In the chaos that has followed the Second Vatican Council, it is necessary that the faithful have a correct understanding Papal Infallibility, as well as its limitations, lest the understandably confused or scandalized Catholic be led into error in one direction or the other.
Infallibility is a negative charism (gratia gratis data) that prevents the possibility of error. It is not to be confused withinspiration, which is a positive divine influence that moves and controls a human agent in what he says or writes; nor is it to be confused with Revelation, which is the communication of some truth by God through means which are beyond the ordinary course of nature. Infallibility pertains to the safeguarding and explanation of truths already revealed by God. Since infallibility is only a negative charism, it does not inspire a pope to teach what is true or even defend revealed truths, nor does it “make the pope’s will the ultimate standard of truth and goodness” (2), but simply prevents him from teaching error under certain limited conditions. During an address given at the First Vatican Council, Bishop Grasser, who was referred to as “the most prominent theologian at the Council”, said the following:
“In no sense is pontifical infallibility absolute, because absolute infallibility belongs to God alone, Who is the first and essential truth and Who is never able to deceive or be deceived. All other infallibility, as communicated for a specific purpose, has its limits and its conditions under which it is considered to be present. The same is valid in reference to the infallibility of the Roman Pontiff. For this infallibility is bound by certain limits and conditions…”
The conditions for Papal Infallibility were subsequently defined by the First Vatican Council as follows:
“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”.
Here we see that the divine assistance is present only when a pope, (a) using his supreme apostolic authority (b) defines a doctrine, (c) concerning faith and morals, (d) to be held by the universal Church. If any of these conditions are lacking, infallibility is not engaged and error is possible.
Editor’s note: The first Vatican Council was never officially brought to a close, so technically, Vatican II was merely an extension of Vatican I. Yet those who ratified Vatican II never even mentioned the still open and unfinished Vatican I. If that sounds confusing to you, you have plenty of company.
We know that God is not the author of confusion. That leaves only two other choices: Man and/or the devil!