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Papal Infallibility...

And its limitations

By Robert J. Siscoe

POSTED: 4/2/13


( Papal Infallibility was defined as a dogma of the Faith, in the year 1870, during the First Vatican Council.  While most people have heard of this dogma, few understand its true meaning and limitations.  It is not uncommon to find non-Catholics who believe the dogma extends to the moral actions of a pope, in such a way, that he is said to be incapable of sin (impeccability). 

Most Catholics realize that the scope of infallibility is limited to papal teachings on matters of faith and morals, but they often err by extending it beyond its boundaries; understanding infallibility as if it were a habitual active charism that prevents a pope from erring when he speaks on the subject of faith or morals.  This misunderstanding on the part of Catholics in recent decades has resulted in two opposite errors. 


On the one hand, we have those who erroneously believe that whatever a pope says, regardless of how novel it is and how far it deviates from Tradition, must be accepted as an infallible truth, since “the pope is infallible”.  On the other hand, there are some who see apparent errors in the documents of Vatican II and believe that Papal Infallibility would prevent a true pope from ratifying such documents.  In both cases, the error is a result of extending Papal Infallibility beyond the limits determined by the Church.

Before proceeding, it should be noted that the purpose of this article is not to assert that Catholics are only bound to accept what has been infallibly defined by a pope or ecumenical council.  The late Msgr. Joseph Clifford Fenton referred to this error, which was condemned by Pius IX (1), as minimism.  Catholics must give assent to all that the Church teaches, either by virtue of a solemn pronouncement or by the teaching of the ordinary and universal Magisterium.  Yet at the same time, Catholics are not bound to give assent to novelties and apparent errors, even if such novelties or apparent errors come from a pope who is not exercising his infallibility.   In the chaos that has followed the Second Vatican Council, it is necessary that the faithful have a correct understanding Papal Infallibility, as well as its limitations, lest the understandably confused or scandalized Catholic be led into error in one direction or the other.

The Charism:

Infallibility is a negative charism (gratia gratis data) that prevents the possibility of error.  It is not to be confused with inspiration, which is a positive divine influence that moves and controls a human agent in what he says or writes; nor is it to be confused with Revelation, which is the communication of some truth by God through means which are beyond the ordinary course of nature.  Infallibility pertains to the safeguarding and explanation of truths already revealed by God.  Since infallibility is only a negative charism, it does not inspire a pope to teach what is true or even defend revealed truths, nor does it “make the pope’s will the ultimate standard of truth and goodness” (2), but simply prevents him from teaching error under certain limited conditions.  During an address given at the First Vatican Council, Bishop Grasser, who was referred to as “the most prominent theologian at the Council”, said the following:

“In no sense is pontifical infallibility absolute, because absolute infallibility belongs to God alone, Who is the first and essential truth and Who is never able to deceive or be deceived. All other infallibility, as communicated for a specific purpose, has its limits and its conditions under which it is considered to be present. The same is valid in reference to the infallibility of the Roman Pontiff. For this infallibility is bound by certain limits and conditions...”

The conditions for Papal Infallibility were subsequently defined by the First Vatican Council as follows: 

“We teach and define as a divinely revealed dogma that when the Roman pontiff speaks ex cathedra, that is, when, in the exercise of his office as shepherd and teacher of all Christians, in virtue of his supreme apostolic authority, he defines a doctrine concerning faith or morals to be held by the whole Church, he possesses, by the divine assistance promised to him in blessed Peter, that infallibility which the divine Redeemer willed his Church to enjoy in defining doctrine concerning faith or morals”.

Here we see that the divine assistance is present only when a pope, (a) using his supreme apostolic authority (b) defines a doctrine, (c) concerning faith and morals, (d) to be held by the universal Church.  If any of these conditions are lacking, infallibility is not engaged and error is possible. 

The Scope and Object

The scope of papal infallibility is the same as any other organ of infallibility of the Church (such as an ecumenical council): it is limited to doctrinal definitions or final definitive statements concerning faith or morals.  Theologians distinguish between primary and secondary objects of infallibility.  The primary object consists of the truths that have been formally revealed by God, being contained within the two sources of revelation, namely, Scripture and Tradition, and extends to both positive and negative decisions of a definitive nature.  Positive decisions include such things as dogmatic decrees of a council, ex cathedra statements from a pope, and official creeds of the Church.  Negative decisions consist of “the determination and rejection of such errors as are opposed to the teaching of Revelation”. (3)

The secondary object of infallibility includes those matters which, although not formally revealed, are connected with and intimately related to the revealed deposit, such as theological conclusions (inferences deduced from two premises, one of which is revealed and the other verified by reason) and dogmatic facts (contingent historical facts).  These are so closely related to revealed truths that they are said to be virtually contained within the revealed deposit.  With varying degrees of certitude, theologians also list universal disciplines and the canonizations of saints within this category.  Secondary objects “come within the purview of infallibility, not by their very nature, but rather by reason of the revealed truth to which they are annexed.  As a result, infallibility embraces them only secondarily. It follows that when the Church passes judgment on matters of this sort, it is infallible only insofar as they are connected with revelation”. (4)

It is de fide that the Church speaks infallibly when issuing a definitive and binding declaration on revealed truths (the primary object); but before the First Vatican Council could rule with certainty on whether or not the Church can make an infallible pronouncement on secondary objects, the Council was halted, by the Franco-Prussian War and the subsequent invasion of Rome, and never reconvened.  Thus, the teaching that the Church can rule infallibly on secondary objects is not de fide (of the faith), but only considered Sententia certa (theologically certain). (5)

To conclude this point, infallibility applies to doctrines concerning faith and morals that have been revealed by God (de fide), and matters that are intimately related to the revealed deposit (Sententia certa).

Universally Binding Definitions: 

The next condition for Papal Infallibility is the clear intent to define a doctrine to be held by the whole Church.  If a pope merely teaches a doctrine, yet does not intend to issue a definitive decision, this condition is not satisfied, and therefore error is possible.  One example of a pope teaching error is John XXII (d. 1334), who taught that the souls of the faithful departed would only possess the Beatific Vision after the Last Judgment.  He taught this error in a book published prior to his election, and also taught it publicly after being elected pope. The following account is taken from the Catholic Encyclopedia:

“In the last years of John's pontificate there arose a dogmatic conflict about the Beatific Vision, which was brought on by himself…. Before his elevation to the Holy See, he had written a work on this question, in which he stated that the souls of the blessed departed do not see God until after the Last Judgment. After becoming pope, he advanced the same teaching in his sermons. In this he met with strong opposition, many theologians, who adhered to the usual opinion that the blessed departed did see God before the Resurrection of the Body and the Last Judgment, even calling his view heretical. A great commotion was aroused in the University of Paris when the General of the Minorites and a Dominican tried to disseminate there the pope's view. … Before his death he withdrew his former opinion, and declared his belief that souls separated from their bodies enjoyed in heaven the Beatific Vision”.

After the death of John XXII, his successor, Pope Benedict XII, defined infallibly that the souls of the faithful departed, after being purified in purgatory when necessary, do indeed possess the Beatific Vision prior to the Last Judgment. (6)  This example proves without question that a pope can err when he teaches a doctrine without the intent of giving a definitive decision. 

There is no specific formula necessary for an ex cathedra statement, nor is any type of solemnity required.  What is necessary is the clear intention of giving a definitive and universally binding decision.  This condition of infallibility applies to the pope whether acting alone, or within the context of an ecumenical council.  What this means is that it is within the realm of possibility for a papal encyclical, or a document issued by a general council of the Church that has been ratified by a pope, to contain error, as long as the error in question is not within a doctrinal definition.  Infallibility does not necessarily cover an entire document, but only the specific definitions, or definitive decisions, contained within it. The following is taken from the pre-Vatican II manual of dogmatic theology, by Msgr. Van Noort:

“The Church's rulers are infallible not in any and every exercise of their teaching power; but only when, using all the fullness of their authority, they clearly intend to bind everyone to absolute assent or, as common parlance puts it, when they ‘define’ something in matters pertaining to the Christian religion. That is why all theologians distinguish in the dogmatic decrees of the councils or of the popes between those things set forth therein by way of definition and those used simply by way of illustration or argumentation. For the intention of binding all affects only the definition… And if in some particular instances the intention of giving a definitive decision were not made sufficiently clear, then no one would be held by virtue of such definitions, to give the assent of faith: a doubtful law is no law at all”. (7)

Notice that even within dogmatic decrees issued by a council or pope, only the definitions contained within them are protected by infallibility.  Furthermore, it is necessary that the intention of giving a definitive decision be made sufficiently clear.  Applying this to Vatican II, which was “merely a pastoral council” that “defined no dogma at all”, as Cardinal Ratzinger admitted (8), it is clear that if any of the documents contain error, it would not be contrary to the infallibility of the Church as a whole, nor to Papal Infallibility specifically, since infallibility as such only applies to definitions and definitive decisions.

Since Vatican II specifically avoided defining any doctrines, the only teachings of Vatican II that would be protected by infallibility are those that were defined prior to the Council, as Bishop Butler of England admitted two years after the close of Vatican II.  He wrote “not all teachings emanating from a pope or Ecumenical Council are infallible. There is no single proposition of Vatican II - except where it is citing previous infallible definitions - which is in itself infallible." (9)

In the current crisis shaking the Church, we must consider, not merely what is normal, or what is to be expected, but what is possible.  What could God in His justice permit, as a punishment for sin, without contradicting a dogma or violating any of His promises?  That is what Catholics must consider while attempting to navigate through the post-Conciliar wasteland. 

Supreme Apostolic Authority:

The final condition necessary for Papal Infallibility is that the pope teach using his supreme apostolic authority.  Two things are to be considered regarding this condition: (a) The pope must be acting in his official capacity as pope; and (b) he must be using his supreme authority at its maximum power.  Regarding the first point, Msgr. Van Noort explains:

“[I]f the pope speaks merely as a private individual, or as a private theologian, or as a temporal sovereign, or precisely as ordinary of the diocese of Rome, or precisely as metropolitan of the province of Rome, he should not be looked on as acting infallibly. … What is required for an infallible declaration, therefore, is that the pope be acting precisely as pope; that is, as the supreme shepherd and teacher of all Christians so that his decision looks to the universal Church and is given for the sake of the universal Church” (10)

With respect to the second point, namely, using his authority to its maximum power, the same pre-Vatican II dogmatic manual teaches the following:

 “A man who acts in an official capacity does not always make use of his full power, of the whole weight of the authority which he possesses by his very position. … Thus the pope, even acting as pope, can teach the universal Church without making use of his supreme authority at its maximum power. Now the Vatican Council defined merely this point: the pope is infallible if he uses his doctrinal authority at its maximum power, by handing down a binding and definitive decision: such a decision, for example, by which he quite clearly intends to bind all Catholics to an absolutely firm and irrevocable assent.  ”. (11)

So even if a pope, acting as pope, teaches or praises a particular doctrine, or recommends that it alone be taught in Catholic schools, this, in and of itself, would not be considered an infallible decree, unless there was a clear intent to hand down a definitive decision.


In order for a teaching to be protected by infallibility, each and every condition must be satisfied.  If a single one is lacking, infallibility is not engaged.  In our day, when there is so much doctrinal confusion coming from those in authority, it is essential to realize that the charism of infallibility, as such, is limited to doctrinal definitions or definitive decisions.  Just as it is possible for a pope to err when he is not defining a doctrine, for the same reason it is possible for a general council to err when it does not intend to issue a dogmatic definition – and this applies especially to Vatican II, the only council in the history of the Church that, as Cardinal Ratzinger admitted, “defined no dogma at all, and deliberately chose to remain on a modest level, as a merely pastoral council".  (12)  If it is determined that the documents of Vatican II contain errors, it will not be a violation of the infallibility of the Church, since “the merely pastoral council” specifically “avoided issuing solemn dogmatic definitions backed by the Church's infallible teaching authority” (13), as Paul VI himself admitted.     

We will close with the following from the dogmatic manual of Msgr. Van Noort:

 “The Church surely makes no mistakes when it determines the force and extent of its infallibility, for the greatest harm would result if the Church, by stretching infallibility beyond its limits, could force everyone to give unqualified assent to a matter about which it is liable to be mistaken”. (14)


1)       Syllabus, #22

2)       Van Noort, Dogmatic Theology (DT), pg 290, published in 1959

3)       Fundamental of Catholic Dogma, pg 299. 

4)       Van Noort, D. T.  pg 110

5)       According to Van Noort canonization of saints is only considered a “common opinion” (Ibid. pg 117)

6)       Benedictus Deus

7)       Van Noort, D. T.  Pg 104

8)       “The truth is that this particular Council defined no dogma at all, and deliberately chose to remain on a modest level, as a merely pastoral council." (Cardinal Ratzinger, Address to Chilean Bishops, July 13, 1988)

9)       The Tablet, 11/26/1967

10)    Van Noort, D. T. Pg. 292

11)    Ibid, pg 293

12)    Cardinal Ratzinger, Address to the Chilean Bishops.

13)    Paul VI, General Audience, 1/12/1966

14)    Van Noort, D. T.  pg 112 

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