Are Popes Infallible?
‘THE dogma on which the triumph of Catholicism over Rationalism depends.’ That is how, in 1870, the Jesuit periodical La Civiltà Cattolica acclaimed the solemn promulgation of the dogma of papal infallibility at the First Vatican Council.
In Catholic theological language, “dogma” refers to doctrines that have an “absolute value and are unquestionable.” The exact definition of papal infallibility, as approved by the council of 1870, states:
“It is a divinely revealed dogma that the Roman pontiff, when he speaks ex cathedra, that is, when acting in the office of shepherd and teacher of all Christians, he defines, by virtue of his supreme apostolic authority, a doctrine concerning faith or morals to be held by the universal church, possesses through the divine assistance promised to him in the person of blessed Peter, the infallibility with which the divine Redeemer willed his church to be endowed in defining the doctrine concerning faith or morals; and that such definitions of the Roman pontiff are therefore irreformable of themselves, not because of the consent of the church.”
A No-Lose Situation
This formula, which is difficult for many individuals to understand, is also vague, according to a German theologian, the late August Bernhard Hasler. He spoke of the “vagueness” and “undetermination” of the expression ex cathedra, saying that “one can almost never tell which decisions are to be considered infallible.” According to another theologian, Heinrich Fries, the formula is “ambiguous,” while the late Karl Rahner admitted that the matter had given rise to a “complicated controversy.”
Hasler maintained that “the vagueness of the concepts” allows both for an extensive application of the dogma in order to increase the power of the pope and for a more limited interpretation so that when faced with wrong teachings of the past, one can always support the claim that these are no part of the so-called infallible “magisterium.” In other words, it is a “heads I win, tails you lose” situation.
“Infallibility” means, then, that the pope, even though he makes mistakes like all other humans, does not err when defining matters of faith and morals ex cathedra, acting in the office of shepherd of the Roman Catholic Church.
Nevertheless, what do Catholics themselves think about this doctrine?
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Pope Pius IX insisted on the dogma of infallibility in 1870