The doctrine of papal infallibility is
a relatively modern one, not formally approved or consistently maintained by the
Catholic Church until the Vatican Council that gathered in 1869-70. It is one
of the most controversial and most widely misunderstood teachings of the Roman
What the doctrine does not teach
The doctrine of papal infallibility does not imply that the Pope is without sin
or cannot make a mistake.
Infallibility needs to be carefully
Even the most staunch defenders of the Papacy and of
the Roman Catholic Church understand that infallibility applies to teachings of
the Pope only when he is speaking ex cathedra, that is, on behalf of the
whole church and in ways that are consistent with its councils, and with the collective
wisdom of its cardinals and bishops as the truth has been revealed to them over
Further, infallibility applies only when the Pope is speaking
about matters of faith or morals. For example, when the Vatican press office issues
a statement of the Pope concerning a hotly contested, political issue, such statements
are not regarded as being infallible, or even authoritative for all Christians.
The Catholic Church holds that the teaching authority of the Pope
is based solidly in Scripture, for example John 14:16-17.
other Christians believe.
Protestants almost universally reject
the notion of Papal infallibility. Conservative Protestants believe that only
the Bible is free of error; human interpretations of the Bible are not. More liberal
Protestants believe that neither the church nor the Bible are without error; rather,
both the church and the Bible are products of humanity, and while they may, and
often do, reflect the truth, they are not themselves entirely free of human error.
Orthodox Christians have a view of infallibility somewhat different
from that of both Protestants and Catholics. Orthodox Christians affirm that the
Church itself, when speaking or acting in unity and under the guidance of the
Holy Spirit, does communicate a Truth that is without error.
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The Rev. Charles P. Henderson is a Presbyterian minister and author of Faith, Science and the Future, published in 1994 by CrossCurrents Press. He is also the author of God and Science (John Knox / Westminster, 1986) which he is now rewriting to incorporate more recent developments in the conversation taking place between scientists and theologians. He has also written widely for such publications as The New York Times, The Nation, Commonweal, The Christian Century and others.