrinal mission conferred by Jesus on the apostles and, in their person, on their successors.

Given the extraordinary greatness and importance that this Magisterium has for the faith, Christian tradition has recognized in the Successor of Peter, who exercises it personally or in communion with the bishops gathered in council, a charism of assistance from the Holy Spirit that is customarily called “infallibility.”

Here is what Vatican I said on the matter:

“When the Roman Pontiff speaks ex cathedra, that is, when in exercising his office as shepherd and teacher of all Christians he defines with his supreme apostolic authority that a doctrine on faith and morals is to be held by the whole Church, through the divine assistance promised him in the person of St. Peter, he enjoys that infallibility with which the divine Redeemer wished to endow his Church in defining a doctrine on faith and morals. Therefore, these definitions of the Roman Pontiff are unreformable per se, and not because of the Church’s consent” (DS 3074).

For those who assume that “everything changed” in Vatican II. Not so fast. John Paul II explained:

This doctrine was taken up again, confirmed and further explained by Vatican II, which states:

“And this is the infallibility which the Roman Pontiff, the head of the college of bishops, enjoys in virtue of his office, when, as the supreme shepherd and teacher of all the faithful, who confirms his brethren in their faith (cf. Lk 22:32), by a definitive act he proclaims a doctrine of faith or morals. And therefore his definitions, of themselves, and not from the consent of the Church, are justly styled irreformable, since they are pronounced with the assistance of the Holy Spirit, promised to him in blessed Peter, and therefore they need no approval of others, nor do they allow an appeal to any other judgment. For then the Roman Pontiff is not pronouncing judgment as a private person, but, as the supreme teacher of the universal Church, in whom the charism of infallibility of the Church itself is individually present, he is expounding or defending a doctrine of Catholic faith” (LG 25).

What did change in Vatican II was the mild re-assertion of the claim made by medieval conciliarists, those bishops and archbishops who wanted to balance the assertions of power by the papacy by re-asserting the authority of councils. Having been skunked in Vatican I by the papalists, the conciliarists were able to extend infallibility to councils.

It should be noted that the Second Vatican Council also calls attention to the Magisterium of the bishops in union with the Roman Pontiff, stressing that they too enjoy the Holy Spirit’s assistance when they define a point of faith in conjunction with the Successor of Peter:

Note that a council’s infallibility, however, exists “when they define a point of faith in conjunction with the pope. It would appear that a council’s infallibility is of a different kind and on a different order of the pope’s (post-Vatican I).

As I keep saying, if Rome will have an infallible pope and Petrine succession then they must him as anti-Christ, because it was to Peter that our Lord said, “Get behind me Satan.” Peter was the rock when he confessed Christ and anti-Christ when he denied him. What, however, will they do with Galatians 2? Peter erred grievously even after Pentecost. He was publicly rebuked by another apostle and, depending on how one reads NT chronology, potentially after a council at Jerusalem had spoken to the very issue on which Peter erred!

“The infallibility promised to the Church resides also in the body of Bishops, when that body exercises the supreme Magisterium with the Successor of Peter…. But when either the Roman Pontiff or the body of bishops together with him defines a judgment, they pronounce it in accordance with revelation itself, which all are obliged to abide by and be in conformity with, that is, the revelation which as written or orally handed down is transmitted in its entirety through the legitimate succession of bishops…which under the guiding light of the Spirit of truth is religiously preserved and faithfully expounded in the Church” (LG 25).

The Council also says:

“Although the individual bishops do not enjoy the prerogative of infallibility, they nevertheless proclaim Christ’s doctrine infallibly whenever, even though dispersed through the world, but still maintaining the bond of communion among themselves and with the Successor of Peter, and authentically teaching matters of faith and morals, they are in agreement on one position as definitively to be held. This is even more clearly verified when, gathered together in an ecumenical council, they are teachers and judges of faith and morals for the universal Church, whose definitions must be adhered to with the submission of faith. And this infallibility with which the divine Redeemer willed his Church to be endowed in defining doctrine of faith and morals, extends as far as the deposit of revelation extends” (LG 25).

Ironically, the web document from which this quotation was taken, contains HTML coding errors. Evidently the charism of given to the Apostle Peter (which he apparently exercised inconsistently and which the church didn’t fully realize for almost 2,000 years (!), does not extend to the the Vatican’s webmaster.

More seriously, as I mentioned the other day, the claim to ecclesiastical infallibility should remind us of the wisdom of WCF 25.5,6:

5. The purest churches under heaven are subject both to mixture and error; and some have so degenerated, as to become no churches of Christ, but synagogues of Satan. Nevertheless, there shall be always a church on earth, to worship God according to his will.

6. There is no other head of the church but the Lord Jesus Christ. Nor can the pope of Rome, in any sense, be head thereof.


WCF 31.3:

3. All synods or councils, since the Apostles’ times, whether general or particular, may err; and many have erred. Therefore they are not to be made the rule of faith, or practice; but to be used as a help in both.

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  1. “3. All synods or councils, since the Apostles’ times, whether general or particular, may err; and many have erred. Therefore they are not to be made the rule of faith, or practice; but to be used as a help in both.”


    And they have contradicted each other, even though they always do some theological gymnastics to try and wriggle out of that.

    I have much more confidence in ‘pay pal’ infallibility.

    Thank you, R.S. Clark.

  2. Having read through Jeremiah recently, chapter 23 came to mind upon reading your post. In this chapter the LORD through Jeremiah speaks out against the prophets condemning those who prophesy “declares the LORD” when, in fact, the LORD has not said. And:
    “But if they had stood in my council,
    then they would have proclaimed my words to my people,
    and they would have turned them from their evil way,
    and from the evil of their deeds.”

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