Papal infallibility

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Papal infallibility was defined by the First Vatican Council of 1870 as the dogma that the Pope, when he speaks on matters of faith and morals ex cathedra (that is, officially), does not have the possibility of error.

Vatican Council, Sess. IV, Const. de Ecclesiâ Christi, c. iv, holds:

We teach and define that it is a dogma Divinely revealed that the Roman pontiff when he speaks ex cathedra, that is when in discharge of the office of pastor and doctor of all Christians, by virtue of his supreme Apostolic authority, he defines a doctrine regarding faith or morals to be held by the universal Church, by the Divine assistance promised to him in Blessed Peter, is possessed of that infallibility with which the Divine Redeemer willed that his Church should be endowed in defining doctrine regarding faith or morals, and that therefore such definitions of the Roman pontiff are of themselves and not from the consent of the Church irreformable.

Following the first Vatican Council, 1870, a dissent, mostly among German, Austrian and Swiss Catholics, arose over the definition of Papal Infallibility. The dissenters, holding the General Councils of the Church infallible, were unwilling to accept the dogma of Papal Infallibility. Many of these Catholics formed independent communities which became known as the Old Catholic Church.

Some non-Catholic Christians point out that some statements made by Popes of the past seem out of place in the more ecumenical position of the Roman Catholic Church today. For example:

"There is but one universal Church of the faithful, outside of which no one at all can be saved" (Pope Innocent III, Fourth Lateran Council, 1215.)
"We declare, say, define, and pronounce that it is absolutely necessary for the salvation of every human creature to be subject to the Roman Pontiff" (Pope Boniface VIII, the Bull Unam Sanctam, 1302.)

But Catholics point out that only ex cathedra statements of the Pope are infallible, and that many of the statements that opponents of papal infallibility point to are not ex cathedra. The conditions required for ex cathedra teaching are mentioned in the Vatican decree:

  • The pontiff must teach in his public and official capacity as spiritual head of the Church universal, not merely in his private capacity as a theologian.
  • He must be teaching some doctrine of faith or morals.
  • It must be evident that he intends to teach with his supreme Apostolic authority. In other words, he must convey his wish to determine some point of doctrine in an absolutely final and irrevocable way. There are well-recognized formulas that are used to express this intention.
  • It must be clear that the pope intends to bind the whole Church. Unless the pope formally addresses the whole Church in the recognized official way, he is assumed to not intend his teaching to be ex cathedra and infallible.

The clearest recent statement of the church on its understanding of infallibility is in the Catechism of the Catholic Church promulgated in 1994, in which papal infallibility is clearly understood as an aspect of the infallibility of the Church Herself rather than as a personal authority (sections 889-892).

Critique of Papal infallability

Different popes were saying different and often completely opposite thing about matters of faith. As one of the bishops said at the First Vatican Council, if such dogma were going to be passed, it would have to be in power only since 1870. Before the First Vatican Council there was no concept such as ex cathedra. Critics assert that it was invented merely to arbitrarily accept or reject opinions of previous popes and that, even though the conditions required for ex cathedra teaching are spelled out in the Vatican decree (and listed above), there is no official method of differentation between ex cathedra or not (other than "'cause we're saying so").

See also the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, who hold a similar belief about the LDS Prophet.

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