Papal Infallibility ~ Robert J. Siscoe

There is a great deal of confusion over the issue of papal infallibility, which prevents the pope from erring when defining doctrines for the universal Church. Many erroneously believe that the charism would prevent a person raised to the Pontificate from erring when speaking on matters of faith and morals. In reality, the charism of infallibility only prevents the pope from erring in limited circumstances. (12)

Infallibility is not to be confused with inspiration, which is a positive divine influence that moves and controls a human agent in what he says or writes; nor is it to be confused with Revelation, which is the communication of some truth by God through means which are beyond the ordinary course of nature.(13) Infallibility pertains to safeguarding and explaining the truths already revealed by God, and contained within the deposit of faith (14), which was closed with the death of the last apostle. (15) Since infallibility is only a negative charism (gratia gratis data), it does not inspire a pope to teach what is true or even defend revealed truths, nor does it “make the pope’s will the ultimate standard of truth and goodness” (16), but simply prevents him from teaching error under certain limited conditions.

During Bishop Gasser’s address at Vatican I, he said:

"In no sense is pontifical infallibility absolute, because absolute infallibility belongs to God alone, Who is the first and essential truth, and Who is never able to deceive or be deceived. All other infallibility, as communicated for a specific purpose, has its limits and its conditions under which it is considered to be present. The same is valid in reference to the infallibility of the Roman Pontiff. For this infallibility is bound by certain limits and conditions... "(17)

The conditions for Papal Infallibility were subsequently defined by Vatican I as follows:

"We teach and define as a divinely revealed dogma that when the Roman pontiff speaks ex cathedra, that is, when, in the exercise of his office as shepherd and teacher of all Christians, in virtue of his supreme apostolic authority, he defines a doctrine concerning faith or morals to be held by the whole Church, he possesses, by the divine assistance promised to him in blessed Peter, that infallibility which the divine Redeemer willed his Church to enjoy in defining doctrine concerning faith or morals." (18)

Here we see that the divine assistance is present only when a pope, (a) using his supreme apostolic authority in the exercise of his office as teacher of all Christians (b) defines a doctrine, (c) concerning faith and morals, (d) to be held by the universal Church. If any of these conditions are lacking, infallibility is not engaged and error is possible. Therefore, when considering whether a Pope can teach errors regarding faith and morals, we must make three distinctions:

1) A pope teaching as a private person.

2) A pope teaching as pope on matters of faith or morals, but not intending to define a doctrine.

3) A Pope, teaching as Pope, defining a doctrine of faith or morals, to be held by the universal Church.

It is only in the last instance that the charism of infallibility will prevent the Pope from erring. What this means is that, not only can a pope err when teaching as a private theologian, (19) he can also err in official papal documents (20), as long as he does not intend to define a doctrine to be held by the universal Church. (21)

In light of the foregoing, we can see that it is within the realm of possibility for Pope to lose the faith internally, and it is also possible for him to err in teaching the faith externally, provided he does not meet the four conditions set down by Vatican I. To insist on the contrary is to affirm what the Church herself has never taught.

12) see Papal Infallibility and Its Limitations, by R. Siscoe, The Remnant, (online)
13) Catholic Encyclopedia, 1913 Vol XIII (Revelation), p 1
14) Christ’s Church, Van Noort, Idem, p 120
15) Lamentabili Sane, #21, 1907, Pius X
16) Christ’s Church, Van Noort, Idem, p 290
17) The Gift of Infallibility, Idem,p 49
18) Vatican I, Pastor Aeternus, Chapter IV
19) Christ’s Church, Van Noort, Idem, p 292-293
20) Ibid
21) cf. De Silveira, ‘La Nouvelle Messe de Paul VI: Qu'en penser’, p 188-194