Exactly how is the Pope, a human being, infallible?

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Significant restrictions apply on how infallibility is to be claimed.

You’ve identified the issue! The Pope isn’t infallible, precisely because he’s mortal like the rest of us. God alone is infallible. So why does the church talk about infallibility?

The issue arose as to how the church of Jesus Christ might express its authority on matters of faith and morals. The First Vatican Council ((1869-71) issued the constitution Pater Aeternus (“Eternal Pastor”), which describes “the infallible magisterium [teaching authority] of the Roman Pontiff.” Note: the Eternal Pastor is Jesus, not the pope. Also note, it’s the teaching authority exercised by the pope, not the man himself, which is described as error-free. The pope is neither infallible (immune from error) nor impeccable (immune from sin). A brief survey of the history of the papacy will demonstrate this.

Significant restrictions apply on how infallibility is to be claimed. It’s only in effect when the pope speaks ex cathedra (“from the chair” or office of Peter). So nothing he says casually over breakfast is intended. Only when the pope “defines a doctrine of faith and morals that must be held by the Universal Church” are his words deemed empowered with “that infallibility with which the Divine Redeemer willed to endow his Church.” 

Since the promulgation of Pater Aeternus, infallibility has been invoked explicitly once: in the declaration of the Assumption of Mary by Pope Pius XII in 1950. Belief in the Assumption was professed since the early centuries of the church and was not a novel revelation by Pius. Which is significant, since infallibility isn’t intended to grant popes the power to invent new doctrines. So don’t feel anxious about waking up some morning to discover some trending idea grafted onto Catholicism. 

Debate and discussion regarding infallibility, meanwhile, have been non-stop. Vatican II’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium) submitted that magisterial infallibility doesn’t necessarily attach to the pope but to the church. This means the college of bishops, in communion with the bishop of Rome, exercise infallibility. It’s a corporate endowment: your local bishop doesn’t get to speak infallibly as an individual.

Not everyone got on board with the infallibility clause. A dissenting group left the church to begin the “Old Catholic Church.” Some bishops felt the teaching was unnecessary, ambiguously stated, or seriously flawed. Theologians also warn of “creeping infallibility” undermining the need for teaching to evolve and church practice to reform. It helps to keep in mind that even infallibility has its limits.

Scriptures: Isaiah 22:22; Matthew 16:13-19; Luke 22:32; John 1:42; 17:20-21; 21:15-17

Books: Teaching with Authority: A Theology of the Magisterium of the Church, by Richard Galliardetz (Liturgical Press, 1997)

The Liminal Papacy of Pope Francis: Moving Toward Global Catholicity, by Massimo Faggioli (Orbis Books, 2020)

Reprinted with permission from PrepareTheWord.com. ©TrueQuest Communications.

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