The Nazarene Way of Essenic Studies
~ Papal Infallibility ~
The Pope and the Impossibility of Error

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), it does not have the possibility of error. This doctrine was defined dogmatically by the First Vatican Council of 1870. 

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 recognized 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". 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".

 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...". 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 emphasized 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...". 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?"  

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" 

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.

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; 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). 

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. 

Theological History

Within Catholic theology, a number of Scriptural passages are used 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
Mt 16:18 "thou art Peter; and upon this rock I will build my church"; cf. Mt 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."
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."
Ac 15:28 "For it hath seemed good to the Holy Ghost and to us, ... the Apostles speak with voice of Holy Ghost
Mt 10:2 "And the names of the twelve apostles are these: The first, Simon who is called Peter,..." (Peter is first) 
Mt 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 , Mt 17:1, Mt 26:37, Lk 5:3, Mt 17:27, Lk 22:32, Lk 24:34, and 1 Cor; 15:5

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Papal Infallibility