On Infallibility and the Pope
When is the Pope infallible?
Many have wondered what the Roman Catholic Church actually teaches about infallibility and its relation to the Pope. As a courtesy to our viewers, we have decided to provide the Church's precise teaching on this subject so Catholics everywhere can understand the answer to this important question. We must keep in mind that only when the teachings of any theologian or ordained minister line up with the teachings of the Magisterium of the Church are they accurate.
The Pope is NOT infallible
in everything he says and does, nor guaranteed to be inspired (inspiration and impeccability are NOT guaranteed -- see "e" below). The Pope can err! In fact, St. Paul corrected St. Peter at the Council of Jerusalem on the question of mandatory circumcision for Gentile converts (a key doctrinal matter). Only when the Pope speaks ex cathedra (when he "declares" from the Chair -- and rarely does he do so), on faith and morals, and intentionally, willfully meets several conditions is a teaching held to be infallible, according to Church teaching (from the First Vatican Council). Consider the following piece from the Catholic Encyclopedia, given the imprimatur "let it be printed" and nihil obstat "nothing stands in the way" (The Nihil Obstat and Imprimatur assert that a book or pamphlet is considered to be free from doctrinal or moral error):
"...Infallibility is NOT attributed to every doctrinal act of the Pope, but only to his ex cathedra teaching; and the conditions required for ex cathedra teaching are mentioned in the Vatican decree:
(a) The pontiff must teach in his public and official capacity as pastor and doctor of all Christians, not merely in his private capacity as a theologian, preacher or allocutionist, nor in his capacity as a temporal prince or as a mere ordinary of the Diocese of Rome.
(b) Then it is only when, in this capacity, he teaches some doctrine of faith and morals that he is infallible...in the Vatican definition infallibility (whether of the Church at large or of the Pope) is affirmed only in regard to doctrines of faith and morals...
(c) Further, it must be sufficiently evident that he intends to teach with the fullness and finality of his supreme Apostolic authority, in other words that he wishes to determine some point of doctrine in an absolutely final and irrevocable way, or to define it.
(d) Further, for an ex cathedra decision it must be clear that the pope intends to bind the whole Church to demand internal assent from all the faithful to his teaching..."
(e) "Infallibility must be carefully distinguished both from Inspiration and from Revelation. Inspiration signifies a special positive Divine influence and assistance by reason of which the human agent is not merely preserved from liability to error but is so guided and controlled that what he says or writes is truly the word of God; that God Himself is the principal author of the inspired utterance; but infallibility merely implies exemption from liability to error. God is NOT the author of a merely infallible, as He is of an inspired, utterance...Revelation, on the other hand, means the making known by God, supernaturally, of some truth hitherto unknown, or at least not vouched for by Divine authority; whereas infallibility is concerned with the interpretation and effective safeguarding of truths already revealed."
- The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume VII
Robert Appleton Co.,: NY, 1912.
Charles Herbermann, PhD., LLD et al., editors.