The Pope and Infallibility

Dear Catholic Exchange:

How many times has the Pope spoken “infallibly”?


Dear Theresa,

Peace in Christ!

The exercise of infallibility takes several forms (see Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 890-891, citing Lumen Gentium, 25). One form is exercised by the Pope when speaking ex cathedra (literally, “from the chair” of St. Peter, in his authority as pope) on matters of faith or morals, even if he does so without the support of the bishops. This is an exercise of the Extraordinary Magisterium of the Church. While the pope has always held the power to exercise the Extraordinary Magisterium by speaking ex cathedra, the actual occurrence of an ex cathedra statement is quite rare. It is generally understood to have only occurred twice: Pope Pius IX’s definition of the dogma of Mary’s Immaculate Conception in 1854 and Pope Pius XII’s definition of the dogma of Mary’s Assumption in 1950. In both of these cases, the Pope was not teaching something new. Rather, he was confirming and clarifying something that the Church had already believed as part of God’s revelation.

Pronouncements of Ecumenical councils are also considered exercises of the Extraordinary Magisterium. The Church can also teach infallibly through the Ordinary Magisterium. (see Vatican II, Lumen Gentium, no. 25). The Ordinary Magisterium is just that — the ordinary way in which the Church teaches truth. The Ordinary Magisterium is an extension of the collegial unity of the college of bishops. An example of central truths taught in this way would be the Church’s prohibition against murder in any form, including euthanasia and abortion. As Pope John Paul II explains in The Gospel of Life (Evangelium Vitae), the Church throughout the ages and throughout the world has consistently and definitively condemned such attacks on human life. While a Pope has not proclaimed these truths ex cathedra, we certainly believe that the Church teaches them infallibly!

Thus, Popes have made many, many infallible pronouncements, without making ex cathedra statements, as head of the ordinary magisterium. Ordinatio Sacerdotalis is a good example of a definitive papal pronouncement that confirms or reaffirms a teaching of the ordinary and universal Magisterium. The Pope states that the teaching regarding priestly ordination is “the constant and universal Tradition of the Church.” He thus definitively identifies the teaching as magisterial. The Holy Father then definitively states that his pronouncement is a confirmation (“in virtue of my ministry of confirming the brethren”). Finally, affirming that he is acting to remove all doubt on the matter, the Pope adds that his “judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church's faithful.”

Another example of how a Pope can definitively pronounce without an ex cathedra statement concerns contraception. In 1930, the Anglican Church broke with longstanding Christian Tradition and taught that contraception could be allowed in some “difficult” cases. In response, Pope Pius XI issued, that same year, his encyclical Casti Connubii (On Christian Marriage). Speaking “in token” of the Church's “divine ambassadorship,” Pius XI reaffirmed that this teaching belonged to “the uninterrupted Christian Tradition,” proclaiming anew that “any use whatsoever of matrimony exercised in such a way that the act is deliberately frustrated in its natural power to generate life is an offense against the law of God and of nature. . .” (no. 56).

For more on infallibility, see “Pillar and Bulwark of the Truth: The Infallible Magisterium of the Catholic Church” and “(No Bull: Papal Authority and Our Response

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