[In Our Time] Papal Infallibility

Papal Infallibility

10/01/2019 by BBC Radio 4

Web player: http://podplayer.net/?id=61647911
Episode: http://open.live.bbc.co.uk/mediaselector/5/redir/version/2.0/mediaset/audio-nondrm-download/proto/http/vpid/p06xmbzk.mp3

Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss why, in 1870, the Vatican Council issued the decree ‘pastor aeternus’ which, among other areas, affirmed papal infallibility. It meant effectively that the Pope could not err in his teachings, an assertion with its roots in the early Church when the bishop of Rome advanced to being the first among equals, then overall head of the Christian Church in the West. The idea that the Pope could not err had been a double-edged sword from the Middle Ages, though; while it apparently conveyed great power, it also meant a Pope was constrained by whatever a predecessor had said. If a later Pope were to contradict an earlier Pope, then one of them must be wrong, and how could that be…if both were infallible?


Tom O’Loughlin
Professor of Historical Theology at the University of Nottingham

Rebecca Rist
Professor in Medieval History at the University of Reading


Miles Pattenden
Departmental Lecturer in Early Modern History at the University of Oxford

Producer: Simon Tillotson and Julia Johnson

Start Date: 2019-03-08

Finish Date: 2019-03-09


  • My first major reaction to this was “Isn’t there scope for a paradox here?” I eventually formulated the paradox as “If a current pope declares that the doctrine of papal infallibility is incorrect, then if the pope is infallible, it means he must be fallible. But if he is fallible, then his pronouncement on fallibility must not be seen as authoritative.” Later on in the episode, the panelists did touch upon the paradoxical nature; but alas no warnings about messing with causality were issued.
  • On a less nature-of-causality note, the logical end-point of infallibility and unchangeableness of papal statements means that anybody who isn’t happy with the Catholic church will have to leave it instead of changing it. Exit instead of voice, to use Hirschman; or to use the Sandman formulation of “The Lord of Dreams learns that he must change or die, and makes his choice.”, death is the only option.
  • The more fascinating thing was learning that the push for papal infallibility came from the Franciscans, who wanted the infallibility of popes from all time to be used as a measure to make sure that future popes didn’t abolish their order. On such funding battles are paradoxes built.
  • But on a more general principle, this podcast did educate me a lot on how the Catholic church went from a council-of-bishops based organisation to a sort of Pope-down organisation. Quite a parallel to the fall of the Roman republic (and by extension to Star Wars), and the American imperialising of the presidency. But I had never made the connection.
  • Unfortunately, listening to the podcast while driving meant that I couldn’t keep all the popes and the times they were in straight. Otherwise, this revisited a lot of the things that Millennium and Peter Brown’s The Rise of Western Christendom covered.
  • It’s somewhat exasperating that the panel waited until the podcast-only segment to point out that Popes themselves have tried to play down infallibility, with John XXIII(?) saying that he would never claim infallibility unless it was absolutely urgent; much like a nuclear deterrent.
  • Also interesting to learn from the podcast: that until the late nineteenth century most people outside the papal states had never seen the pope, and it took one Pope’s visit to Vienna to kick off the phenomenon of mass (heh!) adulation of the Pope.
  • Also, it took until very late in the podcast to get to the heart of why Papal Infallibility has non-academic significance – because of a 1960s pronouncement on contraception; which in turn was apparently not considered infallible by the Pope himself at the time, but which a British cardinal (?) claimed was infallible.
  • The above point made me think gloomily of how Dawkins’ atheism never really gets into the details of what it’s fighting.
  • Another tidbit, that it was one late nineteenth century Pope who was super reactionary and anti-modern and went raging at everything that challenged the medieval structures. Pius something if I remember right.

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