There are few things more “Catholic” in Catholicism than the pope, especially when it comes to the dogma of papal infallibility. Unfortunately, it’s also widely misunderstood.
Here are 5 common myths about papal infallibility:
Myth 1: Papal infallibility means the pope is never wrong
Truth: Papal infallibility means the pope can be infallible when he teaches a certain way, not that he is always infallible in everything he teaches all the time. He is only infallible when he, in exercising his Petrine office, intentionally teaches something definitively for the whole Church. It’s rare for popes to invoke this authority.
Myth 2: It means the pope never sins
Truth: Papal infallibility only regards doctrine, not the holiness of the pope. As our current pontiff Pope Francis is quick to humbly admit, the pope is a sinful person who is in need of God’s grace and goes to confession like everyone else.
Myth 3: It means the pope can make up new doctrines
Truth: It’s actually the teaching of the Catholic Church that divine revelation ceased with the death of the last apostle. The only thing the Church’s magisterium, which includes the pope, can do is defend, explain, and clarify the Word of God. The pope is not capable of revealing “new” truths, only correctly interpreting what God has already revealed.
Myth 4: It’s a modern invention
Truth: Yes, papal infallibility was made a dogma in the 19th century – but it had been always been believed by the Church. You can see it in the Church fathers even as early as the 2nd century in the writings of St. Irenaeus (Against Heresies, III.3)
Myth 5: It’s not in the Bible
Truth: Jesus told Peter that he was the “rock” on which He would build his Church, and that the “gates of Hades will not overcome it.” (Mt 16) If the Church is built on Peter (the successor of whom is the pope), and the Church can’t fail, then that means the Holy Spirit will not let the papacy fail. That’s the essence of papal infallibility.