Pope Infallibility – What does it mean?

th[4] If the Pope is infallible, does that mean everything he says is true and correct? It is a misunderstanding to think that whatever the Pope says is correct and that you can take it to the bank. No, it does not mean he is sinless, or that he can predict football scores, knows what the winning lottery number will be, predict what the weather will be in any part of the world on a certain day, or that he cannot make a mistake. That is not what is meant by being infallible. You see, infallibility simply means that it is a negative protection and it is limited in it’s scope.

The Pope is charged with the duty of safeguarding the faith. It also means that under certain conditions, when he teaches on faith and morals, it is free from error. It is the Holy Spirit that keeps him from teaching error officially as the Pastor of the Church. First of all, when he teaches something that is infallible, it must be of his own free will. In other words, someone is not holding a gun to his head or forcing him in some way. Secondly, it has to be on faith and morals, not on sports, medicine, politics, etc. Thirdly, he has to be intending to teach the whole Church and intending to define a doctrine as the Pastor of the Church. So, when he speaks infallible, what he says may not be timely, it may not be eloquent, but it is free from error and something we can trust from God.

Also, infallibility is not just exclusive to the Pope. It also belongs to the body of bishops as a whole, when, in doctrinal unity with the pope, they teach a doctrine as true. The Pope and the bishops who make up the Magisterium, which is the teaching office of the Church, were promised this authority from Jesus. Jesus himself promised the apostles and their successors the bishops; “He who hears you hears me” (Luke 10:16), and “Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven” (Matt. 18:18).

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Vatican II explained the doctrine of infallibility as follows:
“Although the individual bishops do not enjoy the prerogative of infallibility, they can nevertheless proclaim Christ’s doctrine infallibly. This is so, even when they are dispersed around the world, provided that while maintaining the bond of unity among themselves and with Peter’s successor, and while teaching authentically on a matter of faith or morals, they concur in a single viewpoint as the one which must be held conclusively. This authority is even more clearly verified when, gathered together in an ecumenical council, they are teachers and judges of faith and morals for the universal Church. Their definitions must then be adhered to with the submission of faith” (Lumen Gentium 25).

As I mentioned earlier, and from the Catechism of the Catholic Church (#890, 891), not every statement uttered by the Pope is infallible. In order for the Pope to declare a teaching to be infallible, it must meet these requirements:
1.) It must pertain to faith and morals only.
2.) That the teaching be Divinely revealed to the Pope, and therefore , binding upon all the faithful.
3.) The proclamation of the infallible teaching is done ex cathedra and appeals to the Pope’s Apostolic authority.

For a Pope, to be “infallible” does not mean he is “impeccable” (the inability to sin). He must go to Confession just like everyone else. As a matter of fact, Pope John Paul II celebrated the Sacrament of Penance on a regular basis so he could receive God’s forgiveness for his own personal shortcomings.

Until next time, God bless.

3 thoughts on “Pope Infallibility – What does it mean?

  1. How do you know for fact that what the pope says is infallible? Please don’t misunderstand my question, i’m not looking for an argument, just curious how you really know.

    • Well, first, we believe that Jesus established a visible Church. The New Testament shows the apostles setting up, after Jesus’ instructions, a visible organization, and that every Christian writer in the early centuries—in fact, nearly all Christians until the Reformation—fully recognized that Christ set up an ongoing organization.

      If Christ did set up such an organization, he must have provided for its continuation, for its easy identification (that is, it had to be visible so it could be found), and, since he would be gone from earth, for some method by which it could preserve his teachings intact.
      All this was accomplished through the apostolic succession of bishops, and the preservation of the Christian message, in its fullness, was guaranteed through the gift of infallibility, of the Church as a whole, but mainly through its Christ-appointed leaders, the bishops (as a whole) and the pope (as an individual).
      Since Christ said the gates of hell would not prevail against his Church (Matt. 16:18b), this means that his Church can never pass out of existence. But if the Church ever apostasized by teaching heresy, then it would cease to exist; because it would cease to be Jesus’ Church. Thus the Church cannot teach heresy, meaning that anything it solemnly defines for the faithful to believe is true. This same reality is reflected in the Apostle Paul’s statement that the Church is “the pillar and foundation of the truth” (1 Tim. 3:15). If the Church is the foundation of religious truth in this world, then it is God’s own spokesman. As Christ told his disciples: “He who hears you hears me, and he who rejects you rejects me, and he who rejects me rejects him who sent me” (Luke 10:16).
      God bless.

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