Understanding the doctrine of Papal infallibility.

Romanum Pontificem in rebus fidei et morum definiendis errare non posse.
The Roman Pontiff cannot err when defining matters of faith or morals.

     - declaration of the First Vatican Council, 1870.


On Monday, 18 July, 1870, 435 fathers of the council assembled at St. Peter's under the presidency of Pope Pius IX. The last vote was now taken; 433 fathers voted placet ("I agree"), and only two, Bishop Aloisio Riccio of Cajazzo, Italy, and Bishop Edward Fitzgerald of Little Rock, Arkansas, voted non placet ("I do not agree"). During the proceedings a thunderstorm broke over the Vatican, and amid thunder and lightning the pope promulgated the new dogma, like a Moses promulgating the law on Mount Sinai.

Since the Reformation, there have arisen new obstacles to the healing of the rift that separates the Protestant Churches from the Roman Catholic Church. Of these new obstacles, the gravest is that of the Doctrine of Papal Infallibility. It is this 'infallibility' that allowed the Pope to promulgate the Doctrine of the Immaculate Conception of Mary (Pius IX, Ineffabilis Deus, 1854) and the Doctrine of the Corporeal Assumption of Mary (Pius XII, Munificentissimus Deus, 1950). These are to date the only two occasions when Papal infallibility has been invoked.

A definition of Papal Infallibility

The Pope is only infallible in decisions of faith and morals

We can better understand this doctrine by first considering what it is not. First, the Pope is infallible only with regards to faith and morals. My teacher at school explained it best: If the Pope were to sit for a Geography test, does the Doctrine of Infallibility guarantee he will receive full marks? No, it does not. The doctrine says nothing about geography tests, the safe use of Prozac, or frequent flyer miles. It refers specifically to decisions on faith and morals.

The Pope cannot promulgate new dogma

The second is more subtle. Can the Pope promulgate new dogma? Theoretically, he cannot: The Pope can only take decisions infallibly, he cannot force Catholics to believe something they had never believed before.

Not everything the Pope says is infallible

Canon 749 of the Roman Catholic Church states that

3 Infallibiliter definita nulla intellegitur doctrina, nisi id manifesto constiterit. 3 No doctrine is understood to be infallibly defined unless this is manifestly demonstrated.
So the doctrine does not claim that the Pope is infallible except when he speaks ex cathedra, i.e., when he speaks as successor of St Peter, the Vicar of Christ and Head of the Catholic Church. In effect, the Pope has to say that he is speaking infallibly.

The greatest difficulty arrises from this clause. The concept of a Pope speaking ex cathedra does not arise until the first Vatican Council, so no Pope before Pius IX could ever declare a statement of his to be made ex cathera until then. This gives Roman catholic theologians the liberty to move the goal posts willy nilly -- to make up the rules as they go along. The fact of history is that the Popes have erred, and in some cases erred greviously, but a Roman Catholic theologian needs only to say that that error was not made when the Pope was speaking ex cathedra and so save the day.

Old names: Pausatio, Nativitas, Mors, Depositio, Dormitio Santae Mariae

Reviewing the facts, it is difficult not to arrive at the conclusion that Pius IX called the council with the sole purpose of defining the Doctrine of Papal Infallibility. Recall that this is the pope who declared, "Tradition? I am tradition." Scriptural: Saint Peter vs. Saint Paul letter to the Galatians. Historical: Fourth century Pope, Liberius, was a Semi-Aryan heretic. St Jerome and St Hilary attest to this.

Can. 338 1 Unius Romani Pontificis est Concilium Oecumenicum convocare, eidem per se vel per se vel per alios praesidere, item Concilium transferre, suspendere vel dissolvere, eiusque decreta approbare. Can. 338 1 It is the prerogative of the Roman Pontiff alone to summon an Ecumenical Council, to preside over it personally or through others, to transfer, suspend or dissolve the Council, and to approve its decrees.
Can. 341 1 Concilii Oecumenici decreta vim obligandi non habent nisi una cum Concilii Patribus a Romano Pontifice approbata, ab eodem fuerint confirmata et eius iussu promulgata. Can. 341 1 The decrees of an Ecumenical Council do not oblige unless they are approved by the Roman Pontiff as well as by the Fathers of the Council, confirmed by the Roman Pontiff and promulgated by his direction.
2 Eadem confirmatione et promulgatione, vim obligandi ut habeant, egent decreta quae ferat Collegium Episcoporum, cum actionem proprie collegialem ponit iuxta alium a Romano Pontifice inductum vel libere receptum modum. 2 If they are to have binding force, the same confirmation and promulgation is required for decrees which the College of Bishops issues by truly collegial actions in another manner introduced or freely accepted by the Roman Pontiff.
Can. 749 1 Infallibilitate in magisterio, vi muneris sui gaudet Summus Pontifex quando ut supremus omnium christifidelium Pastor et Doctor, cuius est fratres suos in fide confirmare, doctrinam de fide vel de moribus tenendam definitivo actus proclamat. Can. 749 1 In virtue of his office the Supreme Pontiff is infallible in his teaching when, as chief Shepherd and Teacher of all Christ's faithful, with the duty of strengthening his brethren in the faith, he proclaims by definitive act a doctrine to be held concerning faith or morals.
2 Infallibilitate in magisterio pollet quoque Collegium Episcoporum quando magisterium exercent Episcopi in Concilio Oecumenico coadunati, qui, ut fidei et morum doctores et iudices, pro universa Ecclesia doctrinam de fide vel de moribus definitive tenendam declarant aut quando per orbem dispersi, communionis nexum inter se et cum Petri successore servantes, una cum eodem Romano Pontifice authentice res fidei vel morum docentes, in unam sententiam tamquam definitive tenendam conveniunt. 2 The College of Bishops also possesses infallibility in its teaching when the Bishops, gathered together in an Ecumenical Council and exercising their magisterium as teachers and judges of faith and morals, definitively declare for the universal Church a doctrine to be held concerning faith or morals; likewise, when the Bishops, dispersed throughout the world but maintaining the bond of union among themselves and with the successor of Peter, together with the same Roman Pontiff authentically teach matters of faith or morals, and are agreed that a particular teaching is definitively to be held.
By the Authority of John Paul II, Pope. Given at Rome, on the 25th of January, 1983 A.D. Auctoritatae Ioannis Pauli PP. II Promulgatus Datum Romae, die xxv Ianuarii, anno MCMLXXXIII

The fourth chapter contains the definition of papal infallibility. First, all the corresponding decrees of the Fourth Council of Constantinople, 680 (Sixth Ecumenical), of the Second Council of Lyons, 1274 (Fourteenth Ecumenical) and of the Council of Florence, 1439 (Seventeenth Ecumenical), are repeated and confirmed. It is pointed out, further, that at all times the popes, in the consciousness of their infallibility in matters of faith for the preservation of the purity of the Apostolic tradition, have acted as the court of last instance and have been called upon as such. Then follows the important tenet that the successors of St. Peter have been promised the Holy Ghost, not for the promulgation of new doctrines, but only for the preservation and interpretation of the Revelation delivered by the Apostles. The Constitution closes with the following words: "Faithfully adhering, therefore, to the tradition inherited from the beginning of the Christian Faith, we, with the approbation of the sacred council, for the glory of God our Saviour, for the exaltation of the Catholic religion, and the salvation of Christian peoples, teach and define, as a Divinely revealed dogma, that the Roman pontiff, when he speaks ex cathedra, that is, when he, in the exercise of his office as shepherd and teacher of all Christians, by virtue of his supreme Apostolic authority, decides that a doctrine concerning faith or morals is to be held by the entire Church, he possesses, in consequence of the Divine aid promised him in St. Peter, that infallibility with which the Divine Saviour wished to have His Church furnished for the definition of doctrine concerning faith or morals; and that such definitions of the Roman pontiff are of themselves, and not in consequence of the Church's consent, irreformable."

An historial refutation

Even by the standards of the Roman Catholic Church, the definition of Papal infallibility is an outright defiance of the plain facts of history. It is indisputable fact that in decision on faith and morals, the bishop of Rome has erred and that the Roman Catholic Church itself acknowledges and repudiates the error.

The error of Nicholas I

Pope Nicholas I assured the Bulgarians that Baptism in the name of Christ only is valid. (Resp. ad consult. Bulgar. 104. Labbe Collect. Concil. ix. 1566) Contrast this with the modern teaching that baptism in the name of Holy Trinity only is valid.

The error of Nicholas II

Nicholas II compelled Berengarius to acknowledge the Caperneite heresy that Christ's body is sensibily touched by the hands and broken by the teeth in the Eucharist.

The error of Eugenius IV

Eugenius IV in his instructions to the Armenians claimed that the 'porrection of the instruments' is the essential matter of the Sacrament of Order. On the contrary, it is accepted that the laying on of hands is the essential matter of that sacrament.

Honorius I declared an heretic

More grevious is the formal action of the 6th Ecumenical Council at Constantinople in 680, which "cast out of the Holy Catholic Church, Honorius, who was pope of the elder Rome, because we found that he followed Sergius' opinion in all respects and confirmed his impious dogmas." Sergius was the Monothelite Heresiarch.

There is controversy over whether or not Honorius was an heretic. Honorius was.

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