“You Catholics say that the Pope is ‘infallible’. That means he’s never wrong, right?”
Since the Holy Father is very much in the news right now, I thought I’d start this series by clearing up some myths about the Bishop of Rome, the Successor of Saint Peter, the Pope. Most people, non-Catholics included, have heard that the Pope is infallible, but they probably don’t understand what that means. To answer the question above, it doesn’t mean that he’s never wrong, that he can’t sin, or anything like that.
Here’s an example. If the current Pontiff, Benedict XVI, were to say to you that he’s sure that Germany is going to win the World Cup, don’t run out and bet the mortgage. Like any loyal German, he wants Germany to win. He believes they can win. But he has no more ability to pick winners of sporting events than you or I do. In fact, given his workload, you and I may be more capable of doing the research needed in picking a winner than he is.
The doctrine of Papal Infallibility was officially declared to be doctrine by the first Vatican Council (1869-70), but it was recognized from the very beginning of the Church. It’s not like popes run around the Vatican making infallible proclamations. In fact the most recent case of the Pope speaking infallibly, or ex cathedra (Latin for ‘from the chair’) was in 1950 when Pius XII declared the Assumption of Mary to be an article of faith which must be believed by all Catholics.
Bishops can also speak ex cathedra, but not all by themselves. All the bishops, speaking in common with the Bishop of Rome may make infallible statements. The best example would be Church councils where the Church speaks with one voice. Infallibility only applies when the Church speaks on matters of faith and morals. When the Bishops are gathered in council and they all agree to order out for pizza, that’s not infallibility, it’s just a bunch of hungry guys.
Here’s what Vatican I said: “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.”
Like I said, you can count the number of ex cathedra statements made by all the Popes over the last 2,000 years on your fingers. Well maybe you’ll have to use a couple of toes, but the point stands. Examples of Popes speaking infallibly are few and far between. The last officially acknowledged example being the 1950 declaration of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin.
John Paul II made a pretty definitive statement on the all-male priesthood (Ordinatio Sacerdotalis). But the Church says that he was just restating something that everybody already knew.
This whole concept can get pretty deep, too deep for a short blog post. Suffice it to say that the Pope isn’t immune to making mistakes on every day things. He’s also not incapable of committing sin. But when he says something ex cathedra, we all have to believe it. But remember, it’s been more than 60 years since it happened so it’s not something that’s going to happen every day.
I’m going to give you some links to other material on this subject that might shed more light on it for you. Like I said, this short post isn’t intended to give you a full understanding of the whole matter, but just to whet your whistle to learn more.
Thanks for reading!
Jimmy Akin: Two Instances Of Papal Infallibility?