What does it mean to say that the pope is infallible?

The idea of the infallibility of the pope was defined at the first Vatican Council in 1869. The Council was trying to describe the teaching authority of the pope at a time when the pope’s temporal power over the papal states gave way to Italy’s desire for unification. Rome was the last preserve of the pope’s temporal power and this city fell into the hands of the Italian army even as the Vatican Council met.

For many years thereafter the pope was considered a “prisoner of the Vatican,” refusing to set foot in any other part of Italy in protest of the occupation of Rome. Yet during these same years the pope’s spiritual and moral authority grew. The definition of papal infallibility undoubtedly contributed to this growth in spiritual prestige. Due to the embattled situation of the church in its primal diocese, the bishops of the first Vatican Council dispersed without ever formally bringing the Council to a close, or developing an understanding of the relationship of papal authority to that of the bishops and entire people of God.

Sometimes exaggerated claims have been made with respect to papal infallibility, stating that the pope must be considered free from error in any statement he makes. Cardinal Gibbons of Baltimore, who had been the youngest bishop attending the first Vatican Council, once responded to the question “Is the pope infallible in all things?” by declaring, “In my last visit with him he called me Jibbons.”

The actual definition is quite limited. It declares that when the pope teaches with all authority as the leader of the church, he is prevented from proclaiming an error in the areas of faith and morals. When the pope speaks in any less authoritative way, his statements are not considered infallible. Since the declaration took place in 1870, only one papal pronouncement seems to have met this criterion: the teaching of Pope Pius XII about the Assumption of Mary.

Infallibility is not a personal power but rather belongs to the office of pope as leader of the whole church. It is not absolute but is conditioned by scripture (the pope may not teach anything contrary to the Word of God) and by the need to consult the faith of the entire church. In the case of the Assumption, Pius XII polled the bishops throughout the world to verify that this was indeed a universal belief of the church.

Papal infallibility has become an obstacle Catholics encounter in their dialogue with other Christian Churches. John Paul II admitted the dilemma posed by the present understanding of papal primacy and infallibility in his encyclical “Ut Unum Sint,” and has invited Protestant as well as Catholic leaders to join in a reinterpretation of these teachings that will serve to foster unity rather than hinder it. Within the church, authority must always been seen in the context of a power to serve rather than control and to serve especially a unity in faith and love among Christians.