What is the doctrine of Infallibility?
When has it been used?
Infallibility is a positive perfection, ruling out the possibility of error and entailing necessarily a central
fidelity to the Christian revelation in the doctrine taught and accepted by the church.
Infallibility, in Christian theology, the doctrine that in matters of faith and morals the church, both in
teaching and in believing, is protected from substantive error by divine dispensation. The doctrine is
generally associated with the Roman Catholic church. The doctrine is widely rejected by Protestants on the
grounds that only God can be described as infallible.
Roman Catholic theology asserts that the entire church is infallible and therefore cannot err in matters of
faith when, from bishops to laity, it shows universal agreement in matters of faith and morals. Only the
following persons in the church-those who hold its highest teaching office-are believed to proclaim
Christian doctrine infallibly:
(1) the entire body of bishops in union with the pope, the bishop of Rome, when it teaches with moral
(2) an ecumenical council that receives papal approval; and
(3) under certain conditions, the pope alone.
According to the definition promulgated in 1870 by the First Vatican Council the pope exercises an
infallible teaching office only when
(1) he speaks ex cathedra, that is, in his official capacity as pastor and teacher;
(2) he speaks with the manifest intention of binding the entire church to acceptance; and
(3) the matter pertains to faith or morals taught as a part of divine revelation handed down from apostolic
times. The pope is never considered infallible in his personal or private views. Since the middle of the 19th
century, only two ex cathedra pronouncements have been made in the Roman Catholic church: the
definition of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception in 1854 by Pope Pius IX, and the definition of the
Assumption of the Virgin in 1950 by Pope Pius XII.
Infallibility is not regarded by its adherents as something miraculous or as a kind of clairvoyance. Rather, it
is considered a grace, or divine gift, that is biblically and theologically grounded. Proponents point to many
scriptural passages, such as the farewell discourses in John, especially the promise of the Spirit of truth (see
John 14:17; 15:26; 16:13). They hold that the church derives this gift from God, who alone is the ultimate
source of infallibility. The matters subject to infallibility are doctrines rooted in Scripture and in the ancient
traditions of the church, neither of which can be contradicted; thus, novel doctrines and other innovations
are believed to be excluded. Infallibility is therefore seen as a gift that is to be exercised with the utmost
care in the service of the gospel.