“Papal Infallability” Examined…

I wrote this paper a year ago. I stumbled upon it today and thought I would make it available in this context. Warning: this is very long.  

            This exercise attempts to debunk the dogma of papal infallibility. Though the task is daunting, with careful consideration, the reader should arrive at the conclusion that papal infallibility is a belief which fails to correspond with historical reality and should therefore be dismissed as false teaching. In order to properly discuss the topic at hand, it is essential that first the dogma be defined. Following the definition, the second section will discuss the historical context in which the Roman Catholic Church first set forth the teaching. In the section following, the author will present popular Protestant attacks on infallibility and explain their validity or lack thereof. The final section will be an investigation into the history of the Roman Catholic Church to discover any papal activity which would undermine or present problems for the dogma.

Papal Infallibility Defined

            Before discussing the historical setting around which the teaching became dogma, it is essential that the terms within the discussion be defined. A refined definition and understanding of the dogma is essential to understanding the issues involved. Norman Geisler quotes the official church dogma as such:

We, adhering faithfully to the tradition received from the beginning of the Christian faith… teach and explain that the dogma has been divinely revealed, that the Roman Pontiff, when he speaks ex cathedra, that is, when carrying out the duty of pastor and teacher of all Christians in accord with his supreme apostolic authority he explains a doctrine of faith or morals to be held by the universal Church, through the divine assistance promised him in blessed Peter, operates with that infallibility with which the divine Redeemer wished that His church be instructed in defining a doctrine on faith and morals; and so such definitions of the Roman Pontiff from himself, but not from the consensus of the Church, are unalterable.[1] 

In fairness to the Roman Catholics, the dogma does not state that everything said by the pope is infallible, but rather that his words, when speaking in his official position as successor of Peter and pastor of the Universal Church, are infallible.[2] In the 1960’s, the Second Vatican Council further delineated this dogma by stating,

This loyal submission of the will and intellect must be given, in a special way, to the authentic teaching authority of the Roman Pontiff, even when he does not speak ex cathedra in such wise, indeed, that his supreme teaching authority be acknowledged with respect, and sincere assent be given to decisions made by him.[3]

 Historical Context

            By 1864, the liberalism of Tubingen had crept into the Catholic Church as well as into protestant churches. More and more widespread among all who claimed to be Bible believers was a greater belief in the scientific method and its findings than in the beliefs held by the church throughout the ages. Pius IX stated before he had hardly taken office, “When we, to the extreme grief of our soul, beheld a horrible tempest stirred up by so many erroneous opinions, and the dreadful and never-enough-to-be-lamented mischief which redound to Christian people from such errors.”[4]Thus, the Syllabus of 1864 was comprised of “80 errors which Catholics everywhere must join with the pope in anathematizing.”[5] This document anathemized many things that present-day Christians should universally oppose; but it also condemned “separation of church and state, non-sectarian schools, and toleration of varieties in religion.”[6] Gonzalez notes that among the errors to be condemned was number 77 which stated, “That in our time it is no longer convenient that the Catholic religion be the only religion of the state, or that every other religion be excluded.”[7] The syllabus ended by repudiating the liberalism which advanced the idea that “the Roman Pontiff can and ought to reconcile himself to, and agree with, progress, liberalism, and civilization as lately introduced.”[8] Since Pius wanted to destroy liberalism before it destroyed the entire Romanist Church, he began organization for an Ecumenical Council to convene as soon as possible in order to discuss the dangers of liberalism as portrayed in the syllabus. Because historical literature had widely become accessible, the hierarchy of the Church was gradually losing its power. Coulton, a Catholic scholar, notes: “People were now reading for themselves, Rome’s censures had lost efficacy, and it was found that the progress of literature could only be brought under control by an increase of authority.”[9] From the perspective of Pius, the authority of Scripture had lost authority to that of tradition, which then must lose authority to the Papacy.[10] So Pius IX, in March of 1865, formed a committee of “five cardinals, eight bishops, and a secretary” to consider “the advisability of and opportuneness of holding an Ecumenical Council at an early date.”[11] This commission sent letters and documents to all of the major figureheads of the Romanist Church to ask their opinions concerning the contents of the Syllabus of Errors and the feasibility of convening an Ecumenical Council. The response was so overwhelmingly positive that on December 8, 1869 the First Vatican Council convened.[12] On July 18th, 1870 the council ratified the dogma of papal infallibility. On that day, 533 voted in favor with only 2 opposing.[13] 60 withheld their votes to avoid undermining the pope, but were not willing to go on record in favor of infallibility.[14] Consequently, the two in the minority recast their votes as soon as the tabulation was final in order that the vote might have the appearance of unanimity.[15]

            Shortly after the council reached its conclusion, Johann Joseph Ignaz von Dollinger, the most renowned and respected church historian of his time, advanced the rebuttal.[16] In 1869, Dollinger wrote The Pope and the Council, a work which debunked the dogma both historically and theologically. Dollinger’s main points of contention regarded the cases of Honorius and Vigilius (these cases will be revisited later in this exercise). Dollinger’s archbishop read the work and confronted him, claiming that there was only one Catholic Church. Dollinger responded, “But they have made a new one…As a Christian, as a theologian, as a historian, and as a citizen, I cannot accept this doctrine.”[17] Dollinger was soon excommunicated. Other professors and historians continued the attacks on the council’s decision, opposing the dogma openly. But Dollinger, however, did not desire to “initiate schism.”[18] As a result, he withdrew from the debate. However, followers of his teachings withdrew not from the debate and formed the Old Catholic church, which continues in small part to the present.[19] Pius and the Romanists had lost authority; they desperately wanted to regain it and therefore propagated the dogma regardless of significant historical issues clearly delineated by their leading historian. One author summarized the council well: “The scholars opposed infallibility because they knew it was not true; the administrators supported it because they believed they needed it.”[20]


            Many Protestants, who repudiate the office of the papacy on general biblical principles, are appalled further by the Romanist claims of infallibility. Typically Protestants detest the catholic view of apostolic succession; therefore, they rebut the claim that Peter was the first Pope. On the basis of their aversion to the papal system in general, many Protestants make misguided, miscalculated, and inaccurate attacks on the dogma of infallibility. In a subsequent section, this exercise will address papal infallibility from a reference frame more sympathetic to the Roman Church. However, before infallibility can be properly refuted, it is essential to debunk the improper accusations of certain Protestants, and thus maintain credibility and a sense of academic fairness.

            Many well-intentioned Protestants attempt to attack the dogma of papal infallibility by exposing the depravity of the papacy throughout the history of the Catholic Church. Many look to the ungodly lives of John XII and Alexander VI in order to conclude that the papacy cannot be infallible. The dogma of infallibility is inevitably linked to papal authority in general; but as the reader will see in the subsequent section, the credibility of the dogma can be defeated within a Catholic reference frame. One author argues concerning infallibility,

The character and career of Alexander VI afford an argument against the theory of the divine institution and vicarial prerogatives of the papacy which the doubtful exegesis of our Lord’s words to Peter ought not to be allowed to counteract. If we leave out all the wicked popes of the 9th and 10th centuries, forget for a moment the cases of Honorius and other popes charged with heresy, and put aside the offending popes of the Renaissance period and all the bulls which sin against common reason, such as Innocent VIII.’s bull against witchcraft, Alexander is enough to forbid that theory. Could God commit his Church for 12 years to such a monster?[21]          

In summation, the author believes that a pope unworthy of apostleship is a pope unworthy of infallibility. While the immorality of certain popes should cause thinking people to wonder if the papacy is a legitimate institution at all (considering that the Pope is called “Holy Father”), immorality and debauchery alone are not sufficient grounds for a catholic mind to dismiss infallibility. Speaking of infallibility, one author writes,

There has been much misunderstanding on this issue, particularly by Protestants. This is not to say that the pope is personally without sin. It has nothing to do with his personal character and actions. It only states that when he speaks officially in the realm of morals and doctrine, his pronouncements are without error.[22]

The Catholic dogma expresses nothing concerning the moral lifestyle of the pope or anything that he says unofficially. The dogma does not assert that the Pope is perfect, only that his official proclamations from the chair of Peter are such. Catholic responses to accounts of openly depraved popes are amazing. Rather than condemning the papacy or even certain popes for their wicked lifestyles, the Roman Church twists reality so that the wicked actions of the popes serve as testimonies to God’s grace in allowing the church to maintain pure doctrine throughout years of wicked leadership. Note the following example of such thought:

In spite of Alexander, the purity of the Church’s teaching continued unharmed. It was as if Providence wanted to show that men may injure the Church, but that it is not in their power to destroy it. As a bad setting does not diminish the value of the precious stone, so the sinfulness of a priest cannot do any essential detriment either to his dispensation of her sacraments or to the doctrines committed to her. Gold remains gold, whether dispensed by clean hands or unclean. The papal office is exalted far above the personality of its occupants, and cannot lose its dignity or gain essential worth by the worthiness or unworthiness of its occupants. Peter sinned deeply, and yet the supreme pastoral office was committed to him. It was from this standpoint that Pope Leo the Great declared that the dignity of St. Peter is not lost, even in an unworthy successor. Petri dignitas etiam in indigno haeredo non deficit.[23]

From the Catholic perspective, the church and the papacy are infallible. No matter how vile and wicked its leaders, its doctrine is protected by God’s sovereignty.


      The dogma asserts that the pope’s teachings are infallible when he speaks ex cathedra, explaining “a doctrine of faith or morals to be held by the universal Church.” Since the previously discussed Protestant arguments are debunked easily within a Catholic reference frame, this section will discuss major problems for papal infallibility from church history. “According to the principle: Si falsus in uno, falsus in omnibus,” Schaff says, “it (infallibility) stands or falls with a single official error.”[24] If history proves that one particular pope contradicted others on a given issue, then papal infallibility crumbles. If history proves a particular pope was condemned by a counsel, it would substantiate Dollinger’s claim that the pope was never the final authority on matters of doctrine. Dollinger writes,

For thirteen centuries an incomprehensible silence on this fundamental article reigned throughout the whole Church and her literature. None of the ancient confessions of faith, no catechism, none of the patristic writings composed for the instruction of the people, contain a syllable about the pope, still less any hint that all certainty of faith and doctrine depends on him. For the first thousand years of church history not one single question of doctrine was finally decided by the pope.[25]

Church history reveals that major doctrinal disagreements were settled by church councils, not by papal decree. This assumption can be proven from the supposed beginning of the papacy, Apostle Peter himself. At the Jerusalem council (Acts 15), Peter spoke eloquently and beautifully that salvation by grace was available to the Jews without their keeping the law. It is interesting that the pastor of the Jerusalem Church, James (not Peter) gave the final opinion which sealed the council’s decision.[26] They shook hands, showing equality and partnership. Without systematically analyzing every subsequent church council and the issues involved therein, this section will offer two significant accounts from medieval church history which present major problems for the dogma in question. It should be understood that the following examples do not exhaustively cover the potential historical issues surrounding the dogma; but these are the most major and significant problems to infallibility.  

The Vigilius Problem

            The Papacy of Vigilius spanned roughly 20 years from 537-555.[27] His almost 20 years were marked by uncertainty and weak leadership. The wife of Justinian I, Theodora, greatly supported the Monophysite heresy. She worked out a scheme whereby she would remove Silverius from the papal seat and replace him with Vigilius, who at that time supported the view that Jesus was indeed only part God. Because the Goths had just been driven out of Rome, the perfect opportunity arose for Theodora to accuse Silverius of treason. She forged several letters from Silverius to the Goths in order that he could be removed on the grounds of his treasonous acts. Shortly thereafter, Silverius was exiled and “was divested of the insignia of his exalted rank.”[28] Shortly after Vigilius began his papacy, he changed his view on the nature of Christ and began to support the language of Chalcedon.[29] The Council of Chalcedon’s Christology is delineated as follows:

We, then, following the holy Fathers, all with one consent, teach men to confess one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, the same perfect in Godhead and also perfect in manhood; truly God and truly man, of a reasonable [rational] soul and body; consubstantial [coessential] with the Father according to the Godhead, and consubstantial with us according to the Manhood; in all things like unto us, without sin; begotten before all ages of the Father according to the Godhead, and in these latter days, for us and for our salvation, born of the Virgin Mary, the Mother of God, according to the Manhood; one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, Only-begotten, to be acknowledged in two natures, inconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably; the distinction of natures being by no means taken away by the union, but rather the property of each nature being preserved, and concurring in one Person and one Subsistence, not parted or divided into two persons, but one and the same Son, and only begotten, God the Word, the Lord Jesus Christ, as the prophets from the beginning [have declared] concerning him, and the Lord Jesus Christ himself has taught us, and the Creed of the holy Fathers has handed down to us.[30]

Shortly thereafter, Justinian published a document which condemned the writings of Theodore of Mopseustia, Theodorest of Cyrus, and Ibas Edessa (known as the three chapters). These men supported Antiochene Christology, which was upheld at the Chalcedon Council.[31]

This document pleased the Eastern constituency; but those bishops in both Northern Italy and Africa strongly opposed. Although the Three Chapters were correct on Christology, their writings contained other theological errors which were held by many to be heresies. In order to pacify the Monophysites, the chapters were to be repudiated on their theological weaknesses in general, not necessarily because of their teaching on Christology. For this reason, the bishops of Africa and Northern Italy protested. The combination of his poor papal leadership and weak theological brain left the pope in a state of confusion. Justinian then summoned him to visit Constantinople.[32] What follows is not a part of church history with which most Catholics are eager to deal – a pope who does not seem to know what to believe and a Church council who condemns him as a heretic.  Schaff states concerning Vigilius that he “favored either party according to circumstances, and was excommunicated for awhile by the dyophysite Africans, under the lead of Facundus of Hermiane. He subscribed the condemnation of the Three Chapters in Constantinople, a.d. 548, but refused to subscribe the second edict of the, emperor against the Three Chapters (551), and afterwards defended them.”[33] Shortly thereafter, Justinian called for the Fifth Ecumenical Council to condemn the Three Chapters. They condemned them, undoubtedly for their theological leanings apart from Christology, but ultimately the Christological language of Chalcedon became the official church position.[34] Vigilius still struggled with great difficulty in deciding what he believed. One author summarizes his view on the Fifth Ecumenical Council as such: “Vigilius at first protested against the Council, which, in spite of repeated invitations, he had not attended, and by which he was suspended; but he afterwards signified his adherence.”[35] Justinian allowed him to return to Rome; however, he died on the journey.

            Part of the problem with papal infallibility is that this particular pope was too weak to have a theological position on the given issue. The following is a mess for those who hold to infallibility: a pope who is a pawn for an emperor and consequently changes his mind 4 times on an issue that is clearly doctrinal.[36]   

The Honorius Problem

           In an attempt to neutralize a dissatisfied monophysite following among the Syrians, the Emperor Heraclius attempted to compromise with them theologically, believing he could pacify the monophysites by adopting monothelitism. Apparently Sophronius saw the inherent theological problem and therefore brought it to the attention of Sergius who then wrote letters to Pope Honorius concerning the issue.[37] Honorius’ response is clear; he supported both monophysitism and monothelitism. He responded in writing, “Therefore we confess one will (θέλημα, voluntas) of our Lord Jesus Christ.”[38] Honorius is further quoted, “There being only one principle of action or one direction of the will in Christ, and therefore there must be one will also.”[39] Honorius clearly contradicted Catholic dogma in his writings. The issue becomes one of definition regarding the term ex cathedra. Some Catholics will reinterpret and twist the words of Honorius to make him appear orthodox; others simply hold that he was not speaking ex cathedra.[40] Attwater maintains that these letters do not affect infallibility because the pope was not speaking ex cathedra; “his reply was not a clear statement for the acceptance of the whole Church.”[41] Schaff disagrees however, and holds that since the correspondence occurred with other church leaders (Sergius, Cyrus, and Sophronius), that the pope was speaking authoritatively.[42]

            Despite the attempts of some to reinterpret the views of Honorius, the actions of the Sixth, Seventh, and Eighth Ecumenical Councils leave little doubt that the Roman Church considered him a heretic. Attwater records that the Sixth Ecumenical Council “condemned Monothelitism and anathematized by name the memory of Sergius and others, and of Honorius, ‘pope of elder Rome,’ who had followed the wicked opinions of Sergius and the rest.”[43] Schaff points out further,

But his successor, Leo II., who translated the acts of the sixth Council from Greek into Latin, saw that he could not save the honor of Honorius without contradicting the verdict of the council in which the papal delegates had taken part; and therefore he expressly condemned him in the strongest language, both in a letter to the Greek emperor and in a letter to the bishops of Spain, as a traitor to the Roman church for trying to subvert her immaculate fate. Not only so, but the condemnation of the unfortunate Honorius was inserted in the confession of faith which every newly-elected pope had to sign down to the eleventh century, and which is embodied in the Liber Diurnus, i.e. the official book of formulas of the Roman church for the use of the papal curia.[44]

Pope Leo II saw the actions of Honorius as an attempt to “subvert her immaculate fate.” By another pope’s admission, the letters of Honorius did indeed stand ex cathedra, as his letters were an attempt to speak concerning the faith of the Catholic Church.


            Pius IX needed authority to fight the pervading liberalism of his time. He attempted to revise history by proclaiming that the pope’s rulings are infallible. The historical evidence was then clearly presented by the most respected historian of the time, but yet Pius ignored his findings and sought authority outside Scripture. The result was the dogma of infallibility held by the First Vatican Council.

After reviewing the historical evidence available, this author concludes that in light of the given evidence the Roman Catholic Church now has two clear choices in order to regain a certain amount of credibility. First, it could attack the authority of the church councils which condemned Honorius. This action seems to be its only choice since its own theologians and historians record both the views of Honorius (as delineated in his letters) and the subsequent condemnation from the church council. Attacking the authority of church councils would undermine the entirety of Roman Church history and practices, but would salvage the dogma of infallibility. Second, it could repeal the dogma of infallibility. Since the council and the decrees of the pope cannot seem to correspond by any normal techniques of language interpretation, it is only logical to assume that one of them is wrong, and therefore fallible.

             On a theological note from a decisively non-Catholic reference frame, it should be understood that any pope who preaches another gospel besides the good news, which can be read freely in the Scriptures, is not only fallible, but also anathema (cf. Galatians 1:8). This point alone places every pope throughout the Romanist existence in the same crowded category, fallible.



 [1]Norman Geisler. “The Historical Development of Roman Catholicism.” Christian Apologetics Journal Vol. 4 (Spring 2005), 52.

 [2]Williston Walker. A History of the Christian Church (New York: Scribner’s Sons, 1985), 670. 

 [3]Paul Enns. The Moody Handbook of Theology (Chicago: Moody, 1997), 530.

 [4] Albert Newman. A Manual of Church History (Philiadelphia: American Baptist Publications Society, 1903), 506.

 [5]Ibid, 506.

 [6]Walker, 523-524. 

 [7]Justo L. Gonzalez. The Story of Christianity (San Francisco: Harper, 1985), 298.

 [8]Ibid, 524. 

 [9]G. G. Coulton. Papal Infallibility (London: Faith Press, 1932), 119. 

 [10]Ibid, 119. 

 [11]Newman, 508. 

 [12]Walker, 524. 

 [13]Ibid, 525.  

 [14]Kenneth Latourette. The Nineteenth Century in Europe (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1958), 282-283. 

 [15]James North.  A History of the Church: From Pentecost to Present (Joplin, MO: College Press Publishing, 1983), 445.

 [16]Coulton, 233. 

 [17]Latourette, 285. 

 [18]Walker, 524. 

 [19]David Saxon. The Story of Christianity Class Notes (Watertown: MBBC, Fall 2006), Modern Church lecture.

[20] Moris Ashcraft. “Revelation and Biblically Authority in Eclipse.” Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary: Faith and Mission Volume 4 (Spring 1987), 10.

[21] Philip Schaff. History of the Christian Church (Oak Harbor: Logos Research Systems, Inc, 1997), n.p.

[22]North, 446. 

 [23]Schaff, n.p. 

 [24]Ibid, n.p.

[25] J.B. Rowell. “Roman but not Catholic.” Bibliotheca Sacra Volume 108 (October 1951), 449.

 [26]Schaff, n.p. 

 [27]John Farrow. Pageant of the Popes (New York: Shed and Ward, 1950), 377. 

 [28]Ibid, 36-37.

 [29]Donald Attwater. A Dictionary of the Popes (London: Burns, Oats and Washbourne, 1939), 53.  

 [30]Saxon, Lecture 4. 

 [31]Attwater, 53. 

 [32]Ibid, 53-54. 

 [33]Schaff, n.p. 

 [34]Saxon, lecture 4. 

 [35]Schaff, n.p. 


 [37]Attwater, 64-65.  

 [38]Schaff, n.p. 

 [39]Attwater, 65. 

 [40]Liberal Catholics oppose infallibility altogether; but lest Protestants think they are allies to the non-Catholic cause, it should be noted that their opposition to biblical inerrancy is closely associated with the former.

 [41]Ibid, 65. 

 [42]Schaff, n.p.  

 [43]Attwater, 65. 

 [44]Schaff, n.p.

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