Amongst the Catholic doctrines most troublesome to many Protestants (and many Orthodox, too) is that of papal infallibility. Perhaps it conjures up visions of flabella and the sedia gestatoria, or a not-so-subtle Vatican form of mind control, or even an abuse of our valued freedom of conscience.
Actually, it’s a rather straightforward sign of God’s love for His Church.
First of all, papal infallibility is not to be confused with impeccability. Most people understand this, but there are some who think Catholics are supposed to believe that the Pope cannot sin. Infallibility has nothing to do with the absence of sin. It’s a charism – a gift – which God imparts. Although it is rightly referred to as “papal infallibility," nonetheless it is something shared with the whole body of Catholic bishops. Although they do not have this charism individually, they do exercise the gift when they teach in doctrinal unity with the Successor of St. Peter. This is defined in Lumen Gentium, n. 25:
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.
Despite the myths held by some, the Pope doesn’t wake up in the morning and think to himself, “I think I shall proclaim something infallibly today,” nor are Catholics inhabitants of an ecclesiastical Wonderland in which they are required to believe “six impossible things before breakfast.”
So what is papal infallibility? It is defined in the First Dogmatic Constitution on the Church of Christ, Pastor Aeternus, Chapter 4, n. 9:
Therefore, faithfully adhering to the tradition received from the beginning of the Christian faith, to the glory of God our savior, for the exaltation of the Catholic religion and for the salvation of the Christian people, with the approval of the Sacred Council, we teach and define as a divinely revealed dogma that when the Roman Pontiff speaks EX CATHEDRA, that is, when, in the exercise of his office as shepherd and teacher of all Christians, in virtue of his supreme apostolic authority, he defines a doctrine concerning faith or morals to be held by the whole Church, 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.
This was confirmed by the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council in Lumen Gentium, n. 25:
And this infallibility with which the Divine Redeemer willed His Church to be endowed in defining doctrine of faith and morals, extends as far as the deposit of Revelation extends, which must be religiously guarded and faithfully expounded. And this is the infallibility which the Roman Pontiff, the head of the college of bishops, enjoys in virtue of his office, when, as the supreme shepherd and teacher of all the faithful, who confirms his brethren in their faith, by a definitive act he proclaims a doctrine of faith or morals. And therefore his definitions, of themselves, and not from the consent of the Church, are justly styled irreformable, since they are pronounced with the assistance of the Holy Spirit, promised to him in blessed Peter, and therefore they need no approval of others, nor do they allow an appeal to any other judgment. For then the Roman Pontiff is not pronouncing judgment as a private person, but as the supreme teacher of the universal Church, in whom the charism of infallibility of the Church itself is individually present, he is expounding or defending a doctrine of Catholic faith.
The doctrine of papal infallibility did not abruptly appear in the 19th century. It was found implicitly from the earliest days of the Church, and indeed has its foundation in Holy Scripture itself. In St. John’s Gospel (21:15-17) Christ makes it clear to St. Peter that he, Peter, is to tend the flock and feed the sheep; in St. Luke’s Gospel (22:32) our Lord tells Peter that He will pray for him, so that his faith will not fail, and for him to strengthen the other apostles; in St. Matthew’s Gospel (16:18) Christ proclaims Peter to be the Rock on which He would build His Church.
The Church, founded by our divine Saviour, was commanded by Him to teach everything that He had revealed to His apostles (St. Matthew 28:20), and He promised them that they would be guided into all truth by the Holy Spirit (St. John 16:13). As the teaching authority of the Church, along with the primacy of St. Peter and his successors, was more and more comprehended, there came a clearer understanding of the protection God provides through the gift of infallibility. From the scriptural testimony, on through such witnesses as St. Cyprian of Carthage and St. Augustine of Hippo, it is clear the Church has always understood that God reveals and safeguards His truth through this charism.
There is an erroneous idea that a formal statement of infallible truth marks the occasion when the Church only began to teach a particular doctrine – in other words, that belief in papal infallibility began in only in 1870. However, infallible pronouncements are usually made only when some doctrine has been called into question. Most doctrines have never been doubted by the large majority of Catholics, and so have never required a formal and infallible statement. We see this even with a cursory reading of the Catechism, where most of the doctrines outlined in its pages require no corresponding papal document to confirm what is simply part of the ordinary magisterium of the Church.
If we scratch the surface of most arguments against the doctrine of papal infallibility, we will often find that there is confusion between infallibility and impeccability (“look at the sinful popes in history”), along with an independent streak of protestantism (“no one is going to tell me what I have to believe”). I find it to be both amazing and amusing, that those who are most vociferous against papal infallibility present their arguments with a certitude which could only be described as infallible.
It takes no great leap of faith to accept the fact that the God who created the universe and raises the dead, would also ensure that His children are given the truth. That He protects His Vicar on earth from solemnly defining something as true, if it’s really false, not only harmonizes with Scripture, but it is reflected in the unbroken history of the Church. We should derive great comfort from the doctrine of infallibility, because it’s a beautiful act of God’s divine love.