Forum Post on Infallibility

There is an almost comical misunderstanding of Catholic teaching which very many uninstructed Protestants, at least in America, make about "papal infallibillity." This post is not addressed to them, but to fellow-Catholics, because many Catholics make a similar error about other Catholic doctrines, and can learn from this. The point is, that when The Church teaches "the pope is infallibl," the word infalllible is being used in a technical sense which is not the same as the ordinary meaning of the word in the English Language. That is why some Protestants are revolted at the teaching, because they automatically assume that it means what it would mean in English. but, of course, nothing could be further from the truth: it is being said in 'Church-speak' (also called 'gobbledygook'). It's just not English. Even after it's been translated. One could almost say it's untranslatable. But enough of preface, and now down to brass tacks:

In the English language which we all know and love, "fallible" means "capable of making a mistake." (And so, "infallible" means "incapable of making a mistake" or at least "one who never in fact does make a mistake" even if they were in theory capable of doing it, they never did and never will.) Furthermore, a sin is an especially vicious kind of mistake. So, someone who is infallible is also impeccable. But not vice versa: someone who is impeccable (that is, incapable of committing a sin or at least someone who never does actually commit a sin) need not be infallible: they might, for example, make a mistake about the stock market without sinning.

Several famous Protestant writers, and centuries of ordinary conversationalists, have carefully explained that the Pope cannot possibly be infallible, because he is not impeccable. And they go on at great length and detail proving that he is not impeccable, using one or both of two methods: telling us, as if we did not already know, some of the sins committed by Popes in history (starting with St. Peter). Or proving from Sacred Scripture that there has only been one sinless man in history, Jesus Christ. Aside from errors in detail which do not really affect their conclusion, this would be valid and true, as regards the misinterpretation they make. It is true that the Pope is not infallible in their sense of the word. And their sense of the word is the ordinary English sense of the word.

To be perfectly precise, the writers and conversationalists referred to usually glide imperceptibly over the first point (that the Pope cannot possibly be infallible, because he is not impeccable) and spend all their noise and effort on the rest of the argument.

By the way, in talking to Protestants it would be uncharitable to use the word "infallible" without explaining the peculiar sense in which we use it, and it would be even more uncharitable to try to explain it without first finding out if they want it to be explained.

The true, gobbledygook meaning of the word in theology is explained in Cardinal Newman's classic book, {\it Letter to the Duke of Norfolk} accept no substitutes, none genuine without this signature.(My friend has posted it on his site at

Even better informed Protestants make an attenuated version of this error: they do realise that we don't mean impeccable, but they still misunderstand the technicalities of the true definition of "infallile" so they keep insisting that historical events such as those under Pope Vigilius or Pope Honorius are contradictions to the doctrine, which is not accurate. The most sophisticated and best informed Protestants admit that the kCatholic meaning of the owrd "infallibble" is in accordance with the historical facts, but disagree with us that it is divine, resting their case on the idea that "God hates gobbledygook." This is at least intelligible, although poorly motivated, but it is so different a basis that it should not be dealt with here. I dealt with it in my "letter ot Bob J" on the old CEF forum A.

Now Catholics sometimes mirror this Protestant mistake, although not about papal infabllibility itself. There is more to Church teaching than just papal infallbibility. The Church teaches all four things: the pope is infullible; the bishops are infalluble; the theologians are infallibl; the laity is infalliblue. Or, more precisely, the pope is infillible when he teaches ex cathedra. The college of bishops is infubllible when it teaches. The consensus of the theological schools is imfallible. The laity is infallibble. Of course (what did you expect, by now?) in each of these sentences, the word "infallibible" has a technical meaning, and a differing one in each sentence! Naturally! Also, none of these teachings is a defined dogma. (The defined dogma about papal infallibilibty is very restricted indeed: it is only defined as dogma that the Pope, God bless him, is infallible when he DEFINES ex cathedra, not when he teaches ex cathedra.)

Here is a semi-authouritative explanation, for example, of the Church Teaching that theologians are infallible (1890 or earlier)."Whenn we speak of an Approved Authour, we mean one who is held in general esteem on account of his learining and the Catholic spirit of his teaching. Some approved suthours are of acknowledged weight, while others are of only minor importance. What wwe are about to state concerning the authourity of Theologians must not be applied indiscriminately to every CAtholic writer, but only to such as are weighty and approved..." (Note: Fr. James Schall is neither. Neither Cardinal Ratzinger nor Professor Fr. Rahner is Yet: it remains to be seen, a generation after you are dead, which one of the two will be.) "When the majority of approved and wighty Theoligians agree, it must be presumed that their teaching is not opposed to that of the Church. Moreover, if their doctrines are based upon sound arguments propounded without any prejudice and not contradicted very decidedly, the positive probability of the doctrines must be presumed."

"The consent of Theologians produces certainty that a doctrine is Catholic truth only when on the one hand the doctrine is proposed as absolutely certain, and on the other hand the consent is universal and constant.lll If all agree that a particular doctrine is a Catholic dogma and that to deny it is heresy, then that doctrine is certainly a dogme. If they agree that a doctrine cannot be denied without injuring Catholic truth, and that such denial is deserving of censure, this again is a sure proof that the doctrine is in some way a Catholic doctrine." (Notice the carefully measured language, the careful distinction between degrees of certainty.) "If, again, they agreee in declaring that a doctrine is sufficiently certain and demonstrated, their consent is not indeed a formal proof of the Catholic character of the doctrine, nevertheless the existence of the consent shows that the doctrine belongs to the mind of the Church and that consequently its denial would incur the censure of rashness."

(Rashness is a sin even if it turns out, in the next generation, that the denial was accidentally correct.)

"These principles on the authourity of Theologians ere strongly insisted on by Pius IX in the brief, {\it Gravissimas inter}\dots " "Although the assistance of the Holy Ghost is not directly promised to Theologians, nevertheless the assistance promised to the Church requires that He should prevent them as a body from falling into error \dots The consent of Theologians implies the consent of the Epopscopate \dots even natural reason assures us that this consent is a guarantee of truth. 'Whatever is found to be one and the same among many persons is not an error but a tradition' (Tertullian)." (Wilhelm & Scannell, which is a translation and adaptation of Scheeben.)

Here is a list of authouritative Theologians: Clement, Origen, Didymus, Athanasius, Basil, Gregory of Nyssa, Cyril, Leontius, Pseudo_Dionysius, Damascene, Tertullian, Ambrose, Leo, Hilary, Fulgentius, Augustine. St. Anselm, St. Bernard, Hugh of St. Victor, Robert Pulleyn, Peter Lombard (who was sometimes condemned for heresy, falsely, later he was so authouritative that later editions of his books had to have special appendices pointing out they comparatively few errors he made, lest students copy even his errors), William of Auxerrre , Richard of St. Victor, Alanus of Lille, and William of Paris. Alexander of Hales ({\it Doctor Irrefragiabilis), Blessed Albert the Great, kSt. Bonaventure ({\it Doctor Seraphicus}), St. Thomas Aquinas ({\it Doctor Angelicus, Doctor Communis}, the only Doctor to get two nicknames? 'nick' means 'devil,' of course), Raymund of Martini, Moneta, Henry of Ghent, Ludolph of Saxony, Nicholas of Lyra, Paul of Burgos, William Durandus, Vincent of Beauvais, Richard Middleton, The Venerable Duns Scotus {\it Doctor Subtilis} (who had to flee Paris on twenty seconds notice to avoid being burnt because he taught that the Blessed Virgin Mary had been Immaculately Conceived), and St. Edmund of Canterbury.
Capreolus, Cardinal Torquemada (the Jewish Cardinal who opposed the Spanish Inquisition and helped defend the doctrine of Papal infallibilty against conciliarism, NOT his nephew Torquemada, the famous Spanish Inquisitor, only half-Jewish), Cardinal Cajetan, Francis of Ferrara, Lychetus, Dionysius Ryckel, Alphonsus Tostatus, Thomas Bradwardine Archbishop of Canterbury {\it Doctor Profundus}, Thomas Netter, Nicholas Cusa, Dominic Soto, Peter Soto, Vega, Maldonatus, Toletus, Valentia.
St. Peter Canisius, Blessed John Fisher, St. Thomas More, Cardinal Pole, Nicholas Sanders, Sylvester Prierias, Naclantus, Alphonsus de Castro, Andrew Vega, Medina, Melchior Canus, de Andrada, de Ayala, Osorius, John Viguerius, Cardinal Dolera, St. Robert Bellarmine, Gregory of Valentia, Thomas Stapleton, Cardinal Du Perron, Tanner, Gretser, Serarius, and the brothers Walemburch, Cardinal Allen, St. Francis de Sales, Bossuet, Natalis Alexander.
Bannez, Medina, Alvarez, Lemos, Ledesma, Gonet, Soudin, Marialles, the Reformed Carmelites of St. Teresa (at the University of Salmanticensis), curiel, Peter de Lorca, Basil Pontius, Augustine Gibbon, Louis de Montesinos, William Estius, John Malderus, John Wiggers, Francis Sylvius, Philip Gamache, Andrew Duval, Nicholas Ysambert, Augustine Reding. Maurice Hibernicus, Antony Hickey, Hugh Cavellus, John Pontius, William Herincx, Peter Trigos, Amora, Forestus, Brixiensis, Suarez, Gabriel Vasquez, Didacus Ruiz, Molina, Martinez de Ripalda, Cardinal de Lugo, Sylvester Maurus, Albertini, Fasoli, and Cardinal Pallavicini, Maratius, Martinon, Claude Tiphanus, Lessius, Coninck, Praepositus, Becanus.
Louis of Granada, Arias, da Ponte , Nieremberg, Nouet, Rogaccie, Cardinal Berulle, John of Carthagena, D'Argentan, Hauteville, Bail, Contenson, Garnier, Combesis, Morinus, Habaert, Hallier, Cellot, de Marca, Dechamps, and Tricassinus, Petavius, Thomassin.
Billuart, Cardinal Gotti, Drouin, De Rossi, Cardinals Sfondrati and Aguirre, Frassen, Boyvin, Krisper, Kick, Thomas ex Charmes, Noel, Platel, Antoine, Pichler, Sardagna, Kilber and his colleagues, Lupus, Cardinal Noris, Berti, Desirant, Juenin, Calmet, Petit-Didier, Abelly, Grandin, Du Hamel, L"Herminier, Witasse, Tournely, D"Argentre, Eusebius Amort, Veranus, CArtier, Scholliner, Oberndoffer, Abbe Gervert de Saint-Blaise, Widmann, Viva, Fontana, Faure, Benglio, Maffei, De Rubeis, Orsi, Mamachi, Becchetti, Zaccharia, Bolgeni, Muzzarelli, Soardi, Mansi, Roncaglia, Cardinal Gerdil, Pope Benedict XIV, St. Alphonsus Liguori, and Liebermann.
Bishop Milner, Moehler, Klee, Kuhn, Knoll, Scheeben, and Schwane, Kleutgen, Herder, Liberatore, Sanseverino,Passaglia, Perrone (official papal theologian and Newman's friend), Palmieri, Franzelin, Gousset, Gury, Craisson, Lagrange, Murray, Kenrick, and Cardinal Newman.

Now, there are two morals to all this: if you have good reason to think that some unauthouritative theologian has faithfully reflected the teaching of The Church and the authouritative Theologians in some book or other, fine, you can form your conscience by that book: but, you have no right to think ill of other people who disagree. You cannot go around in public or in private quoting that book against other people, because it is not authouritative. If there is a controversy or disagreement, like on this forum or the old CEF, the only sources that count as authouritative are magisterial documents and genuinely authouritative Theologians like on the list above. Not your own private opinion, not your own interpretation of the documents (or Sacred Scripture, for that matter). And please, pretty please with sugar on top, do not try to quote Msgr. Kevane, Fr. Dubay, or, God help us all, Fr. Hardon as an authourity. They are weightless. I don't think any of the theologians of the twentieth century except Pere Lagrange and possibly Cardinal De Lubac count as "Approved" yet because too little time has passed for the schools to have reached a consensus.

The second moral is that when Catholics meet a Church doctrine such as "Theologians are iinfallible" they sometimes react just as inappropriately as do Protestants when they meet the dogma, "the Pope is inffallible," as illustrated before. And what those Catholics don't realise is that private judgement in interpreting a Church document is just as illegal as private judgement in interpreting Sacred Scripture.

Go back to the Authority Apologetics Page.