Here's a fun fact about church history: papal infallibility is a doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church, but it is rarely invoked. It is not in effect unless the pope is speaking ex cathedra on a matter of Catholic faith or practice. The last time it was invoked was in the Fifties, when it was declared that Mary the mother of Jesus had been bodily assumed into Heaven at the end of her earthly life.

It is important to note that infallibility does not mean that the Pope is without sin, merely that certain pronouncements made on matters of faith and morals are supposed to be protected from error by the Holy Spirit. This protection applies not just to the Pope, but to the congregation of Bishops as a whole.

As well as being rarely invoked, this doctrine is actually relatively new, having been defined by the First Vatican Council in 1870. Catholic theologians, however, will hold that the doctrine has always been true, it was just never expressed in these terms before the nineteenth century. The scriptural precedent normally invoked for the doctrine is Christ's words to Peter:

Thou art Peter and upon this rock I will build my Church; to you I give the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven. Whatever you bind on earth is bound in heaven; whatever you loose on earth is loosed in heaven
The Church also draw on their history, and their own form of logic, to back up the doctrine.

The logical argument for infallibility runs along the lines that as Christ gave Peter and his successors the authority to bind and loose, it would be a terrible thing altogether if Peter's successors were able to bind the faithful to error. Christ, however, would surely never allow this, so it follows that solemn pronouncements of this kind must be protected from error.

But the Catholic Church, you cry, has a long history of errors of the most grevious nature, false Popes, schisms and all the rest of it. This may be true, but the doctrine of infallibility applies only in very limited circumstances, viz.

When the Pope intends to teach by virtue of his supreme authority on a matter of faith and morals to the whole Church, he is preserved by the Holy Spirit from error. His teaching act is therefore called "infallible" and the teaching which he articulates is termed "irreformable"
So far, the church has been careful not to term "irreformable" any doctrine which may be subject to change in the future, or which sets it at odds with its own believers, such as the idea that contraception is sinful, priests cannot marry etc. etc.

In conclusion, papal infallibility does exist, and in a sense is quite a scary doctrine, in that in theory it would be possible for some future pope to declare it an article of faith that it is lawful to kill Muslims or some such outrage. In such a case, however, I imagine it would not be beyond the church's powers of casuistry to retrospectively find a reason why this pronouncement was not, after all, protected by infallibility and thus true for all time. The important thing to remember, however, is that the Pope's periodic pronouncements on public morality, e.g. the sinfulness of homosexuality, the unlawfulness of woman priests etc., are not necessarily covered by infallibility. This is not to say that the Pope doesn't mean them, just that he has yet to declare ex cathedra that they are irreformable matters of faith.

I preface this writeup by noting that I come to it from a somewhat skeptical point of view when it comes to this doctrine, although I think there is a lot of good truth nestled behind it (perhaps even being obscured by it. But that's another node.)

There is some dispute over the history of this doctrine as it is currently understood; while some would have you believe that current dogma dates back, unaltered, to the first century, history says otherwise.

The doctrine was first codified outright in Vatican Council I in 1870; it was actually one of a pair of related tenets:

  1. The infallibility of the pope when speaking ex cathedra in matters of faith and morals (and it doesn't take much of a creative argument to make just about everything a faith/moral issue; in this sense, the boundaries of this argument are elastic)
  2. The primacy of papal jurisdiction, that is, the pope has plenary authority ("direct sovereignty") over the entire church, at any time, in any situation.

Some bishops and cardinals contended that these two, taken together, reduced the entire ecclesiastical government to lackeys of the Pope; even if the ex cathedra authority is exercised only with great care, and even given the ability of the church to employ dialectic retroactively to say "he wasn't really speaking ex cathedra; that doctrine is malleable", the very tenor of these doctrines elevated the popular perception of who and what the pope really is in ways that were detached from the historic tradition of the Roman Catholic Church.

A brief overview of the history leading up to VC1:

While there are historic texts that hint at strong ecclesiastic authority dating back to the 3rd century (and debatably the 1st), hints that this extends directly and personally to the pontiff are generally lacking until around the 7th century, and the scriptural arguments to the infallibility of a single human office are problematic at best and red herrings at worst.

Hasler's history indicates that infallibility was first identified and ascribed to the Pope outright by a Franciscan priest in 1279.

Interstingly, Pope John XXII attributed the very notion that his office bore a mantle of infallibility to the devil in 1324.

There was some rise in the doctrine's popularity during the protestant reformation, perhaps because nothing shuts up argument quite like unassailable authority.

The first pope to personally own and wield infallibility was Pope Gregory XVI (1831-1846). His successor, Pope Pius IX, is credited with elevating the doctrine to it's current status as dogma. He is also credited with the rise of papolatry; one title popularly ascribed to him was "vice-God of humanity". Protestants are particularly fond of ol' Pius for also making an (infallible) dogma of the Immaculate Conception of Mary, a position difficult to argue (at least as far as I can tell) from scripture.

Naturally, this opens up the problem of the openness or closure of the canon; if the Pope can speak ex cathedra to clarify interpretive matters and ex scriptura derived doctrines, that is one thing; if he can introduce concepts like this ex nihilo, and do so infallibly with the full authority of the church, well, that's a horse of a different color. How is it qualitatively different from adding to scripture?

Thanks to:
A. B. Hasler, "How the Pope Became Infallible", Doubleday, 1981
for facts, framing, and organization used in this writeup.

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