As we draw near to the feast of The Chair of St. Peter it is worth reflecting on what papal infallibility is and is not. People often think this doctrine entails that Catholics believe the pope is faultless, receives divine inspiration, or that anything he ever says is infallible. However, the First Vatican Council, which defined this dogma, taught that the pope speaks infallibly only when “he speaks ex cathedra [from the chair] — that is, when in the exercise of his office as pastor and teacher of all Christians he defines… doctrines of faith and morals; consequently… such definitions of the Roman Pontiff are irreformable of their own nature.” (Denzinger no. 1839) Two of the most famous examples of this teaching authority are the dogmatic declarations concerning the Immaculate Conception of Mary and the Assumption of Mary. Moreover, for papal infallibility to apply, the pope has to make clear that he intends to “pronounce, declare, and define” the teaching as dogmatic. While a given papal document – a papal encyclical, for example – has magisterial authority, and the faithful are called to give external assent to the teachings contained therein, the document is not necessarily infallible. Similarly, in his book Jesus of Nazareth, Pope Benedict XVI goes out of his way to say that he was writing as a private theologian and not with magisterial authority.
We believe that when the Pope speaks ex cathedra the Holy Spirit will guide him to speak without error as he makes the declaration. Therefore, he will teach in accordance with the faith he has received from the Holy Scriptures and the Sacred Tradition of the Church. In a real way, papal infallibility limits the power of a given pope. Once a dogma has been defined by a pope or church council, succeeding pontiffs do not have the authority to nullify the teachings which they have received. These limits provide a structure and a living tradition that truly helps the pope act as servus servorum Dei (the servant of the servants of God).
As Pope Francis continues to carry on the ministry of the apostle Peter, let us pray for him to be the rock that the gates of Hell shall never overcome.
Br. Matthew Heynen, O.P. | Meet the Student Brothers in Formation HERE