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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 Ecclesi‚ 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.

Dogmas promulgated by ecumenical councils of the Catholic Church, such as the dogmatic definition quoted above, are themselves considered infallible.

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.

The only statements of the Pope that are infallible are ex cathedra statements, and 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.

Invocations of papal infallibility are rare. The most recent one at the time of this writing (July 3, 2003) was in 1950; see Pope Pius XII.

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).

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