Papal Infallibility and Catholic Church Doctrine

Papal Infallibility and Catholic Church Doctrine
Papal Infallibility and Catholic Church Doctrine

The dogma of papal infallibility was proclaimed at the Vatican I Council in 1870. The council fathers taught that when the pope speaks ex cathedra, that is, as pastor and teacher in an absolute final and irrevocable way concerning faith and morals, he receives the divine assistance that was promised to Peter, the leader of the Twelve Apostles and his successors, and, therefore, speaks infallibly.

Such proclamations are “irreformable” of their own nature and not dependent upon the church’s consent. As a dogma, papal infallibility is held to be divinely revealed and binding on all Catholics.

This theology was controversial at the time and has not been accepted by non-Catholic churches to this day. Opposition to such a definition was strong in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland throughout the 19th century whenever it was proposed for discussion, even among the Catholic bishops. Most of them, however, accepted the teaching and saw it as necessary for the unity of the church.

Upon its overwhelming approval in a vote at council on July 18, 1870, the vast majority of opposition among the council fathers ceased and they supported the dogma. Laity in those German-speaking states who could not accept the decision eventually broke away from Rome to form the Old Catholic Church, securing their own apostolic line of authority through orthodox bishops.

The Catholic Church teaches that support for papal infallibility may be found both in Scripture and in tradition. Primarily the church looks to Christ’s promise to Peter in Matthew 16:18: “Upon this Rock I will build my Church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” Peter’s successors, therefore, lay hold of the same promise.

It is not Peter’s faith of which Jesus speaks, but his official position, and, therefore, those who accept the same office are heirs of the promise. In other words, Peter’s authority to defy the gates of hell amounts to the doctrinal and ecclesiastical infallibility that the First Vatican Council recognized.

Tradition also indicates that early church fathers such as Clement and Irenaeus were in support of the primacy of Rome. St. Augustine once declared that Rome had replied on the matter “and now the case is closed.”

Similar sentiments are reflected in decisions made by the council fathers at Ephesus, Chalcedon, Constantinople 3 and 4, and later at Florence in 1445. Certain objections that Popes Liberius, Honorius, and Vigilius had made errors in their doctrinal statements have never been proven to the satisfaction of many scholars.

The Second Vatican Council further addressed the dogma in Lumen Gentium saying: “Although the individual bishops do not enjoy the prerogative of infallibility, they can nevertheless proclaim Christ’s doctrine infallibly.” They are required, however, to maintain unity with Peter’s successor.

That authority is manifest when they gather together in council. Traditionally, an infallible pronouncement only occurs in matters of faith and morals and usually when it is clearly understood that the majority of Catholics already agree with the papal position.

Such “infallible” pronouncements are not easily or frequently made and only after much prayer, reflection, consultation, and the believed prompting of the Holy Spirit. The most recent infallible statement was made by Pope Pius XII on November 1, 1950, declaring Mary’s assumption into heaven.