The Catholic Dogma of Infallibility
When the Roman Pontiff speaks EX CATHEDRA…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. Therefore, such definitions of the Roman Pontiff are of themselves, and not by the consent of the Church, irreformable (Vatican I, 1869b, chap. 4, s. 9).
This is the dogma declared by Pope Pius IX, and approved by the Vatican I Council, in regard to the alleged infallible teaching authority of the Roman pontiff.
For more than a century, this dogma has pressed greatly upon the shoulders of Catholics, who have worked feverishly to try to harmonize the nature of the infallible dogma with the declarations, teachings, and revelations of the popes who lived before and after the establishment of such a dogma. The truth is that the faithful Catholic does not have the option of rejecting the doctrine firmly imposed by Vatican I, because the canonical condemnation concerning its rejection is also firm. The canon warns:
So then, should anyone, which God forbid, have the temerity to reject this definition of ours: let him be anathema [condemned—MP] (Vatican I, 1869b, chap. 4, s. 9, emp. added).
Thus, the curse is set upon those who reject the dogma, and the dogma has the approval of the Vatican I Council; thus, the pope is deemed infallible. However, the definitions, implications, and applications of the dogma are questionable to the point that even within the whole hierarchical and ordinary body of the Catholic Church, consensus does not exist.
IMPLICATIONS OF THE DOGMA
In order to speak of this dogma, we first need to understand certain related subjects. And, since many antagonists of infallibility have been accused of ignorance and manipulation of both the concept and its implications, it is my purpose here to use only those definitions and explanations suggested by the same supporters of the doctrine postulated by Pius IX.
Unlike the commonly publicized idea that only the pope posses infallibility, Catholicism teaches that the Catholic Church, completely represented by its body of bishops, also is infallible. Therefore Vatican II declared:
Although the individual bishops do not enjoy the prerogative of infallibility, they nevertheless proclaim Christ’s doctrine infallibly whenever, even though dispersed through the world, but still maintaining the bond of communion among themselves and with the successor of Peter, and authentically teaching matters of faith and morals, they are in agreement on one position as definitively to be held (Lumen Gentium, 1964, chap. 3, s. 25, emp. added).
It must be noted here that, according to Catholicism, the infallibility of the bishops is subordinated to the infallibility of the bishop of Rome, and it is he who gives the final sentence. Consequently, the thesis of the dogma of infallibility may be summarized in this way:
Infallibility is divine assistance for the Church that protects the Pope of any error in matters of faith and moral…. Infallibility only applies to acts in which the Pope uses his apostolic duty completely; when he defines a dogma in virtue of his supreme authority and in his capacity as pastor of the universal Church. In these cases he speaks ex cathedra (see SCTJM, 1999b, emp. added).
Since the proclamation of the dogma has left many religious people (including Catholics themselves) with a dissatisfied feeling of not being able to conclude rationally by themselves when the pope is fallible and when he is not, Catholicism has found it necessary to set up the following conditions under which infallibility may “work.” According to Catechism of the Catholic Church, three conditions must be filled:
(1) The Pope must speak “as supreme Pastor and Teacher of all the faithful that he confirms [strengthens] his brethren”… (2) The Pope “proclaims the doctrine through a definitive act”… (3) The Pope speaks “in matters of faith and morals” (SCTJM, 1999a, emp. in orig.).
Therefore, with this more “systematized” explanation, Catholicism has “stopped” (or, more accurately, ignored) the endless charges against the popes of both past and modern times. However, is the Catholic doctrine of papal infallibility true? Are its “structured” explanations coherent and valid? Should the faithful Christian agree with, or oppose, this doctrine?
REASONS WHY THE DOGMA OF INFALLIBILITY SHOULD BE REJECTED
It is Inconsistent with Biblical Truth
The Vatican I Council, in its Pastor Aeternus, declares about the basis of infallibility:
For the Holy Spirit was promised to the successors of Peter…. This See of St. Peter always remains unblemished by any error, in accordance with the divine promise of our Lord and Savior to the prince of his disciples: I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail; and when you have turned again, strengthen your brethren (Vatican I, 1869b, chap. 4, s. 6, emp. added).
So then, according to Catholic doctrine, papal infallibility is based on the fact that in Luke 22:32 Jesus promised Peter that his “faith” (i.e., his declarations of divine truths concerning “faith and morals”) would not fail. But a brief analysis of the biblical passage and its context reveals a completely different conclusion. Consider the following.
First, the contextual disposition of Luke 22:32 does not establish the basis for the dogma of infallibility. That is to say, there is no indication in the biblical text that suggests a papal primacy or a type of special “petrine prerogative.” The subject under consideration is the coming temptation of the disciples—and, more specifically, Peter’s impending denial of Jesus.
Second, the expression, “I have prayed for you,” does not impose a special dignity upon Peter; nor does it exclude some prayer in favor of the rest of the disciples. John 17:9-19 clarifies that Jesus had prayed, not only for Peter, but also for His other disciples. The reason why Jesus mentioned (in Luke 22) the prayer in favor of Peter finds its logical explanation in the fact that Peter would be one of the disciples who would confront a major “sifting” at the hand of Satan (Luke 22:31; cf. 22:34,54-62). Jesus, in telling Peter that He had prayed for him, showed him that a speedy recovery after the fall was His desire.
Third, when Jesus spoke of the faith of Peter, He used the Greek term pistis, which means “principally, firm persuasion, conviction based on hearing” (Vine, 1999, p. 374). There is no biblical sign in the text of Luke to suggest that Peter’s faith should be interpreted as his “future declarations of divine truths concerning faith and morals.” Rather, Peter’s faith could be contrasted with the fear of his own physical death—which ultimately would lead him to actually deny his Lord (Luke 22:54-61; cf. Mark 4:35-40). Here, the word “faith” emphasizes Peter’s faith as indicated by his trust in God, not his faith in the sense of “revelations of the truth.”
Fourth, when Jesus told Peter that He had prayed that his faith might not fail, He used the Greek term ekleipo, which can be translated as “leave,” “fail,” or “lack” (Vine, p. 371). A more exact translation would indicate that Peter’s faith would neither dim nor fade. While the faith (trust) that Peter had in Jesus might have failed (since he denied Him, Luke 22:54-61), it did not dim or fade, as evinced by the fact that Peter repented of his failure (Luke 22:62). Those in Catholicism who interpret Peter’s faith as his “infallible testimony of faith and moral dogmas,” fail to realize that Peter’s faith failed him at Annas’ courtyard. Therefore, this faith cannot account for any kind of alleged infallibility given to Peter, much less to Roman bishops.
Fifth, the phrase “when you have turned again” (Luke 22:32) denotes the tragic reality that Peter’s faith was going to fail. The Greek term for “turn” is epistrepho, which expresses the idea of being converted. Peter needed to turn back from his way of denial, repent, and confess Jesus (see Lacueva, 1984, p. 339). In fact, Peter’s personal disloyalty to his Master certainly does not offer any proof for “petrine infallibility”—but quite the opposite.
Finally, Catholicism also affirms that part of the evidence for the dogma of infallibility lies inherently in the text of Matthew 16:18-19, although, a correct exegesis of the text of Matthew shows that such a claim is untenable. [For an explanation of the text in Matthew, see Pinedo, 2005.] The truth is that there is nothing in the whole of the biblical text that would establish the dogma of papal infallibility.
It is Inconsistent with Itself
Papal infallibility also should be rejected because it cannot remain consistent with its own dogmatic presentation. By this, I mean that the dogma of infallibility is self-contradictory. A few examples will be enough to document this fact. For example, the following statement may be found in an explanatory article about papal infallibility:
[T]he Vatican I Council does not directly say that the Pope, when addressing matters ex cathedra of faith and moral, is infallible. It restricts itself to say that, in those cases (and only in those), the Pope enjoys the same infallibility which the Church is endowed with. Therefore, the Church’s infallibility is not defined by the one of the Pope, but the last by the first. And it seems to us to have a profound theological sense (Logos, 1996, emp. added).
Perhaps after reading this quotation it will seem to you that declarations with “profound theological sense” are so “profound” that they become incomprehensible. Catholicism states as a defense that Vatican I (the council that established papal infallibility) does not declare directly that the pope is infallible in matters of faith and morals. But if that is the case, the question becomes, why, for more than a century, has Catholicism insisted on imposing a doctrine that was not even declared directly? If it is said that the Catholic Church is infallible, and that this infallibility also is enjoyed by the pope, is it not an equivalent operation of: if A is equal to B, and if B is equal to C, then A is equal to C? And if it is a dogmatic implication, what kind of “theologically profound” defense is this?
I will let Catholicism continue explaining its own dogmas. In an article titled, “¿Puede el Papa Caer en Error o Herejía?” (“Can the Pope Fall Into Error and Heresy?”), the following declaration can be found:
Therefore, the Pope can err when he speaks about politics, medicine, physics, economy, history, etc. In anything except in religious matters. But he can also err in religious matters, if he speaks in table talk, or in a walk with friends, or a private discussion about religion. And also when he speaks as Mr. So-and-so and states his own personal theories, even in a publicly sold book, he can err (see Cristiandad, 2005, emp. added).
It is interesting to note the concept that this particular supporter of Catholicism has about “in anything except.” If the pope “also” can err in religious matters, can it be said that he can err “in anything except” in religious matters? If the Holy Spirit assists the pope as He assisted Peter and the other apostles of the first century, why, since the Holy Spirit never abandoned them, would the Spirit abandon the pope when he is not on his throne, in his council, or using his title of pontiff? Actually there is no biblical analogy for the dogma of infallibility as presented by Catholicism. Jesus not only spoke infallibly when He appealed to His Father’s authority (John 7:16-18), but also in His private conversations (John 4) or in His walk with friends (John 16:13). The Holy Spirit led the disciples to all the truth, not just part of it (John 16:13). The Bible is inerrant in religious and secular matters; it does not contain wheat and weed. Rather, all Scripture is inspired by God (2 Timothy 3:16).
Addressing the unavoidable reality of pontific heresy, a Catholic Web page declares about the pope:
And if he is a heretic, at least he is not going to declare his heresies as part of the doctrine of the profession, that is, things which we are required to believe and observe. It was never permitted by the Holy Spirit (see Apologética, n.d., emp. added).
That is to say, the pope can fall into heresy and even teach it, but in his heresy (since according to Catholicism he does not declare it ex cathedra), he must not be obeyed. This, of course, gives rise to a tedious problem of investigating whether or not the pope is speaking infallibly, and whether or not he must be obeyed. Ironically it also is declared:
Obedience to the Sumo Pontiff should not be limited to when he speaks ex cathedra. Neither should the disciplinary decree of the Pope be rejected with the pretext that they were not promulgated ex cathedra (SCTJM, 1999b, emp. added).
However, if the pope is both infallible and fallible in religious matters, and if Catholics are called to obey him in both areas, does that not represent a danger to the heart of many Catholic doctrines? The truth is that Catholicism cannot teach and defend papal infallibility as it does, and remain consistent.
It is Inconsistent in Its Application
The possessors of infallibility are: (a) the Pope (the Pope is infallible when speaking ex cathedra), (b) the complete Episcopacy (the totality of the bishops is infallible when proposing a teaching of faith and moral as belief for all the faithful, either assembled together in a general council or scattered around the earth) [see Pivarunas, 1996, parenthetical items in orig., emp. added].
Therefore, it can be said that “infallibility” reaches its highest degree in ecumenical councils, where the pope, along with the body of bishops, offer up a seal of approval to dogmas of faith that Catholics must obey. Additionally Catholicism confirms:
Yes, it is truth that certain popes have contradicted other popes, in their private opinions or concerning disciplinary dogmas; but there was never a Pope who would officially contradict what a previous Pope officially taught about faith and moral matters. The same could be said about ecumenical councils, which also teach with infallibility. There was not an ecumenical council that would contradict the teaching of a previous ecumenical council concerning faith and morals (Keating, n.d., emp. added).
The Catholic defense can be summarized as follows: the pope can be a heretic, but he will not officially teach heresy; and the councils, which allegedly use infallibility, never contradict each other. But is such a concept true? What do the councils, which teach “infallibly,” say? A few examples will be enough to arrive at the conclusion that ecumenical councils, in application of their so-called infallibility, fail completely.
Vatican I Council, in its dogmatic constitution Filius-Dei on the Catholic faith, expressed the following:
The abandonment and rejection of the Christian religion, and the denial of God and his Christ, has plunged the minds of many into the abyss of pantheism, materialism and atheism, and the consequence is that they strive to destroy rational nature itself, to deny any criterion of what is right and just…. And so we, following in the footsteps of our predecessors, in accordance with our supreme apostolic office, have never left off teaching and defending Catholic truth and condemning erroneous doctrines (Vatican I, 1869b, s. 7-10, emp. added).
However, while Vatican I condemns erroneous doctrines such as the denial of Christ, Vatican II declares:
The Church regards with esteem also the Moslems. They adore the one God, living and subsisting in Himself; merciful and all-powerful, the Creator of heaven and earth…. Though they do not acknowledge Jesus as God, they revere Him as a prophet”(Nostra Aetate, 1965, s. 3, emp. added).
But since Muslims do not acknowledge Jesus as the prophesied Messiah (that is, the Christ), would that not be a denial of Christ, and thus the heresy condemned by Vatican I? Most assuredly!
Vatican I, in its canonic sentence on written revelation, states:
If anyone does not receive as sacred and canonical the complete books of Sacred Scripture with all their parts, as the holy Council of Trent listed them, or denies that they were divinely inspired: let him be anathema (Vatican I, 1869a, Can. 2, s. 4, emp. added).
However, Vatican II, in speaking about Hinduism, Buddhism, and other religions that discard much of canonical Scripture, declared that these religions
[t]ry to counter the restlessness of the human heart, each in its own manner, by proposing “ways,” comprising teachings, rules of life, and sacred rites. The Catholic Church rejects nothing that is true and holy in these religions. She regards with sincere reverence those ways of conduct and of life, those precepts and teachings which, though differing in many aspects from the ones she holds and sets forth, nonetheless often reflect a ray of that Truth which enlightens all men (Nostra Aetate 1965, s. 2, emp. added).
On the permanence of the petrine primacy of the roman pontiffs, Vatican I, in its Pastor Aeternus, condemns.
Therefore, if anyone says that it is not by the institution of Christ the lord himself (that is to say, by divine law) that blessed Peter should have perpetual successors in the primacy over the whole Church; or that the Roman Pontiff is not the successor of blessed Peter in this primacy: let him be anathema (Vatican I, 1969b, chap. 2, s. 5, parenthectical item in orig., emp. added).
However, Vatican II beatifies:
The Church recognizes that in many ways she is linked with those who, being baptized, are honored with the name of Christian, though they do not profess the faith in its entirety or do not preserve unity of communion with the successor of Peter [that is to say, they don’t accept the proposed papal hierarchy—MP]. For there are many who honor Sacred Scripture, taking it as a norm of belief and a pattern of life, and who show a sincere zeal. They lovingly believe in God the Father Almighty and in Christ, the Son of God and Saviour. They are consecrated by baptism, in which they are united with Christ (Lumen Gentium, 1964, chap. 2, s. 15, emp. added).
Now Vatican II has united to Christ the same people who, for not accepting petrine hierarchy, were condemned by Vatican I as anathema. Truth be told, the Vatican I Council, which allegedly taught with infallibility, cannot coexist with the Vatican II Council that allegedly employed the same infallibility.
There are many other contradictions that could be added if space allowed, but the few presented in this article are enough to permit a definitive conclusion: the Catholic dogma of papal infallibility is not consistent with the truth. The Vatican II Council invoked by Pope John XXIII stands in strong opposition to the Vatican I Council invoked by Pope Pius IX (the father of the dogma of papal infallibility). On the other hand, there is only one infallible truth—the Word of God (John 17:17). It is this truth to which we need to come to learn about the salvation of our souls and to keep us away from error and apostasy. In the end, when our Savior comes back in the clouds to reward and punish in a universal judgment, it will not be the words of men’s fallible councils, but the Word of God that will be open, and then, the Lord will give the “canonic” sentence.
Apologética (no date), Reflexiones en Torno a la Infalibilidad de la Iglesia [On-line], URL: http://apologetica.org/infalibilidad.htm.
Cristiandad (2005), ¿Puede el Papa Caer en Error o Herejía? [On-line], URL: http://es.catholic.net/conocetufe/358/1780/articulo.php?id=3324.
Keating, Kart (no date), La Infalibilidad Papal [On-line], URL: http://apologetica.org/infalibilidad-keating.htm.
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Logos (1996), Llamado de Atención Sobre la Infalibilidad [On-line], URL: http://www.sjsocial.org/logos/logos6.htm.
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Pinedo, Moisés (2005), The Pope, the Papacy, and the Bible [On-line], URL: https://www.apologeticspress.org/articles/2724.
Pivarunas, Mark A. (1996),La Infalibilidad de la Iglesia Católica [On-line], URL: http://www.cmri.org/font-96prog5.html.
SCTJM (1999a), Ex Cathedra, Tres Condiciones Deben Reunirse Para que una Definición Pontificia Sea Ex Cathedra [On-line], URL: http://www.corazones.org/diccionario/excathedra.htm.
SCTJM (1999b), Infalibilidad [On-line], URL: http://www.corazones.org/diccionario/infalibilidad.htm#Infalibilidad%20Episcopa.
Vatican I (1869a), Canon On Revelation [On-line], URL: http://www.ewtn.com/library/COUNCILS/V1.HTM#5.
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Vine, W.E. (1999), Diccionario Expositivo de Palabras del Antiguo y Nuevo Testamento Exhaustivo, (Colombia, Editorial Caribe, Inc.).
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