I have two questions related to the concept of dogma in the Catholic church. I appreciate any guidance. Also, references would be helpful.

  1. Is there any point in the history of the Roman Catholic Church where the actions of the Pope and or the magisterium undermine the dogma of papal infallibility (i.e. instances which contradict the teaching of the papal infallibility)?

  2. Can a dogma develop? That is, can a certain dogma be established, and be modified afterwards? If so, has this happened before in the Roman Catholic Church?

  • 1
    Welcome to Christianity.SE! I tweaked your question a little to have a more descriptive title. I was originally thinking about having you split this up into to separate questions, but it's possible that these are closely enough related that they can easily be answered together. If a Catholic comes along and suggests it would be easier to deal with these issues separately, maybe we can take their advice then. In the mean time, I hope you get some good answers!
    – Caleb
    Mar 15, 2013 at 23:44

3 Answers 3


First, some much-needed background. The pope is infallible only when he speaks ex cathedra. Ex cathedra is not a linguistic formula, it is simply a way to recognize those times when the pope gives a teaching that is correct and will remain correct forever. Ecumenical councils are another organ of infallibility, but we can talk about just the pope without missing anything important to this question. The pope does not always speak ex cathedra, so papal infallibility isn't called into question over every statement the pope makes. Only those statements about faith and morals would even qualify.

Some people think that when the pope speaks in this way, he is to be seen as creating something, like an artist adding paint to a canvas. That is not what the pope does. Imagine instead an unchanging mural set into a rock. Parts of it are obscured by debris, and other parts are splashed with paint. Some people are performing restoration. Others try to paint on top of paint. The pope, as pope, does not get involved with any of this. The pope does not paint. Instead, he sits down on a chair that's set apart, and, guided by the Holy Spirit, points to the exposed surface of this mural that is (and remains) immaculate, free of all human machination and accumulated grime. If his hand were covered in blood it would still, by the Holy Spirit, point up to truth. If millions of people surrounded him and raised their hands up in disarray, it would be his hand that Catholics would know to look for. His hand is guided by the Holy Spirit and directed at the Word. He sits upon the seat of Saint Peter. Catholics try to raise our hands to point to the same place.

I hope the above is not too metaphorical, but it is difficult to convey what role the pope and magisterium play in Catholicism by just saying that the pope is never wrong and that doctrines never change.

In case things are still not clear, here are some short answers to your questions:

    • No pope has ever infallibly proclaimed that he is fallible.
    • No pope has ever denounced an infallible teaching.
    • Nor has one infallible statement ever been set against another one.
    • Nor has any pope ever made a doctrinal error when speaking in this way:

      The broad fact, therefore, remains certain that no ex cathedra definition of any pope has ever been shown to be erroneous. (The Catholic Encyclopedia on Infallibility)

    • Dogma is not developed and adjusted and fitted over time.
    • Infallible statements are made when confusion begins to arise on a certain clear matter.
    • Doctrines cannot be changed:

      No, the Church cannot change its doctrines no matter how badly some theologians may want it to or how loudly they claim it can. The doctrines of the Catholic Church are the deposit of faith revealed by Jesus Christ, taught by the apostles, and handed down in their entirety by the apostles to their successors. Since revealed truth cannot change, and since the deposit of faith is comprised of revealed truth, expressed in Scripture and Sacred Tradition, the deposit of faith cannot change. (From "Catholic Answers")

Of course, a person might disagree with the Pope, or with Ecumenical Councils, or with the Catholic Encyclopedia, or with the idea of papal infallibility, or even with the idea of there being anything to point to. That would be another hand being raised; we can only pray that all our hands will eventually point up to the same place. This site is not set up for argument, though: if you'd like to know if some particular ex cathedra declaration of the pope has been proven incorrect according to some standard, you would need to ask another question about the particular case.

  • As far as I understand, the Catholic Encyclopedia, although it has the Imprimatur, it is not just official doctrine, unlike the Catechism, for instance.
    – luchonacho
    Jan 18, 2018 at 22:53
  • @luchonacho A book I own has the following below its Nihil Obstat and Imprimitur: "The Nihil Obstat and Imprimitur are the official declarations that a book or pamphlet is free of doctrinal or moral error. No implication is contained therein that those who have granted the Nihil Obstat and Imprimitur agree with the contents, opinions, or statements expressed." If I wrote a book saying Jesus was 1.5 meters tall and it got a Nihil Obstat and Imprimitur, that means it's free from doctrinal or moral error, not that all statements within are true. Apr 8, 2019 at 3:53

When the Pope speaks with infallibility on dogma, it is known as being in Ex Cathedra.

The conclusion from the Catholic Encyclopedia is that "The broad fact, therefore, remains certain that no ex cathedra definition of any pope has ever been shown to be erroneous."

The Catholic Encyclopedia, linked above, has a very lengthy article about Papal Infallibility, including many claims of evidence countering the claim.

It must be noted that the Pope's opinions are not infallible, that his addresses to the public are not infallible, that his Homilies are not infallible, and that infallibility does not extend to the Pope's personal morals or actions.

Further information from the Catholic Encyclopedia (sorry for the long Copy/Paste):

It is only in connection with doctrinal authority as such that, practically speaking, this question of infallibility arises; that is to say, when we speak of the Church's infallibility we mean, at least primarily and principally, what is sometimes called active as distinguished from passive infallibility. We mean in other words that the Church is infallible in her objective definitive teaching regarding faith and morals, not that believers are infallible in their subjective interpretation of her teaching. This is obvious in the case of individuals, any one of whom may err in his understanding of the Church's teaching; nor is the general or even unanimous consent of the faithful in believing a distinct and independent organ of infallibility. Such consent indeed, when it can be verified as apart, is of the highest value as a proof of what has been, or may be, defined by the teaching authority, but, except in so far as it is thus the subjective counterpart and complement of objective authoritative teaching, it cannot be said to possess an absolutely decisive dogmatic value. It will be best therefore to confine our attention to active infallibility as such, as by so doing we shall avoid the confusion which is the sole basis of many of the objections that are most persistently and most plausibly urged against the doctrine of ecclesiastical infallibility.

Infallibility must be carefully distinguished both from Inspiration and from Revelation.

Inspiration signifies a special positive Divine influence and assistance by reason of which the human agent is not merely preserved from liability to error but is so guided and controlled that what he says or writes is truly the word of God, that God Himself is the principal author of the inspired utterance; but infallibility merely implies exemption from liability to error. God is not the author of a merely infallible, as He is of an inspired, utterance; the former remains a merely human document.

Revelation, on the other hand, means the making known by God, supernaturally of some truth hitherto unknown, or at least not vouched for by Divine authority; whereas infallibility is concerned with the interpretation and effective safeguarding of truths already revealed. Hence when we say, for example, that some doctrine defined by the pope or by an ecumenical council is infallible, we mean merely that its inerrancy is Divinely guaranteed according to the terms of Christ's promise to His Church, not that either the pope or the Fathers of the Council are inspired as were the writers of the Bible or that any new revelation is embodied in their teaching.

  • 2
    Long copy-pastes can be improved by ** bolding the relevant lines.
    – Alypius
    Mar 15, 2013 at 23:50
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    I would just like to point out that this edition of the Catholic Encyclopedia predates Lumen Gentium, and some of its more speculative or polemical passages should be read in consideration of the historical context - there was not yet a definitive statement on the relation between papal authority and that of the bishops, in council or otherwise. The 1967 New Catholic Encyclopedia has a more complete picture, for example.
    – James T
    Mar 17, 2013 at 19:34

Dogmas are definitions for the laity, not to be interpreted, and they are directly provided by the Holy Spirit. Logically speaking, if you needed someone to interpret the Dogma for you, then the Pope would not have the final word, the final word would be left with whoever was appointed to interpret the Dogmas, and only the Pope is guided by the Holy Spirit, so that line of thinking makes no sense, and it has been condemned.

Pope St. Pius X, Lamentabile, The Errors of the Modernists, July 3, 1907, #22: “The dogmas which the Church professes as revealed are not truths fallen from heaven, but they are a kind of interpretation of religious facts, which the human mind by a laborious effort prepared for itself.”‐ Condemned

Pope St. Pius X, Lamentabile, The Errors of the Modernists, July 3, 1907, #54: “The dogmas, the sacraments, the hierarchy, as far as pertains both to the notion and to the reality, are nothing but interpretations and the evolution of Christian intelligence, which have increased and perfected the little germ latent in the Gospel.”‐ Condemned

The actions of the post Vatican II papal claimants undermine this following Dogma:

Pope Eugene IV, Council of Florence, “Cantate Domino,” 1441,ex cathedra:
“The Holy Roman Church firmly believes, professes and preaches that all those who are outside the Catholic Church, not only pagans but also Jews or heretics and schismatics, cannot share in eternal life and will go into the everlasting fire which was prepared for the devil and his angels, unless they are joined to the Church before the end of their lives; that the unity of this ecclesiastical body is of such importance that only those who abide in it do the Church’s sacraments contribute to salvation and do fasts, alms giving and other works of piety and practices of the Christian militia productive of eternal rewards; and that nobody can be saved, no matter how much he has given away in alms and even if he has shed blood in the name of Christ, unless he has persevered in the bosom and unity of the Catholic Church

Almost no one claiming to be Catholic currently believes this Dogma.

Antipope John XXIII (the second one) made peace with the so called Eastern Orthodox, John Paul II made peace with the Lutherans and the protestants signing "Joint Declarations of the Faith" he prayed with the Dalai Lama making peace with the Buddhists. He didn't hold the Assisi Prayer meeting to tell them all to convert to Catholicism, he just prayed with them and said they were all great and every religion is great, and the Catholic laity got the memo. They didn't even notice when Benedict XVI praised Martin Luther, and referred to Gaudium Et Spes as a "Counter Syllabus" to Pius IX's "Syllabus of Errors"

Benedict XVI, Principles of Catholic Theology, 1982, p. 381: "If it is desirable to offer a diagnosis of the text [of the Vatican II document, Gaudium et Spes] as a whole, we might say that (in conjunction with the texts on religious liberty and world religions) it is a revision of the Syllabus of Pius IX, a kind of counter syllabus...

All attempts to convert the Jews to Catholicism have been completely abandoned stated openly by the USCCB, this decision is lauded by the Anti Defamation League, in fact, all attempts to convert anyone have been completely abandoned by the hierarchy, even though some of laity haven't figured that out yet.

Vatican II is a new religion and a complete departure from Catholicism.

The scandals and heresies of John 23.

Teachings on Popes and Heresy

The Catholic Encyclopedia, “Heresy,” 1914, Vol. 7, p. 261: “The pope himself, if notoriously guilty of heresy, would cease to be pope because he would cease to be a member of the Church.

St. Robert Bellarmine, Cardinal and Doctor of the Church, De Romano Pontifice, II, 30: "A pope who is a manifest heretic automatically (per se) ceases to be pope and head, just as he ceases automatically to be a Christian and a member of the Church. Wherefore, he can be judged and punished by the Church. This is the teaching of all the ancient Fathers who teach that manifest heretics immediately lose all jurisdiction." St. Robert Bellarmine, De Romano Pontifice, II, 30: "This principle is most certain. The non-Christian cannot in any way be Pope, as Cajetan himself admits (ib. c. 26). The reason for this is that he cannot be head of what he is not a member; now he who is not a Christian is not a member of the Church, and a manifest heretic is not a Christian, as is clearly taught by St. Cyprian (lib. 4, epist. 2), St. Athanasius (Scr. 2 cont. Arian.), St. Augustine (lib. De great. Christ. Cap. 20), St. Jerome (contra Lucifer.) and others; therefore the manifest heretic cannot be Pope." St. Francis De Sales (17th century), Doctor of the Church, The Catholic Controversy, pp. 305-306: "Now when he [the Pope] is explicitly a heretic, he falls ipso facto from his dignity and out of the Church..." St. Antoninus (1459): "In the case in which the pope would become a heretic, he would find himself, by that fact alone and without any other sentence, separated from the Church. A head separated from a body cannot, as long as it remains separated, be head of the same body from which it was cut off. A pope who would be separated from the Church by heresy, therefore, would by that very fact itself cease to be head of the Church. He could not be a heretic and remain pope, because, since he is outside of the Church, he cannot possess the keys of the Church." (Summa Theologica, cited in Actes de Vatican I. V. Frond pub.)

Pope Pius XII, Mystici Corporis Christi (# 23), June 29, 1943: 
“For not every sin, however grave it may be, is such as of its own nature to sever a man 
from the Body of the Church, as does schism or heresy or apostasy.
  • 1
    @Alypius Praying with the Lama is apostasy by deed. I don't know what kind of straw man you are attempting with your comment about burning people at the stake. It is against Catholic Dogma to pray with other religions.
    – user
    Mar 17, 2013 at 0:20
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    Very intentionally calling Bl. John XXIII "antipope" is pretty uncool. I'd imagine the Protestants here who hear me talk about Tobit "as if it were in the Bible" feel the same way, but c'mon, everyone who reads that knows you're trying to score a point for Lefebvre and those who don't are utterly confused by what you're trying to say.
    – Peter Turner
    Mar 17, 2013 at 4:58
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    @Peter Turner I'm not trying to make friends or be cool. The name John the 23 was avoided by popes for 500 years because of the Antipope connection. I'm not scoring a point for the heretic Lefebrve, the SSPX positions are an absurd joke. It would be an act of heresy for me to refer to a heretical antipope as a pope.
    – user
    Mar 17, 2013 at 11:01
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    @patrick1 Just wondering, is your answer here seen from a sedevacantist's perspective?
    – user4167
    Mar 17, 2013 at 16:14

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