Papal infallibility simplified and explained

I am starting this thread on papal infallibility since it seems that many have quite a confusion on what it is and when it is applicable. I will give quotes from books and references that I have found most useful in explaining what it means when we as Catholics state that the pope is infallible.

First of all Papal infallibility was believed by Catholics before Vatican I. But it was not until then that it became a dogma. For that reason let us start by describing what Vatican I had to say about papal infallibility.

Vatican I: Therefore, faithfully adhering to the tradition received from the beginning of the Christian faith, to the glory of God our savior, for the exaltation of the Catholic religion and for the salvation of the Christian people, with the approval of the Sacred Council, we teach and define as a divinely revealed dogma that when the Roman Pontiff speaks EX CATHEDRA, that is, when, in the exercise of his office as shepherd and teacher of all Christians, in virtue of his supreme apostolic authority, he defines a doctrine concerning faith or morals to be held by the whole Church, he possesses, by the divine assistance promised to him in blessed Peter, that infallibility which the divine Redeemer willed his Church to enjoy in defining doctrine concerning faith or morals. Therefore, such definitions of the Roman Pontiff are of themselves, and not by the consent of the Church, irreformable.

Thus this means that the pope is infallible when he speaks Ex Cathedra. This means that the Pope speaks in behalf of not only a group of Catholics, or nation, but over the whole Church as the Supreme Pontiff, and that he speaks with utmost authority, and defines a dogma within the area of faith and moral then he is infallible. Thus not everything necessarily that comes out of the popes mouth is necessarily infallible. Say the pope speaks about the economy. Thus the pope could also say something regarding faith or morals whether in private, or in writing that is wrong and contains error. Yet this would not be true if the pope happens to be exercising Ex Cathedra. Since the pope is not speaking humanely anymore but it is the Holy Spirit speaking through the pope.

Thus there have been popes that have privately fallen into heresy whether by letter or action such as Pope John XXII, or Pope Honorius. This is described in Saint Francis de Sales’ book The Catholic Controversy

The Catholic Controversy Chapter XIV
Thus we do not say that the Pope cannot err in his private opinions, as did John XXII.; or be altogether a heretic, as perhaps Honorius was. Now when he is explicitly a heretic, he falls ipso facto from his dignity and out of the Church, and the Church must either deprive him, or, as some say, declare him deprived, of his Apostolic See, and must say as S. Peter did: let another take his bishopric. When he errs in his private opinion he must be instructed, advised, convinced; as happened with John XXII., who was so far from dying obstinate or from determining anything during his life concerning his opinion, that he died whilst he was making the examination which is necessary for determining in a matter of, as his successor declared in the Extravagantes which begins Benedictus Deus.

But when he is clothed with the pontifical garments, I mean when he teaches the whole church as shepherd , in general matters of faith and morals, then there is nothing but doctrine and truth.

So everything the Pope says is not canon law or of legal obligation; he must mean to define and to lay down the law for the sheep, and he must keep the due order and form. Thus we say that we must appeal to him not as to a learned man for in this he is ordinarily surpassed by some others; but as to the general head and pastor of the Church; and as such we must honor, follow, and firmly embraced his doctrine, for then he carries on his breast the Urim and Thummim, doctrine and truth. And where his judgment is infallible, but then only when he gives judgment on a matter of faith in questions necessary to the whole Church.

Theologians have said, in a word, that he can err in questions of fact, not in questions of right; that he can err extra cathedram, outside the chair of Peter, that is, as a private individual, by wrings and bad example. But he cannot err when he is in cathedra, that is, when he intends to make an instruction and decree for the guidance of the while Church, when he means to confirm his brethren as supreme pastor, and to conduct them into the pastures of the faith.

Fr John Laux’s Catholic Apologetics
The Infallibility of the Pope

  1. The infallibility of the Pope, rightly understood, presents no difficulty to anyone who believes that Christ left to His Church an infallible teaching body that solemnly declared at the Vatican council (1870) that the Pope is protected by a special divine guidance against error whenever he decides upon matters of faith or morals and commands the whole Church to accept his decision. The council did not declare that the Pope cannot sin; neither did it declare that he can in no way err; nor that he cannot personally hold erroneous views in matters of faith, but merely that he is infallible, not subject to error, when he decides ex cathedra- that is as Head and Teacher of the whole Church-upon matters of faith and morals.
  1. Infallibility does not depend upon the virtue or the learning of the Pope, but on the special assistance of the Holy ghost, given him according to the promise of Christ, who said to Peter: “I have prayed for thee that thy faith fail not, and thou, being once converted, confirm thy brethren.” (Luke 22:32) Hence in defining the Infallibility of the Successor of St. Peter, the Vatican Council did not introduce a new doctrine, but simply defined-i.e., solemnly declared in precise words- the ordinary and normal mode in which Christ willed and provided that His Church should be kept infallibly in the path of divine truth and saved from the assaults of foes.

There is no new doctrine ever. There is only a development of doctrine which means a greater understanding of what has always been present as the need arises for the answer to some challenge to truth. As you say, it was believed before Vatican I.

What Vatican I did in its dogma on papal infallibility was to meet and defeat the error of Gallicanism in the nineteenth century which “asserted the more or less complete freedom of the Catholic Church from the ecclesiastical authority of the bishop of Rome.” The result of this error “was widespread confusion among the faithful, especially in the realm of doctrine, where the Pope had for centuries exercised supreme teaching authority in full accord, it was assumed, with the premises of revelation.

“When the First Vatican Council met in 1869, Gallicanism was answered in a way that left no doubt about the main issues under controversy, namely, who possesses the gift of infallibility, when is it exercised, and what is the scope of infallible teaching.”
The Catholic Catechism, Fr John A Hardon, S.J., Doubleday, 1975, p228-9].

If it was always believed, then why wasn’t it declared an infallible belief before or immediately following the schism?

Thank you for the post:). I did not know about Gallicanism

which schism specifically? There have been more than one I believe.

There is a lot of Catholic doctrines that were not defined as dogmas but where never less believed by Catholics. For example it was not until Pope Pius XII made the Assumption of Mary a dogma in 1950, yet many Catholics already believed this dating as far back as the Early Church Fathers.

As an other poster stated dogmas and doctrines don’t change only our understanding of them.

For example a six year old son knows who his father is. He can point at his dad and say this is my father. Yet he only has a basic understanding of who his father is.

However let that boy grow up to be 18 and his understanding of his father is a lot different. Not only can he point and say who his father is, but more so he can tell you a lot about his father. He can tell you what food he likes, he can tell you what his dad does not like. He can tell you his defects, his accomplishments, his qualities, and much more. Why? Because he has a much deeper understanding of who his father is. He does not only about his father but he personally knows his father.

This is the case with any dogma such as papal infallibility. The Church has always taught that the pope is infallible but throughout the ages our understanding of what that means has deepened.

The one that happened approx. 1054 :slight_smile:

If it was always believed then why isn’t it believed the same by the East? Don’t they come from the same Tradition?

dronald #4
If it was always believed, then why wasn’t it declared an infallible belief before or immediately following the schism?

The fact is that only some Catholics known as “Orthodox” went into schism while the rest remained faithful to the Pope.

The need in the 19th century was due to the widespread confusion among the faithful, especially in the realm of doctrine following the errors of Gallicanism.

So those Orthodox either forgot their Tradition or just stopped believing it?

Some in the east believe it, for example Coptics

I may be wrong but I read somewhere that the reason that the Orthodox split from the Catholic Church had to do more with political and imperial reasons than about the faith itself.

It’s much more complex than that, and has so many facets from political, cultural, and geographic angles more than theological ones.

That is about the stent of my expertise, maybe someone could PM Markut, he is orthodox Coptic in union with Rome.

Just want to point out that this is a very complex issue that is slowly being resolved…so let’s work toward that goal.


dronald #9
So those Orthodox either forgot their Tradition or just stopped believing it?

You don’t seem to know that those Eastern Catholics were all in unity with the Holy See as were all other Catholics.

It’s interesting also that Arnold Lunn in Now I See, Sheed & Ward, 1955) could quote from the Anglican Vicar of Oddington, Rev S Herbert Scott, that St Peter and his successors were recognised as the supreme judges in matters of faith by a long succession of great Eastern saints, Ignatius, Irenaeus, Denys, Athanasius, Chrysostom, and others.

Scott quotes from the Graeco-Slav Liturgy at the Council of Nicea I addressing the Pope, St Silvester, who was not himself present: “…thou didst appear as a pillar of fire, snatching the faithful from Egyptian error (sc. Arius) and continually leading them with unerring teachings to divine light.” [Op. cit. Lunn, p 218-9]. Sir Arnold remarks that “This unwilling tribute from the Greek Church of today to the ‘unerring teaching’ of the Roman Pope is most impressive.”

This is inaccurate. The immediate purpose of the Decree on “papal” infallibility was to combat the errors of the NEO-ultramontantists (Absolutist Petrine advocates). The Gallican errors were sufficiently addressed by prior Councils, so that was definitely not V1’s focus. In fact, Gallicanism was not even a concern to the V1 Fathers until the final few days of the Council. The majority of the discussion on the papal prerogatives was focused on correcting the errors of the NEO-ultramontanists, whose extreme views about the papacy were causing secular governments to threaten the Council.

This needs to be understood properly because too many Catholics have the false impression that V1 intended to increase the authority of the Pope. Far from it, it actually meant to (relatively) DEcrease it as a response to the excesses of the NEO-ultramontantists.


I realize they were all united with Rome, which means they should have the same Tradition. Because they have the same Tradition they should both conclude that Papal infallibility is truth.

I’m not speaking of the Political and cultural differences that caused the schism, rather the Theological differences that arose from the same “Tradition.” All this does is confuse me when Catholics say, “we proclaimed it in the 19th century but it was always believed.”

Ah Marduk not markut!

He is here with his wonderful insight!

I think a good understanding of what a dogma is would help clarify any confusion you might have regarding why things become dogmas later on such as the Assumption or Papal infallibility

From Wikipedida

In the Roman Catholic Church, a dogma (plural dogmata) is an article of faith revealed by God, which the magisterium of the Church presents as necessary to be believed if one freely chooses to be a Catholic.[1] For example, Christian dogma states that the resurrection of Jesus Christ is the basic truth from which salvation and life is derived for Christians. Dogmata regulate the language, how the truth of the resurrection is to be believed and communicated. One dogma is only a small particle of the living Christian faith, from which it derives its meaning.[2] Roman Catholic Dogma is thus: “a truth revealed by God, which the magisterium of the Church declared as binding.”[3] :

From NewAdvent

Dogma and the Church
Revealed truths become formally dogmas when defined or proposed by the Church. There is considerable hostility, in modern times, to dogmatic religion when considered as a body of truths defined by the Church, and still more when considered as defined by the pope. The theory of dogma which is here expounded depends for its acceptance on the doctrine of the infallible teaching office of the Church and of the Roman pontiff. It will be sufficient to notice the following points, (1) the reasonableness of the definition of dogma; (2) the immutability of dogma; (3) the necessity for Church unity of belief in dogma (4) the inconveniences which are alleged to be associated with the definition of dogma.

(1) Against the theory of interpretation of Scripture by private judgement, Catholics regard as absolutely unacceptable the view that God revealed a body of truths to the world and appointed no official teacher of revealed truth, no authoritative judge of controversy; this view is as unreasonable as would be the notion that the civil legislature makes laws and then commits to individual private judgment the right and the duty of interpreting the laws and deciding controversies. The Church and the supreme pontiff are endowed by God with the privilege of infallibility in discharge of the duty of universal teacher in the sphere of faith and morals; hence we have an infallible testimony that the dogmas defined and delivered to us by the Church are the truths contained in Divine revelation.

(2) The dogmas of the Church are immutable. Modernists hold that religious dogmas, as such, have no intellectual meaning, that we are not bound to believe them mentally, that they may be all false, that it is sufficient if we use them a guides to action; and accordingly they teach that dogmas are not immutable, that they should be changed when the spirit of the age is opposed to them, when they lose their value as rules for a liberal religious life. But in the Catholic doctrine that Divine revelation is addressed to the human mind and expresses real objective truth, dogmas are immutable Divine truths. It is an immutable truth for all time that Augustus was Emperor of Rome and George Washington first President of the United States. So according to Catholic belief, these are and will be for all time immutable truths — that there are three Persons in God, that Christ died for us, that He arose from the dead, that He founded the Church, that He instituted the sacraments. We may distinguish between the truths themselves and the language in which they are expressed. The full meaning of certain revealed truths has been only gradually brought out; the truths will always remain. Language may change or may receive a new meaning; but we can always learn what meaning was attached to particular words in the past.

(3) We are bound to believe revealed truths irrespective of their definition by the Church, if we are satisfied that God has revealed them. When they are proposed or defined by the Church, and thus become dogmas, we are bound to believe them in order to maintain the bond of faith. (See HERESY).

(4) Finally, Catholics do not admit that, as is sometimes alleged, dogmas are the arbitrary creations of ecclesiastical authority, that they are multiplied at will, that they are devices for keeping the ignorant in subjection, that they are obstacles to conversions. Some of these are points of controversy which cannot be settled without reference to more fundamental questions. Dogmatic definitions would be arbitrary if there were no Divinely instituted infallible teaching office in the Church; but if, as Catholics maintain, God has established in His Church an infallible office, dogmatic definitions cannot be considered arbitrary. The same Divine Providence which preserves the Church from error will preserve her from inordinate multiplication of dogmas. She cannot define arbitrarily. We need only observe the life of the Church or of the Roman pontiffs to see that dogmas are not multiplied inordinately. And as dogmatic definitions are but the authentic interpretation and declaration of the meaning of Divine revelation, they cannot be considered devices for keeping the ignorant in subjection, or reasonable obstacles to conversions, on the contrary, the authoritative definition of truth and condemnation of error, are powerful arguments leading to the Church those who seek the truth earnestly.

Well, I think it should be noted that the Orthodox in general believe the Pope holds primacy. That the Bishop of Rome is the prime see of the church.

Where conflict arises is in what that means exactly.

A view that the Pope is less authoritarian and more of a servant to the Churches dogma, and yet still “first among the apostles” and when called to exercise infallibility is infallible by the Holy Spirit, is the key to reunification and we may just have the pope to do that now.

The Catholics will need to relinquish a little of the perceived power and the Orthodox, grant a little more of a sense of Primacy to Rome alongside the mutual healing from over 1000 years of hurt feelings,.

Churches like Marduk’s will be key to that.

The foundation is there to reunify.

The MOST IMPORTANT THING to understand about Papal infallbility is that there is no reason for the average layperson to even know that it exists, much less which teachings fall into this category.

The distinction is of importance only to theologians and the occasional apologist.

There is a HUGE misunderstanding that Catholics are only required to accept teaching that has been defined as infallible. That is absolute nonsense. Catholics are required to accept ALL Catholic doctrine. Nothing about this ever changed after Vatican-1. When someone comes here and asks, “is so-and-so infallible?” they are almost always asking because they don’t understand that it doesn’t matter.

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