It’s coffee time with your Protestant friend.
You’re sipping a dark roast together when he suddenly says, with a shake of his head, “Don’t you guys believe everything the pope says?”
You pause for a moment. What was it that Get Fed said about this recently?
Some of our Protestant brethren think that “infallibility” means the pope’s inability to say or do anything wrong. They think it means that everything he says is unquestionable for us Catholics, who are obligated to accept and agree with all of it.
This is not, however, what the Church teaches about infallibility. If it was, there would be grounds for concern!
So what is infallibility, really?
Infallibility concerns the Church’s teaching on faith and morals; it does not extend to an individual pope’s opinions or even actions. Rather, it is the fulfillment of the promise Our Lord made to the Apostles: that the Holy Spirit would guide the Church and prevent her from teaching falsehood (John 16:13).
Furthermore, the pope is not infallible when he’s walking down a street and someone asks him a question about moral teaching and he shares a reply off the top of his head.
He is only infallible when—finding it necessary to define some teaching of the Church more clearly—he delivers a solemn, official doctrine. The Catholic Encyclopedia explains that these rubrics must be followed:
- The pontiff must teach in his public and official capacity as pastor and doctor of all Christians.
- It must be sufficiently evident that he intends to teach with all the fullness and finality of his supreme Apostolic authority.
- It must be clear that the pope intends to bind the whole Church.
- It is only when, in this capacity, he teaches some doctrine of faith or morals that he is infallible.
For example, when Pope Pius IX defined the dogma of the Blessed Mother’s Immaculate Conception, he acted in accordance with all four of these requirements. He also made it very clear that he spoke bindingly and finally by saying that all Catholics must assent to the doctrine or incur “spiritual shipwreck.”
All this means that popes actually make use of infallibility quite rarely.
Hmm. Infallibility is different than most people understand, right?
Your friend picks up his mug with a short laugh. “You’ve been reading that Get Fed again!”
Your friend probably has more questions about the pope—and maybe you want to know more yourself! Pope Fiction: Answers to 30 Myths & Misconceptions About the Papacy is a great place to start. Best-selling author Patrick Madrid takes on all the popular papacy fables, debunking them with clarity, charity, and humor. This page-turner is on sale! Get your copy today at The Catholic Company!