What Roman Catholics refer to as “the Dogma of Papal Infallibility” is one of the most stunning of all of RCC doctrine. According to this dogma, the Pope-when he speaks on matters concerning the church-is protected from the possibility of error. Note that it is not that what he says is always true, but something more radical is claimed: there is not even the possibility of him speaking something untrue.
When this dogma was first codified (the first Vatican Council in 1870) they obviously defined it in more constrained terms than it had been practiced through history. Now, it only applies to matters concerning “faith and morals,” and when the Pope binds “the whole Church” to the declaration. While it was codified by the First Vatican Council, it in effect has been practiced throughout much of Roman Catholic Church history.
In fact much of RCC doctrine rests on nothing other than this authority. For one clear example, in 1950 Pope Pious XII declared that Mary did not die a physical death, but was “assumed” (assunta) up to heaven. This is a teaching with no biblical evidence (although Pope John Paul II did allege that it was the fulfillment of Jesus’ promise in John 14:3), and even less credible historical evidence. Actually, no one in the first 300 years of church history had even claimed such a thing had happened.
Because it is such an important part of what separates the RCC from Protestants, an obvious question to ask is, “are there times when the Popes have contradicted each other?” If so, that would be a glaring piece of evidence that the RCC’s claims to authority and doctrine are indeed fallible.
First, let me explain why this is important to me. Discussing theology with a Catholic can be frustrating, and usually goes in one of two ways. Either they claim to believe everything I believe, but they just also claim to have an unbroken tradition of history behind them. Or they respond to my biblical objections to RCC doctrine by saying Protestants are wrong because their interpretations contradict the interpretations of the RCC, which we know to be infallible.