Criteria for Papal Infallibility


In Infallibility: The Crossroads of Doctrine (1977), by Peter Chirico, S.S., the author argues against a simple-minded interpretation of the criteria for papal infallibility (p. 229):

Generations of student priests have been brought up with the belief that God decreed four conditions (the number usually given in the textbooks) under which the pope is infallible. These conditions apparently derive from divine fiat and have no assigned rooting in the nature of things. They were not discoverable in the Bible; they were not grounded in the nature of human and Christian understanding; they were simply decreed by the council as four separate conditions that had to be achieved before the pope became infallible. Further, as soon as the pope announced explicitly or implicitly that these conditions had been fulfilled, by that fact he became instantly infallible. If he were going to make an incorrect statement, God would strike him dead or prevent him in some other way from speaking. Hence one could understand how W. G. Ward might hope for a new infallible statement by the pope daily at breakfast, along with his Times. The above might seem to be a caricature of the teaching of the textbook theologians. However, it comes dangerously close to the interior understanding of infallibility of many a loyal Catholic layman, priest, and bishop.

(Footnote): For the kind of textbook treatment most priests have been exposed to see A. Tanquerey, Synopsis Theologiae Dogmaticae, I, 26th ed. (Paris: Desclee, 1949), pp. 585-603. Hardly two pages are given to an explanation of the conditions of infallibility, and no attempt is made to explain why these conditions are required. Tanquerey’s treatment is typical of the education of priests on the subject in most parts of the world prior to 1960. This is the approach which practially all bishops in office in today’s Church have been taught, since most of them were in the seminary prior to 1960.

I was wondering how many here would agree with what Fr. Chirico says here, versus how many would claim that the strawman he presents actually captures the true teaching of the Church as regards papal infallibility.



The Pope does not become infallible, the teaching is declared to be infallible. Another thing, infallibility is not a title bestowed by a pope or councils, ie, the pope cannot chose which teachings are infallible or not. The fact that a doctrine is infallible is revealed by God to the Magisterium.



Here’s how infallibility works:

Given: the Pope is the boss, in charge of the Church.


  1. The boss is always right.

  2. When the boss is not right, refer to rule #1.



[quote=AlanFromWichita]1. The boss is always right.

  1. When the boss is not right, refer to rule #1.

So what does it mean when the boss says he is not infallible?

From an article/book review arguing the ex cathedra status of Humanae Vitae:

Indeed - strange as this may seem at first sight - it could never be decided even by seeking out independent historical evidence as to whether or not Pope Paul himself considered Humanae Vitae to be infallible.

What does matter, of course, is the public document itself and its objectively expressed meaning. If the wording and content of Humanae Vitae do not fulfil the conditions laid down by the 1870 dogma, then a press-spokesman’s comment to the media could not somehow “make” it infallible, even if that spokesman happened to be the Pope himself! And conversely,if the document does manifestly fulfil those conditions, then Catholics can know with certainty that God protected the Pope from error in making that pronouncement, even if the Holy Father himself was not fully certain of that fact at the time.

However, Fr. Chirico considers this to be utter nonsense. In his synthesis of the theology of infallibility, the pope must be aware of the infallible nature of the truth he is defining:

It means that one cannot, as it were, slide an infallible proclamation past the pope’s desk. One cannot get the pope to approve infallibly a statement that he has not understood and assimilated. One cannot, in other words, get the pope to agree freely that whatever some commission holds will now be infallibly proclaimed even though the pope does not understand what the commission holds. Because of this assumption, the basic rule of the interpretation of infallible papal statements is to discover the “mind of the pontiff.” (p. 145)


Infallibility is a quality of a subject; it is defined and limited by that subject’s self-awareness. It is that subjective certitude which accompanies self-awareness. The subject can never be more certain than he is of his own self-awareness. That self-awareness is the standard and limit of his certitude. (p. 151)

So which of these two diametrically opposed viewpoints is true?



If the doctrine of councilar infallibility is no good then what good is the doctrine of papal infallibility? None. I go with the council over the good father.

However I do see one underlying point. The doctrine of Papal infallibility is a minor one with respect to papal decrees which Ludwig Ott puts at about 20 over the years. It is more significant when you look at it from the perspective of decrees not made. It should also be noted that people have a tendency to conclude that because a statement by a pope is not expressly infallible it is therefore fallible. A false way of thinking at approaching other encyclicals and pastoral letters that undermines the infallible doctrine of Papal Supremacy.




That’s fascinating, and does a better job of making this a sticky issue than I have so far! :confused:





The one thing that these infallibility discussions neglect and that doesn’t get it’s fair billing is the dogma of papal primacy. From a decrees standpoint this is a much more significant doctrine. The Bishop of Rome is the Supreme Pontiff and is to be obeyed regardless. This is contained in the Vatican I cannons as well. The sacred scriptures don’t just say that he is to be obeyed when he makes an infallible statement on faith and morals but say “WHATEVER you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven.”.




Infallibility of the pope has been implicit since Peter took the Chair (Jn 21:15-17, Lk 22:32, Mt 16:18). Infallibility belongs to the pope and the unified body of bishops including the pope (ecumenical council) when they solemnly teach a doctrine regarding faith or morals as true.

Neither the pope, nor Peter were infallible in all things…they sin as we all do…they’re actions are not always the most commendable; yet, when they solemnly teach on faith and morals and proclaim doctrine as infallible, it becomes so. For example…the episles of Peter are teaching documents.
Not all teachings of the pope are infallible. Only solemn, ***official ***teachings on faith and morals can be infallible. Popes offer many theological opinions of their own – but only those solemnly declared to be infallible are indeed infallible. For example, many take the pope’s comments on the war in Iraq as infallible, but he only offered his opinions based on his knowledge of the situation.

Of course, regardless of papal infallibility, we must respect the office of the papacy, bishop, and pastor. Such respect means being obedient. Our society, being independant and self-centerred, seems to have lost the idea of sacred obedience. If we look at the lives of the saints, we will see many cases when we woiuld have fought back rather than submit in humble obedience as they did.

Love & peace in Christ,



Is there a form the Pope’s declaration muxt take?
I mean Humanae Vitae is an encyclical but there are tons of encyclicals that are important but obviously not infallible pronouncements (Rerum Novarum et seq., for example).
Would HV have been stronger if it had been a bull? What exactly is the difference?



The pope would have to make clear that he is defining a matter of faith and/or morals from the chair of St Peter. The HV is a very strong statement containing within it Catholic teaching and dogma, but the document as a whole would not be infallible. However, one would be hard pressed to argue anything contained. As Catholics, we should take such pastoral teachings from the pope very seriously and obediently.



I don’t think bulls are used anymore today. An encyclical is the highest documenary form of the papal magisterium. An examle of a lesser form is the apostolic exhortation.



[quote=trailblazer]Of course, regardless of papal infallibility, we must respect the office of the papacy, bishop, and pastor. Such respect means being obedient. Our society, being independant and self-centerred, seems to have lost the idea of sacred obedience. If we look at the lives of the saints, we will see many cases when we woiuld have fought back rather than submit in humble obedience as they did.

I agree. Humble obedience is always a good approach to embrace. In some sense it is a moderate approach between two extremes: disobedience (e.g., trying to convince others that Humanae Vitae is wrong) and haughty obedience (e.g., calling those who dissent from Humanae Vitae heretics).


closed #13

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