What does Papal Infallibility Mean?
Papal Infallibility refers to the Catholic doctrine that the Holy Spirit preserves the Pope from any possibility of error when he speaks officially, as the head of the Church, and makes a pronouncement of dogma with regards to faith and morals.
That’s quite a mouthful, and when one looks at that explanation, it’s no wonder that this is one of the most widely misunderstood doctrines of the Church. There are a few points of explanation which should make it a lot clearer.
1. Papal Infallibility is an extension of the infallibility of the Church itself. Infallibility only applies to the Pope insofar as he exercises his duty as the rightful head of the Church.
2. It does not have any further implications on the Pope. The Pope could be wrong about anything else he says, and he could be a horrible, sinful person. There are definitely some Popes who were (and even the best popes were still sinners, just look at St. Peter). The important part is that the Holy Spirit protects the Church, even when her Pope fails.
The Infallibility of the Church in Scripture
There are many instances in the New Testament where we can see evidence of the protection of the Holy Spirit which will keep the Church in the truth. My favourite is Acts 15:28, where the Apostles settle the question of whether one must observe the Jewish law in order to be Christian: “For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things.”
This is perhaps the clearest use of infallible teaching. The Bishops as a collective decide what should be believed by the Church, and thus it becomes to teaching of the Church, until the end of time. Notice that the Apostles are confident enough in their infallible authority, that they invoke the Holy Spirit, essentially telling the faithful that their pronouncement is made with the full weight of the Word of God.
If one logically examines the content of, for example, the great commission, in Matthew 28, one will also discover evidence of the Infallibility of the Church. Jesus gives the Apostles their mission to preach the truth, and he ends by giving his promise to remain with them until the end of the age. By this we know that the commission is not meant to end with the Apostles, but to continue with their successors until the end of time. Jesus would not give an order that was impossible to carry out, yet without divine assistance, the successors of the Apostles would eventually be bound to make mistakes, and therefore teach something other than the truth. The only way the truth will be proclaimed until the end of the age, is if this commission is enabled by the very Word of God (Jesus himself), and the Spirit of Truth.
A whole lot more Scriptural evidence can be found in the Catholic Encyclopedia entry which I linked at the bottom.
Almost all objections to papal infallibility ask how the pope can be infallible if some popes were very sinful, if there are contradictions in what different popes said, if popes said things that are now scientifically disproven, or similar things.
All of these objections stem from misunderstanding what infallibility is, and its limits. As mentioned above, the sinfulness of the man has nothing to do with infallibility. The pope is only the tool which God may use for his Church. Similarly, while one may find many contradictions or falsehoods in what a pope says, there are no such contradictions in the official pronouncements of Church doctrine. Remember that it is not the man who is infallible, but the Church, and he is only able to make infallible statements when acting as its head.
Some people will assert that Church doctrine has changed many times, and therefore papal infallibility must be false. This misunderstanding can come from two things. Firstly, many people are confused about the difference between doctrine (things that have been revealed by God and must be believed by Catholics) and other teachings. In particular disciplines (purely man-made rules of the Church) like priestly celibacy have changed and are practiced differently in different rites. These are in no way claimed to be infallible, and it is completely licit for them even to differ between rites (for example the eastern rites often ordain married men to the priesthood while the Roman rite does not).
Significance of the Infallibility of the Church
On this point, I simply can’t say it better than the Catholic Encyclopedia:
“The purpose for which Christ endowed the Church with infallibility was not to prevent the occurrence of schisms and heresies, which He foresaw and foretold, but to take away all justification for their occurrence; men were left free to disrupt the unity of Faith inculcated by Christ in the same way as they were left free to disobey any other commandment, but heresy was intended to be no more justifiable objectively than homicide or adultery.”
As Catholics, we need to take seriously both the gift and the responsibility we have received in the Magisterium.
God bless you all, and God bless our amazing Pope Benedict XVI!