Is the Pope Infallible in Matters of Doctrine and Morals?-Part 1

By: Dr. John Ankerberg, Dr. John Weldon; ©2004
What are Catholics taught about the infallibility of the Pope? Where did this teaching begin? How does a Catholic determine when a Pope is or is now speaking infallibly?


The Catholic Encyclopedia defines the Pope as follows:

The Pope is the Roman Pontiff who, by divine law, has supreme jurisdiction over the universal Church (cc. 331-333). He is the supreme superior of all religious [sic, religions?] (c. 590f.). The Pope may act alone or with a council in defining doctrine for the universal Church or in making laws (cf. Infallibility). He is addressed as His Holiness the Pope. By title and right he is: Bishop of Rome, The Vicar of Jesus Christ, Successor of St. Peter, the Prince of the Apostles, Supreme Pontiff, Patriarch of the West, Primate of Italy, Archbishop and Metropolitan of the Roman province, and Sovereign of the State of Vatican City. (cf., Apostolic Succession).[1]

The Catholic Church teaches that when the Pope speaks “ex cathedra” (i.e., “from his chair” or authoritatively, in a formal public statement),[2] he is infallible in matters of faith and doctrine. (As we will see below, the Church also teaches that Catholic bishops may share in his infallibil­ity.)

Consider official Catholic teaching on infallibility: it means that church “doctrine has always been kept undefiled… ever free from all blemish or error…”[3] Thus, “In its Catholic, doctrinal meaning, infallibility is the end result of divine assistance given the Church whereby she is preserved from the possibility and liability to error in teachings on matters of faith and morals. That infallibility was always present in the Church, even from apostolic times….”[4]

Further, Catholicism maintains that to deny papal infallibility is to risk loss of salvation[5] and, that no pope or ecumenical council has ever contradicted one another: “… never has any Pope officially contradicted what an earlier Pope officially taught about faith or morals. The same may be said about ecumenical councils, which also teach infallibly. No ecumenical council has ever contradicted the teaching of an earlier ecumenical council on faith or morals.”[6]

Regardless, papal infallibility was not officially defined and promulgated until July 18, 1870, at the first Vatican Council.[7] This was fully 1800 years after the death of the first “pope,” Peter—and one would assume, given papal history—an absolutely heroic act of faith on the part of the Council. What this means is that for 1870 years the Church did not teach the pope was infallible. We might ask, along with Dr. Karl Barth, “Did the Council discover the popes were infallible before they so carefully read papal history or was it while they were reading it afterward?”

It should be noted that within the Council, there were wiser voices. Many protested and large numbers of other faithful Catholics rejected the doctrine as well, earning for themselves the title “Old Catholics.”[8]

Despite its popularity in Rome, papal infallibility is based on a circular argument sustained solely by papal authority:

That the papal claims do go beyond Scripture cannot be denied. Herein lies the difficulty in testing the truthfulness of papal claims…. From the Roman Catholic point of view, the truthfulness of papal claims rests upon the authority of papal claims. Stated differently, papal claims are held to be true, because papal authority claims that they are true.[9]

Thus, the dogmatic constitution Pastor Aeternus asserted:

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 him in Blessed Peter, is possessed of that infallibility with which the Divine Redeemer willed that his Church should be endowed for defining doctrine regarding faith or morals….[10]

As the Vicar or official representative of Christ, the Roman pope has “full, supreme, and univer­sal power over the Church.”[11]

While the bishops are not infallible in themselves, they are such when acting together in agree­ment with the pope in, e.g., an ecumenical council.[12] Vatican II declared “the infallibility promised to the Church resides also in the body of bishops when that body exercises supreme teaching author­ity with the successor of Peter.”[13] As Keating states, “The bishops… also teach infallibly on matters of faith or morals. There have been twenty-one ecumenical councils, and most of them have issued doctrinal or moral decrees. Those decrees are infallible.”[14]

In essence, The Catholic Encyclopedia defines the doctrine of papal infallibility and its implica­tions as follows:

The Doctrine defines that infallibility is: (1) in the pope personally and solely as the successor of Saint Peter, (2) in an ecumenical council subject to confirmation by the pope, (3) in the bishops of the Universal Church teaching definitively and in union with the pope (cf. Magisterium of the Church). As such, infallibility does not extend to pronouncements on discipline and Church policy and by no means includes impeccability [sinlessness] of the pope or inerrancy in his private opinions. It is briefly, the assured guarantee of the unfolding of the apostolic deposit of faith by authority of the Church whereby Christ’s doctrine must and will be handed on by an infallible Church guided by the Holy Spirit. It is distinguished from both biblical inspiration and revelation. [15]

However, this does not mean that non ex cathedra papal pronouncements necessarily have no authority. For example, papal encyclicals may be considered divinely authoritative: Catholics are required to accept their doctrinal teachings. (Encyclicals are circular letters to the bishops given for the welfare of the church; the best known and most controversial is by Paul VI, Humanae Vitae (1968), on birth control.)

The authority of encyclicals was stated by Pius XII in Humani Generis (1950): “Nor must it be thought that what is contained in encyclical letters does not of itself demand assent, on the pretext that the popes do not exercise in them the supreme power of their teaching authority. Rather, such teachings belong to the ordinary magisterium, of which it is true to say, ‘He who hears you, hears me’ (Luke. 10:16)….”[16]


  1. Robert C. Broderick, ed., The Catholic Encyclopedia, rev. and updated (NY: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1987), p. 479.
  2. Ibid., p. 203.
  3. Henry T. Hudson, Papal Power (Welwyn, Hertfordshire, England: Evangelical Press, 1981), p. 112.
  4. Broderick, ed., p. 292.
  5. Hudson, p. 112.
  6. Karl Keating, Catholicism and Fundamentalism, The Attack on “Romanism” by “Bible Christians” (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 1988), p. 219.
  7. Broderick, ed., pp. 292, 596.
  8. Ibid., p. 434.
  9. Hudson, p. 110.
  10. H. M. Carson, Dawn or Twilight? A Study of Contemporary Roman Catholicism (Leicester, England: InterVarsity Press, 1986), pp. 41-42.
  11. Paul G. Schrotenboer, ed., Roman Catholicism: A Contemporary Evangelical Perspective (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1980), p. 51, citing De Ecclesia, p. 22; cf., Broderick, ed., p. 296.
  12. Karl Keating, What Catholics Really Believe—Setting the Record Straight, (Ann Arbor, MI: Servant, 1992), p. 15.
  13. Schrotenboer, p. 52, citing De Ecciesia, p. 25.
  14. Keating, What Catholics Really Believe…, p. 15.
  15. Broderick, ed., p. 292.
  16. Ibid., p. 188.

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