The Apostolic See Only Infallible Twice in History? The Catholic Church Implies Otherwise

Most Catholics today think that the infallibility of the Pope is extremely restricted and meticulously conditioned by a set of complex requirements that make for an ex cathedra decree. Bishop Vincent Gasser himself, the one who wrote the famous and influential relatio presented to the congregation of Bishops at Vatican 1 (1870), is of the belief that “thousands and thousands of dogmatic judgments have gone forth from the Apostolic See.”[1] In contrast, the majority of Catholics operate under the impression that, within the vast expanse of 2,000 years of Catholic history, the Pope has only been infallible twice. That is, in Ineffabilis Deus (1854) and Munificentissimus Deus (1950), the decrees on the immaculate creation of the Virgin Mary and her bodily assumption into heaven at the end of her earthly sojourn. It is worth taking a moment to see whether this modern perspective really stands when compared to the many statements about the power and primacy of the Apostolic See in history, including those of the Supreme Magisterium.

The first example worth looking at is the famous Libellus of Hormisdae, or the Formula of Hormisdas (519). In the 4th session of the 1st Vatican Council, the dogmatic constitution on the Church of Christ, normally referred as Pastor Aeternus, cites the Formula of Hormisdas to show forth the historical confession of the infallibility of the Apostolic See. It states:

“Moreover, that the supreme power of teaching (magisterii) is also included in the apostolic primacy, which the Roman Pontiff, as the successor of Peter, Prince of the Apostles, possesses over the whole Church, this Holy See has always held, the perpetual practice of the Church confirms, and Œcumenical Councils also have declared, especially those in which the East with the West met in the union of faith and charity. For the Fathers of the Fourth Council of Constantinople, 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 cannot be passed by, who said, ‘Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build My Church,’* these things which have been said are proved by events, because in the Apostolic See the Catholic religion has always been kept undefiled, and her well-known doctrine has been kept holy. Desiring, therefore, not to be in the least degree separated from the faith and doctrine of this 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.’”[2]

Notice how the Formula of Hormisdas which they cite from the Acts of the 8th Ecumenical Council, that of Constantinople IV (869), refers to the whole expanse of the teaching career of the Apostolic See? Every historian knows that the original libellus was made at the start of the 6th century under the Pontificate of Pope St. Hormisdas, and so when it was written then, it meant that the Apostolic See, up unto the 6th century, had been a perfect confessor of the Apostolic faith. When the same libellus was cited again in 869, the obvious implication, so it seems, is that the Apostolic See, from the beginning of the Roman Church in the 1st century, all the way up to the 9th century, the Catholic religion had always been confessed perfectly without stain or blemish. And notice how the Formula prefaces this claim with the famous Tu es Petrus promise of Matthew 16, which is a clear reference to the source upon which the Vatican Council would proceed to argue for the infallibility of the Roman Pontiff. It is clear, therefore, that the Vatican Council itself understood the Pontifical infallibility of the Bishop of Rome to be far more active in the career of the Papal institution than simply twice in the 19th and 20th centuries. Such a thought process was simply unthinkable to the Bishops present.

In the above citation from Pastor Aeternus, notice how the Council Fathers also make the claim that the declarations of the Ecumenical Councils also testify to the supreme power of teaching of the Roman Pontiff. The most explicit example of this would be from the letter of Pope St. Agatho addressed to Emperor Constantine IV which was read aloud at the 6th Ecumenical Council, that of Constantinople III (681), which was received by every Bishop and solemnly accepted in writing as found in the official Acts. St. Agatho, with a clear allusion to the Formula of Hormisdas, says the following:

“For this is the rule of the true faith, which this spiritual mother of your most tranquil empire, the Apostolic Church of Christ, has both in prosperity and in adversity always held and defended with energy; which, it will be proved, by the grace of Almighty God, has never erred from the path of the apostolic tradition, nor has she been depraved by yielding to heretical innovations, but from the beginning she has received the Christian faith from her founders, the princes of the Apostles of Christ, and remains undefiled unto the end, according to the divine promise of the Lord and Saviour himself, which he uttered in the holy Gospels to the prince of his disciples: saying, ‘Peter, Peter, behold, Satan has desired to have you, that he might sift you as wheat; but I have prayed for you, that (your) faith fail not. And when you are converted, strengthen your brethren.’ Let your tranquil Clemency therefore consider, since it is the Lord and Saviour of all, whose faith it is, that promised that Peter’s faith should not fail and exhorted him to strengthen his brethren, how it is known to all that the Apostolic pontiffs, the predecessors of my littleness, have always confidently done this very thing: of whom also our littleness, since I have received this ministry by divine designation, wishes to be the follower, although unequal to them and the least of all.”[3]

Taking from this Ecumenical Council, we see that the Pope declares that the Apostolic See had never erred from the true faith prior to his Pontificate, and that the promise of Christ to St. Peter for his faith to never fail passes on to all the Apostolic Pontiffs who occupy the Chair of Peter in Rome. More than that, this promise has proven itself in that the Roman See had never erred, nor will it ever, according to Scripture. Needless to say, neither Agatho, nor the Council who accepted this decree as its own, could possible be thought to mean that the divine promise of unfailing faith to St. Peter and his successor would only come to reality 9 centuries later when Pius IX issued Ineffabilis Deus (1854). Such an idea is simply unthinkable to Agatho, the 6th Council, and the Vatican Council (1870) which promulgated Pastor Aeternus.

The Vatican Council itself indicates very strongly that the promise of infallibility to the Roman Pontiff exceeds the narrow counting of contemporary Catholics when it says the following:

“And indeed all the venerable Fathers have embraced and the holy orthodox Doctors have venerated and followed their [Popes] apostolic doctrine; knowing most fully that this See of Saint Peter remains ever free from all blemish of error, according to the divine promise of the Lord our Saviour made to the Prince of His disciples: ‘I have prayed for thee that thy faith fail not; and when thou art converted, confirm thy brethren.’”[4]

Now, let’s think of this. The Council says that the Apostolic See “remains ever free” from error. How could a statement like this made in 1870 be thinking of the one time that this ever happened under Pius IX in his Ineffabilis Deus (1854)? Such an interpretation is simply unthinkable. It is quite obvious that this Council, seeing as how it cites the Formula of Hormisdas and refers to the declaration of the dogmatic epistle of Pope St. Agatho from the 6th Ecumenical Council, understands “remains ever free” from error to be with respect to the general and entire career of the Apostolic See since the beginning.

So the 1st Vatican Council itself cannot tolerate the minimalist-infallibism of those who assert that the Petrine charism of protection from error instances only 2 times in the history of Christianity. What about theologians? It would be sufficient here to cite the Angelic Doctor, St Thomas Aquinas. In his commentary on the Gospel according to St. Matthew’s 16th chapter, we read the following:

“And what are the gates of hell? They are the heretics: because just as through a gate one enters a house, so through these heretics one enters into hell. Likewise, they are tyrants, devils, and sins. And although other [local] Churches could be spoiled by heretics, nevertheless the Roman Church was not corrupted by the heretics, because it was founded upon a rock. Hence, in Constantinople, there were heretics, and the labor of the Apostles was lost; only the Church of Peter remained inviolate. Hence: ‘I have prayed for thee, Peter, that thy faith fail not’ (Lk. 22, 32). And this is not only ascribed to the Church of Peter, but also to the faith of Peter, and also to the whole western Church. Hence, I believe that the western faithful ought to have more reverence to Peter than to the other Apostles.”[5]

Notice here that Aquinas understands the charism of divine infallibility from the Lukan passage “that your faith may fail not” pertains to the whole career of the Roman Church. Notice also he contrasts this with the See of Constantinople which had ventured into heretical confessions here and there. The contrast makes it clear that Aquinas has in mind the general and entire ministry of Peter’s See, and it would be simply unthinkable for him to conceive the Pope being infallible only twice in its entire career, as is held by many today. Further, in his Summa Theologiae, Aquinas makes it unmistakably clear that he thinks the act of adding the Filioque to the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed was an action protected by the Petrine charism of infallibility:

“Now this belongs to the authority of the Sovereign Pontiff, ‘to whom the more important and more difficult questions that arise in the Church are referred,’ as stated in the Decretals [Dist. xvii, Can. 5. Hence our Lord said to Peter whom he made Sovereign Pontiff (Luke 22:32): ‘I have prayed for thee,’ Peter, ‘that thy faith fail not, and thou, being once converted, confirm thy brethren.’ The reason of this is that there should be but one faith of the whole Church, according to 1 Corinthians 1:10: ‘That you all speak the same thing, and that there be no schisms among you’: and this could not be secured unless any question of faith that may arise be decided by him who presides over the whole Church, so that the whole Church may hold firmly to his decision. Consequently it belongs to the sole authority of the Sovereign Pontiff to publish a new edition of the symbol, as do all other matters which concern the whole Church, such as to convoke a general council and so forth.”[6]

St. Robert Bellarmine, following precisely the same line of thought of St. Thomas Aquinas, states the following:

“… it is certain that all patriarchal sees so fell from the faith that heretics sat in them teaching others their heresy, with the exception of the Roman See… No such thing can be shown from the Roman Church, from which it appears that the Lord truly prayed for it lest its faith would fail.” [7]

St. Robert Bellarmine goes on to recount the condemnations of certain heresies by the Apostolic See and then asserts that in such decrees, the Pope is free from all error:

“The second thing which experience shows is that the Roman Pontiff has condemned a great many heresies without a general council, namely that of Pelagius, Priscilla, Jovinian, Vigilantius, and many others, whom the whole Church held as true heretics and shuddered at them simply because the Roman Church had condemned them. Therefore, it is a sign that the whole Church believes that the Roman Pontiff cannot err in matters of this sort.”[8]

These persons were various heretics in the 4th century, and still Bellarmine adds “and many others,” which means we can assume he means that whenever the Roman Pontiff has issued a condemnation of a heresy on an official level. In any case, it is clear that Bellarmine, writing in the 16th to 17th centuries, thought that the Apostolic See never fell into heresy like the other Patriarchal sees, and that it was infallible in its declarations on doctrine, especially those which condemn heresies. That would definitely exceed the two times that many Catholics today believe the Roman Pontiff taught infallibly (1854/1950). Such a view is simply unthinkable according to St. Robert Bellarmine.

So here we have the 1st Vatican Council, the Formula of Hormisdas, the 6th Ecumenical Council, Gasser’s Relatio, St. Thomas Aquinas, and St. Robert Bellarmine all stating very clearly and explicitly that the infallible teaching of the Roman Pontiff far exceeds such a narrow and minimalistic view that would envision this happening only twice 1800 years after the Church began on the day of Pentecost. The Formula of Hormisdas speaks quite generally, that the Petrine ministry of Rome had been perfect from St. Peter’s time up to the Pontificate of Hormisdas, and then to the Pontificate of Hadrian II, when the Formula was cited in the Acts of Constantinople IV (869). Pope St. Agatho and the 6th Ecumenical Council speak quite generally, but with more specificity, in that the Pope says all of his predecessors in the Apostolic See testified to the truth under the protection of the promise of Christ on behalf of St. Peter’s faith, that it may not fail. The Vatican Council itself states that the Roman See “ever free from error” which seems to be the broadest and most general scope of the examples provided. St. Thomas Aquinas looks at the promise of Christ to give the Petrine charism of unfailing faith to St. Peter and sees it proven and active in that Rome, as opposed to Constantinople, had never succumbed to a heretical confession, and even implies that the Roman interpolation of Filioque into the Creed was protected from error. Finally St. Robert Bellarmine, much like Aquinas, sees the Petrine charism extended generally over time, as opposed to the moments where other Patriarchs fell into heresy, and also was explicit that Rome is protected from error when condemning the heresies of heretics through official decrees.

Now, what might be going through the mind of readers is that this isn’t what their RCIA instructor or Priest told them, or that there are clear facts from history which show that Popes issued heretical decrees. Also, if there aren’t only two times where the Pope is infallible, then where is the correct list of the right amount of times? This article doesn’t have the space do venture into each and every single question and objection, although the plan is to produce forth coming articles dedicated to the responses I receive from this one. However, the intention of this short article is two-fold. First, to simply to show that the prevalent idea of Papal infallibility only kicking into action twice in the Church’s 2,000 years history, the first time being 1854, is simply absurd when examined through the lenses of the above sources. And secondly, that the assumption and expectation should be that the decrees of the Holy See are protected from error generally and in its entire teaching ministry. The correct frame of mind for a traditional, historical, and Patristic Catholic was aptly described by a friend Professor Daniel Castellano in his short article Obsessing Over Infallibility. If the reader has not already been shocked by the data provided thus far, surely the following citation from St. John Paul II will cause shock, and here I’ll end with it. In a General Audience on March 24, 1993, he quite plainly stated that even outside of ex cathedra definitions, which themselves are extraordinary and exceptional, the Roman Pontiff enjoys infallible protection in doctrine:

Alongside this infallibility of ex cathedra definitions , there is the charism of assistance of the Holy Spirit, granted to Peter and his successors so that they do not err in matters of faith and morals and instead give good illumination to the Christian people. This charism is not limited to exceptional cases, but encompasses the entire exercise of the magisterium to varying degrees.


[1] Ibid., 51; [emphasis added].

[2] McNabb, V. (Ed.). (1907). The Decrees of the Vatican Council (pp. 43–44). New York: Benziger Brothers.

[3] Letter of Pope Agatho, NPNF, 2nd series, Vol. 14, http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/3813.htm.

[4] McNabb, V. (Ed.). (1907). The Decrees of the Vatican Council (pp. 45–46). New York: Benziger Brothers.

[5] Commentary on the Gospel of St. Matthew, Ch. 16; trans. Rev. Paul M. Kimball (Dolorosa Press, 2012).

[6] Summa Theologiae, II II, art. 10, New Advent,  https://www.newadvent.org/summa/3001.htm#article10.

[7] St. Robert Bellarmine, S.J., De Controversiis: On the Roman Pontiff, Vol: II, Books 3-5, trans. Ryan Grant (Mediatrix Press, 2016), 163-64; [emphasis added].

[8] Ibid.; [emphasis added].

1 thought on “The Apostolic See Only Infallible Twice in History? The Catholic Church Implies Otherwise

  1. Pingback: “Ah! But it’s not Ex Cathedra”: A Test of Congruence between Traditionalists and Vatican 1 as influenced by Bishop Gasser’s Relatio | Erick Ybarra

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