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In Roman Catholic theology, Papal infallibility is the dogma that the Pope is preserved from error when he solemnly promulgates, or declares, to the Church a dogmatic teaching on faith or morals.

This doctrine was defined dogmatically in the First Vatican Council of 1870. In Catholic theology, papal infallibility is one of the channels of the Infallibility of the Church. Papal infallibility does not signify that the Pope is impeccable, i.e., that he is specially exempt from liability to sin[1].

Conditions for papal infallibility[]

Statements by a pope that exercise papal infallibility are referred to as solemn papal definitions or ex cathedra teachings. These should not be confused with teachings that are infallible because of a solemn definition by an ecumenical council, or with teachings that are infallible in virtue of being taught by the ordinary and universal magisterium. For details on these other kinds of infallible teachings, see Infallibility of the Church.

According to the teaching of the First Vatican Council and Catholic tradition, the conditions required for ex cathedra teaching are as follows:

1. "the Roman Pontiff"
2. "speaks ex cathedra" ("that is, when in the discharge of his office as shepherd and teacher of all Christians, and by virtue of his supreme apostolic authority….")
3. "he defines"
4. "that a doctrine concerning faith or morals"
5. "must be held by the whole Church" (Pastor Aeternus, chap. 4.)

For a teaching by a pope or ecumenical council to be recognized as infallible, the teaching must make it clear that it is definitive and binding. There is not any specific phrasing required for this, but it is usually indicated by one or both of the following: (1) a verbal formula indicating that this teaching is definitive (such as "We declare, decree and define..."), or (2) an accompanying anathema stating that anyone who deliberately dissents is outside the Catholic Church. For example, in Munificentissimus Deus, Pope Pius XII's infallible definition regarding the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, there are attached these words: "Hence if anyone, which God forbid, should dare willfully to deny or to call into doubt that which We have defined, let him know that he has fallen away completely from the divine and Catholic Faith."

An infallible teaching by a pope or ecumenical council can contradict previous church teachings, as long as they were not themselves taught infallibly. In this case, the previous fallible teachings are immediately made void. Of course, an infallible teaching cannot contradict a previous infallible teaching. Also, due to the sensus fidelium, an infallible teaching cannot be subsequently contradicted by the Catholic Church, even if that subsequent teaching is in itself fallible.

It is the opinion of the majority of theologians that the canonizations of a Pope enter within the limits of his infallible teaching authority. Therefore, it is considered certain by this majority of Roman Catholic theologians, that such persons canonized are definitely in heaven with God. However, this opinion of infallibility of canonizations has never been definitively taught by the Magisterium. Other theologians, even those of earlier times, refer to this majority opinion, as a "pious opinion, but merely an opinion". Before the height of Middle Ages, saints were created not by the Bishop of Rome, but by the bishops of the local dioceses, confirming or rejecting the acclamation of the people calling for declaration of sanctity of a particular Christian person who passed away "in the odor of sanctity". In Roman Catholic teachings, diocesan bishops do not themselves possess the charism of infallibility, leaving these early Church canonizations without certainty of infallibility.

Ex cathedra[]

In Roman Catholic theology, the Latin phrase ex cathedra, literally meaning "from the chair", refers to a teaching by the Pope that is considered to be infallible when an official statement on behalf of Church doctrine.

The "chair" referred to is not a literal chair, but refers to the Pope's official position the "Chair of Peter"; as a judge may speak "from the bench" while not physically on it.

Theological history[]

Catholic apologists trace the history of this doctrine back to Scripture, while non-Catholics believe its origins came later.

Support for infallibility in Scripture[]

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

  • Jn 1:42; Mk 3:16 ("And to Simon he gave the name Peter", Cephas or Rock)
  • Matthew 16:18 ("thou art Peter; and upon this rock I will build my church"; cf. Matthew 7:24-28, the house built on rock)
  • Jn 16:13 ("when he, the Spirit of truth, is come, he will teach you all truth.")
  • Jn 14:26 ("the Holy Ghost, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things")
  • Jn 21:15-17 ("Feed my lambs/sheep") (stated three times)
  • Lk 10:16 ("He that heareth you, heareth me; and he that despiseth you, despiseth me; and he that despiseth me, despiseth him that sent me.")
  • Lk 22:31-32 ("confirm thy brethren")
  • 1 Tim 3:15 ("behave thyself in the house of God, which is ... the pillar and ground of the truth.")
  • 1 Jn 2:27 ("let the unction, which you have received from him, abide in you. And you have no need that any man teach you; but as his unction teacheth you of all things, and is truth, and is no lie. And as it hath taught you, abide in him.")
  • Acts 15:28 ("For it hath seemed good to the Holy Ghost and to us, ...") (the Apostles speak with voice of Holy Ghost)
  • Matthew 10:2 ("And the names of the twelve apostles are these: The first, Simon who is called Peter,...") (Peter is first)
  • Matthew 28:20 ("Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and behold I am with you all days...")
  • Ludwig Ott points out the many indications in Scripture that Peter was given a primary role with respect to the other Apostles: Mk 5:37, Matthew 17:1, Matthew 26:37, Lk 5:3, Matthew 17:27, Lk 22:32, Lk 24:34, and 1 Cor 15:5 (Fund., Bk. IV, Pt. 2, Ch. 2, §5).

The early church[]

Theology didn't 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).

St. Clement of Alexandria wrote on the primacy of Peter 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).

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).

Many of the Church Fathers spoke of ecumenical councils and the Bishop of Rome as possessing a reliable authority to teach the content of Scripture and tradition.

The Middle Ages[]

In the Middle Ages and the Renaissance the doctrine of infallibility developed further.

The first theologian to systematically discuss the infallibility of ecumenical councils was Theodore Abu Qurra in the 9th century.

Several medieval theologians discussed the infallibility of the pope when defining matters of faith and morals, including Thomas Aquinas and John Peter Olivi. In 1330, the Carmelite bishop Guido Terreni described the pope’s use of the charism of infallibility in terms very similar to those that would be used at Vatican I.

Dogmatic definition of 1870[]

In the conclusion of the fourth chapter of its Dogmatic Constitution on the Church Pastor Aeternus, solemnly promulgated by Pope Pius IX, the First Vatican Council in 1870 declared the following:

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.

So then, should anyone, which God forbid, have the temerity to reject this definition of ours: let him be anathema. (see Denziger §1839).

Vatican Council, Sess. IV, Const. de Ecclesiâ Christi, Chapter iv

According to Catholic theology, this is an infallible dogmatic definition by an ecumenical council. The infallibility of the pope was thus formally defined in 1870, although the tradition behind this view goes back much further, as described above.

The Dogmatic Constitution Lumen Gentium of the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, that was also a document on the Church itself, explicitly reafirmed the definition of papal infalibility, so as to avoid any doubts, expressing this in the following words:

This Sacred Council, following closely in the footsteps of the First Vatican Council, with that Council teaches and declares that Jesus Christ, the eternal Shepherd, established His holy Church, having sent forth the apostles as He Himself had been sent by the Father;(136) and He willed that their successors, namely the bishops, should be shepherds in His Church even to the consummation of the world. And in order that the episcopate itself might be one and undivided, He placed Blessed Peter over the other apostles, and instituted in him a permanent and visible source and foundation of unity of faith and communion. And all this teaching about the institution, the perpetuity, the meaning and reason for the sacred primacy of the Roman Pontiff and of his infallible magisterium, this Sacred Council again proposes to be firmly believed by all the faithful

Because the 1870 definition is not seen by Catholics as a creation of the Church, but as the dogmatic revelation of a Truth about the Papal Magisterium, Papal teachings made prior to the 1870 proclamation can, if they meet the criteria set out in the dogmatic definition, be considered infallible. Ineffabilis Deus is an example of this.

A detailed analysis of the First Vatican Council, and how the passage of the infallibility dogma was orchestrated, is contained in the book by the Catholic priest August Bernhard Hasler: HOW THE POPE BECAME INFALLIBLE: Pius IX and the Politics of Persuation, Doubleday (1981) [translation of WIE DER PAPST UNFEHLBAR WURDE: Macht und Ohnmacht eines Dogmas, R. Piper & Co. Verlag (1979)].

Instances of papal infallibility[]

Many non-Catholics, and even some Catholics, wrongly believe that the doctrine teaches that the Pope is infallible in everything he says. In reality, the use of papal infallibility is quite rare.

Catholic theologians agree that both Pope Pius IX's 1854 definition of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception of Mary, and Pope Pius XII's 1950 definition of the dogma of the Assumption of Mary are instances of papal infallibility ex cathedra. However, theologians disagree about what other documents qualify.

After Pope John Paul II's apostolic letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis (On Reserving Priestly Ordination to Men Alone) was released in 1994, a few commentators speculated that this might be an exercise of papal infallibility (for an example, see [2]). The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) seems to state it was not out of itself an infallible decree. However, the CDF stated that the content of this letter had already been taught infallibly by the ordinary and universal magisterium.

The Vatican itself has given no list of papal statements considered to be infallible. A 1998 commentary by Cardinal Ratzinger and Cardinal Bertone, the leaders of the CDF, listed a number of instances of infallible pronouncements by popes and by ecumenical councils, but explicitly stated that this was not meant to be a complete list.

The number of infallible pronouncements by ecumenical councils is significantly greater than the number of infallible pronouncements by popes.

Disagreement with this doctrine[]

Dissent within the Catholic Church[]

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 in schism with Rome, which became known as the Old Catholic Churches.

A few modern-day Catholics, including priests and bishops, 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 Roman Catholics rather appear to be unfamiliar with the significance or meaning of the doctrine. A recent (1989-1992) survey of Catholics from multiple countries (the USA, Austria, Canada, Ecuador, France, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Korea, Peru, Spain and Switzerland), aged 15 to 25 who may not yet fully understand the theology of infallibility, 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.)

Historical objections to the modern dogma of infallibility often appeal to the important work of Brian Tierney, Origins of Papal Infallibility 1150-1350 (Leiden, 1972). See also Ockham and Infallibility. The Rome-based Jesuit Wittgenstein scholar Garth Hallett argued that the dogma of infallibility was neither true nor false but meaningless; see his Darkness and Light: The Analysis of Doctrinal Statements (Paulist Press, 1975). In practice, he claims, the dogma seems to have no practical use and to have succumbed to the sense that it is irrelevant.

Orthodox churches[]

The views of the Eastern Orthodox Church concerning infallibility differ from those of the Roman Catholic Church. All Orthodox churches agree that the Holy Spirit will not allow the whole Church to fall into error, but leave open the question of how this will be ensured in any specific case. Most Greek Orthodox theologians agree that the first seven ecumenical councils were infallible, whereas Russian Orthodox theologians believe that the infallibility of these councils was derived from their reception by the Christian faithful. For details, see Infallibility of the Church.

Anglican churches[]

The Church of England and its sister churches in the Anglican Communion reject papal infallibility, 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.


John Wesley amended the Anglican Articles of Religion for use by Methodists, particularly those in America. Among the Methodist Articles, the following pertains to the Roman Catholic idea of papal authority as capable of defining articles of faith:

V. Of the Sufficiency of the Holy Scriptures for Salvation. The Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation; so that whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man that it should be believed as an article of faith, or be thought requisite or necessary to salvation...

Reformed churches[]

Presbyterian and Reformed churches also reject papal infallibility. The Westminster Confession of Faith [3] which was intended in 1646 to replace the Thirty-Nine Articles, contains the following:

(Chapter one) IX. The infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture is the Scripture itself: and therefore, when there is a question about the true and full sense of any Scripture (which is not manifold, but one), it must be searched and known by other places that speak more clearly.
(Chapter one) X. The supreme judge by which all controversies of religion are to be determined, and all decrees of councils, opinions of ancient writers, doctrines of men, and private spirits, are to be examined, and in whose sentence we are to rest, can be no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture.
(Chapter Twenty-Five) VI. 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; but is that Antichrist, that man of sin, and son of perdition, that exalts himself, in the Church, against Christ and all that is called God.

See also[]

Further reading[]


  • Gaillardetz, Richard. By What Authority?: A Primer on Scripture, the Magisterium, and the Sense of the Faithful (ISBN 0-8146-2872-9)
  • Hasler, Bernhard Hasler. HOW THE POPE BECAME INFALLIBLE: Pius IX and the Politics of Persuation, Doubleday (1981) [translation of WIE DER PAPST UNFEHLBAR WURDE: Macht und Ohnmacht eines Dogmas, R. Piper & Co. Verlag (1979)].
  • Lio, Ermenegildo. Humanae vitae e infallibilità: Paolo VI, il Concilio e Giovanni Paolo II (Teologia e filosofia) (ISBN 88-209-1528-6)
  • McClory, Robert. Power and the Papacy: The People and Politics Behind the Doctrine of Infallibility (ISBN 0-7648-0141-4)
  • Sullivan, Francis. Creative Fidelity: Weighing and Interpreting Documents of the Magisterium (ISBN 1-59244-208-0)
  • Sullivan, Francis. The Magisterium: Teaching Authority in the Catholic Church (ISBN 1-59244-060-6)
  • Tierney, Brian. Origins of Papal Infallibility, 1150-1350: A Study on the Concepts of Infallibility, Sovereignty and Tradition in the Middle Ages (ISBN 90-04-08884-9)

External links[]



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