Nuanced Infallibility

Earlier this year, I was listening to a podcast with Dr. Michael Sirilla. Dr. Sirilla is a professor of Dogmatic Theology and Director of the Masters Theology Program at Franciscan University of Steubenville in Steubenville, OH. Buried in his podcast was a paradigm-shift moment for me. To listen to that podcast click HERE.  Although a bit lengthy, in this podcast Dr. Sirilla lays out what the Church actually means when she says that she is infallible. It was after hearing this well-articulated, that I came to realize just how many Catholics—myself included—had or still have a misunderstanding when it comes to the Church’s teaching on her own infallibility. And if it is misunderstood by so many Catholics, should it surprise us that our Protestant brothers and sisters are often misguided as well? Although the full extent of this topic cannot be covered here, nor am I the qualified individual to do so, I do wish to attempt to shed some light on just what this doctrines mean when the Church proclaims that the Pope and the Magisterium are infallible.

My original inspiration to write this post came when I wrote “Over the Top,” another blog I put together awaiting approval, and I briefly mention the nuances of papal infallibility. As many things in life go, I let that spark die out and fall onto the backburner. That spark was revived a few days ago for various reasons. Here I hope to explore the nuances of the Church’s infallibility, the doctrines that surround it, their limitations, and along the way reinforce their importance to the Christian faith. With that in mind, it’s important to begin by examining two terms that are essential to answering our question: dogma and papal infallibility.


The Catechism of the Catholic Church States:

The Church’s Magisterium exercises the authority it holds from Christ to the fullest extent when it defines dogmas, that is, when it proposes, in a form obliging the Christian people to an irrevocable adherence of faith, truths contained in divine Revelation or also when it proposes, in a definitive way, truths having a necessary connection with these.

– Paragraph 88

Dogmas are the highest form of doctrine within the Church. Adherence to these teachings have been deemed by the Church to be absolutely essential to the Christian faith. The background to any particular dogma has been so thoroughly covered, laid out, and debated throughout history; that to consider yourself fully Christian, they may no longer be challenged by a believer. Furthermore, Dogmas are declared under the protection of papal infallibility, usually within the context of an Ecumenical Council or, on rare occasion, by a special stand-alone declaration by the Pope, more on that in the next section.

Papal Infallibility 

The issue of the infallibility of the Church rests on Christ’s promise that the Church, built on Peter, would not be overcome by the gates of Hell.

 And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.

-Matthew 16:18

In conjunction with this is Christ’s promised gift of the Holy Spirit when speaking to His disciples [the Church] at the Last Supper,

“If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate to be with you always, the Spirit of truth, which the world cannot accept, because it neither see nor knows it. But you know it, because it remains with you, and will be in you. …

… I have told you this while I am with you. The Advocate, the holy Spirit that the Father will send in my name—he will teach you everything and remind you of all that [I] told you.”

-John 14:15-17, 25-26

Over the course of history, this dogma—that Peter and his successors could not err—has been gradually spelled out and more clearly defined by the Church. Infallible statements can be made in either of two ways. In his 1994 apostolic letter, Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, John Paul II used both methods when defining doctrine on the ordination of women. The first method, and most common, is when the Pope confirms the perennial teaching of the Church. That is to say when he reaffirms the constant teaching of the Church as handed down to us by Sacred Tradition. In his apostolic letter John Paul stated,

“…Pope Paul VI, out of fidelity to his office of safeguarding the Apostolic Tradition… reminded Anglicans of the position of the Catholic Church: “She holds that it is not admissible to ordain women to the priesthood, for very fundamental reasons. These reasons include: the example recorded in the Sacred Scriptures of Christ choosing his Apostles only from among men; the constant practice of the Church, which has imitated Christ in choosing only men; and her living teaching authority which has consistently held that the exclusion of women from the priesthood is in accordance with God’s plan for his Church.”

The second way, as defined and subsequently made a dogma proclaimed by the First Vatican Council in 1870, is when the Pope issues a statement ex cathedra or “from the chair (of Peter)” on the subjects of faith and morals. Ex cathedra statements are not musings or even strongly worded statements. The writings themselves have to contain words which clearly indicate they are written and proclaimed with infallibility. Once again in Ordinatio Sacerdotalis:

Wherefore, in order that all doubt may be removed regarding a matter of great importance, a matter which pertains to the Church’s divine constitution itself, in virtue of my ministry of confirming the brethren (cf. Lk 22:32) I declare that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church’s faithful.”

For a more detailed explanation of Papal Infallibility, you can read the documents of Vatican I, Session Four, Chapter Four HERE.


So what do we do with this information? Why is it important that we have a better and fuller understanding of what the Church means when she claims Infallibility? Well, with these parameters we begin to see not only the assurance that these positions provide us as followers of Christ, but also that the conditions for the infallibility of the Pope and the Magisterium are much smaller than most of us were taught—myself included! The explanation most Catholics receive in regard to this teaching is: “the Pope cannot err when he teaches on faith and morals” accompanied by some asterisks at the end. These asterisks indicate that this infallibility is only invoked when he reaffirms an already well-attested to aspect of the faith or through a solemn declaration. This implies that not just off-the-cuff remarks made by the Pope are susceptible to error, but even his homilies and general audiences as well. Furthermore, in his podcast, Dr. Sirilla even asserts that Magisterial documents and, by logical extension, Bishops’ Synods and Ecumenical Councils that do not speak in dogmatic terms are also not necessarily preserved from error. This means they can be, and arguably should be, subjected to the scrutiny of the Church: bishop, priest, theologian, laity, albeit in the appropriate forum and while maintaining respect and obedience to the Church’s well-established hierarchal structure of authority.

To this point, St. Robert Bellarmine and Francisco Suarez, both 17th century Jesuit theologians, acknowledged that the Pope’s actions can be judged by God alone, yet both opine the pope could still fall into heresy. While they both offered slightly different explanations, they theorized that a sitting pope could even be vacated from his position in the case of formal heresy. These opinions warrant an explanation. Within the Church two terms are very important when discussing heresy. Material heresy is simply holding a belief contrary to the Church’s teaching. Most Catholics likely commit this unknowingly. There is no debate that Popes can be guilty of this. To be sure Pope John XXII once taught heresy and later corrected himself following dialogue with several theologians. To read more about this incident click HERE. In the event that a heretical belief is held and one refuses correction from the Church, material heresy becomes a formal heresy. It is this sense of heresy that St. Bellarmine and Suarez theorized. It should be observed that both theologians proposed this as just that, theory. St Francis De Sales, a contemporary of these men, agreed that it was theologically possible, but it remained only a theory. However, in his 1864 Syllabus of Errors, Pope Pius IX condemned the notion—in article 23—that any Catholic could accuse the Roman Pontiff of erring in matters of faith and morals. This was followed six years later by Vatican 1, which dogmatically qualified this statement. Still just a few years later in 1880, Fr. Sebastian Smith, a professor of canon law, submitted a three-part piece of literature entitled Elements of Ecclesial Law to the Vatican for approval. In it he proposed the theory posed by St. Bellarmine and Suarez as plausible, that a Pope could be guilty of heresy and potentially be removed from office. This piece received a handful of censors from the Sacred Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith, but none of these censors addressed the theories of papal heresy. The work was praised by Blessed Henry Cardinal Newman, among others, and dispersed widely for use in seminary formation.

Plenty of ink has been spilled over this topic on both sides of the issue, but to date the Church has made no declaration for clarity. As Catholics we are called to recognize our roles in the Mystical Body of Christ. Each of us is given authority of some aspect of life. For some of us it is our household, others our profession. To a select few, authority has been given within the Church. Whether the Church will rule definitely or not on this issue is at the prerogative of the Holy Spirit and these men with whom the Church’s guidance has been entrusted to.

I do not want to give the impression that no authority is given to non-dogmatic declarations, the opposite is true. The nature of the offices from which they come still warrant respect and trust, but they are ultimately statements made by fallible men with no divine protection. This though does not de facto make them erroneous. As the various scripture passages above demonstrated the Holy Spirit is present at this very moment protecting the integrity of the Church. The doctrines which rest on this principle serve to ensure the faithful with a constant assurance of the deposit of faith. The Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us,

“There is an organic connection between our spiritual life and the dogmas. Dogmas are lights along the path of faith; they illuminate it and make it secure. Conversely, if our life is upright, our intellect and heart will be open to welcome the light shed by the dogmas of faith.”

-Paragraph 89



My primary motivation for writing this post is to help clarify the role of Papal Infallibility and Dogma, including their limits. From time to time history shows us that errors can and do in fact creep into the Church and it is our responsibility as Catholics to know our faith and recognize when something doesn’t seem right. We may or may not turn out to be wrong in our assumptions but to ask questions and even to challenge novelties is healthy for our growth in faith and sets apart the Catholic Church from the rest of the Christian world. We must also understand the boundaries within our faith handed onto us by our fore bearers. Still we must give respect where it is due and recognize the authority given by God to others.

So then, brothers and sisters, stand firm and hold fast to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by our letter.

-2 Thessalonians 2:15

Pax tecum,