There have been some councils, the decisions of which were later reversed by some latter councils. Thus, if your position on a particular matter that was being considered at those councils was too strong, you could easily be excommunicated from the Church as a heretic between those two councils, while you would be just fine after the second one, or the other way around. The most recent example that comes to my mind is probably the incumbent Pope's decision to condone contraceptives.

Here is another example: the council of Hieria in 754 a.d. and the Second Council of Nicaea in 787 a.d., both of which appropriated their titles as Seventh Ecumenical Council. The first council forbade the use of icons, and the second one reversed that decree. I know that one could say here that the Synod of Hieria was not an Ecumenical Council (it was called and chaired by the imperial family and no patriarchs were present, plus, its status is implicit in the Second Council of Nicaea declaring itself to be the actual Seventh Ecumenical Council), however, it doesn't really matter. What matters is that at the time when it took place it was announced as an Ecumenical Council, which means that ordinary folks - at least during the time between those two councils - had to follow the decrees of the council of Hiernia, otherwise, they would definitely fall into the category of heretics according to the decree of that council.

So, the question is: How can common believers in the Roman Catholic Church be sure that the Church's decisions are correct and not erroneous?

  • 3
    This is actually a very good question. (I think that the issues addressed in the last attempt have been remedied here.)
    – Matt
    May 3, 2012 at 13:52
  • 7
    -1 until you explain what you mean about the incumbent Pope's decision to condone contraceptives.
    – Peter Turner
    May 3, 2012 at 14:07
  • @Peter - What exactly do you need to be explained? What I meant is exactly what I said: Pope has condoned (=allowed) using contraceptives.
    – brilliant
    May 3, 2012 at 14:10
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    Yeah, that's not contraception in both cases it's condom use for homosexual male prostitutes. Contraception implies the possibility of conception. I'd hope any Catholic (traditional or otherwise) who has heard more than a soundbite explanation of this thinks the Pope is 100% correct in his reasoning here.
    – Peter Turner
    May 3, 2012 at 14:31
  • 2
    Well, I did write a blog post here on the subject it's that "extended permission" part that I don't quite believe. Contraception is sinful within marriage because it negates the procreative part (the baby making). Condoms are only contraception when they're used as contraception. Condoms used by male prostitutes are more like bike helmets.
    – Peter Turner
    May 3, 2012 at 15:11

3 Answers 3


Briefly, not all papal decisions are ex cathedra, or spoken from the chair. When he delivers statements in this mode, they are matter of doctrine and dogma, and this has seldom happened in history. Nothing every stated ex cathedra has ever been reneged, and if you read what these things are, you'd realize there is no possibility of reneging them without essentially contradicting Christianity.

Now does this mean that all other teachings are optional? Certainly not. The difference is that the other teachings are knowable without revelation, and can be known through the use of reason or reason augmented by faith. Because scripture is interpreted with the help of tradition (which was abandoned by Protestants, although the Orthodox situation is unclear), the Church is the best qualified to interpret it. The Church is not settled on all matters of Scripture, which is why theologians still debate certain points, but these don't have any larger effect. You have to be careful to distinguish between canon law, unsettled Scriptural matters, and infallible dogma. If you don't distinguish, you become the kind of Protestant who thinks Catholics worship saints, the pope, relics, and so on.

With respect to condom and contraceptive, the pope has not made their use acceptable. This is a wild misinterpretation that the media has propagated (and the media in Anglo-America is notoriously anti-RCC). The Church has always, does, and always will maintain that contraception is evil. The pope, in a rather insignificant explanation that a depraved media fixated on, is merely saying that if someone is a male prostitute now (which is an evil state of affairs), then a move in the right direction may involve condom use as part of an incremental shift from a greater evil to a lesser evil. By using condoms, he is reducing other evils (the act and everything else remains just as depraved) such as the rate of HIV transmission (assuming effectiveness). He's not saying it's okay. In fact, if one is a male prostitute, one should stop being one immediately. The pope is merely saying that in such limited cases, a condom can be seen as a step in the right direction. Not that it's a very big move, or a noble move, or one to write home about. He's giving a theoretical account of it. But in reality, his position is no change at all. Homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered and are not made less evil themselves through condom use. Condom use may merely reduce an evil side effect of disease transmission.

So be very careful about what the Church is really saying. You make the same mistake with the aforementioned councils. Those who engage in attacks on the papacy are usually unwilling to really learn about the Catholic Church in depth, and prefer to believe a rather erroneous account of it. There are over 40,000 Protestant denominations because every Tom, Dick, and Harry, plus Joe the Plumber decide, with no education in these matters, what Scripture means for them. Not what it really means, but what they want to read into it.


When the Pope speaks ex Cathedra, he is invoking the powers handed down to him via apostolic succession. It is a matter of faith and tradition (although not codified until the late 1800s I believe) that when the Pope so speaks on a matter of faith or morals in an act meant to be instructive to Christianity as a whole, he is infallible. There is a Scriptural case made in the link, but it boils down to what I consider to be an older hermeneutic.

The idea is that the Church is the one reliable and trustworthy interpreter of the Scripture, and if they say the Scripture means "X", then by definition "X" is the correct interpretation. The counter case to this argument is that the Holy Spirit is the interpreter of Scripture, and the Church is merely one vehicle through which he speaks. Karl Barth in particular would be one theologian who would say that God gets to choose what is right, that he does that through the Scriptures, and that there is no getting around what God calls right and wrong.

Lest Protestants such as myself get all high and mighty, we believe that something is right, simply because God says it is so. If God say killing is good, then it is good because God declared it to be.

It should be made clear that no other denomination accepts this idea of "Papal Infallibility," and is in many ways the genesis of the splits with the Orthodox (in 1054) and the Protestants (beginning in 1517).

Most Christians understand the Pope to be first amongst equals to be sure, but not infallible. Catholic dogma, however teaches otherwise. (Indeed, the premise of the movie Dogma only works if you're catholic)

  • I think it's a little more complex than "the Church is the one reliable and trustworthy interpreter of the Scripture" -- this in itself is a post-Reformation way of looking at the question. For Catholics, tradition and scripture are the twin pillars of divine revelation -- and the Church's magisterium (which includes the formal dogmatic definitions you alluded to but also much more) is the authentic custodian and interpreter of revelation.
    – Ben Dunlap
    May 15, 2012 at 15:16
  • @Drigan Thanks for your helpful edit and welcome to Christianity.SE! If you haven't done so already, be sure to check out the how we are different than other sites you may be familiar with. I look forward to seeing more of your contributions soon.
    – ThaddeusB
    Jul 28, 2015 at 16:07
  • The current teaching on infallibility arises from Vatican Council I (1870ish) and can be argued as having taken some time to percolate: part of what was involved was "where does the bishop's authority end and the Pope's begin" when it gets into details and official rulings. That internal friction was more or less resolved (with the Italian civil War happening around them the whole while). Feb 8, 2016 at 19:50
  • Just a short remainder concerning your last paragraph: The premise of the movie Dogma does in fact not work if you're catholic -- simply because the movie does not differentiate correctly between the forgiving of sins as received in the sacrament of confession and the indulgence offered to the pilgrims in that movie. The two angles would first find a way to forgiveness bevore receiving that indulgence which is not too easy in their case (at least not as easy as it is for you and for me). Jan 14, 2019 at 8:29

Many Protestants will make the claim that although the Bible was written by various fallible men, that God guided these different men perfectly to create the Bible. However they reject the similar claim that God could guide the Popes in certain circumstances to be free of error.

The answer to your question, "How can they be sure its correct", is that its a matter of faith.

The second part of your question states that these people were heretics. People can err on a matter of faith and still be in the Church. Its only when they obstinately reject a defined truth of faith do they become formal heretics who automatically incur excommunication from the Church.

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.”

  • "Its only when they obstinately reject a defined truth of faith" - Defined by whom? Do you mean councils here?
    – brilliant
    Nov 22, 2012 at 0:46
  • @brilliant The Dogmas (what I meant by truths of Faith) come from Councils and Papal decrees for the most part. Is that your question?
    – user
    Nov 22, 2012 at 1:00
  • Yes, this was my question. So, has there been any Papal decree or any Council's decision that had later been cancelled and defined as erroneous by some latter Council?
    – brilliant
    Nov 22, 2012 at 4:26
  • @brilliant Well, Vatican II is a complete deviation from the faith and a false council, so it could be an answer to your question. From the Council of Jerusalem to Vatican II there was no change in Dogmas. Canon law has changed which entails the governance of the Church. Pope Honorius was heretic but he did not issue any dogmatic decrees.
    – user
    Nov 22, 2012 at 5:05

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