What is papal infallibility? How can a pope be infallible?

In other articles we explain the papal authority, hierarchy, and succession. Papal infallibility is dependant on all of those qualities about the Pope's office.

In the article on authority, we demonstrated that the Bible provides clear evidence of the authority of the office of the Pope. In the article on hierarchy, we've demostrated that a democracy doesn't work, as evidenced by 30,000 denominations outside the Church and the current freefall of western civilization. The article on succession demostrated that the keys of the kingdom are still with the papal office. The Pope is Christ's "Vicar" and as such, Jesus is protecting him from certain types of errors that would kill his body, the Church.

One of the most misunderstood things about the Pope is "infallibility". Some Evangelicals think infallibility means that Catholics claim that every word that comes out of the Pope's mouth is supposed to be infallible.

The press jumped all over Pope Benedict XVI for his comments about Islam. They said an "infallible Pope" should not make such a political blunder. That really has nothing to do with infallibility (Pope Benedict's controversial speech where he spoke about Islam is here). Sure the Pope can make political and PR mistakes. He's not a politician and he doesn't have a Madison Avenue PR firm managing his communications.

The Pope is human and therefore sins. He's the first to admit it. He goes to regular confession where he confesses his sin, repents and is granted forgiveness. Catholics do not deny the Pope's humanity. At a meeting of priests, Pope Benedict said:

The Pope is not an oracle, he is infallible on the rarest of occasions, as we know…"

What the Church is saying with the doctrine of infallibly is that Christ is protecting his flock by giving the Pope the ability to say the right things when making official statements about faith and morals. The Church claims that these proclamations are "infallible," not that Church leaders are "indefectible." Most certainly everybody in the Catholic Church has defects (including its leaders), just like evangelicals and all humans.

The doctrine of infallibility has nothing to do with the brainpower, intuition, moral fibre, or even the faith of the Pope. The doctrine of infallibility has everything to do with God protecting his Church. It's amazing that even during medieval times when there were some questionable and even bad Popes, God kept them silent on issues of faith and morals during their office.

A Pope only exercises infallibility on rare occasions - a handful of times in history. Here are the conditions:

  1. The Pope must speak ex cathedra (from the Chair of Peter) in his official capacity.
  2. "The Chair is - let us say it again - a symbol of the power of teaching, which is a power of obedience and service, so that the Word of God- the truth! - may shine out among us and show us the way of life."

    - Pope Benedict XVI

  3. The decision must be binding on the whole Church.
  4. It must be on a matter of faith or morals.
  5. He must be intending to teach.

Some Evangelicals wonder how this mystery and miracle of infallibility could be possible. How can an imperfect human, under some conditions, speak infallibly? We have to ask ourselves "is Jesus capable of protecting his flock in this way?" The answer is that Jesus can do anything. Christ promised to guide and protect his Church and to send the Holy Spirit to lead it into all truth. (Mat 16:18-19, 18:18, 28:20; Jn 14:16, 25, 16:13). The Holy Spirit guided the Church when it decided which books were to be included in the Bible. That was an infallible decision. Praise God!

Certainly many who are reading this have had experiences where God made something very clear to them through the Grace of the Holy Spirit. How much more would He want to do that for someone who has been trusted to lead and influence millions of Christians.

The early Church had central direction evidenced by the way it handled the crisis of faith over circumcision. (Acts 15-16) Paul and Barnabus went to Jerusalem to settle the circumcision issue. "As they (Paul and Timothy) went through the towns they delivered to the believers the rules decided upon by the apostles and elders in Jerusalem, and they told them to obey those rules." (Acts 16:3)

Related Articles