The real meaning of papal infallibility

The Chair of St Peter (cathedra) in St Peter’s Basilica, Vatican (Wikimedia/Dnalor_01)

As the 150th anniversary of the opening of the First Vatican Council approaches, Bishop Peter Elliott reflects on the best-known outcome of the Council – the doctrine of papal infallibility. Source: ACBC Media Blog.

The First Vatican Council defined papal infallibility, a widely misunderstood teaching of the Church. The history of the Ecumenical Council that met in Rome between 1869 and 1870 reveals what the doctrine of papal infallibility really means.

He who is the Truth, Jesus Christ, willed and promised that the Holy Spirit of truth would be given to his Church. Guided by the Spirit, his teaching Church cannot fall into error, which is what “infallible” means. The Holy Spirit leads her into truth and protects her from teaching error.

What needed defining in 1870 was how the Pope teaches infallibly within the Church, as Successor of St Peter and supreme teacher of the Church.

After debates and an infusion of German theology (in those days a moderating and scholarly influence), Pastor Aeternus, the First Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, concludes with the definition, that:

“…. the Roman Pontiff, when he speaks ex cathedra, that is, when in discharge of the office of pastor and teacher of all Christians, by virtue of his Apostolic authority, he defines a doctrine regarding faith or morals to be held by the Universal Church is, by the divine assistance promised to him in Blessed Peter, possessed of that infallibility with which the divine Redeemer willed that his Church should be endowed in defining doctrine regarding faith or morals; and that, therefore, such definitions of the Roman Pontiff are of themselves, and not from the consent of the Church, irreformable.”

This should be read carefully. It does not blandly say, without qualifications, “the Pope is infallible”.

The Pope can teach infallibly when exercising the Petrine Office, under specific circumstances and only in the area of faith or morals. He cannot teach infallibly on matters of science, politics, economics etc., even as these areas raise moral issues.

Bishop Peter Elliott is a retired Auxiliary Bishop of Melbourne and an expert in Church history.


Vatican I and the doctrine of papal infallibility (ACBC Media Blog)

Mass on Demand


From Parish of Our Lady of The Way, North Sydney & Lavender Bay. The first Mass of the day on YouTube.
Mass on Demand donate

Daily Prayer

Daily Prayer

All your daily readings, reflections and prayers can be found here...