Catholicism, Spain, The Papacy

Some Musings on Papal Infallibility

Pope Innocent III (r. 1198-1216).

In his work Innocent III and the Crown of Aragon: The Limits of Papal Authority, Damian Smith shares the words that Giovanni Capocci is supposed to have said to that Pope: ‘Your words are God’s words, but your works are those of the Devil.’ As Smith notes, Innocent III (d. 1216) had his supporters and critics, and while I am unfamiliar with Capocci, he was obviously a critic.[1] The book is broadly concerned with “consider[ing] how and to what extent the bishops were involved in papal government and how the pope attempted to redefine the functions and powers of the episcopate by use of those matters that were prerogatives of the Holy See”.[2]  One of the interesting observations that he makes is that Innocent III used his own authority in safeguarding that of bishops in Aragon-Catalonia in their respective dioceses.[3]  This has implications for the criticisms that came in the wake of the dogmas of papal supremacy and infallibility proclaimed at the First Vatican Council (1869-1870). 

At the beginning of the twentieth-century and not long after the dogmas were defined,  The Catholic Encyclopedia noted that, “[i]t is frequently objected by writers of the Anglican school that, by declaring the pope to possess an immediate episcopal jurisdiction over all the faithful, the Vatican Council destroyed the authority of the diocesan episcopate.”[4]  It goes on to cite the Council itself: 

“This power of the supreme pontiff in no way derogates from the ordinary immediate power of episcopal jurisdiction, in virtue of which the bishops, who, appointed by the Holy Spirit [Acts 20:28], have succeeded to the place of the Apostles as true pastors, feed and rule their several flocks, each the one which has been assigned to him: that power is rather maintained, confirmed and defended by the supreme pastor (Enchir., n. 1828).”[5]

But back to Giovanni Capocci.  Upon reading his words, my mind recalled those of Jesus in The Gospel of St. Matthew, 23:2: “…The scribes and the Pharisees have sitten on the chair of Moses. [3] All things therefore whatsoever they shall say to you, observe and do: but according to their works do ye not; for they say, and do not.”[6]  Both statements are similar in that there is a recognition of a legitimate authority to be listened to, contrasted but yet coexistent with a criticism of the actions of that authority.  In Catholic thinking, the idea that a sinful Pope would utter ‘God’s words’ is not problematic, similar to the notion that Caiaphas’ sinfulness did not disrupt his ability to prophecy by virtue of his office as High Priest (Jn. 11:46-57).[7]  This then brought my mind to two common misunderstandings of the Catholic dogma of papal infallibility: that of confusing the term impeccability with infallibility, and that of misunderstanding the scope of the pope’s infallibility.

The first is easy to clear up by defining terms.  Impeccability refers to an inability to sin, and this is not a claim that the Catholic Church makes for Popes.  While many Popes were holy men and a lot have been declared Saints, all Popes are sinners and as such are not impeccable.  Infallibility on the other hand, signifies the inability to error.  This is indeed a claim that the Catholic Church makes for the Pope but this is only within the very specific parameters laid out by the First Vatican Council.  Not recognizing this fact leads to the second common misunderstanding of papal infallibility which mistakenly presupposes the charism applies to everything the Pope says.  The limits of papal infallibility are spelled out in the fourth chapter of the First dogmatic constitution on the church of Christ, from the fourth session of Vatican I:

“we teach and define as a divinely revealed dogma that

when the Roman pontiff speaks EX CATHEDRA,

that is, when,

in the exercise of his office as shepherd and teacher of all Christians,

in virtue of his supreme apostolic authority,

he defines a doctrine concerning faith or morals to be held by the whole church,

he possesses,

by the divine assistance promised to him in blessed Peter,

that infallibility which the divine Redeemer willed his church to enjoy in defining doctrine concerning faith or morals.

Therefore, such definitions of the Roman pontiff are of themselves, and not by the consent of the church, irreformable.

So then, should anyone, which God forbid, have the temerity to reject this definition of ours: let him be anathema.”[8]

The explanation of what is meant by definitions ex cathedra are found in various works, but the following explanation from The Catholic Encyclopedia is helpful:

  • “The pontiff must teach in his public and official capacity as pastor and doctor of all Christians, not merely in his private capacity as a theologian, preacher or allocutionist, nor in his capacity as a temporal prince or as a mere ordinary of the Diocese of Rome. It must be clear that he speaks as spiritual head of the Church universal.
  • Then it is only when, in this capacity, he teaches some doctrine of faith or morals that he is infallible….
  • Further [,] it must be sufficiently evident that he intends to teach with all the fullness and finality of his supreme Apostolic authority, in other words that he wishes to determine some point of doctrine in an absolutely final and irrevocable way, or to define it in the technical sense….
  • Finally [,] for an ex cathedra decision it must be clear that the pope intends to bind the whole Church….”[9]

Thus, it is clear that according to Catholic teaching, not everything uttered by a Pope falls under the charism of infallibility.  To return to Capocci once again, what exactly did he mean when he allegedly told Innocent III, ‘Your words are God’s words, but your works are those of the Devil’?  As I am unfamiliar with him and with the works Smith was citing, I cannot say for certain.  There may indeed be an echo of papal infallibility there.  On the other hand, ‘God’s words’ may indicate a belief that the Pope speaks with the authority of God (“He that heareth you, heareth me…”).[10]  In the absence of more information, Capocci’s comment certainly makes for interesting speculation nonetheless.


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[1] Damian J. Smith.  Innocent III and the Crown of Aragon: The Limits of Papal Authority.  (Burlington: Ashgate, 2004) Kindle, 1.

[2] Ibid, 6.

[3] Ibid, 263, cf. 200.

[4] George Joyce, “The Pope.” In The Catholic Encyclopedia,vol. 12. (New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1911). http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/12260a.htm . Accessed 7/31/20.

[5] Ibid, brackets are original to the citation. My emphasis.

[6] http://www.drbo.org/chapter/47023.htm (accessed 7/31/20).  My emphasis.

[7] This is to speak in general terms rather than make a judgment with respect to Innocent III.

[8] https://www.papalencyclicals.net/councils/ecum20.htm (accessed 7/31/20).

[9] Patrick Toner “Infallibility.” In The Catholic Encyclopedia, vol. 7. (New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1910). http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/07790a.htm . Accessed 7/31/20.  See also the discussion on the infallibility of the Church there.  Cf. Ludwig Ott.  Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma.  (Rockford: Tan Books and Publishers, 1960), 286-287.

[10] Lk. 10:16.

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