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A Question of Faith- What is Papal Infallibility?

Posted on April 08, 2024 in: Reflections

A Question of Faith- What is Papal Infallibility?

Have you ever questioned or wondered about some aspect of the Catholic faith? Well now is your chance to do just that! Four County Catholic Magazine is introducing a new column entitled A QUESTION OF FAITH. Every edition will offer our readers’ the opportunity to ask and have their questions answered. We are grateful to Father Richard D. Breton, Jr. for his willingness to assist us in this new endeavor.

Father Breton has been a priest for 15 years and is the parochial vicar of Guardian Angels Parish in Colchester. In addition to his parish responsibilities, Father Breton is a spiritual director at Holy Apostles College and Seminary in Cromwell, as well as the minister templi, or chaplain, of the Catholic Templars, New York Commandery, USA. Father Breton also writes a weekly column called “The Beacon of Light” for The Wanderer, one of the oldest Catholic newspapers in the United States. Father has also published several articles in Homiletic and Pastoral Review and The National Catholic Register.


What is Papal Infallibility?


Papal infallibility is the belief held by the Catholic Church that asserts the pope's immunity from error when speaking “ex cathedra,” or from the Chair of Peter, on matters of faith and morals. This doctrine is rooted in the understanding that the pope, as the successor of Peter and as the Vicar of Christ, possesses a special charism of infallibility granted to him by God.

These instances are rare and specifically defined. In fact, there have been only two times when papal infallibility has been used: by Pius IX in defining the Immaculate Conception in 1854, and by Pius X in defining the Assumption of Mary in 1950. 

So often there is a misunderstanding regarding the infallibility of the pope. This misunderstanding leads many to believe the pope is free from all error and anything he says must be taken as undisputable. This is why it is important to understand the doctrine of papal infallibility, defined and clarified by various authoritative sources within the Catholic Church.

The Baltimore Catechism (no. 3) states that for the pope to speak infallibly, three conditions must be met. First, the pope must speak on a subject of faith or morals. Second, he must speak as the Vicar of Christ and address the whole Church. Finally, he must indicate his intention to speak infallibly through certain words, such as "we define" or "we proclaim."

The Catechism of the Catholic Church, promulgated by Pope St. John Paul II, further explains that the Roman Pontiff, as the head of the college of bishops, enjoys infallibility in virtue of his office. When the pope, as the supreme pastor and teacher of all the faithful, proclaims a doctrine pertaining to faith or morals by a definitive act, he exercises this infallibility.

The Code of Canon Law affirms that the Supreme Pontiff possesses infallibility in teaching by virtue of his office. As the supreme pastor and teacher of all the Christian faithful, he proclaims by a definitive act that a doctrine of faith or morals is to be held.

From these references, we can understand that papal infallibility is not a personal attribute of the pope, but rather a charism granted to him in his role as the successor of St. Peter and the head of the Church. It is exercised when the pope speaks ex cathedra, that is, when he speaks in his official capacity as the Supreme Pontiff and teacher of all Catholics, defining a doctrine of faith or morals to be held by the whole Church.

It is important to note that papal infallibility does not imply impeccability or inspiration. The pope, like any human being, is capable of making mistakes in his personal life or opinions. 

In the end, papal infallibility is based on the understanding that the pope is the successor of St. Peter and the Vicar of Christ, and thus holds authority in matters of faith and morals.


By Fr. Richard D. Breton Jr.

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