Friday, October 15, 2010

Papal Infallibility and That Funny Phrase, "Ex Cathedra"

I was asked about papal infallibility the other day, because of course I am the family Catholic. Actually I'm one of the few Catholics in my circle of friends and family. Sometimes it feels like I'm supposed to have over 2000 years of religious history at the ready at all times. I must remind myself it's an honor, not a burden.

Luckily I had a wee bit of info in my peanut-like brain to offer on the spot, but promised to find out more- such as "When was the last time a pope spoke infallibly?" That question arose after I informed the questioner that he doesn't speak infallibly all the time. He cannot declare "That restaurant on the corner of Main and Sciocco Street makes the best pizza in all of Rome!" and it is infallibly so- even if they do use fresh oregano and five cheese types. Nope. Doesn't work like that.

But before you can discuss papal infallibility, guess you gotta establish papal authority.

Matt. 16: 18-19 "And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven."

To learn more about this passage and to read about the Aramaic vs. Greek translation of the word "rock," go here. I hear tell that some Protestants aren't satisfied with the Catholic interpretation of Peter's name and this will explain our position.

Matt. 28:18-20 "Then Jesus approached and said to them, 'All power in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age.'"

Luke 22: 31 "Simon, Simon, behold Satan has demanded to sift all of you like wheat, but I have prayed that your own faith may not fail; and once you have turned back, you must strengthen your brothers."

But this post's purpose isn't to prove papal authority, it's to explain papal infallibility.

The Pope only speaks infallibly when he speaks ex cathedra which is Greek for "from the chair." He's not speaking as himself, but from his position as official shepherd of the church, as Peter's successor. And it's only on matters of faith and morals. (Take a peep at your Catechism 891 if you want to read some official type verbiage.)

Yes, God can use humans, even sinful ones (and who of us isn't), to do His work.

Matt. 23: 2-3 "The Scribes and Pharisees have taken their seat on the chair (cathedras in Greek) of Moses. Therefore, do and observe all things whatsoever they tell you, but do not follow their example. For they preach but they do not practice."

But Jesus assures us that The Holy Spirit will be here to guide us until the end of the world.

John 16: 13-14 "But when he comes, the Spirit of truth, he will guide you to all truth. He will not speak on his own, but he will speak what he hears, and will declare to you the things that are coming. He will take from what is mine and declare it to you."

Matt. 28: 19-20 "Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always until the end of the age."

Oh, and the question of the day- when was the last time a pope spoke ex cathedra?
It was Pope Pius XII in 1950 when he defined Mary's Assumption into Heaven. He, of course, wasn't declaring anything new. He was simply setting it down as official dogma. Click here to read my blog post about why dogma isn't a dirty word.

Useful Links:

Pope Pius XII's official statement on Mary's assumption at EWTN's library
Interesting thread on Catholic Answers
Article at the Vatican web site on infallibility


  1. Well researched post! If you don't already, you should think about teaching Catechism. St John Vianney, when asked by a woman what the one thing she should do for the Church was,responded, "Teach the Catechism to the little children!" It's a great way to pass on your knowledge of the faith, and do God's work at the same time.

  2. Thank you very much! :)
    My parish was looking for someone to teach the 6th Grade Bible class. I nearly volunteered, but worried I wouldn't be qualified or that the kids wouldn't want to listen to me. Maybe I worry too much. :p