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Last Updated: Tuesday, 19 September 2006, 09:21 GMT 10:21 UK
How infallible is the Pope?
WHO, WHAT, WHY?
The Magazine answers...

Pope Benedict
Pope Benedict has not yet made any "infallible" statements
Commentators have described Pope Benedict's recent expressions of regret as close to a rare papal apology. But how, they ask, can a man believed by Catholics to be "infallible" make a mistake?

According to the Roman Catholic Church, the Bishop of Rome IS infallible - but only in specific cases. The current furore over remarks made by the pontiff about Islam does not fall into this category.

Papal infallibility only comes into play with issues of faith that concern the whole Church. It doesn't apply when the Pope is expressing a personal opinion or, in this case, quoting from a historical text.

Papal infallibility was hotly debated for centuries within the Church after the notion that the Pope was the preserver of apostolic - derived from the apostles - truth, was set out in the early 6th Century. But according to Catholic historian Peter Stanford the word infallible wasn't used because it was believed only God could be infallible.

It was acknowledged that various popes down the ages had brought disgrace on the office by their behaviour and judgements, he says.

It wasn't until the 19th Century that moves were made for a formal acknowledgement that the Pope was faultless. In 1870, the First Vatican Council proclaimed that the Pope was infallible - but certain conditions were attached.

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The agreement reached by the Council stated that a Pope "when he speaks ex cathedra" - that is, as head of the Church - is "possessed of infallibility" when "he defines.... a doctrine concerning faith and morals to be held by the whole Church".

Once the Pope has spoken, the First Vatican Council agreed, his definitions "are irreformable of themselves".

Routine papal teaching, however, is not considered infallible.

What is infallible?

And such infallible proclamations are highly uncommon. According to papal historian Michael Walsh there has only been one occasion since the council proclamation when a pope has made an infallible statement.

In 1950, Pope Pius XII proclaimed the assumption of Mary into heaven as a dogma of faith. According to Mr Walsh, it is thought Pope John Paul II wanted to speak infallibly in 1994 when he ruled out the possibility of women ever being ordained, but was advised against it.

Pope John Paul II
Pope John Paul apparently wanted to issue an infallible statement about the ordination of women
While he decreed that Catholics should not even talk about the issue further, the subject could, theoretically, be debated in the future.

Similarly, says Mr Walsh, papal teaching regarding contraception is not considered by many theologians as falling within the realms of papal infallibility.

Pope Paul VI's famous 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae, which condemned contraception, was not issued in the form of an infallible statement by the Pope.

"You don't issue infallible statements via a papal encyclical," says Mr Walsh. To issue an infallible statement "you make a dogmatic statement 'ex cathedra' from the chair of Peter".

So why did the First Vatican Council take the decision to rule on the Pope's infallibility? It's thought the motivation behind it at the time was mainly political, designed to bolster the status of the Pope. By the time the Council convened in 1868, most of the Italian papal states had disappeared.

And, if the Pope rarely issues an infallible statement, why is it necessary? According to Mr Walsh, it's all down to the way the Church is structured.

"The Catholic Church is really a federation of churches," he says. "Each bishop rules his own diocese, but all those bishops are united in the Pope, as the Bishop of Rome.

"The bishops are supposed to be united in faith, but when there is division over theological issues, the argument is that the one person who can never fall away from the faith is the pope. He, in a sense, maintains the true faith and will be prevented by the Holy Spirit of 'going into error'."

So, is Pope Benedict likely to make any infallible statements? Unlikely, says Mr Walsh, who believes that the present Pope is averse to the nature of such definitions.


Add your comments on this story, using the form below.

I think the Pope did not make a mistake but made a timely call for moderate moslems to come out and denounce violence. I hope he will continue in this vein. The world cannot continue to live in fear of a few. Otherwise the radicals moslems are determined to 'kill' us into silence as shown by their killing of a nun and hence the vindication of the pope.
Angela, Tunis

The doctrine of papal infallibility is perhaps best explained as a negative protection: when defining matters of faith and morals, as universal pastor of the Catholic Church, the Pope is protected from error by the Holy Spirit. It does not make him an oracle or a prophet, and it does not imply a power to add to the content of divine revelation, which Catholics hold to have ended with the death of the last apostle. Infallibility should also be clearly distinguished from impeccability, which is the impossibility of sinning; Catholics believe in papal infallibility, not impeccability.
Francis, Oxford, UK

As an Atheist - I find this whole discussion laughable, irrellevant and sad. This type of warped reasoning has no place in the 21st century. More efforts should be made to marginalise all religiuos groups until they sit firmly on the mythology shelves.
Smellyoldgit, Up North

Infallible or not that issue only concerns Catholic people, I dont thiink it is fair because when the Catholic church make a comment it is addressed to their own people, then let us speak ! I wonder why if muslim leaders say in an open way about killing non believers of Mahoma nobody reacts !
Rocio Nieves, Belgium

There is only one 'Holy Father' (John 17:11) and He is GOD. No man who has ever lived, apart from Jesus Christ of Nzareth, is infallible and has never sinned. It is blasphemy to say that one human is the voice/spokesperson/mediator of GOD on earth. The head of the Roman Church is a human just like us and fallible. The Bible says that 'If we say that we have not sinned, we make him [GOD] a liar, and his word is not in us (1 John 1:10). Take your pick!
Susanna Matthan, Billinghay, Lincolnshire

Does all this sound a bit like fundamentalism to any else out there? Or is it just me?
Bob , Sheffield

The pope is only human. The notion that he is infallible or without fault is a danger to societies that foolishly follow him and catholicism, as it is with any other religion and religious leaders.
Jamie, Cambridge

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