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The Myth of Papal Infallibility

Papal infallibility is the idea that the pope is infallible, that is, he is unable to err in teaching revealed truth. Many lay Catholics are under the impression that this is an old doctrine of the church which must be pretty well proven for their church to use as one of the main tenets of their faith. They are wrong on both counts:

Papal Infallibility: A Recent Doctrine

It is, however, a very recent development in the history of the Roman Church. It was formally affirmed only in 1870, at the First Vatican Council. In that council, the doctrine was not immediately accepted by the delegates; it was not immediately obvious to these bishops, even after eighteen centuries, that the pope should be infallible. The "papal infallibalist" were in the majority however, and the final statement was passed. There were some modifications done to the initial proposal before it was passed. This limited the pope's infallibility on doctrines regarding faith and morals. [1] The mistakes of the papal pronouncements on matters scientific were too well known for the doctrine to include this. (One needs only to be reminded of Pope Urban VIII's sentence on Galileo for providing proofs of the heliocentric theory.) This doctrine was pronounced in 1870 but predated to St. Peter himself. [2]

There are two things to note regarding the 1870 Vatican Council that issued the pronouncement on papal infallibility. The first thing is that it was not immediately accepted by all the bishops; it was not a unanimous pronouncement that was simply formulated in clearer terms what all Roman Catholics had believed till then. The second thing is that the initial pronouncement was actually modified during the council; proof that the pronouncement (which was more restrictive in its scope that originally suggested) was not simply an elucidation of an ancient tradition. This two facts make a mockery of the following claim of the Catholic catechism book Our Faith (1980):

The truth that the Pope teaches infallibly when he defines "a doctrine concerning faith or morals to be held by the whole Church" was always accepted by the Church [Italics mine-PT] but was explicitly defined by the First Vatican Council (1870). [3]

It should be clear to the reader that this doctrine was not based on a careful scientific study of papal pronouncements throughout history. It was a bull headed assertion by an ecclesiastical body that was being threaten on all sides by the rise of rationalism, science and humanistic philosophies. As J.M. Robertson observed:

Thus the age which saw the promulgation of the formal decree of papal infallibility (1870) has seen the most vital decline that has ever taken place in the total life and power of the church. [4]

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Proof of Papal Fallibility

Even the limited definition of papal infallibility to ex-cathedra [a] pronouncements on faith and morals can be shown to be inconsistent with the historical evidence. Let us look at a few examples.

Pope Liberius and the Arian Controversy

Our first example is Pope Liberius (who was pope from 352 to 366). Elected pope during the height of the Arian controversy, he was sent into exile by Emperor Constantius II (337-361) for refusing to condemn Athanasius. While in exile his morale collapsed. He then condemned Athanasius and accepted an alternative creed to the Nicene Creed. This alternative creed rejected the Nicene formula for the Son being "one in being with the Father" and suggested that the Son is lower than the Father. This is clearly a non-orthodox formula. It was only after the declaration that Liberius was allowed to return to Rome. After the death of Constantius II in 361, Liberius reverted back to Nicene orthodoxy. However the point has been made. Here is one pope whio made a pronouncement of faith which is today looked upon as heretical.[5]

Pope Vigilius and the Three Chapters Controversy

Next on our list is Pope Vigilius (in office, 537-555). We will have more to say about his character later. Our interest here is in his position with respect to the "Three Chapters Controversy". The Emperor Justinian (483-565), in his effort to win over the monophysites, condemned as heretical the "Three Chapters": which stands for the Christological speculations and teachings of Theodore of Mopsuestia (d.428), Theodoret of Cyrrhus (d. c458) and Ibas of Edessa (d.457). The three chapters wrote on the "two natures" of Jesus: a concept not condemned as heretical by the Council of Chalcedon (451). As emperor, he ordered all the bishops throughout Christendom to endorse his condemnation.

Vigilius, at first, refused to give his approval to Justinian's edict. He was forcibly brought to Constantinople, and, seeing the emperor's determination on the matter, agreed to condemn the Three Chapters. This met with disfavor by the western church. A synod of African Bishops excommunicate him for his condemnation. In an effort to placate the western church, Vigilius withdrew his condemnation. This, again, met with imperial disfavor. The pope was caught between the devil and the deep blue sea. Seeing that recalcitrant bishops were either jailed, deposed or exiled by the emperor, Vigilius decided to safe his own hide. He informed the emperor that he had been misled by the devil to withdraw his condemnation of the Three Chapters! In other words he said, the devil made him do it; sounds familiar? He was then allowed by the emperor to return to Rome to resume office. The Three Chapters Controversy was one of the historical evidence brought forward by some bishops in the First Vatican Council to oppose the doctrine of papal infallibility. .[6]

Pope Honorius and Monothelitism

The case of Pope Honorius I who was pope from the year 625 to 638 is enough to prove this point. Honorius I agreed with the bishop of Constantinople that Jesus had only one will. This doctrine, called monothelitism was later declared heretical by the Council of Constantinople in the year 681. Here then, is a case where a pope made a pronouncement on a matter of faith (concerning the nature of Jesus) which was subsequently condemned as heretical. In fact the newly appointed pope, Leo II (pope from 682 to 683), publicly condemned Honorius II for undermining the faith of the Church. [7]

The Catholic Church today is still as dogmatic as ever in holding on to this doctrine. In 1970 the Swiss Catholic theologian Hans Kung (b.1928), generally regarded as one of the most brilliant Catholic thinkers of the modern era, published a book entitled Infallible?. In the book, Kung argued that the doctrine of papal infallibility was disproved by both biblical and historical evidence. It was a book that did not win him any friends in the Vatican. And when he summoned to Rome for a formal interrogation of his views, Kung, perhaps wisely, refused to go.

On December 18th 1979, Pope John Paul II announced that Kung is no longer qualified to teach Roman Catholic doctrine. Kung was sacked as the head of the Department of Theology at the University of Tubingen. He was told that he was no longer a Catholic theologian and was forbidden to write and publish again. [8]

By such means does the pope today maintain the doctrine of his own infallibility.

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a. Ex-cathedra means literally "from the chair"; meaning from the leadership position of the pope.


1.Strauss, The Catholic Church: p136-138
2.Ward, A Dictionary of Common Fallacies I: p129
3.Gaffney & Trenchard, Our Faith: p23
4.Robertson, History of Christianity: p228 Rosa, Vicars of Christ: p288-289
Kelly, Dictionary of Popes: p30-31 Rosa, Vicars of Christ: p288-289
Kelly, Dictionary of Popes: p60-61
7.Livingstone, Dictionary of the Church: p246
de Rosa, Vicars of Christ: p292
8.Strauss, The Catholic Church: p181,190
Baigent and Leigh, The Dead Sea Scrolls Deception: p122-123

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