The Pope’s Holiness and Infallibility

I’m on a roll here! Three posts in as many days! In response to this post:


My Protestant friend asks:

So the pope’s word is supposed to be infallible, right? When does it become so? Was his word as a “cardinal” infallible? And since he’s still alive does his word continue to be infallible? If not, how does one go from being fallible to infallible and back to fallible again? Talk about a rollercoaster ride! And also, is Benedict still the most-holy or is he only normal-holy? Or is he even Benedict anymore?

Pope Francis

Blessings and Prayers for our new Holy Father Pope Francis

Hi again. I appreciate that you are interested in asking questions and having a respectful dialogue. It doesn’t look like you’ve gotten any adequate answers here. I do hope you will consider me your “Catholic friend” and, I do hope, “brother.” I look forward to your response to my other comments on the authority of the papacy.

I’ll try to reply here in brief, and then we can expand if you wish.

Your question about infallibility again reflects some misunderstandings. I think you are misunderstanding the ways in which the Catholic Church sometimes uses the word holy. For the sake of discussion, let’s define that word. From TheFreeDictionary.com:

ho·ly [ˈhəʊlɪ]
adj. ho·li·er, ho·li·est
1. Belonging to, derived from, or associated with a divine power; sacred.
2. Regarded with or worthy of worship or veneration; revered: a holy book.
3. Living according to a strict or highly moral religious or spiritual system; saintly: a holy person.
4. Specified or set apart for a religious purpose: a holy place.
5. Solemnly undertaken; sacrosanct: a holy pledge.
6. Regarded as deserving special respect or reverence: The pursuit of peace is our holiest quest.
7. Informal Used as an intensive: raised holy hell over the mischief their children did.

When we call the pope the “Holy Father,” that is an aspect of his office — that office is (1) “belonging to, derived from, or associated with a divine power,” the Church, and his office is (4) “specified or set apart for a religious purpose”; that office is (5) “solemnly undertaken,” and because of that office, he is (6) “regarded as deserving special respect or reverence.” The pope, as a man, may or may not be holy as in (3), “living [a holy life],” being “a holy person.” Certainly there have been popes who were not!

To say that God is holy is an entirely different sense of the word. God alone is infinitely holy and (2) “worthy of worship”; He is also, by his nature, (1) “a divine power” and “sacred.” The saints (sancti, holy ones, those set apart), on the other hand, are holy first and foremost because they (3) lived holy lives, and we believe that after their deaths they’ve gone to Heaven and are with Jesus and are thus (1) associated with a divine power. They are (2) deserving of veneration, not akin to worship but more akin to (6), a special respect or reverence.

Pope Benedict XVI.

Prayers are blessings to our Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI.

Now, to your question about infallibility: Again, you are misunderstanding the Church’s claims. Infallibility is an aspect of the office of the papacy, not of the person of the pope. There was nothing “infallible” about Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger before he was pope, or about him now that he is no longer the sitting pope. And this is why I got into that about holiness: you ask how holy he is: well, he’s only as holy as the life he lives. Having read his writings and followed his life for the past eight years, I think he’s a pretty holy guy — but there’s nothing divine about him as a person, and never was. Further, there is nothing infallible about the person of Pope Francis, or the former Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio.

With regard to infallibility: the best way to think about it is not so much about the pope being infallible, but that when he sits in the captain’s chair, it’s really God steering the boat. Literally, that’s pretty much exactly what the Church teaches: by the formal definition of the doctrine, the pope is only said to be infallible when he speaks ex cathedra (“from the chair” of the episcopate) regarding matters of faith and morals (and “the chair” is not a literal chair). Jesus said that the Holy Spirit would guide the Church into all truth (John 16:13), and it’s only as an aspect of that that the pope is ever considered infallible. And his infallibility only “kicks in” when he invokes it; and it is only formally invoked in very limited circumstances. The pope in his day-to-day life isn’t infallible when he declares his favorite pizza or gives his opinion about football (soccer, you know), or even when he writes encyclicals about Church practice or discipline (which are not considered ex cathedra, but, by analogy, written standing up). He is considered to have authority when he writes such, just as a prominent pastor or scholar is considered to have authority when he speaks, by nature of who he is and what he knows. But papal infallibility has only really been invoked a few times in the past couple of centuries. And ex cathedra pronouncements are only ever made in union and agreement with the cardinals and bishops of the Church.

Blessed Pope John Paul II

May Blessed Pope John Paul II, of happy memory, pray for us.

It all boils down to this: Papal infallibility is an assurance that the Holy Spirit, not the pope, is guiding the Church, when push comes to shove. That is not to say that the pope is the Holy Spirit, or always follows the Holy Spirit, or even necessarily lives in accord with the Holy Spirit — certainly there have been popes who have not. But even in the darkest times of the Church, corrupt popes have never promulgated doctrine that is contradictory to the teachings of Christ or the Bible or the Church: they have never declared, say, that the pope is divine, or that Mary is divine, or that Jesus is anything but divine. They have never declared that adultery or theft or murder is okay, or that everybody has to give all their money to the Church. The fact that even the most dastardly people who have held the office of pope, regardless of how they lived their personal lives, have never promulgated such heresy or error should be a confirmation of the truth of this doctrine. Infallibility — the guidance of the Holy Spirit — ensures that the Church will never run off the rails. And the fact that in 2,000 years it hasn’t is a sign of the Church’s Oneness, Holiness, Apostolicity, and Catholicity. You and I disagree about interpretations of Scripture — you may even disagree that the Church has never “run off the rails.” But in the 2,000 years of the recorded history of the Catholic Church, the Church has never promulgated any doctrine in opposition or contradiction to its own doctrines, or contradictory to the truth of Scripture. You would be hard pressed to prove that it has.

As an extension to the doctrine of infallibility: the Magisterium of the Church (Magisterium means “teachership” — the teaching authority of the Church) — that is, the collected body of bishops in communion with the pope, the chief bishop — is considered infallible in its agreement. This means that the ecumenical councils of the Church, from Nicaea to Vatican II, have taught infallible doctrine.

There you have an explanation of the Church’s teachings on infallibility. I will let you chew that up before I continue with the Marian doctrines.

30 thoughts on “The Pope’s Holiness and Infallibility

  1. I first read your response, then I went and read Eugene’s question, then his responses to you. Unfortunately, you probably are wasting your time with him. He asks for answers, but then rejects any answer if they are not fully and ONLY based on his Bible. He is coming from a different basis for authority, the strict Protestant basis, that only accepts Scripture for any type of authority.
    I find it humorous that he says he’s not a Protestant, but a Christian. Actually, no, his very basis for interpretation of Truth and his refusal to accept any explanation (even the historical) that doesn’t solely come from the Bible betrays his rock-solid Protestantism.
    He doesn’t truly want answers, Joseph. He wants an opportunity to “evangelize” you, and propagate his beliefs that all Catholics are “wasting their time with the Catholic Church.” Someone like this isn’t willing to treat their Theology as a “trampoline” rather than a brick wall. We can all “jump together” and have differing views while talking about them, but he is not open to any answers other than those that he finds in his translation of the Scriptures. He doesn’t want a single brick to budge in his wall of theology.
    It’s unfortunate, really, for I thought your answer was very Scripturally-based, for you cite the fact that it is the Holy Spirit working through the Pope, not the Pope himself, who is infallible.
    I wonder if he even read your response? He probably scanned through it looking for verse references and not finding 50 thought you were wrong….
    Also, I don’t trust his motives because he posted that selective response from a Catholic (that he didn’t approve in its entirety) and then posted links to other posts at the bottom of “proofs” regarding what he already thinks. Again, he doesn’t want answers, he wants to prove he is right!
    Gosh, I’m getting upset, because that comment was so self-righteous…

    Anyway, sorry for my rant. You are much kinder and patient and well-researched in your replies than a lot of people probably are, so bravo to you!

    • Oh, and this was my favorite: “The Church has been guided into all truth — with 40,000 Protestant denominations who can’t agree on anything? With as many diverse and conflicting interpretations of Scripture?”
      ZING.

    • Thanks for your kind words, dear friend. 🙂 My hero is Jimmy Akin, whom, if you haven’t read or heard, you should. His blog and his podcast are both awesome. Jimmy has a way I can only hope to emulate of responding to even the angriest, most hateful critics calmly and with gentleness and charity — you can especially hear this when he’s on Catholic Answers Live.

      For the sake of my own records, I’ll paste my latest response here:


      Hi, Eugene. Did you know you are named for a series of well-respected popes? Probably not directly, of course — my dad’s middle name is Eugene, named for his great-grandfather, and I don’t think he was named for the popes — but it is nonetheless a good name. Pardon my slowness; I’m now replying from my iPad.

      I appreciate your kind words. That’s an interesting suggestion, that I am “wasting my time” with the Catholic Church. Would you say that all the followers of the Catholic Church over its history have “wasted” their time, and if so, for how long? What about the ones who led holy lives, whom we proclaim as “saints”? Many Protestants respect, say, St. Francis of Assisi, or St. Augustine, or St. Gregory the Great. What about the early ones, like St. Ignatius or St. Polycarp or St. Cyprian, who gave their lives for the Christian faith? St. Bernard of Clairvaux was always my favorite when I was a Protestant. He was an ardent proponent of what you would call a personal relationship with Jesus.

      People who disagreed wih Jesus during His ministry on earth stopped following Him (John 6:66, ironically). He Himself prayed that his followers all be one, as He and the Father are One (John 17) (that is, in complete union and agreement, in one mind and one accord [Acts 1:14]). Jesus was, naturally, the authority on what Jesus taught; any disagreement with Him, and folks were no longer Christians. Now you say that the Spirit has guided the Church (I suppose you don’t mean the Catholic Church but the “Church” in a broader sense that includes Protestants) into all truth, and that there is a difference between being universal (catholic) in agreement and being in unity with the Spirit. Are you supposing that Protestant churches have been “in unity” with the Spirit (the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Christ)? Why, then, do they not all agree with each other? Why do they have such different understandings of the Christian faith? Wouldn’t “unity in the Spirit” entail “catholic” unity? That’s certainly the sense in which Paul meant those words in the Scripture you cited (Eph 4:3; cf. 1 Cor 1:10), and what Jesus meant at the Last Supper. (For what it’s worth, you sound an awful lot like you are “Protesting” against the Catholic Church; therefore, by definition, you are a Protestant.)

      So you also reject “creeds and councils”? Do you reject, then, the Holy Trinity? Or that Jesus is wholly God and wholly Man? What about the canon of the New Testament? Are you okay, then, with the teachings of the Arians (that Jesus was not truly God), or the Docetists (that Jesus didn’t have a true human body but was only a divine phantom), or the Pelagians (that man is not truly tainted by original sin and is capable of rising to divine favor without the grace of God)? All of these were either agreed upon, or rejected, by “councils and creeds.”

      My Bible (ESV, not any weird Catholic translation) at 1 Peter 4:11, says that we should love and show hospitality to all those who serve the Church and speak the oracles (λόγια, “sayings”) of God. I’m glad we agree on that.

      You seem to like calling things what they are not. The bishop of Rome is not the “Head” of the Church. Let me ask you, does your church have a pastor? Is Scripture wrong when, through the words of St. Peter, it recommends that pastors “shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight [ἐπισκοποῦντες, episkopountes, the same root as ἐπίσκοπος, episkopos, bishop or overseer]” (1 Peter 5:1–2)?

      Holy Mother Church was born in Jerusalem, but, you ought to know, she is not centered in any one place, but in her people, who are the Body of Christ (1 Cor 12:13,27, Eph 4:4–5). I quote from the Catechism to you to demonstrate what the Catholic Church teaches, about which you are making incorrect statements. The Catechism is an official and authoritative source of Catholic teaching — what the Church teaches about Christian truth. To say that the Church teaches something different than what is defined in the Catechism is self-contradictory. I quote from Scripture, the source of Truth, to demonstrate that what the Church teaches is true. The questions you asked before were about what the Church teaches, not about whether it was true; therefore I quoted from the Catechism. I am doing my best to answer your questions; please let me answer the questions you have asked.

      • Nice! You definitely prove you know what you’re talking about. Funny how a lot of Protestant critics like to make the blanket statement that Catholics don’t know or read their Bibles and aren’t aware of doctrine, history, etc…
        For what it’s worth, I noticed he is Church of Christ. If he’s anything like old-school CoC, they only believe CoC members are true Christians. That would possibly explain it haha.

        • His church, Keltonburg Church of Christ, is in Smithville, Tennessee, only a stone’s throw from my neck of the woods. According to their Facebook page, they are endeavoring to re-create the “New Testament church” and don’t have a pastor but only elders and deacons — despite the fact that, you know, the New Testament not only describes pastors but bishops, too, and doesn’t describe much of the mechanics of how a church and its leadership are supposed to work. I do respect what they’re trying to do, but modeling a church on “Scripture alone” is like building a car from only the designer’s conceptual notes and sketches. Even if one is skilled enough to pull it off, it requires much more innovation and making stuff up just to fill in all the gaps left in what Scripture doesn’t define, than what they accuse the Catholic Church of, which follows the teachings and instructions of people who have actually been building the car for 2,000 years.

        • Joseph, don’t know where this comment is going to land, and if you don’t want to approve it that’s more than fine with me because it’s just FYI, but I just thought you might want to know that Keltonburg has two pastors.

          As far as Facebook goes, I couldn’t tell you what’s on there, I don’t touch the stuff, and as far as the scriptures “not providing everything” a person needs, I think you need to read 2 Timothy 3:16-17.

          I’m not interested in rehashing anything. Just wanted to make those two comments/points.

          • Hi, Eugene. 🙂 I have no reason not to approve polite and well-meaning comments. Welcome. I am sorry that things got a little heated and rude back there. Thanks for correcting me about your church. I really just glanced at the Facebook page. And as for 2 Timothy 3:16-17: I know that one well — it’s the standard sola scriptura argument. It is really the only passage that Protestants can cite that even comes close to suggesting that Scripture is sufficient, but it doesn’t quite do it. I responded to it at some length in this post, if you’re interested. Feel free to browse around and comment if you’d like. I enjoy discussion, as long as it stays polite.

            For what it’s worth: it’s plain that we’ll never agree on the Church’s Marian doctrines. I am glad to discuss them politely, but we are definitely on different pages there, and it’s not very helpful to resort to calling them “blasphemous” or “idolatrous.” Bottom line: Catholics don’t worship Mary. Period. You can disagree with the doctrines, but Catholics don’t believe they are “idolatrous” (worshipping something as a god that’s not a god), and it’s just ugly to accuse us of that. I have a few posts trying to explain the Mary thing better, in Protestant terms. This one is a decent overview of most of the major ones.

        • Yeah, I do respect trying to “get back to basics” of the New Testament church. But you’re right about the difficulty of modeling a church on Scripture alone. It’s like how the CoC won’t allow musical instruments simply because the New Testament doesn’t mention their use: putting that limitation on themselves of using Scripture alone causes a bit of legalism to creep in… One of my best friends grew up Church of Christ, so I guess that’s where my “experience” comes from.
          The oral traditions that the Apostles passed down to us from the beginnings of the Church I believe give a wonderful interpretation of how the church structure is supposed to be, even if it all is not explicitly found in Scripture all spelled out nice and neat.
          Again, it all comes down to where does one find their basis for authority? Scripture only, or Scripture, Church, and Apostolic Tradition.

        • The thing about Tradition that many Protestants don’t understand is that though it originated in the oral teachings of the Apostles, not much of it is “oral” anymore. Over the ages — really over the first few generations — most of it was written down by the early Church Fathers. The Church Fathers themselves attest that these doctrines were handed down from the Apostles, and we can infer from the fact that none of them are reported (by anyone) as anything “new” that they had indeed been around since the beginning. The seeds of Apostolic Succession are clearly contained in Scripture (2 Timothy 2:2, Acts 14:23, 1 Timothy 4:11–16, 2 Timothy 1:6–8), and a rigorous understanding of it is attested to as early as the Letter of Clement of Rome to the Corinthians (ca. A.D. 97? possibly even earlier). St. Irenaeus in A.D. 180 holds it out as the only way to reject heresy: by ensuring that the doctrines of the faith were securely passed down through trusted men from the Apostles themselves. If you know anything about oral tradition in the ancient world, you know that they weren’t joking: poets memorized, recited, and passed down Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey in full for centuries before they were ever written down.

          My good friend Audrey, the one most responsible for giving me a nudge into the Tiber, converted (or actually reverted) to Catholicism from the Church of Christ. She still has good friends and goes to a Bible study at the Church of Christ in Oxford (Mississippi) where I lived. They’s good people, but they can be pretty self-assured.

          • Thank you for the run-down on the Apostolic Tradition aspect. There is always something new I’m learning 🙂

          • I was in more or less exactly the shoes you are in. I started going to Mass around the end of February and couldn’t start RCIA until September. I am glad now, though. It made me very sure that this is what I wanted, very ready when the time came, and very hungry when I finally got here.

            Have you been to Mass anywhere yet? I know it must be a big step, especially if you are already settled into a church and don’t have anyone at the Catholic church to visit with. I visited once the first week I was in Oxford, but it was so awkward I didn’t go back. It wasn’t until Audrey invited me that I really had the confidence to go and open my eyes and heart.

          • I’ve been to Mass a few times over the past few years. There are three parishes around where I live. One, St. Mary’s, is very traditional, and the other two, Christ the King and St. Luke’s, I think are a bit more progressive. St. Luke’s is actually right up my street.
            I guess I haven’t started going yet because a)I am settled in my church, as you said and b)I don’t know any one to go with. That usually doesn’t stop me, but it’s an excuse you know? But I’m about to graduate from college and that provides a “transition time” out of my college group that I could use to start attending Mass.
            Anyway, I think if I were going to start attending, it would be a big, exciting, scary step…
            But also, and this is something that I find hurtful, though I understand it: I cannot participate in the Eucharist. I know people who aren’t Catholic who do it anyway, but I think now I would find it disrespectful. Anyway, meeting with Christ in Communion is something is very important to me. I don’t know if I could watch others participating for almost a year before I could…

          • I found it very humbling to wait to receive. It reminded me of my sinfulness and how little I actually deserve Him at all, let alone in the most intimate Communion. It was a daily dying to self (I attended daily Mass for most of that time), and it really underscored for me every time the part in the liturgy, “Lord, I am not worthy to receive You; but only say the word and my soul shall be healed” — how much I really do need His healing. It reminded me of the Canaanite woman’s words to Jesus, “Even the dogs eat the scraps that fall from their master’s table.” And there are “scraps.” At most parishes — it’s pretty universal, I think — you can get in the Communion line and go before the priest, crossing your arms over your chest in an X, and he will give you a blessing. (This is what they do for children too young to receive, and also if anyone can’t receive for whatever reason [unconfessed sin, or not having properly fasted].) Just don’t let them communicate you if they don’t realize what you’re doing! Shake your head! I always had a fear of that happening. 🙂 I found the blessing by the priest or deacon satisfying and edifying; I felt like I was participating but rightly waiting to be received into the Church. It made me very hungry for the Eucharist, and in the end, it was that much sweeter. Look on the bright side, too: until fairly recently (I’ve heard of this still happening in places, even), catechumens have to leave after the reading of the Word and can’t even witness the Liturgy of the Eucharist. Have you been baptized?

          • Well, when you put it that way, I feel selfish for not wanting to wait. You’re right, it isn’t something that is deserved. It would be worth the wait.
            And yes, I’ve been baptized. I was actually just baptized a month ago tomorrow 🙂

          • Awesome. 🙂 Welcome to the Body. I wonder, did you feel any different afterward, now that you have something of a sacramental understanding of it? Was it solemn? I was only twelve when I was baptized, and barely remember how I felt, but I remember feeling proud, and feeling loved.

          • I felt like I now had a duty to act like Christ, since I had claimed him in public before a body. Before, I’d just said the words to claim Christ, but with a Baptism I claimed him in a sacramental action. So, yes, it was solemn and sacramental to me. As sacramental as it could be when the pastor tells you it’s a symbol 😉

  2. This might be the best summary I’ve seen so far: “Papal infallibility is an assurance that the Holy Spirit, not the pope, is guiding the Church, when push comes to shove.”

    I scanned the comments and saw something about you “wasting time” responding to this dude. I see Faith’s point, but on the other hand, I got some fresh understanding from this post. Other people will, too. So, thanks for writing it.

    • Thank you, friend. 🙂 That’s my motivation is having this blog and posting this here. Even if I don’t get through to Eugene, I hope sharing my thoughts will help someone else along the road.

    • Hmm, I guess it come across like I meant Joseph was wasting his time writing it at all… definitely didn’t mean that! I appreciate his posts on things like this, because they help me come to a richer understanding of topics and answer many questions I have. Eugene may not change his mind because of these responses, but they add to a wonderful dialogue that will help many people out!

  3. People in our culture really don’t know what ‘holy’ means. It’s always a good reminder.

    So far, I’ve liked what I’ve seen and heard about Pope Francis (mostly because the super-traditionalists hate him). It will be interesting to watch how his ministry unfolds.

  4. That’s the best, most concise explanation of Infallibility I’ve read. I’m a retired Presbyterian minister in Alabama getting ready to enter the Catholic Church.

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