The Roman Catholic dogma of Papal Infallibility (P.I.) wasn't officially defined until 1870. This doctrine, defined dogmatically at the First Vatican Council of 1869–1870 in the document Pastor aeternus, is claimed to have existed in medieval theology and to have been the majority opinion at the time of the Counter-Reformation. Thus, Catholics can say that at the 4th Council of Trent the canon of Scripture was infallibly defined even though it took place 324 years prior to Vatican I.

Indeed, I have found it declared that all Ecumenical councils derive their authority through the infallibility of the Pope who ratifies the council's documents. There are 19 councils recognized by the Catholic Church prior to the 1870 dogmatic definition of P.I. Of these, there are 4 that took place prior to the beginning of medieval times:


While there is apparently some church history and debate as far back as 519 when the notion of the Bishop of Rome as the preserver of apostolic truth was set forth in the Formula of Hormisdas, most of the theological references that smack of P.I. come from much deeper into the medieval period; 1073 and beyond. Rather than challenge the claim that Papal Infallibility existed in common medieval theology, I am asking after proof that this doctrine existed prior to the beginning of the medieval period in 476.

related: How is the claim that the doctrine of Papal Infallibility has always existed within the Church substantiated?

2 Answers 2


I found an official Roman Catholic web site with an article entitled ‘Did the early church fathers espouse papal infallibility?’ The first article (link below) opened with this observation:

The infallibility of the Church in general—and the pope in particular—is not a doctrine that suddenly appeared in Church teaching; rather, it is a doctrine that was affirmed in various ways in the early Church...

The article went on to explain:

As Christians began to more clearly understand the teaching authority of the Church and of the primacy of the pope, they developed a clearer understanding of the pope’s infallibility. For example, in the late second century, in his magnum opus Against the Heresies, St. Irenaeus of Lyons, writes of the Church of Rome, over which Peter and his papal successors preside: With that church, because of its superior origin, all the churches must agree, that is, all the faithful in the whole world, and it is in her that the faithful everywhere have maintained the apostolic tradition ((Against Heresies 3:3:2 [A.D. 189]).

In 251, St. Cyprian of Carthage, writes: If someone does not hold fast to this unity of Peter, can he imagine that he still holds the faith? If he [should] desert the chair of Peter upon whom the Church was built, can he still be confident that he is in the Church? (The Unity of the Catholic Church 4; 1st edition [A.D. 251]).

Further, in the fifth century, St. Augustine succinctly captured the ancient attitude when he remarked, “Rome has spoken; the case is concluded” (Sermons 131, 10). Source: https://www.catholic.com/qa/did-the-early-church-fathers-espouse-papal-infallibility

From there I found a linked article giving the views of the popes and other church fathers up to the year A.D. 345:

In a wide variety of ways, the Fathers attest to the fact that the church of Rome was the central and most authoritative church. They attest to the Church’s reliance on Rome for advice, for mediation of disputes, and for guidance on doctrinal issues. They note, as Ignatius of Antioch does, that Rome “holds the presidency” among the other churches, and that, as Irenaeus explains, “because of its superior origin, all the churches must agree” with Rome. They are also clear on the fact that it is communion with Rome and the bishop of Rome that causes one to be in communion with the Catholic Church. This displays a recognition that, as Cyprian of Carthage puts it, Rome is “the principal church, in which sacerdotal unity has its source. Source: https://www.catholic.com/tract/the-authority-of-the-pope-part-i

A follow-on article covered the views of the fathers after A.D. 341:

Jerome: “I follow no leader but Christ and join in communion with none but your blessedness [Pope Damasus I], that is, with the chair of Peter. I know that this is the rock on which the Church has been built. Whoever eats the Lamb outside this house is profane. Anyone who is not in the ark of Noah will perish when the flood prevails” (Letters 15:2 [A.D. 396]).

Augustine: “[On this matter of the Pelagians] two councils have already been sent to the Apostolic See [the bishop of Rome], and from there rescripts too have come. The matter is at an end; would that the error too might be at an end!” (Sermons 131:10 [A.D. 411]).

Peter Chrysologus: “We exhort you in every respect, honorable brother, to heed obediently what has been written by the most blessed pope of the city of Rome, for blessed Peter, who lives and presides in his own see, provides the truth of faith to those who seek it. For we, by reason of our pursuit of peace and faith, cannot try cases on the faith without the consent of the bishop of Rome” (Letters 25:2 [A.D. 449]).

Council of Chalcedon: “After the reading of the foregoing epistle [The Tome of Leo], the most reverend bishops cried out: ‘This is the faith of the fathers! This is the faith of the apostles! So we all believe! Thus the orthodox believe! Anathema to him who does not thus believe! Peter has spoken thus through Leo!’” (ibid., session 2). Source: https://www.catholic.com/tract/the-authority-of-the-pope-part-ii

I understand that the Catholic Church views encyclicals and dogma as inerrant because they view the church as indefectible. In other words, the church is not subject to failure or decay, has no defects and is perfect. If I’ve got that wrong, will someone please correct me?

Conclusion: Whilst all of the quotes affirm the beliefs of the early church fathers with regard to the teaching authority of the church, papal authority and the primacy of the pope, nowhere could I find any quote suggesting they believed that papal infallibility had been conferred upon any pope. Again, if I am mistaken, I hope to be corrected.

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    It is interesting that Pope Leo the Great pointed to the authority of OT, NT, Gospels, and not to himself. "What, indeed, is more unrighteous than to entertain ungodly thoughts, and not to yield to persons wiser and more learned? But into this folly do they fall who, when hindered by some obscurity from apprehending the truth, have recourse, not to the words of the Prophets, not to the letters of the Apostles, nor to the authority of the Gospels, but to themselves; and become teachers of error, just because they have not been disciples of the truth. " Tome of Pope Leo the Great
    – SLM
    Commented Dec 11, 2022 at 20:12

St. Robert Bellarmine, On the Roman Pontiff (from De Controversiis), vol. 2, Book IV: "On the Supreme Spiritual Power of the Pope", ch. I: "Whether the Pope Is the Supreme Judge in Controversies of Faith and Morals" quotes:

St. Jerome, a most learned man, [who] in the question on the three hypostases did not trust his own erudition, nor the opinion of the Eastern bishops, nor even in the authority of his own bishop, Paul, the Patriarch of Antioch. Rather he wrote to Pope Damasus [in c. 376 A.D.], saying:

I, a sheep, demand assistance from the pastor. Please, discern, for I will not fear to say three hypostases if you bid it so.

Epist., 15, n. 2 (ML, XXII, 355).

Theodoret [✝457 A.D.], who was also very learned among the Greek Fathers, wrote to Pope Leo I, saying

If Paul, the herald of truth, the trumpet of the Holy Spirit, hastened to the great Peter to carry from him the solution to the difficulties of those at Antioch who hesitated from conformity with the law, much more do we, men insignificant and small, hasten to your Apostolic See in order to receive from you a cure for the wounds of the churches.

Epistula 113 ad Leonem I.

Prosper of Aquitaine [who] says in his Chronicle for the year 420

In a council held at Carthage consisting of 216 bishops, the synodal decrees were advanced to Pope Zozimus; after they were approved, the Pelagian heresy was condemned throughout the world.

Thus, the whole world recognizes a final judgment only from the Roman Pontiff.

St. Robert also cites:

  • Innocent I, in epistola ad Anastasium Thessalonicensem
  • Gelasius I epistola ad Episcopos Dardaniæ
  • Nicolas I epistola ad Michaelem Imperatorem
  • Innocent III epistola ad archatensem Episcopum, there the chapter is extent “Majores”, and the one on Baptism.

Prefacing his dogmatic definition of papal infallibility, Pius IX mentions in particular (Pastor Æternus ch. 4):

the Fathers of the Fourth Council of Constantinople, [who,] following in the footsteps of their predecessors, gave forth this solemn profession: The first condition of salvation is to keep the rule of the true faith. And because the sentence of our Lord Jesus Christ can not be passed by, who said: “Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church,” [Mt. 16:18] these things which have been said are approved by events, because in the Apostolic See the Catholic religion and her holy and well-known doctrine has always been kept undefiled. Desiring therefore, not to be in the least degree separated from the faith and doctrine of that See, we hope that we may deserve to be in the one communion, which the Apostolic See preaches, in which is the entire and true solidity of the Christian religion.

From the Formula of St. Hormisdas, subscribed by the Fathers of the Eighth General Council (Fourth of Constantinople), A.D. 869 (Labbe's Councils, Vol. V. pp. 583, 622).

He also cites early 5th century precedent for assembling in council to define/clarify matters of faith:

the Bishops of the whole world, now singly, now assembled in Synod, following the long-established custom of churches,* and the form of the ancient rule, sent word to this Apostolic See of those dangers especially which sprang up in matters of faith, that there the losses of faith might be most effectually repaired where the faith can not fail.

*From a letter of St. Cyril of Alexandria to Pope St. Celestine I., A.D. 422 (Vol. VI. Part II. p. 36, Paris edition of 1638).
†From a Rescript of St. Innocent I. to the Council of Milevis, A.D. 402 (Labbe, Vol. III. p. 47).

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    Being the 'supreme judge' does not, of necessity, imply the infallibility of that judge. Vested authority does not imply that such an authority cannot err.
    – Nigel J
    Commented Dec 11, 2022 at 7:59
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    @NigelJ So, e.g., could Pope Zozimus's condemnation of Pelagianism be erroneous? Who could judge this? Supreme means he's above all judges, judged by no one.
    – Geremia
    Commented Dec 11, 2022 at 21:17
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    But shouldn't any condemnation of any heresy derive it's authority from Scripture? The thought that there is only one man on earth at any given time that can rightly divide the word of truth is contrary to the fact that the Spirit of Truth is given to all converted people individually. Zozimus also battled for the See of Aries to have jurisdiction over the See of Vienne when his politics (citizenship) should have been in heaven. Commented Dec 11, 2022 at 23:11
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    @MikeBorden Authority comes from God. He established two sources of Divine Revelation: Holy Scripture and Tradition (2Thess 2:14: "Therefore, brethren, stand fast: and hold the traditions, which you have learned, whether by word or by our epistle [scripture]."); cf. The Binding Force of Tradition.
    – Geremia
    Commented Dec 11, 2022 at 23:26
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    @Geremia Nobody on earth can be considered as 'Supreme Judge' judged by no other. God alone is Judge of all, judged of none other.
    – Nigel J
    Commented Dec 12, 2022 at 9:11

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