The infallible popes?

A couple of news items came up the last couple of days regarding the Catholic dogma of


papal infallibility (see far below). What do most Catholics think about their church’s claim that their leader is infallible? What do evangelicals think about it?

The doctrine of papal infallibility wasn’t officially defined until 1870 by the First Vatican Council. Historians consider the declaration to be a reaction to the loss of the Papal States to the Italian national forces led by Victor Emmanuel. If Pope Pius IX could no longer rule an earthly kingdom at least he could assert his preeminence over the spiritual one. Testimonies of the political machinations and cloakroom arm-twisting used to secure the council’s vote would be better left unread by the credulous faithful.*

Catholics claim the pope is infallible only when he speaks ex cathedra, from the chair of St. Peter, on issues of faith and morals in his capacity as the Vicar (supreme representative) of Christ. But it’s not exactly clear which papal statements are infallible. Catholic theologians can only agree on two: Pius IX’s 1854 declaration that Mary was conceived without sin and Pius XII’s 1950 declaration that Mary was physically assumed into Heaven (evangelicals don’t believe in either of these anti-Biblical teachings). No one is willing to go out on a limb beyond that. One would think the current pope, Francis, could sit in the chair of Peter and, guided by the Holy Spirit, infallibly discern exactly which papal statements were infallible.

Were the popes infallible when they instigated the bloody crusades? The merciless Inquisition? How about the forced “conversions” and baptisms of millions at the point of a sword? The slaughter of Protestant “heretics”? The systematic persecution of Jews throughout Europe? The condemnation of Galileo? Selling indulgences and ecclesiastical positions? The use of forgeries to support claims for the supremacy of the bishop of Rome? The condemnation of all forms of democratic government? The absolute denial of religious freedom? Catholics are quick to reply, “Obviously the popes weren’t acting infallibly when they instigated or supported those activities.” Hmmm. How convenient; a doctrine that’s more about the church’s theoretical claim to privilege and absolute authority than it is about the papacy’s shameful and embarrassing track record.

What do evangelicals who embrace Catholicism as Christian think about that church’s claim to papal infallibility? The Bible contrasts sharply with Catholic teaching on many points. Regarding salvation, the Bible teaches salvation is by God’s grace through faith in Jesus Christ alone but the infallible popes have always taught salvation is by the grace dispensed through their sacraments followed by obedience to the Ten Commandments and church law. Either the Bible is wrong or the infallible popes are wrong. They cannot both be right, evangelical brothers and sisters.

In the second article below, the writer anticipates the embarrassing dogma of papal infallibility “will quietly be ignored until it is nothing but a quaint remnant of history.” The Catholic church will never formally disavow this troublesome claim but we’ll probably never see another papal decree proclaimed as infallible ever again.


Infallibility – Hans Kung appeals to Pope Francis

Is the Pope infallible? What Catholics believe and why

* “How the Pope Became Infallible: Pius IX and the Politics of Persuasion” (1981) by August Hasler


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