Can the Pope Make Mistakes?

Among non-Catholics, one of the most controversial Catholic beliefs is that of Papal Infallibility.

For many, the idea that any sinful man (which the pope is inasmuch as all men are sinners) could be preserved from error is a tough pill to swallow. After all, the pope is not God? Did not St. Peter the first pope make many errors, including denying Christ Himself? CS Lewis once wrote:

“The real reason why I cannot be in communion with you [Catholics] is not my disagreement with this or that Roman doctrine, but that to accept your Church means, not to accept a given body of doctrine, but to accept in advance any doctrine your Church hereafter produces. It is like being asked to agree not only to what a man has said but also to what he is going to say.”

In other words, what kept CS Lewis back from becoming Catholic was not a disagreement with certain doctrines. In fact, CS Lewis’ theology has more in common with Catholicism today than his own native Anglicanism. Lewis’ problem was that Catholics holds that the pope has it within his power to proclaim doctrines and dogmas that had not been raised as such before.

For example, the Immaculate Conception was a Tradition that can be found in throughout the centuries of the Catholic Church. But up until modern historical times, there was great dispute about it. St. Thomas Aquinas, the Angelic Doctor, argues against it. (Though it should be noted that St. Thomas stated that Mary was free from all personal act of sin and was sanctified in the womb, just not from the moment of conception). Eventually, Pope Pius IX declared the Immaculate Conception to be a Dogma of the Catholic Church. The reason why we hold this to be dogmatic is because of the pope’s authority to declare things infallibly.

Does this mean that the pope cannot make mistakes?

Of course not.

The Dogmatic Constitution of the Church states “And this infallibility with which the Divine Redeemer willed His Church to be endowed in defining doctrine of faith and morals, extends as far as the deposit of Revelation extends, which must be religiously guarded and faithfully expounded. And this is the infallibility which the Roman Pontiff, the head of the college of bishops, enjoys in virtue of his office, when, as the supreme shepherd and teacher of all the faithful, who confirms his brethren in their faith,(166) by a definitive act he proclaims a doctrine of faith or morals.” (Lumen Gentium, 25)

God is infallible because God does not make mistakes. When Christ makes Peter the leader, He established Peter’s power to declare things infallibly “with the assistance of the Holy Spirit, promised to him in blessed Peter…” (ibid). But as quoted in Lumen Gentium, this infallibility is limited

It states that the pope must invoke his authority as “supreme shepherd and teacher of all the faithful.” Any private beliefs of the pope are not covered by infallibility. Even if the pope is an atheist and shares this belief with his friends, these private proclamations are not infallible. Any statement of papal infallibility must be made as statement in the office of Supreme Pontiff. To use a crude analogy, imagine you are a general and you have a friend who is a rank below you. You tell your friend to go to a location, but he protests and doesn’t want to. However, if you make clear that you are giving an order, your friend must respond to your directive not as a request but an order. In the same way, the pope must invoke his office in order for his statement to be infallible.

The second is that it must be only in the area of faith and morals. Anything that is outside of this area is outside of the purview of infallibility. This can get tricky, since faith and morals can overlap with several other areas. Issues of science, politics, and history are things that are outside of infallible statements.

The third is that the pope must declare the doctrine or dogma to be infallibly taught by virtue of his authority as pope. So for example, imagine that the pope declares as head of the Church that Catholics cannot eat meat for ALL of the Lenten season. This would be be a statement an invocation of his office and it would cover faith and morals. But he would also need to be clear that this teaching would be infallibly taught.

Now, the above example would probably never be taught infallibly. That is because papal infallibility is a tool to help explain the Sacred Deposit of Faith given to us in Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition. CS Lewis was wrong to think that the pope could make up new doctrines and dogmas. The pope can only raise up a teaching that is present in God’s revelation. The pope could not declare infallibly that Mary is the fourth person of the Trinity. He is preserved from making this kind of error.

This means that the pope can make errors outside of this limited definition of papal infallibility. For example, Pope St. John Paul II very famously visited a mosque where he kissed the Koran. While his intention may have been to show respect, as head of the Catholic Church, it was inappropriate for him to reverence a text that explicitly denies the truths of Jesus Christ. There are many people who criticized Pope Benedict the XVI for retiring instead of holding to the common tradition of remaining in office until his death? Did he make a mistake? Perhaps. But that is an issue that is outside of the question of papal infallibility.

I’ve noticed a stronger attack on saints who have been canonized recently. I believe that part of the reason for this is that when a pope canonizes a saint, it is an infallible statement because it matches the criteria above. The enemies of the Church know that if they could prove that the pope made an error in canonizing a saint, it would destroy the belief in papal infallibility.

CS Lewis was correct in that belief in papal infallibility takes great faith. But it makes sense that a Great Faith would require from us great faith.

Copyright 2023, WL Grayson

W.L. Grayson

W.L. Grayson

I am a devoutly Catholic theology teacher who loves a popular culture that often, quite frankly, hates me. I grew up absorbing every movie, TV show, comic book, science fiction novel, etc. I could find. As of today I’ve watched over 2100 movies and tv shows. They take up a huge part of my life. I don’t know that this is a good thing, but it has given me a common vocabulary to draw from in order to illustrate whatever theological point I make in class. I’ve used American Pie the song to explain the Book of Revelation (I’ll post on this some time later) and American Pie the movie to help explain Eucharist (don’t ask). The point is that the popular culture is popular for a reason. It is woven into the fabric of our lives and imaginations, for good or ill. In this blog I will attempt to bring together the things of heaven with the things of earth. Of course this goal may be too lofty for someone like me.

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