The history of papal infallibility — it’s not personal

The notion of papal infallibility enjoys an unhappy distinction.

One of the most widely known memes of the last one-hundred-and-fifty years, it is also one of the most utterly misunderstood.

The media’s reporting of two recent events illustrates the issue.

First, consider the retirement of Pope Benedict XVI. After Benedict’s dramatic announcement, serious and respected commentators raised such questions as “Will a resigned pope continue to be infallible?” and “What will happen if an infallible Benedict is contradicted by an infallible successor?”

Questions like that may sell papers, but they show no evidence that the writers made the effort even to Google the term, “papal infallibility.”

More recently, take the commentary on Pope Francis’s Synod on the Family.

At the close of the synod’s initial sessions, a columnist for the New York Times—an educated Catholic—blankly depicted the policy of denying Communion to civilly divorced-and-remarried Catholics as an unavoidable implication of infallible papal teaching on the indissolubility of marriage.

The bishops who promulgated the doctrine of papal infallibility at the First Vatican Council in 1869 would have shuddered at such cartoonish misrepresentations of their highly nuanced creation.

How egregious are those misrepresentation? Here is the original text of their decree:

We teach and define that it is a dogma Divinely revealed that the Roman pontiff when he speaks ex cathedra, that is when in discharge of the office of pastor and doctor of all Christians, by virtue of his supreme Apostolic authority, he defines a doctrine regarding faith or morals to be held by the universal Church, by the Divine assistance promised to him in Blessed Peter, is possessed of that infallibility with which the Divine Redeemer willed that his Church should be endowed in defining doctrine regarding faith or morals, and that therefore such definitions of the Roman pontiff are of themselves and not from the consent of the Church irreformable. Continue reading


  • Commonweal, from an article by George Wilson, SJ, a retired ecclesiologist living in Cincinnati.
  • Image: pHimages
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