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Wednesday, July 21, 2021

The True Doctrine of Papal Infallibility

By:   Michael Massey
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The True Doctrine of Papal Infallibility

Pope Francis continues to scandalise the laity, faithful priests and the entire secular world (the papacy does enjoy universal jurisdiction after all). His most recent and egregious attack on the traditional Latin Mass in Traditionis Custodes now has many Catholics questioning the dogma of papal infallibility. What is papal infallibility? To what does the protection of infallibility apply? Can a pope speak heresy? All of these questions are now on the lips of a great number of Catholics. This confusion is sadly nothing new, with even Bl. Pius IX acknowledging a lack of understanding shortly after the dogma’s definition:

“For it [papal infallibility] is a matter the true meaning of which, not all men, and especially not all laymen, have a thoroughly clear understanding…”[1]

Because of this confusion, many are now tempted to total rejection of the dogma and are considering apostasy to Eastern Orthodoxy, and others inflate infallibility beyond its true limits and are tempted towards papolatry or Sedevacantism (but I repeat myself). In this climate, it is imperative that Catholics understand the true nature of the dogma, including its extent and limits.

Notwithstanding our recent papacies, at least three times in the history of the Church a Roman Pontiff has spoken heresy.

The dogma of papal infallibility was first defined on 18th July, 1870 at the First Vatican Council, although it had been believed by the Church since the time of the Apostles. The dogma holds that the Roman Pontiff is guaranteed by God to never teach error when speaking under certain conditions. Pastor Aeternus, the document which defined the dogma clearly laid out the limited circumstances in which a pope speaks infallibly. Paster Aeternus #9 stated:

“...we teach and define as a divinely revealed dogma that when the Roman Pontiff speaks EX CATHEDRA, that is, when, in the exercise of his office as shepherd and teacher of all Christians, in virtue of his supreme apostolic authority, he defines a doctrine concerning faith or morals to be held by the whole Church, he possesses, by the divine assistance promised to him in blessed Peter, that infallibility which the divine Redeemer willed his Church to enjoy in defining doctrine concerning faith or morals.”

This statement shows three conditions necessary for an infallible declaration:

  1. That the pope be speaking in his role as supreme teacher of the Church (i.e. as pope), and
  2. He defines a truth of faith or morals, and
  3. He binds all faithful (i.e. all baptised Christians) to this truth

It is this third condition which is largely misunderstood by a great number of Catholics. The pope is only protected by infallibility when he makes a declaration which baptised Christians are bound to believe in order to attain salvation.

Demarking the Limits of Infallibility

In response to the confusion surrounding infallibility identified by Pius IX, the secretary of the First Vatican Council, Bishop Fessler, sought to clearly define what infallibility is and what it is not. In addition to this he sought to counter the growing attacks on the newly defined dogma which proliferated in the latter half of the 19th century. Being so heavily involved in the definition of the dogma, Bishop Fessler had a unique perspective on the issue and could speak with great authority. In 1871 he produced a work titled, The True and False Infallibility of the Popes which clearly explained the extent and limits of papal infallibility and thoroughly refuted the tired tropes which were daily used to attack it. The main purpose of the work was to refute the objections to infallibility as collected by Dr. Schulte, a professor of Canon Law at the University of Prague, and one of the pope’s most severe critics since Vatican I. Bishop Fessler’s work is particularly authoritative on the matter of papal infallibility, as it was given the approbation of Bl. Pius IX, who stated that the book “lucidly set forth” the dogma’s true definition.

Bishop Fessler defines papal infallibility in accordance with the conditions outlined above:

“On our part, we find that it is the view of Catholic theologians that there are two marks of an ex cathedra utterance, and, moreover, that these two marks must both be found together – viz. that (1) the objectum or subject-matter of the decision must be doctrine of faith or morals; and (2) the Pope must express his intention, by virtue of his supreme teaching power, to declare this particular doctrine on faith and morals to be a component part of the truth necessary to salvation revealed by God, and as such to be held by the whole Catholic Church,[2] he must publish it, and so give a formal definition in the matter (definire). These two marks must be found together.”[3]

When we consider Pope Francis’ undoubtedly heretical teaching on many topics, from the salvation of obstinate atheists to the sinfulness of proselytism, at no point has he ever declared his heretical teaching to be “a component part of the truth necessary to salvation”. This is because the dogma of infallibility protects him from doing so.

Sedevacantists, like vultures, circle the sick. They prey upon those Catholics weakened by the heresy and gross imprudence of our pontiff.

When defining infallibility, Bishop Fessleralso defined what infallibility is not:

“(2) Acts of Popes undoubtedly are not Papal utterances ex cathedra.

(3.) All that Popes have said in daily life, or in books of which they are the authors (supposing them, i.e. to have written books), or in ordinary letters, are not dogmatic definitions or utterances ex cathedra.

(4.) Utterances of Popes, either to individuals or to the whole Church, even in their solemn rescripts, made by virtue of their supreme power of jurisdiction, in issuing disciplinary laws, in judicial decrees, and penal enactments, and in other acts of ecclesiastical government, are not dogmatic Papal definitions or infallible utterances ex cathedra. (…)

(6.) Moreover, if we have before us a real and true dogmatic definition of the Pope, still only that portion of it is to be looked upon and accepted as an ex cathedra utterance, which is expressly designated as the Definition; and nothing whatever is to be so regarded which is only mentioned as accessory matter.”[4]

Considering our current pontiff’s penchant for airplane theology, this statement is particularly relevant. His (supposedly) off-the-cuff remarks in press conferences, interviews, etc. can never be considered the infallible teaching of the Church, but merely the fallible opinions of a thoroughly fallible man. Even in his “utterances to the whole Church” he is only infallible insofar as he binds the faithful to a moral or theological truth as necessary for salvation – something which Pope Francis has never done. In fact, the very idea of binding the faithful to any belief at all is antithetical to the relativism and liberalism of the modernist ideal.


Sedevacantists, like vultures, circle the sick. They prey upon those Catholics weakened by the heresy and gross imprudence of our pontiff. Ironically Sedevacantists fall prey to the same error as those liberal papolators which they so loudly oppose. Both inflate the dogma of papal infallibility beyond its true limits – the limits demarked by Bishop Fessler. They hold that every statement the Pope makes from his office of supreme teacher is protected by the dogma of infallibility and that therefore, where a pope teaches heresy, he must surely not be the true pope. They claim that no heretic can become pope and point to the Bull of Pope Paul IV, Cum ex Apostolatus officio as an infallible teaching to that effect. The Bull certainly does prohibit heretics from holding the papal office, however, this was not a doctrinal definition, but merely a disciplinary rule. Bishop Fessler, long before Sedevacntism was even considered, dealt with this thesis:

“To us it is beyond all question certain, that this Bull is not a definition of faith or morals, not an utterance ex cathedra. It is simply an outcome of the supreme Papal authority as legislator, and an instance of his exercising his power of punishing; it is not done in the exercise of his power as supreme teacher. (...) Pope Paul IV, no doubt, supposes the case possible (however improbable it might be) that a man who clings to an heretical doctrine might be chosen Pope, and also that after he has mounted the Papal throne, he might still hold heretical doctrine, or, even it may be, express it in his intercourse with others; not, however, that he would teach the whole Church this heretical doctrine in an utterance of his supreme teaching office (ex cathedra). From making such an utterance God Himself, through His special assistance, preserves the Pope and the Church.”[5]

The very document Sedevacantists use to defend their premise that no heretic may become pope in its very words anticipates the possibility of such an event occurring, thereby undermining their own argument.Cum ex, were it still in force, would prevent a heretic from becoming pope, however the 1917 Code of Canon Law abrogated the previous law and made no such corresponding proscription.

We must resist the Pope Francis in his most recent shameful attack on the Catholic Church.

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The great danger of Sedevacantism is that, through its erroneous inflation of papal infallibility, it destroys peace of soul. Bishop Fessler decried this very attitude in his book:

“…if he represents Papal rescripts which belong to the province of reversible legislation, or are mere acts of government, as definitions of Popes upon faith and morals, or if from the records of real dogmatic definitions of Popes he extracts mere incidental remarks, obiter dicta, and alleges these to be ex cathedra then assuredly he is leading his readers into error; he is disturbing their consciences without reason; he is arousing the suspicions of governments unnecessarily, and setting them against that Catholic doctrine which has been declared by the Vatican Council; and he is consciously or unconsciously (God only knows which) creating great prejudice against the Catholic Church.”[6]

Papal Heresy

Notwithstanding our recent papacies, at least three times in the history of the Church a Roman Pontiff has spoken heresy. As scandalous as these occurrences were for the Church, they in no way nullify or discredit the dogma of papal infallibility. During the Arian crisis in the 4th century Pope Liberius signed the formula of Sirmium in which he asserted that God the Father was greater than God the Son – a terrible blasphemy against the Blessed Trinity to which posterity now refers as the blasphemy of Sirmium.[7] In the 7th century Pope Honorius I affirmed the heresy of Monothelitism for which he was condemned by not one, but three Ecumenical Councils.[8] In the 14th century Pope John XXII taught that the souls of the faithful departed did not received the beatific vision until after the last judgment, a belief condemned as heresy by Pope Benedict XII.[9]

How then does this indisputable fact that popes have taught heresy not discredit the dogma of papal infallibility? The answer is that none of these popes taught heresy ex cathedra. These heretic popes spoke on matters of faith, and Liberius even signed the blasphemy of Sirmium in his office as pope, however none ever bound the faithful to their heretical doctrine as a belief necessary for salvation.

When we are battered by the winds of our papacy and scandalised by our shepherds, when our faith is sinking, let us remember that Jesus Christ is in control.

In other words, their heretical utterances failed the final condition necessary for an infallible ex cathedra definition. Similarly, Pope Francis in his innumerable heretical and shameful utterances and decrees, from his off-the-cuff remarks on proselytism being sinful, to his encyclicals Amoris Laetitia and Fratelli Tutti to Traditionis Custodes does not bind the faithful to his heretical teaching as necessary for salvation.

In fact, a pope can never bind the faithful to a heretical teaching as necessary for salvation, as this is the promise of Christ to His Church that the ‘gates of hell shall not prevail’. This is the very event from which the dogma of papal infallibly protects us. We know through the theological virtues of faith and hope that God will allow no pope to teach heresy ex cathedra, no matter how many times heresy spews from their unholy mouth. Just as a demon, despite his greatest efforts, cannot resist the command of an alter Christi during an exorcism, so the pope cannot resist the promise of infallibility attached to his cathedra despite his personal malice or weakness.

We must resist the Pope Francis in his most recent shameful attack on the Catholic Church. Let us call to mind the faithful resistance of Bishop Robert Grosseteste when he declared to Pope Innocent IV:

“It is not possible, therefore, that the apostolic See, to which has been handed down from Christ Himself power for edification and not for destruction, can issue a precept so hateful and so injurious to the human race as this; for to do so would constitute a falling off, a corruption and abuse of its most holy and plenary power. No one who is subject and faithful to the said See in immaculate and sincere obedience, and is not cut off from the body of Christ and the said holy See by schism, can obey commands or precepts such as this, even if it emanated from the highest order of angels; but he must of necessity, and with his whole strength, contradict and rebel against them.”[10]

Let us take heart and remember that Christ has already won the battle at Calvary and that the devil’s furious assaults are merely the futile attempts of one who has lost, yet refuses to acknowledge it.

“And Peter going down out of the boat, walked upon the water to come to Jesus. But seeing the wind strong, he was afraid: and when he began to sink, he cried out, saying: Lord, save me. And immediately Jesus stretching forth his hand took hold of him, and said to him: O thou of little faith, why didst thou doubt?”[11]

When we are battered by the winds of our papacy and scandalised by our shepherds, when our faith is sinking, let us remember that Jesus Christ is in control. Let us, like Peter, grab His hand.


[1] Pope Pius IX, Brief addressed to Bishop Fessler, April 27, 1871.

[2] Here Bishop Fessler’s second condition can be separated into conditions 2 & 3 as outlined previously.

[3]Fessler, The True and False Infallibility of the Popes, p65.

[4]Ibid, p89.

[5]Ibid, pp89-90.

[6]Ibid, p68-69.

[7] See. St. Hilary, Against Valens and Ursacius Bk. II Ch. VII; and Sozomen, Hist. Eccl., lib. IV, cap. XV.

[8] See Hefele, A History of Christian Councils Vol. V, p182.

[9] See the constitution Benedictus Deus.

[10] [10] Stevenson, Francis Seymour. Robert Grosseteste: Bishop of Lincoln, p309-310.

[11] Matthew 14:29-31.

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Last modified on Wednesday, July 21, 2021