Infallibility belongs in a special way to the pope as head of the bishops (Mt 16:17–19; Jn 21:15–17). It is a charism the pope enjoys in virtue of his office, when, as the supreme shepherd and teacher of all the faithful, who confirms his brethren (the bishops) in their faith (Luke 22:32), he proclaims by a definitive act some doctrine of faith or morals. Therefore his definitions, of themselves, and not from the consent of the Church, are justly held irreformable, for they are pronounced with the assistance of the Holy Ghost, an assistance promised to him in blessed Peter.
Christ said to Peter: “Whatever you bind, will be bound in heaven”. Based on this divine authority, Pope Pius IX defined 4 necessary conditions for papal infallibility, in Pastor Aeternus (1870):
1. the Pope must speak ex cathedra, i.e. as Pastor and Doctor of all Christians;
2. he must define a doctrine;
3. regarding faith and morals;
4. to be held (as binding) by the Universal Church;
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.
INFALLIBILITY: RECENT ROMAN PREROGATIVE?
The infallibility of the Pope is not a doctrine that suddenly appeared in Church teaching; rather, it is a doctrine which was implicit in the early Church. For example, Cyprian of Carthage, writing about 256, puts the question this way: “Would the heretics dare to come to the very seat of Peter whence apostolic faith is derived and whither no errors can come?” (Letters 59 , 14). In the fifth century, St. Augustine said in regard to the Pelagians:” . . . two councils have sent to the Apostolic See, whence also reports have come; the case is closed” (Sermon 131, 10). Based on this, an oft-quoted dictum was derived:”Roma locuta, causa finita. Rome has spoken, the case is closed.”
COMMON PROTESTANT MISCONCEPTIONS OF PAPAL INFALLIBILITY
Fundamentalists and other “Bible Christians” often confuse the charism of papal “infallibility” with “impeccability.” They imagine Catholics believe the Pope cannot sin. Others, who avoid this elementary blunder, think the pope relies on some sort of amulet or magical incantation when an infallible definition is due.
Some ask how Popes can be infallible if some of them lived scandalously. This objection of course, illustrates the common con fusion between infallibility and impeccability. There is no guarantee that Popes won’t sin or give bad example. (The truly remarkable thing is the great degree of sanctity found in the papacy throughout history; the “bad Popes” stand out precisely because they are so rare.)
Actually, the sacred writers upon writing what was inspired to them by God were infallible. Even King David, not long before an adulterer and a murderer! Moses was infallible in his judgments; yet, he offended God by not believing in Him (Num. 20; Dt 32:51–52). And Caiphas, though a wicked man, uttered inspired prophecy, in his position as a high priest (Jn 11:49–55). In spite of their sins, God still was able to use them to teach infallibly. Other people wonder how infallibility could exist if some popes disagreed with others. This, too, shows an inaccurate understanding of infallibility, which applies only to solemn, official teachings on faith and morals, not to disciplinary decisions or even to unofficial comments on faith and morals. A Pope’s private theological opinions are not infallible, only what he solemnly defines is considered to be infallible teaching.
Even Fundamentalists and Evangelicals who do not have these common misunderstandings often think infallibility means that Popes are given some special grace that allows them to teach positively whatever truths need to be known, but that is not quite correct, either. Infallibility is not a substitute for theological study on the part of the pope. What infallibility does do is prevent a Pope from solemnly and formally teaching as “truth” something that is, in fact, error. It does not help him know what is true, nor does it “inspire” him to teach what is true. He has to learn the truth the way we all do—through study- though, to be sure, he has certain advantages because of his position.