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Papal Infallibility
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Papal Infallibility

In Catholic theology, papal infallibility is the dogma that the Pope, when he solemnly defines a matter of faith and morals ex cathedra (that is, officially and as pastor of the universal Church), does not have the possibility of error. This doctrine was defined dogmatically by the First Vatican Council of 1870.

Table of contents
1 Theological history
2 Dogmatic definition of 1870
3 Use of infallibility
4 Dissent and ignorance
5 Orthodox churches
6 Anglican churches
7 External links

Theological history

Within Catholic theology, a number of Scriptural passages coalesce to indicate the primacy of the Roman Pontiff and the theological dogma of his infallibility, including:

The early church

Theology did not spring instantly and fully formed within the bosom of the earliest Church. "The doctrine of the Primacy of the Roman Bishops, like other Church teachings and institutions, has gone through a development. Thus the establishment of the Primacy recorded in the Gospels has gradually been more clearly recognised and its implications developed. Clear indications of the consciousness of the Primacy of the Roman bishops, and of the recognition of the Primacy by the other churches appear at the end of the 1st century" (Ott, Fund., Bk. IV, Pt. 2, Ch. 2, §6). St. Clement, c. 99, stated in a letter to the Corinthians: "Indeed you will give joy and gladness to us, if having become obedient to what we have written through the Holy Spirit, you will cut out the unlawful application of your zeal according to the exhortation which we have made in this epistle concerning peace and union" (Denziger §41, emphasis added). Thus, a clear understanding is evident: St. Clement of Alexandria wrote c. 200: "...the blessed Peter, the chosen, the pre-eminent, the first among the disciples, for whom alone with Himself the Savior paid the tribute..." (Jurgens §436). It is fitting and logical that fairly rapidly the implications of the understanding of the primacy of Peter would become clearer. The existence of an ecclesiastical hierarchy is emphazised by St. Stephan I, 251, in a letter to the bishop of Antioch: "Therefore did not that famous defender of the Gospel [Novatian] know that there ought to be one bishop in the Catholic Church [of the city of Rome]? It did not lie hidden from him..." (Denziger §45). St. Julius I, in 341 wrote to the Antiochenes: "Or do you not know that it is the custom to write to us first, and that here what is just is decided?" (Denziger §57a, emphasis added). It is apparent, then, that an understanding among the Apostles was written down in what became the Scriptures, and rapidly became the living custom of the Church. From there, a clearer theology could unfold. St. Siricius wrote to Himerius in 385: "To your inquiry we do not deny a legal reply, because we, upon whom greater zeal for the Christian religion is incumbent than upon the whole body, out of consideration for our office do not have the liberty to dissimulate, nor to remain silent. We carry the weight of all who are burdened; nay rather the blessed apostle PETER bears these in us, who, as we trust, protects us in all matters of his administration, and guards his heirs" (Denziger §87, emphasis in original). A clear move is seen, then, from the dogma of primacy of the bishop of Rome to the dogma that "what is just is decided" by the bishop of Rome, who has not even the right to fail in this regard.

Dogmatic definition of 1870

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 (see Denziger §1839).

Solemn definitions promulgated by ecumenical councils of the Catholic Church and affirmed by the Pope, such as the dogmatic definition quoted above, are themselves considered infallible.

Use of infallibility

The only statements of the Pope that are infallible are statements that either reiterate what has always been taught by the Church or are ex cathedra solemn definitions (which can never contradict what has formerly been taught; see e.g. Gal 1:8-9). Infallible statements in the former category are said to exercise the "Universal" or "Constant" Magisterium (and anyone who repeats what the church has always taught is considered infallible); infallible statements in the latter category are said to exercise the "Extraordinary" or "Solemn" Magisterium. Statements that exercise neither the Universal Magisterium or the Extraordinary Magisterium (i.e., statements that do not simply reiterate what has always been taught or which are not solemn definitions expressed ex cathedra) are not infallible, and are said to be an exercise of the merely authentic Magisterium. Such teaching is to be obeyed and given religious assent as long as it does not contradict infallible Magisterium and does not harm the faith or lead to sin.

The conditions required for ex cathedra teaching are mentioned in the Vatican decree:

Invocations of the Pope's Solemn (or "Extraordinary") Magisterium are rare. Since 1870 only one statement exercising the Solemn Magisterium has been made, Pope Pius XII's explicitly defining in 1950 the doctrine concerning the Assumption of Mary into Heaven. Some commentators regard the dogmatic definition of Papal Infallibility itself in 1870, and the dogma of the Immaculate Conception of Mary in 1854, to be other recent examples of infallible pronouncements.

Dissent and ignorance

Following the first Vatican Council, 1870, 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.

A few Catholics refuse to accept papal infallibility as a doctrine of faith, such as the theologian Hans Küng, author of Infallible? An Inquiry, and historian Garry Wills, author of Papal Sin. Other Catholics appear to be unfamiliar with the significance or meaning of the doctrine. A recent (1989-1992) survey of Catholics aged fifteen to twenty-five from multiple countries (the USA, Austria, Canada, Ecuador, France, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Korea, Peru, Spain and Switzerland), showed that 36.9% accepted the dogma of papal infallibility, 36.9% denied it, and 26.2% said they didn't know. (Source: Report on surveys of the International Marian Research Institute, by Johann G. Roten, S.M.)

According to Catholic theology, to the extent that their rejection of a dogma is deliberate, they separate themselves from the Church and are no longer members of the Body of Christ. In the case of the laymen it is plausible that they are ignorant to the point that they are not culpable; Catholic theology does teach, however, that it is a duty to be familiar with the details of one's faith (e.g., 1 Pet 3:15).

On the other hand, many Catholics and non Catholics believe that the doctrine teaches that the Pope is infallible in everything he says.

Orthodox churches

The Orthodox Church has a related but less clear-cut doctrine, Infallibility of the Church. This means that the Holy Spirit will not allow the whole Church to fall into Error, but leaves open the question of how this will be brought about in any specific case.

Anglican churches

The Church of England and its sister churches in the Anglican Communion reject papal infallibility, as do other Protestant churches, a rejection given expression in the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion (1571):

XIX. Of the Church. The visible Church of Christ is a congregation of faithful men, in which the pure Word of God is preached, and the Sacraments be duly ministered according to Christ's ordinance, in all those things that of necessity are requisite to the same. As the Church of Jerusalem, Alexandria, and Antioch, have erred, so also the Church of Rome hath erred, not only in their living and manner of Ceremonies, but also in matters of Faith.
XXI. Of the Authority of General Councils. General Councils may not be gathered together without the commandment and will of Princes. And when they be gathered together, (forasmuch as they be an assembly of men, whereof all be not governed with the Spirit and Word of God,) they may err, and sometimes have erred, even in things pertaining unto God. Wherefore things ordained by them as necessary to salvation have neither strength nor authority, unless it may be declared that they be taken out of holy Scripture.

External links