We’ve all heard it said that the Pope is infallible. But, is he really?
Firstly, what does infallible mean? Infallible comes from the Latin falliblis, which means liable to err or make a mistake. So, infallible means not liable to err. As a result, when we say that the Pope is infallible, we mean that he is not liable to make a mistake.
Make a mistake in what, though? Can the Pope not get a sum wrong or can he not take a wrong corridor in the Vatican? Of course he can! When we say that the Pope is infallible, we say that he can’t make a mistake in a certain, very precise area. This is the area of Faith and Morals. Outside of this area, the Pope is liable to make a mistake just like anyone else.
So, everything a Pope says in relation to Faith and Morals is infallible, then? No, not even. Even in this domain the Pope is only infallible in very limited and precise circumstances. He is only infallible when:
- speaking as Shepherd of the whole Church,
- on a matter of Faith or Morals,
- he declares expressly by a definition (by which he binds the whole Church)
- that a particular doctrine or teaching is revealed by God and is part of the deposit of the Faith handed down by the Apostles.
If even one of these conditions is not met, then what the Pope says is not covered by infallibility. Because God gives the Pope the assistance of infallibility for a particular purpose: to keep pure, and faithfully transmit what God has revealed to mankind through the Church. That’s it. It’s not something the Pope can play around with and use for his own purposes. Really, it would be better to say “the Pope can be infallible” rather than “the Pope is infallible” – so long as we understand that to mean that the Pope always possesses the ability to teach infallibly, but doesn’t always use that ability.
So, if he’s only covered by infallibility in this restricted area, we can just ignore what he says the rest of the time? No. Just because you’re liable to make a mistake doesn’t mean that you definitely will make one! The Pope is still the Supreme Teacher, and God gives him the Grace to be faithful to this office. Throughout the history of the Church, the non-infallible teachings of the Popes have been in line with Revelation 99% of the time, meaning that they have normally been faithful to this Grace. There have been exceptions, but they were few and far between. The normal Catholic attitude should therefore be to accept what the Pope teaches unless there is a reason not to.
Since Vatican II, we are obviously in one of these extraordinary times when Catholics have a reason not to accept everything the Popes say. This is because they have been openly teaching doctrines which contradict what the Church has always taught, and what Catholics have always believed.