October 16, 2012

The Dogma of Papal Infallibility

by Jesse Johnson

Pope Gregory I (L) and the source of his infallibility (R).

What Roman Catholics refer to as “the Dogma of Papal Infallibility” is one of the most stunning of all of RCC doctrine. According to this dogma, the Pope—when he speaks on matters concerning the church—is protected from the possibility­ of error. Note that it is not that what he says is always true, but something more radical is claimed: there is not even the possibility of him speaking something untrue.

When this dogma was first codified (the first Vatican Council in 1870) they obviously defined it in more constrained terms than it had been practiced through history. Now, it only applies to matters concerning “faith and morals,” and when the Pope binds “the whole Church” to the declaration.  While it was codified by the First Vatican Council, it in effect has been practiced throughout much of Roman Catholic Church history.

In fact much of RCC doctrine rests on nothing other than this authority. For one clear example, in 1950 Pope Pious XII declared that Mary did not die a physical death, but was “assumed” (assunta) up to heaven. This is a teaching with no biblical evidence (although Pope John Paul II did allege that it was the fulfillment of Jesus’ promise in John 14:3), and even less credible historical evidence. Actually, no one in the first 300 years of church history had even claimed such a thing had happened.

Because it is such an important part of what separates the RCC from Protestants, an obvious question to ask is, “are there times when the Popes have contradicted each other?” If so, that would be a glaring piece of evidence that the RCC’s claims to authority and doctrine are indeed fallible.

First, let me explain why this is important to me. Discussing theology with a Catholic can be frustrating, and usually goes in one of two ways. Either they claim to believe everything I believe, but they just also claim to have an unbroken tradition of history behind them. Or they respond to my biblical objections to RCC doctrine by saying Protestants are wrong because their interpretations contradict the interpretations of the RCC, which we know to be infallible.

So finding places where the Popes contradict themselves is actually useful to for both of the situations above. It demonstrates that the “unbroken tradition of history” is a myth, and that the RCC’s history is broken and shameful. And it also demonstrates that RCC interpretation of Scripture can indeed be prone to error, seeing as how so much of their other actions are.

Now, in anticipation of RCC response, let me be quick to grant that there are places where Protestants contradict themselves. I’ve probably contradicted myself twice today, and it’s not even lunch time. Yes, Calvin and Luther disagreed on much, and yes there are a lot of denominations everywhere. And, yes, there are Protestant pastors that have fallen into immorality and done wicked things too! But the key difference is that Protestants don’t claim that their leaders or their theology is infallible. The Bible is infallible, but not our understanding of it.

So with that out of the way, tomorrow I’ll give one story from church history that is entertaining on its own right, but also features my favorite example of Papal contradiction.

I’ll give you a hint to hold you over: the year is 1501.

Jesse Johnson

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Jesse is the Teaching Pastor at Immanuel Bible Church in Springfield, VA. He also leads The Master's Seminary Washington DC location.
  • Larry

    @Jesse. Great! You know, lately I’ve been slightly “tossed” wondering why my pastor (on good terms with him) during Bible classes, has been sorta giving the RCC a “pass.” He keeps referring to their “contributions” to Biblical (I’m adamant about the term) Christianity. My brain responds with “what contributions?” And references such as “If it wasn’t for Catholicism we wouldn’t have a Bible.” And “If they didn’t have a few doctrinal errors, I’d be a Catholic” Huh? What? or “Some of the greatest theologians came “from” the Catholic church.” (Not came “out” of as in Luther who renounced them). So, what resources might I obtain to contend with what I feel is “indecent exposure” to a room full of Believers?

    Where does Constantine deserve accolades, as it pertains to the early “Biblical” church, that is effectual for us today? Is the “now” church ignorant of his works that should motivate gratitude in us? What contributions did the RCC make to the compilation of the actual canon of scriptures we hold today? isn’t THEIR Bible loaded with non-canon books? These are some of the questions rolling around.

    • Well, Constantine deserves accolades for ending persecution, and for enabling the development of creeds.
      The best book I’d recommend is The Church of Rome and The Bar of History, by William Webster.
      And yes, their Bible has the appocropha.

      • Larry

        Thanks Jesse.

    • Inclement Nimbus


      If you aren’t familiar with the apocrypha I would suggest you get a Catholic bible and look it over. Turritin is a good starting point when talking about some errors but sometimes even reading more of the text itself will better clue you in to the problems. I found this by reading over Tobit for example.

      If one is going to deal with the Roman Catholic church is a discussion it is important to know what their official documents say. A lot of this can be obtained free on the web. (ie Code of Canon law, Catechism of the catholic church, etc)

  • This sounds like a good series. I’ve worked with a number of roman catholics and could use some good discussion points to use with them (up until now, most of my arguments against Rome revolve around, “they’ve got a really long history of killing people…”)

    • You’ll probably better appreciate Nate’s post last week called “The Gospel According to Rome.” It’s linked in the side bar.

  • I wrote an article exposing the fallacy of papal infallibility a couple years ago. You might find it of interest. There is certainly NOTHING infallible about that office.

  • A very good starting place for catholics, orthodox and protestants to dialogue. This one is a lynch pin of many catholic teachings, and affords us an opportunity to compare these teachings with Scripture (which all christians hold as the Word of God).

  • Jonathan Anderson

    If I guess who, can I win a Cripplegate T-shirt?

    • If your wife designs one, I’d totally let you keep it.

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  • ALM

    As a former lifelong devoted Catholic, saved through the truths scripture revealed about my utter sinfulness and the eternal consequences of them…I can share that every thing I now know about the heresies of Roman Catholicism became abundantly clear after I saw the glory of The Lord Jesus Christ. I then foolishly went down the path of thinking I could help my Catholic family see this plainly by simply showing them all the countless lies and heresies and history of their church…however, as scripture so beautifully reveals…they will NEVER see any of these lies until they see the glory of The Lord Jesus Christ which as John 1:12-14 reveals will be done by God and in His time….in the mean time…lovingly, compassionately and with the testimony of the Garasene in Mark 5…just preach Christ in all His glory and humbly tell them all that The Lord has done in your life…but even more important for the Catholic who possesses a form of godliness, but one that denies its power….they carry about in them a conscious that simply screams of the hypocrisy in their life…because they seek self righteousness through works their conscious is never cleared which is why they cling to the ongoing sacrifice of their mass…point them to Christ and His finished work spoken by Peter and Paul in seven different places…approach them in love and in patience…they love their religion…and that will not change until the true root of love for The Lord is placed deep in them…no one needs a savior until they know they are a sinner…thanks and hope this helps…

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  • Judy mattson

    Golly gee—next thing I know, is that you are going to be telling me that the Easter Bunny doesn’t bring me my annual basket full of chocolate, and that Santa Clause does NOT arrive via the chimney.
    Signed: Judy: A “Once-devout-and -often-misled- Catholic school girl.”…..who was
    “Finally and mercifully saved by only HIS grace on January 6, 1992.” Praise You, LORD !!!
    P>S.: Sister Cunegunda is (was) a REAL person in my life in the year 1959-1960. She not only taught me that Mary was lifted up to heaven, body and soul, BUT—-BUT-
    also, that if I did not attend Mass on August 15th every single year to commemorate this momentous event, I would be commiting a Mortal sin –(that’s MORTAL vs. “venial” sin” –big distinction) and if I died before I confessed that MORTAL sin–to a live and breathing ordained Catholic Priest—I would be going straight to Hell for all eternity.

    I pray right now for Sister Cunegunda….the Lord only knows where she’s at.
    Thanks for the memories, Len.

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