When is the Pope infallible?

The First Vatican Council infallibly defined the dogma of papal infallibility. The Second Vatican Council reiterated that same dogma with different wording, making the teaching all the more clear. For a lengthy discussion of this topic, see my articles on Tradition, Scripture, Magisterium.

The First Vatican Council infallibly taught that the teaching of the Pope is infallible when certain criteria are met:

“And so, adhering faithfully to the tradition known since the beginning of the Christian faith, for the glory of God our Savior, for the exaltation of the Catholic religion, and for the salvation of Christian peoples, with the approval of the sacred Council, we teach and define as a divinely revealed dogma that when the Roman Pontiff speaks ex cathedra, that is, when in the discharge of his office as shepherd and teacher of all Christians, and by virtue of his supreme apostolic authority, he defines that a doctrine concerning faith or morals must be held by the whole Church, he possesses through the divine assistance promised to him in blessed Peter that infallibility with which the divine Redeemer willed His Church to be endowed in defining a doctrine concerning faith or morals; and that such definitions of the Roman Pontiff are irreformable of themselves, not from the consent of the Church.” (Pastor Aeternus, chap. 4).

These criteria can be enumerated as follows:

1. “the Roman Pontiff”
2. “speaks ex cathedra” (“that is, when in the discharge of his office as shepherd and teacher of all Christians, and by virtue of his supreme apostolic authority….”)
3. “he defines”
4. “that a doctrine concerning faith or morals”
5. “must be held by the whole Church”

Some commentators list these criteria as four, combining 1. and 2. above. However, separating them becomes useful when we adapt these criteria to other ways that the Magisterium teaches infallibly.

The Second Vatican Council taught the same criteria, with this wording:

1. “the Roman Pontiff”
2. “in virtue of his office, when as the supreme shepherd and teacher of all the faithful, who confirms his brethren in their faith (cf. Lk 22:32),”
3. “by a definitive act, he proclaims”
4. “a doctrine of faith or morals” (“And this infallibility…in defining doctrine of faith and morals, extends as far as the deposit of revelation extends”)
5. “in accordance with revelation itself, which all are obliged to abide by and be in conformity with” (Lumen Gentium, n. 25).

When the teaching of the Pope meets these five criteria, then the teaching falls under papal infallibility. All such teachings are certainly true. All such teachings are the very same truths found, at least implicitly, in Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture. All such teachings are the teachings of the Holy Spirit, who guarantees the truth of all infallible teachings of the Magisterium. And all infallible teachings are irreformable; they are expressions of eternal truth and so cannot change.

When the teaching of the Pope falls short of any of these criteria, his teaching is non-infallible and non-irreformable, and subject to a limited possibility of error, though never to such an extent that any error or set of errors would lead the faithful away from the path of salvation.

Now let’s briefly look at each criterium:

1. “the Roman Pontiff”
1. “the Roman Pontiff”

Papal Infallibility only applies to teachings of the Pope himself, not to teachings issued by the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, even though these are approved by the Pope, and not to teachings issued by other congregations within the Holy See. This point is not opinion, but dogma. There is a sinful tendency in the Church today for all theological questions to be treated as if they were open to an unlimited range of possible interpretation. But a dogma of an Ecumenical Council is not an open question. Two successive Ecumenical Councils taught that it must be the Roman Pontiff who is teaching for that teaching to fall under Papal Infallibility. Those commentators who attempt to extend Papal Infallibility to the CDF or to other bodies within the Holy See are directly contradicting a dogma of the Church, and committing the sin of heresy.

2. “speaks ex cathedra” (“that is, when in the discharge of his office as shepherd and teacher of all Christians, and by virtue of his supreme apostolic authority….”)
2. “in virtue of his office, when as the supreme shepherd and teacher of all the faithful, who confirms his brethren in their faith (cf. Lk 22:32),”

The Pope must be speaking as the supreme teacher of all Christians, and as the leader of all the Bishops (‘who confirms his brethren’). If he is speaking on discipline, not doctrine, then he is not speaking as teacher. If he is answering some questions during an interview, then he is not speaking as supreme teacher of all Christians. If he is giving a judgment of the prudential order, such as whether a particular war meets the criteria for a just war, or such as whether the death penalty is fitting to the circumstances of modern society, he is not teaching, but expressing prudential judgment. If he gives a theological opinion during a sermon, he is not teaching, but opining.

3. “he defines”
3. “by a definitive act, he proclaims”

A teaching under Papal Infallibility need not use the word ‘definition’ or the phrase ‘I define’ or ‘I proclaim’. But the teaching must be a definitive act (as opposed to a non-defining act, which would be a teaching under the ordinary Magisterium). In other words, the teaching must define a doctrine; it must be a definitive proclamation of certain truth.

4. “that a doctrine concerning faith or morals”
4. “a doctrine of faith or morals” (“And this infallibility…in defining doctrine of faith and morals, extends as far as the deposit of revelation extends”)

The subject matter of the definition must be faith or morals. When teaching infallibly, the Pope is teaching on faith or morals from the Sacred Deposit of Faith (Tradition and Scripture). The truths taught under Papal Infallibility are found, at least implicitly, in Sacred Tradition or Sacred Scripture.

5. “must be held by the whole Church”
5. “in accordance with revelation itself, which all are obliged to abide by and be in conformity with”

Not every teaching of the Pope is addressed to the whole Church, and not every teaching addressed to the whole Church is binding as an obligation of faith. Every teaching under Papal Infallibility will be addressed to the whole Church, not merely as an ordinary teaching requiring the religious submission of will and intellect, but as a binding obligation.

Whenever a teaching falls short of any one or more of these five criteria, the teaching falls short of Papal Infallibility. Whoever says otherwise falls under the anathema of the First Vatican Council: “If anyone, God forbid, should presume to contradict this our definition, let him be anathema.”

The Second Vatican Council clearly taught that the ordinary Papal Magisterium is not infallible:

“This religious submission of mind and will must be shown in a special way to the authentic magisterium of the Roman Pontiff, even when he is not speaking ex cathedra; that is, it must be shown in such a way that his supreme magisterium is acknowledged with reverence, the judgments made by him are sincerely adhered to, according to his manifest mind and will. His mind and will in the matter may be known either from the character of the documents, from his frequent repetition of the same doctrine, or from his manner of speaking.” (Lumen Gentium, n. 25).

The Magisterium is the teaching authority of the Church. When the Pope exercises the Magisterium, his teaching is not necessarily infallible. He can teach under the authentic Magisterium of the Church without speaking infallibly. He is then exercising His supreme papal Magisterium, yet without infallibility, since all five criteria have not been met. This ordinary non-infallible Papal teaching remains non-infallible, even when it has been frequently repeated, even when found in Papal documents, even when the Pope’s will and mind on the matter are clear. For all this is short of the five criteria required for Papal Infallibility.

Common heresies on Papal Infallibility:

The claim that Papal Infallibility extends beyond the Roman Pontiff, to any documents of the Holy See, is heresy.

The claim that any teaching of the Pope falls under Papal Infallibility, even when he is not speaking ex cathedra, such as in a sermon or in a lecture series, or in his general audiences, is heresy.

The claim that a teaching need not be a definition or a defining act, but only any form of teaching, in order to fall under Papal Infallibility, is heresy.

The omission of the criterium that the teaching must be on the subject of faith and morals, is heresy.

The claim that all the words of the Pope are binding on the whole Church, such that the fifth criterium becomes irrelevant, is heresy.

The claim that the Pope’s teaching is infallible under a lesser set of criteria, so that some of these five criteria are omitted, is heresy.

The claim that the Ordinary Magisterium of the Pope is also infallible, so that these criteria are in effect null and void, is heresy.

Whoever obstinately rejects, obstinately doubts, or substantially revises any part or the whole of the First and Second Vatican Councils’ teaching on Papal Infallibility commits the sin of heresy. Whoever teaches such an heretical idea commits an even graver sin.

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