The pope is infallible when declaring the truth of dogma under conditions that have been applied very strictly. The definition given at the First Vatican Council clearly implies those conditions:
When the Roman Pontiff speaks ex cathedra, that is, when in exercising his office as shepherd and teacher of all Christians he defines with his supreme apostolic authority that a doctrine on faith and morals is to be held by the whole Church, through the divine assistance promised him in the person of Saint Peter, he enjoys that infallibility with which the divine Redeemer wished to endow his Church in defining a doctrine on faith and morals. (Vatican Council I: DS 3074)
The continued life and growth of the Church demands the guarantee that she will teach the truth. The Protestants reject papal and conciliar infallibility even as they argue about biblical inerrancy which addresses practically the same concern for truth, although the ambiguity of interpretation may confuse the issue. Concern for the truth of the Bible cannot ignore the need for authorized and authentic interpretation of Revelation by the Church.
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Infallibility, however, is not to be generalized to all the pope’s statements, just as it must not be confused with impeccability. The pope is human and can sin like all of us. He can also be mistaken about things. Two saints illustrate the latter point.
In his letter to the Galatians, St. Paul recounts a dispute he had with St. Peter:
But when Cephas [Greek for “rock,” Christ’s new and symbolic name for Simon bar Jonah] came to Antioch I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. For before certain men came from James, he ate with the Gentiles; but when they came he drew back and separated himself, fearing the circumcision party. And with him the rest of the Jews acted insincerely, so that even Barnabas was carried away by their insincerity. (Gal. 2:11-13)
Perhaps St. Peter thought the issue could be postponed until the Church was strong enough to overcome internal tensions. Maybe he thought ambiguity was called for in the current circumstances. It is clear, however, that St. Paul was correct in seeing the scandal thus given to the Gentile Christians and foreseeing greater problems later. The important thing for us to see in the situation is that the man Jesus chose as his Vicar for the Church could be mistaken in his actions.
St. Gregory the Great has a similar and much clearer explanation of papal fallibility.
In the second of his famous Dialogues, he tells the story of the holy abbot Equitius, a tremendous preacher who was not a priest. A nobleman named Felix asked him, in the words of St. Gregory, “how he dared to preach, since he was not in holy orders and did not have permission from the Bishop of Rome under whose jurisdiction he was.”
Equitius said he had received a personal revelation and commission to preach. “Since that day I could not be silent about God even if I wished.”
The issue was not resolved there. The clergy of Rome protested about him to the pope.
In words of flattery that corrupt those who listen to their charms, they said to the Pope, “Who is this rustic who presumes authority to preach? …If it so please you, let an order be issued for him to come to Rome where he will learn to understand the discipline of the Church.”
The pope gave his consent to the request, because, says St. Gregory, “Flattery, if it is not immediately cast from the mind, easily captivates the soul of one who is preoccupied with a multitude of affairs.”
In the event, Equitius did not go to Rome, although the pope sent Julian, a prelate and apparently a clerical muscleman, to bring the abbot in. When Julian and Equitius met, after the abbot had finished his labors harvesting hay, the prelate was too tired to go back to Rome the same afternoon. Equitius was all for going at once and warned Julian, “If we do not go today, tomorrow will be too late.”
And so it was. A special messenger came the next day to Julian to tell him the pope had reversed his order. The pontiff had a vision that warned him away from troubling Equitius. In his name, the messenger asked for Equitius’ prayers and said to him, “The Holy Father wishes to spare you the fatigue of this journey.”
St. Gregory, who was himself pope at the time, told his disciple Peter to “mark well” how God protects his own. Peter, unfailingly ingenuous in the conversations with St. Gregory, says to the saint, “I am surprised that the great Pope could have been misled about so great a saint.”
Our saint and doctor of the Church replies:
Why are you surprised, Peter, that we who are but human make mistakes? Have you forgotten that it was David’s reliance on the untruthful words of a servant that caused him to pronounce sentence against the innocent son of Jonathan? (2 Kings 16:3; 19:27) And David had the spirit of prophecy. But, since David did this, we can be sure that in God’s secret justice he acted justly, even though we cannot see the justice of it with our human reason. Why should we be surprised, then, if we who are not prophets are sometimes led astray by deceitful men? An important point to consider is that the mind of a superior is distracted by a world of cares, and once the attention is preoccupied with a variety of matters it becomes less observant of details. One who is occupied with a multitude of affairs is all the more liable to be misled in regard to any one of them.”
All of us who are sometimes surprised by what comes out of the corridors of the Vatican should listen to this and say with the disciple Peter, “That is very true.”