Unique to the Catholic Church is the role of the pope as head of the Church on earth. Thus, there are some common misunderstandings about his role and the Church’s teaching of papal infallibility. It is important to note that these misunderstandings have been around for a long time and are not just arising now. It is always worth refreshing our catechetical memories from time to time.
As we pronounce in the Creed, we say that our Church is apostolic, which means it is built on the “foundation of the Apostles,” since Christ chose them to be His first witnesses and teachers of the faith (CCC #857). The Church teaches that the twelve Apostles were the first bishops who went out and set up churches far and wide. We review the great commission:
And Jesus said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:18-20)
From Jesus’ words, we can extract certain things: 1) He is establishing them explicitly as teachers, 2) they have the power to do certain things per His authority, and 3) He will remain with the Church forever to help and guide her. We also know that later, on Pentecost, the Holy Spirit was sent as a guide and protector of the newly established Church and to empower the Apostles’ teaching office (Acts 2). Apostolic succession ensures that all bishops today can be traced back to the original Apostles.
The Bishop of Rome is the pope and considered to be the Successor of St. Peter, who the Church teaches was the first pope, as established by Christ Himself: “And I tell you, you are Peter and on this rock I will build my church and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” (Matthew 16:18). Note that Jesus says the gates of hell will not prevail against His Church. This necessarily means the Church is protected from error and heresy, because if those were able to enter, then the gates of hell would be prevailing. So, the pope, as the successor of Peter, is the head of the college of bishops and the vicar of Christ on the earth (CCC #882). He is a visible reminder of Jesus and the bridge of unity between the bishops and the faithful (CCC #882).
So, if we are to believe what Jesus is telling us is true – that what the Church teaches is divinely protected truth – then there must be a mechanism in place that tells us this, which is the dogma of infallibility. Before we look at what infallibility means in this context, we need to explain why we have it in the first place. Human beings are fallible, very fallible. We sin, we make mistakes, we misjudge, we form incorrect opinions, we lack understanding… the list goes on. Even Peter denied Jesus after he was named the first pope. No one is immune from fallibility and no one ever will be. This also includes the pope, who is also just another human being like the rest of us. As a matter of fact, throughout our over 2,000-year history, we have had some notorious popes, if not even some downright evil ones. Therefore, Jesus would not want a pope, or anyone, to be able to just declare Church teaching as whatever he wants based on his current whims. This is where infallibility enters in.
The pope, or the college of bishops, do NOT exercise their infallibility at all times. In other words, it is not right to think that Catholics believe the pope is always an infallible man in all situations. Specific details need to be in place for the pope to exercise his infallibility. First, he is only infallible when officially teaching on matters of faith and morals (CCC #890). So, if he recommends you eat your fruits and vegetables, he is sharing his opinion and not speaking infallibly on official Church teaching. We will go to the Code of Canon Law for the second, very important component that needs to be present for papal infallibility. Canon 749, paragraph 3 states, “No doctrine is understood to be infallibly defined unless it is clearly established as such.” In other words, there needs to be an official declaration. We call this situation, ex cathedra, which is Latin for “from the throne,” which we Catholics also call, “speaking from the chair of St. Peter.” This is done in the form of encyclicals, decrees, constitutions, letters, catechisms, or any other form of speaking to the faithful in his official capacity and office as pope, specifically on matters of faith and morals. If there is no official document, then it would not be considered official Church teaching, which is how we can be assured of what Church teaching is and what it is not. This is one way for Catholics to differentiate between what our popes say in interviews, on TV, or in the media, and what is official Church doctrine as declared ex cathedra.
While there are situations where it can happen, it is not typical for a pope to just declare something an official Church teaching on his own without consultation from the college of bishops. When questions arise about where the Church should stand on a particular topic, there is a process to discern and disseminate the teaching. Namely, the bishops start by holding synods and ecumenical councils. Depending on the issue, they may invite secular experts, various theologians, bible scholars, and others to fully explore the issue. This is yet another protection for the Church since it ensures that no one person is making sweeping decisions individually. Rather, we can be assured that the Holy Spirit will be involved in order to protect His truth. To quote the Catechism on this, “The infallibility promised to the Church is also present in the body of bishops, when, together with Peter’s successor, they exercise the supreme Magisterium, above all in an Ecumenical Council. When the Church through its supreme Magisterium proposes a doctrine ‘for belief as being divinely revealed,’ and as the teaching of Christ, the definitions ‘must be adhered to with the obedience of faith.’ This infallibility extends as far as the deposit of divine Revelation itself.” (CCC #891). This tells us that no matter which human beings are in charge, and no matter what difficulties and challenges the Church faces, we can always trust that what we’re being taught is divinely protected truth and we can freely give our assent to matters of the faith.
Hopefully, this clears up how papal infallibility works and it empowers you to have conversations with your non-Catholic friends who may not fully understand. Please, always remember to pray for our pope, bishops, and priests. They are entrusted with so much, namely our souls, and they are subject to fallibility, just like the rest of us. We must pray for them every day to build them up and cooperate in protecting them from all the snares that may come their way.