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.