Papal infallibility is often misunderstood. Here’s what it means—and what it doesn’t.
Papal infallibility, solemnly defined by the First Vatican Council in its 1870 dogmatic constitution “Pastor Aeternus,” has long been controversial and frequently misunderstood inside and outside the church. Some Catholics after the Council argued that with an infallible pope, there was no need for future church councils. Protestants generally find the teaching unbiblical and contrary to the teachings of the early church, though Catholics point to Christ’s promise to remain always with his church and to send the Spirit to “teach you everything and remind you of all that I told you” (Jn 14:26).
But theologians continue to disagree about how declarations of the papal magisterium should be interpreted, as recently became evident when the Pontifical Academy for Life tweeted the suggestion that “Humanae Vitae,” Pope Paul VI’s encyclical condemning artificial contraception, was not covered by papal infallibility.
How does the Catholic Church understand infallibility?
Infallibility is not something belonging to the pope alone, but a charism of the entire church.
What the Council said
What Vatican I actually taught in its 1870 definition was quite limited. First, “Pastor Aeternus” taught that when the pope makes a solemn definition concerning faith or morals, he “is possessed of that infallibility with which the divine Redeemer willed that His Church should be endowed.” In other words, infallibility is not something belonging to the pope alone, but a charism of the entire church. Second, it is limited to divinely revealed dogmas concerning faith and morals; it was not to make known new doctrines. Thirdly, such definitions must represent an ex cathedra exercise of the papal office, that is, “from the chair” in virtue of his supreme apostolic authority. Finally, it must be in regard to something to be held by the universal church.
The Second Vatican Council (1962-65) did not “reform” the teaching of Vatican I, in the strict sense of the word, but reinterpreted it in significant ways. Vatican II included the bishops in the exercise of the church’s infallibility. It also saw the laity playing an important role. Let us consider first the inclusion of the bishops.
The “Dogmatic Constitution on the Church” (“Lumen Gentium”) states, “The infallibility promised to the Church resides also in the body of Bishops, when that body exercises the supreme magisterium with the successor of Peter” (LG, No. 25). In his commentary on “Lumen Gentium,” Karl Rahner, S.J., recognizes that the bishops, when they are united in teaching a doctrine as “definitively to be held,” can proclaim doctrine infallibly. This refers to what is called “the ordinary universal magisterium,” which is appealed to in regard to some controversial issues today.
But Rahner makes an important distinction. He notes that the text says, “to be held,” not “to be believed,” since most agree that not every doctrine taught unanimously is infallible. But sorting this out involves some rather technical issues, as we shall see below.
As to the inclusion of the laity in the charism of infallibility, the council’s language is more indirect. “Lumen Gentium” appeals to the Spirit’s agency in defining doctrine, not just in the hierarchy, but in the whole church:
The entire body of the faithful, anointed as they are by the Holy One, cannot err in matters of belief. They manifest this special property by means of the whole peoples' supernatural discernment in matters of faith when ‘from the Bishops down to the last of the lay faithful’ they show universal agreement in matters of faith and morals. (LG, No. 12).
And a few paragraphs later: “To these definitions the assent of the Church can never be wanting, on account of the activity of that same Holy Spirit, by which the whole flock of Christ is preserved and progresses in unity of faith” (LG, No. 25). As mentioned earlier, infallibility is not used to make known new doctrines, but to safeguard the church’s faith. The infallible or “extraordinary” papal magisterium has been exercised only twice, when Pope Pius IX defined the Immaculate Conception of Mary (1854) and Pius XII defined her Assumption (1950), in both cases only after consulting the church through a polling of the bishops. The magisterium teaches what the church believes.
“The infallibility promised to the Church resides also in the body of Bishops, when that body exercises the supreme magisterium with the successor of Peter.”
Pope Francis and infallibility
Pope Francis has taken a number of steps to recover a more comprehensive understanding of teaching authority. Early in his pontificate, when asked in his famous interview with Antonio Spadaro, S.J., about how he understood St. Ignatius Loyola’s principle of “thinking with the church,” he emphasized that it does not mean simply thinking with the hierarchy. He said “the holy, faithful people of God” itself constitutes a subject, on a journey through history. “And all the faithful, considered as a whole, are infallible in matters of belief, and the people display this infallibilitas in credendo, this infallibility in believing, through a supernatural sense of the faith of all the people walking together.”
He added, “When the dialogue among the people and the bishops and the pope goes down this road and is genuine, then it is assisted by the Holy Spirit. So this thinking with the church does not concern theologians only.” Richard Gaillardetz, a theologian at Boston College, made a significant observation on this point in 2014:
Let us not overlook the audacity of this claim. Francis is saying that we can be confident of an assistance of the Holy Spirit to the bishops on the condition that they are open to listening to others. This perspective stands in startling contrast to the almost mechanistic notions of the assistance of the Holy Spirit often invoked by church leaders.
In June 2014, the International Theological Commission published an important text entitled “Sensus Fidei in the Life of the Church,” developing Francis’ understanding of the people of God as a subject. In focusing on the sensus fidei (sense of the faith) and the sensus fidelium (sense of the faithful), the text reclaimed a principle long overlooked in recent Catholic history but deeply rooted in both Scripture and the theological tradition. As the commission’s text explains, the faithful “are not merely passive recipients of what the hierarchy teaches and theologians explain: rather they are living and active subjects within the Church.”
While the sense of the faithful cannot be reduced to majority opinion and needs to be discerned by the magisterium, the faithful have a role in the development of the church’s doctrine and moral teaching, and they should be consulted. Theologically, the old distinction between a teaching church (ecclesia docens), identified exclusively with the hierarchy, and a learning church (ecclesia discens), is no longer appropriate. The unity between the two is organic. Thus, the council banished “the caricature of active hierarchy and a passive laity” (No. 4).
Francis has sought to give expression to this vision of the entire church as subject, guided by the Spirit. In his address for the opening of the current global synodal process that will culminate with an assembly of the Synod of Bishops in Rome in October 2023, he called for a listening church, a church in which all the baptized take an active part in the church’s life and mission.
It is not always easy to recognize when a doctrine has been the consistent teaching of the ordinary magisterium, as historians have often pointed out.
Interpreting magisterial teachings
It is not always easy to recognize when a doctrine has been the consistent teaching of the ordinary magisterium, as historians have often pointed out. Nor is what the church believes always clear. Many consistent teachings of the ordinary magisterium have ultimately been changed because of the way in which they were received by the church. In his 1992 book Infallibility on Trial: Church, Conciliarity and Communion, Luis M. Bermejo gave a number of examples, among them the impossibility of salvation outside the church, taught by Lateran IV (l215) and Florence (1442); the tolerance of slavery, sanctioned by Lateran III (1179), Lateran IV (1215), Lyons V (1245) and Lyons II (1274); and the justification of the use of torture by Lateran II (1179) and Vienne (1311).
During Pope John Paul II’s pontificate, a flood of documents on magisterial authority were issued by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith under the prefect of the congregation at the time, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, drawing charges of a doctrinal maximalism, or “creeping infallibilism.” A case in point is Pope John Paul II’s apostolic letter “Ordinatio Sacerdotalis,” which declared that the church has no authority to confer priestly ordination on women, and that this judgment is to be definitively held. When questions were raised about the authority of the letter, the C.D.F. published a statement declaring that the pope’s teaching belonged to the deposit of faith and has been infallibly taught by the ordinary and universal magisterium.
But many theologians continued to question the accuracy of that declaration. Writing in America, the distinguished Jesuit canonist Ladislas Örsy, S.J., argued that the C.D.F.’s response reflected only the interpretation and authority of that congregation; it did not affect the weight of the apostolic letter. Francis Sullivan, S.J., then the premier authority on magisterial authority, wrote that a question remained as to whether or not the bishops of the church were unanimous in teaching that the exclusion of women from ordination to the priesthood is a divinely revealed truth. He concluded, “Unless this is manifestly the case, I do not see how it can be certain that this doctrine is taught infallibly by the ordinary and universal magisterium.”
In his commentary on Pope John Paul II’s motu proprio “Ad Tuendam Fidem,” which imposes penalties on those who dissent from “definitive” but not infallible teachings, Cardinal Ratzinger included the canonization of saints and Pope Leo XIII’s declaration in “Apostolicae Curae” on the invalidity of Anglican ordinations as truths “connected to revelation by historical necessity,” to be held definitively, even if not revealed. Other theologians, among them Avery Dulles, S.J., found the example of “Apostolicae Curae” debatable. Thus there remains considerable controversy as to what is to be included in the definitive teaching of the ordinary universal magisterium.
During Pope John Paul II’s pontificate, a flood of documents on magisterial authority were issued by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
The present controversy
In June of this year, the Pontifical Academy for Life published a volume, Theological Ethics of Life: Scripture, Tradition, Practical Challenges, which includes papers delivered at an academy conference last year. Some of the theologians in the volume suggested that, in some circumstances, couples might legitimately choose to practice artificial contraception. Responding to the controversy that followed, the Pontifical Academy tweeted that Pope Paul VI’s encyclical condemning artificial contraception was not covered by papal infallibility—that, indeed, this had been affirmed by Archbishop Ferdinando Lambruschini in presenting the encyclical at a press conference on July 29, 1968. To the controversy following the first tweet, a second one on August 8 reaffirmed the earlier one, but they were later withdrawn.
The authority of “Humanae Vitae” has long been disputed. Its release resulted in an unprecedented dissent by many theologians, arguing that the use of contraceptives was a decision of conscience up to marital couples. Several episcopal conferences took a similar approach. For many lay Catholics, the encyclical marked the end of their confidence in the magisterium’s authority on sexual questions. But other theologians argued for the infallibility of the encyclical’s teaching, including John C. Ford, S.J., and Dr. Germain Grisez in a 1978 article in Theological Studies.
For many lay Catholics, "Humanae Vitae" marked the end of their confidence in the magisterium’s authority on sexual questions.
Assent and dialogue
Not all papal teachings are of equal authority, as Vatican II was careful to point out. Teachings in the area of doctrine can change; those considered dogmatic or infallible because of divine revelation cannot; the two types of teaching are owed different levels of response on the part of the faithful. Teachings of the authentic papal magisterium, even when the pope is not speaking ex cathedra, are owed a “religious assent” or “religious submission” (obsequium religiosum). However, those doctrines proclaimed infallibly are “irreformable” and must be adhered to with “the submission of faith” (LG, No. 25). To reject them places one outside the community of faith.
America recently quoted Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, president of the Pontifical Academy for Life, who described the academy’s role as providing a space for scholarly discussion; it is not limited to explaining texts of the magisterium. This reflects the approach of Pope Francis, who continues to emphasize the relation between conscience, norms and discernment. He prefers this to condemnation.
Papal infallibility is not always properly understood. Some on the right think that the magisterium can resolve every question or problem with a declaration. Those on the left often grow impatient and dispute its interventions. Pope Francis has tried to walk a fine line between these extremes. Too many religious communities today lack the gifts of patience or moderation; without authoritative teaching structures, they often fall prey to the loudest voice or the most charismatic speaker.
The result is disunity and sometimes even violence. Catholicism’s ability to teach with authority, in some cases even infallibly, is one of God’s great gifts to the church.