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Mission Infallible:
When Is He? When Is He Not?

Jonathan Tuttle, Catholic journalist
Published in The Remnant, December 15, 2000; The Fatima Crusader, Winter 2001

Much of the present controversy between traditionalists and “conservatives” centers around the notion of papal infallibility. While traditionalists are casually accused of being on “trajectories toward schism” and the like, it is certainly fair to point out that many “conservatives” today are flirting with papolatry, or pope-worship. I certainly do not suggest that most “conservatives” are aware that their position is borderline heretical; on the contrary, I suggest that they find themselves in this precarious position because the doctrine of papal infallibility is one of the most misunderstood doctrines in the Church at the present time. An understanding of papal infallibility is a prerequisite for many of the theological debates that will no doubt ensue, not only into the twilight of the present Papacy, but into the next. Therefore, I believe a look back at the formal definition is in order.

003c BestofJT papal keys.jpg - 25789 Bytes Papal infallibility is perhaps one of the most oft-quoted doctrine on the lips of today’s “conservatives” in their dealings with Traditionalists, yet, in my experience, very few conservatives know where or how the doctrine was formally defined.

Not realizing that the “spirit of papal infallibility” has little to do with the doctrine of papal infallibility, we often hear “conservatives” utter the mantra: “I’d rather be wrong with the Pope than right without him.” Those who can remember a time when we weren’t forced to make that kind of decision can’t help but wonder how that has become the “more Catholic” position. Clearly this is anything but the “more Catholic” position. The Catholic position requires an adherence to the truth, and to the source of all truth – the Triune God. To adhere to truth is Catholic; to ignore truth in favor of the person of the Pope is papolatry.

When someone says, “I would rather be wrong with the pope than right without him,” they are saying in effect, “I would rather turn away from God, and by the way, the office of the papacy, to follow the person of the man who is occupying the chair of Peter.” It elevates the man above the office of the papacy and is an affront to the Holy Ghost. Not only is that not Catholic, it is in direct violation of the First Commandment.

Therefore, at this point in the debate, a brief analysis of the doctrine of papal infallibility is in order.


The formal definition of papal infallibility was issued by the First Vatican Council, with the following solemn declaration:

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Teaching ex cathedra, Pius XII solemnly declares the dogma of the Assumption of Mary Most Holy
on November 1, 1950.

30 Giorni, January 2000

“We teach and define as a divinely revealed dogma that when the Roman Pontiff speaks ex cathedra, that is, when in the exercise of his office as shepherd and teacher of Christians, in virtue of his supreme apostolic authority, he defines a doctrine concerning Faith or Morals to be held by the whole Church, he possesses, by the divine assistance promised to him in blessed Peter, that infallibility which the Divine Redeemer willed His Church to enjoy in defining doctrine concerning Faith or Morals. Therefore, such definitions of the Roman Pontiff are of themselves, and not by the consent of the Church, irreformable. So then, should anyone, which God forbid, have the temerity to reject this definition of ours: let him be anathema.
The notion of papal infallibility among the faithful, though consistently present throughout the life of the Church, was not precisely defined until the First Vatican Council.

The definition declares that infallibility is derived neither through the Church nor from the Church. Some Council Fathers insisted that the Pope’s infallibility was dependent on the collective agreement of the bishops (an early hybrid of collegiality). However, Cardinal Cullen, who is credited with drafting the final form of the definition, crushed his opposition by stating simply: “Christ did not say to Peter, 'Thou art the Rock provided you consult bishops or theologians; I give you the keys of the kingdom of Heaven, but on the condition you hear others before you use them.'" Cullen reiterated the point that infallibility does not proceed through the Church, but directly from God.

Through this privilegium Petri (privilege of Peter) is awe-inspiring, it does have limitations. The limitations and prerequisites for papal infallibility were hotly debated for many years, not only at the (Vatican I) Council itself, but for hundreds of years prior. The language of this conciliar statement is that of surgical precision, especially in its teaching of the limitations of infallibility teaching.


In order to understand the teaching, it is helpful to read some of the arguments offered by the participants at the First Vatican Council.

The foremost Vatican I historian, Dom Cuthbert Butler, referred to Bishop Vincent Ferrer Gasser as “the most prominent theologian at the Council.” During a four-hour speech, Gasser addressed the audience with these words:
“It is asked in what sense the infallibility of the Roman Pontiff is absolute. I reply and openly admit: in no sense is pontifical infallibility absolute, because absolute infallibility belongs to God alone, Who is the first and essential truth and Who is never able to deceive or be deceived. All other infallibility, as communicated for a specific purpose, has its limits and its conditions under which it is considered to be present. The same is valid in reference tot he infallibility of the Roman Pontiff. For this infallibility is bound by certain limits and conditions...”
Drawing upon eighteen hundred years of tradition in the Roman Catholic Church, Bishop Gasser then informed the audience of the restrictions of infallibility:
“Therefore, in reality, the infallibility of the Roman Pontiff is restricted by reason of the subject, that is when the Pope, constituted in the Chair of Peter, the center of the Church, speaks as universal teacher and supreme judge; it is restricted by reason of the object, i.e., when treating of matters of Faith and Morals, and by reason of the act itself, i.e., when the Pope defines what must be believed or rejected by all the faithful.”
Gasser, the architect of the doctrine of infallibility itself, which was shortly afterward solemnly defined, thus places definitive limits on infallibility with the notions of subject, object, and act, explaining that all three must be present for infallible teaching.

Further, just as infallibility is not absolute, it is not permanent. Reinforcing the position that there are definitive limitations on infallibility, Cardinal Guidi, the Archbishop of Bologna, explained that the assistance of the Holy Spirit is a transient divine act, not a permanent quality imparted to the person who is occupying the chair at that time. He reasoned that the assistance of the Holy Spirit produced no change in the person of the Pope, as the sacramental character of Confirmation or Baptism would produce. Guidi argued that it is not the person of the Pontiff who makes the Pontiff’s teaching infallible; it is the Third Person of the Trinity Who makes the Pontiff’s teaching infallible. The efficient cause of infallibility is not the person of the Pope; the efficient cause of infallibility is the Holy Ghost. This is an important point, because it is clear that the Holy Ghost does not make all the acts of the Holy Father infallible; the infallibility is transient. In short, the Holy Father does not exist in a state of perpetual infallibility in all things.


Of the limitations of infallibility that were mentioned by Gasser and Guidi, two are most evident. The first is that the Holy Father must be speaking from the Chair of Peter.

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Pope Pius XI seated on his throne at the Basilica of St. Mary Major, December 20, 1929.

Not all the solemn teachings of a Pope are infallible, even if he teaches from his throne. An ex cathedra pronouncement has to fulfill specific conditions.

30 Giorni, October 1995

Henry Ward, Archbishop of Westminster, writing in 1871, just after the close of the Vatican Council, explained this major point. He explained that the Holy Father must be speaking from the seat, or loquens ex cathedra. The Archbishop writes that the Holy Father speaks ex cathedra “when, and only when, he speaks as Pastor and Doctor of all Christians.”

In answer to those who read the Vatican I declaration of infallibility and maintain that infallibility goes much further than what the definition tells us, Ward pre-empts that argument by saying that the Pope speaks ex cathedra “only when” he speaks as pastor and doctor of all Christians. All the Pope’s actions and teachings as a private person, private theologian, political ruler, or private author, are excluded.

But aren’t all the Pope’s teachings, writings, and pronouncements subject to infallibility? After all, if the person of the Pope teaches something, aren’t we required to believe it? On the contrary, as Cardinal Sfondratus wrote in 1867:
“The Pontiff does some things as a man, some things as a prince, some as doctor, some as Pope, that is, as head and foundation of the Church; and it is only to these [last-named] actions that we attribute the gift of infallibility. The others we leave to his human condition. As then as not every action of the Pope is papal, so not every action of the Pope enjoys papal privilege.”
When speaking as a private theologian, even on matters of Faith and Morals, the Pontiff is capable of making the same theological errors as anyone else. This is clear not only from the conciliar definition of Vatican I, but it is also supported by historical fact, especially in the case of Pope John XXIII, who stated in a series of sermons that the souls of the blessed departed do not enjoy the Beatific Vision before the Resurrection of the body.

Though Pope John’s teaching was in error, and though he seemed rather obstinate in his belief, reiterating it several times before a final renouncement of the position on his deathbed, he did state that he was teaching it as a private theologian. As a practical matter, when a Pope teaches as a private person on matters that involve Faith and Morals, it can be, to say the least, a dicey situation. For the uninitiated layman, it is difficult at times to distinguish between private teachings and papal teachings, considering that both emanate from the same physical man. Pope John XXIII and all those who followed him should have realized this, but Popes have nevertheless continued to teach as private theologians. However, whether or not it is prudent for a Pope to teach as a private theologian, for our purposes here, the important point is that they can do so.


Cardinal Manning underscores the teaching that divine assistance is attached to some acts of the Pontiff, but is by no means whatsoever attached to all his acts. Speaking of the Vatican I definition, Manning states:
“The definition, therefore, carefully excludes all ordinary and common acts of the Pontiff as a private person, and also all acts of the Pontiff as a private theologian, and again all his acts which are not in matters of Faith and Morals; and further, all acts in which he does not define a doctrine, that is, in which he does not act as the supreme Doctor of the Church in defining doctrines to be held by the whole Church.”
Cardinal Manning reiterates the point that the Pope does not always speak from the Chair when speaking of Faith and Morals, but also points out one other important restriction of infallibility. Manning concludes from the conciliar definition that even if the Pope is speaking as the head of the Church, his papal pronouncements that do not involve Faith and Morals are not subject to infallibility. For instance, the Pope could say: “As the supreme head of the whole Church, I declare, profess, and proclaim that Haagen Dazs Pineapple Coconut ice cream is far and away the best-tasting ice cream in all of Christendom.” Since this statement does not involve Faith and Morals, there is no requirement on the part of the faithful to make an assent of faith that this is the best ice cream, although it very well may be.

This statement about ice cream may have merit, but it does not involve infallibility. There is nothing to prevent a pontiff from making a statement such as this. A statement such as this carries no theological weight, and if one were to disagree with the Pope on this and make the bold claim that Breyer’s Mint Chocolate chip ice cream is better, he should not be labeled a heretic, nor should he be written off as one who is on a trajectory toward schism. The only trajectory he would be on is the trajectory toward eating a different ice cream than the Pope serves up at the Vatican.

Again, in answer to those who read the Vatican I declaration of infallibility and maintain that infallibility goes much further than what the definition tells us, Manning pre-empts that argument by saying that the object of infallibility is limited solely to Faith and Morals. The Archbishop explains that this definition excludes “all other matters whatsoever.” When the Pontiff speaks on any other topic, infallibility does not enter the question. Manning tells us that the definition limits those acts of the Pontiff that are subject to infallibility: “in doctrine de fide vel moribus definienda” (to the defining of doctrine of Faith and Morals).

Manning writes: “The definition therefore includes, and includes only, the solemn acts of the Pontiff as the supreme Doctor of all Christians, defining doctrines of Faith and Morals, to be held by the whole Church.”


Just as in our present day there are those who shudder at the idea of limiting papal infallibility in any way whatsoever, there were those of like mind at the First Vatican Council, most notably the Bishop of Urgell, Spain. According to Butler, the bishop “wished the scope of infallibility extended beyond the sphere of Faith and Morals.”

The bishop was essentially following the theological opinion of Albert Pighius. Pighius was a Dutch theologian in the 16th century who held the position that the Pope could fall into heresy only out of ignorance and not out of obstinacy. Pighius would hold, for instance, that in the case of Pope John XXII, who held that the souls of the blessed departed did not enjoy the Beatific Vision until General Judgment Day (a heresy), the Pope held the heretical position only because he was ignorant of the teaching of the Church, and not out of pride. Pighius dic admit that the Pope could fall into personal heresy by accident, or by lack of theological training, just not willingly.

Though Bishop Gasser neither confirmed nor denied Pighius’ position, suffice it to say that Gasser considered this the most pro-papal infallibility rightist position. The argument that the Pope could fall into personal heresy only out of ignorance and not out of stubbornness was considered the furthest position on the side of papal infallibility that was even presented at the Council. Pighius’ position was the furthest anyone was willing to take the notion of papal infallibility. Many of the theologians at the First Vatican Council believed that the Pope could certainly fall into personal heresy out of pride or for any other reason.

Again, to reiterate, Pighius’ psoition was that the Pope could not fall into personal heresy willingly, but only out of ignorance, and this was considered the rightmost possible position in favor of infallibility at the Council. Most contended that the Pope could fall into personal heresy for a host of reasons.

This is a critical point for the discussion in modern times. It is ironic that what was once considered the rightest position is now considered by some to be borderline heretical, to the left. It is assumed by many, if not most “conservatives,” that Pighius’ position, once considered extreme to the right, is now so far to the left that to hold it puts one on a trajectory toward schism. If I were to suggest the Pope John Paul II could fall into personal heresy solely out of ignorance, I would certainly be condemned by my “conservative” friends, who would cease referring to me as either Catholic or friend. However, as we know from the debate at the First Vatican Council, that position is not only defensible, but so is the position that the Holy Father could fall into personal heresy out of obstinacy. In short, it is not in the nature of infallibility to protect the Pontiff from any personal theological or moral error of any kind. As “conservatives” and Traditionalists go forward in their discussions of this question, they would be well to remember that fact.


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Paul VI giving his Opening Speech of the second session of Vatican II, a document that was not infallibile - even though it was delivered in a very solemn way.

30 Giorni, October 1995

Following this theme, another point that was made the First Vatican Council was that although grace may be given to the Pontiff in a divine act separate from the charism of infallibility, the protection of infallibility does not protect the Pontiff from falling into serious personal sin. Manning clarifies this notion:
“I need hardly point out that between charisma, or gratia gratis data of infallibility, and the idea of impeccability there is no connection. I should not so much as notice it, if some had not strangely obscured the subject by introducing this confusion. I should have thought that the gift of prophecy in Balaam and Caiaphas, to say nothing of the powers of the priesthood, which are the same in good and bad alike, would have been enough to make such confusion impossible."
As Manning explains, the notion of infallibility affects nothing in the Pontiff in terms of his personal sinful nature. The Holy Father himself is not made infallible in all things, nor is he made impeccable. It is worth remembering that St. Peter himself denied Christ three times after his appointment to the Papacy. The first Pope performed an action, denying Christ, which is objectively mortally sinful in nature, yet Christ still recognized Peter as the Pope.

Infallibility does not protect any Pope from falling into serious sin; nor does it protect him from eternal damnation. Though we pray otherwise, and though some have argued otherwise, there is nothing to theologically support the notion that no Pope has ever been damned. To deny that possibility is to deny his free will and is to teeter on the precipice of the crime of Papolatry – worshiping the Pope... indeed, making him a sort of sinless god. Infallibility was not granted to the succession of pontiffs for the sake of these individual men; it was granted for the sake of the entire Mystical Body of Christ.
Also, just as infallibility does not prevent a Pope from committing personal sin, it also does not prevent him from committing critical and colossal prudential errors, which may be incredibly detrimental to the Church herself. The decision to move the Papacy to Avignon in some ways irreparably harmed the Church, but the decision itself to move the Papal court to Avignon was by no means an infallible decision. Infallibility does not protect the Pope from being imprudent. It does not protect him from losing at cards, and it does not protect the pope-mobile from going into a ditch.


As the saying goes, “Some men are born great; others have greatness thrust upon them.” In the case of those few privileged men who have held the office of the Papacy, it is exclusively the latter. That is not to say that some of the men who have held the office of the Papacy were not great men. Clearly, many of them were, but how can one rise to the level of the highest office this side of paradise? Some were more worthy of the office than others, but quite simply, it is impossible for an individual ... for a man ... to rise to the level of the office. The greatness of the office of the Papacy whether it is held by Pope John Paul II, Pope St. Gregory the Great, or even St. Peter himself, does not lie in the man who holds the office. The greatness of the office of the Papacy lies in the office itself, and ultimately, in the Holy Ghost, the Efficient Cause of infallibility.

“Conservatives” are fond of saying that they love the Pope more than Traditionalists do. I wonder if that’s true. If love is measured by how far you extend the scope of infallibility, I guess they win. On the other hand, when you attribute infallibility to a man, and make ridiculous claims like “I’d rather be wrong with the Pope that right without him,” that may be called love, but it is a misguided love; it is a love that ends in a worship of the created, rather than the Creator.

When someone says, “I would rather be wrong with the Pope than right without him,” they may think that they are affirming the Papacy. But the very opposite is true – rather than affirming the Papacy, they are actually rejecting it. Specifically, those who are saying, “I would rather be wrong with Karol Woityla than right with the Triune God” are rejecting the Catholic theology of the Papacy.

The doctrine of infallibility has limitations. The current attempt to extend infallibility to all things that the Holy Father does, says, or writes is not only intellectually dishonest, it borders on heresy.

Infallibility must not be used to defend actions that cause great harm to the Mystical Body of Christ. To do so is more than dishonest. To do so is to blaspheme!

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