Infallibility versus Impeccability
One of the most commonly-leveled charges against the Catholic Church is based on a faulty understanding of the doctrine of papal infallibility. It is important to understand what this doctrine means, and what it does not.
Papal infallibility means that the pope, when pronouncing definitively and dogmatically on matters of faith and morals is protected from teaching errors. This protection comes from the Holy Spirit and was promised by Jesus Christ when He said that He would send the Holy Spirit to the Apostles to teach them all truth. The pope only enjoys this special protection when he is speaking in union with the other bishops (the successors of the Apostles) as the successor to Saint Peter (the leader of the Apostles).
This is what infallibility means, but there are many things which it does not mean, although a number of non-Catholics would like it to mean this – as these things are easy to argue against!
Firstly, infallibility is not the ability to always be right or know the correct answer to a matter of history, science or some academic discipline. Although the popes are generally very well-educated men their intellects are not perfect, and they are capable of having gaps in their knowledge or of making mistakes. Thus, if a pope were to say that two plus two is five this would not mean that, for Catholics, two plus two equals five. It would mean that the pope has to take some more math lessons! The pope is only infallible when he speaks on matters of faith or morals – he is not always right and the Holy Spirit does not “teach him all truth” when it comes to academic matters.
Secondly, infallibility is only conferred on papal pronouncements which are solemnly and dogmatically defined, and does not apply to remarks made by the pope as a private individual, or even as a priest, the bishop of Rome or the pope. Only when he speaks as the pope ex cathedra (literally “from the chair” - meaning that he is formally defining something as infallible) is infallibility invoked. Such instances are very rare indeed – far rarer than many non-Catholics think.
Thirdly, and most importantly, infallibility should not be confused with impeccability. Impeccability is best defined as being sinless, or never making a moral mistake – Jesus and Mary were impeccable, for example. As we read in Saint Paul's letter to the Romans, all have sinned and fallen short of the grace of God. We read in the Gospels how Peter himself sinned by denying Christ, and in Acts how he fell short of his own teaching regarding eating with gentiles and had to be rebuked by Paul. But infallibility and impeccability are not the same thing, and Jesus never promised that the pope would be impeccable. The number of times Jesus speaks of there being sinners in the Church (such as the tares among the wheat, or the bad fish in the catch) should be enough to make this clear.
In point of fact, it is interesting to note that the bad popes stand out precisely because there are so few of them – out of over 250 popes, only a handful can be shown as being examples of “bad popes”. This, of course, does not prove infallibility, but is interesting as it shows that so few popes have been “bad”.
There are a number of specific cases which are cited where popes are shown to have disagreed with each other, or seem to have changed their minds or taught something else. Each and every one of these cases can be shown to be either a complete falsehood, or a misunderstanding of the doctrine of papal infallibility. Most of the time, the pope was not speaking on a matter of faith or morals, or was simply not solemnly defining something, but was simply speaking as a private individual rather than ex cathedra. There is no space to speak of each and every case here – but we will quote from Robert Knox in a letter to Arnold Lunn, speaking of the very few cases of “non-infallible” popes;
"Has it ever occurred to you how few are the alleged ‘failures of infallibility’? I mean, if somebody propounded in your presence the thesis that all the kings of England have been impeccable, you would not find yourself murmuring, ‘Oh, well, people said rather unpleasant things about Jane Shore . . . and the best historians seem to think that Charles II spent too much of his time with Nell Gwynn.’ Here have these popes been, fulminating anathema after anathema for centuries—certain in all human probability to contradict themselves or one another over again. Instead of which you get this measly crop of two or three alleged failures!"
Although this is hardly a totally solid argument, it should certainly give pause for thought. After 2000 years of the Catholic Church, there should be more than a few alleged failures which are not very clear cut at all!
The favorite argument of the non-Catholics is one which we will touch on briefly, and have in fact mentioned above. It concerns the first pope, Saint Peter, and his not eating with the gentile converts. This is mentioned in Galatians 2:11-14; Saint Paul says that he corrected and rebuked Peter. Surely, the argument goes, if Saint Peter were not infallible, then how could he be the first pope (if the pope is infallible) or, if Saint Peter were the first pope and was not infallible, how could all the other popes be infallible?
This argument is easy to refute by a close reading of the text. It is made very clear in the Scripture that Saint Peter did not in fact teach or solemnly define something which was wrong. In fact, quite the opposite – Saint Peter had argued that Jewish and Gentile Christians should eat together – but he just wasn't living up to his own teaching! Saint Paul rebuked him not for an error in teaching, but rather for hypocrisy. This is a clear – and probably the first – example of infallibility versus impeccability.
Those people who deny papal infallibility often do so not out of a desire to understand it, but rather out of a belief that it is something it is not. This is called the “straw man” argument, as it involves setting up a false argument and then defeating that. The argument does not put up a fight and is, therefore, a “straw man”. Catholics do not believe the pope is omniscient or that he is impeccable. We believe he is, generally speaking, a wise man and a good man. But we also believe that he is infallible when it comes to matters of faith and morals which he solemnly pronounces.
This is entirely in accord with the Scriptures – as we read in the great Petrine defense of Matthew 16:18, the gates of Hell will not prevail against the Church. The Church will last forever – but how can she last forever if her teaching is in danger of being corrupted and changed? Then she would not be Christ's Church. If the Church is to endure forever, protection of her doctrines and teachings must be invested in something or someone. As Peter was the rock upon which Christ built His Church, it is clear this protection is invested in the pope, Saint Peter's successors.