Dogma: Popes Can Never Fail in Faith or Err Gravely

It is a dogma of the Catholic Faith that every Roman Pontiff has the charism of truth and of never-failing faith. This charism preserves every Pope from heresy, even privately, and from teaching heresy, even materially. The same charism preserves the Pope from grave errors in both doctrine and discipline. For the two Keys of Peter are of one Authority in Christ.

The verse from the Gospel of Luke, in which Jesus reveals that He has obtained through prayer that the faith of Peter may not fail, has always been interpreted by the Church as referring to the never-failing faith of every successor of Peter as well.

{22:32} But I have prayed for you, so that your faith may not fail, and so that you, once converted, may confirm your brothers.”

This teaching of the Gospel, from the words, prayer, and promise of our Savior, Jesus Christ, is the source of the magisterial dogma that no Roman Pontiff can ever fail in faith. This teaching is found in the Letter of Pope Saint Agatho, accepted by the Sixth Ecumenical Council, and in the dogmatic teaching of the First Vatican Council, which was confirmed by the Second Vatican Council. It is also found in many magisterial teachings throughout the history of the Church, and in the teaching of many Saints. This article summarizes all those teachings on the never-failing faith of Peter and his successors.

Vatican I, Pastor Aeternus, chapter 4, n. 6: “For the Holy Spirit was promised to the successors of Peter not so that they might, by his revelation, make known some new doctrine, but that, by his assistance, they might religiously guard and faithfully expound the revelation or deposit of faith transmitted by the apostles. Indeed, their apostolic teaching was embraced by all the venerable fathers and reverenced and followed by all the holy orthodox doctors, for they knew very well that this See of St. Peter always remains unblemished by any error, in accordance with the divine promise of our Lord and Savior to the prince of his disciples: ‘I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail; and when you have turned again, strengthen your brethren’ [Lk 22:32].

Vatican I, Pastor Aeternus, chapter 4, n. 7: “This gift of truth and never-failing faith was therefore divinely conferred on Peter and his successors in this See so that they might discharge their exalted office for the salvation of all, and so that the whole flock of Christ might be kept away by them from the poisonous food of error and be nourished with the sustenance of heavenly doctrine. Thus the tendency to schism is removed and the whole Church is preserved in unity, and, resting on its foundation, can stand firm against the gates of Hell.”

~ Commentary: Since Vatican I taught that the teaching of the Roman Pontiff is only infallible when certain criteria are met, teachings short of those criteria are termed non-infallible, and can err. However, the indefectibility of the Church and the unblemished nature Apostolic See, as well as the requirement of submission to the Roman Pontiff under pain of schism and excommunication; that the First See is judged by no one; the absence of any appeal to any other authority on earth; the role of the Roman Pontiff to confirm true doctrine and dispel heresy; the Pope’s supreme, full, immediate, and universal ordinary power over the entire Church; and finally the teaching that Christ and His Vicar constitute one only Head of the one Church, which is the sole Ark of Salvation, all these teachings and truths support the understanding that the errors possible in non-infallible teachings of the Papal Magisterium are limited by the prevenient grace of God to be less than grave. Since non-infallible errors are non-irreformable, less than grave, can be corrected by subsequent Popes or Councils, and do not require the full assent of faith, but only require religious assent, with the possibility of limited licit theological dissent, such errors do not rise to the level of a blemish on the Apostolic See. Thus, it is truly taught by Vatican I that the Apostolic See is unblemished by any [grave] error.

Pope Saint Lucius I, Martyr, 253-254: “The Roman Apostolic Church is the mother of all Churches and has never been shown to have wandered from the path of Apostolic tradition, nor being deformed, succumbed to heretical novelties according to the promise of the Lord himself, saying, ‘I have prayed for thee, etc.’ [Lk 22:32]”

~ The promise of never-failing faith to Peter is what keeps the Roman Church, the Apostolic See, from going astray and from succumbing to heresy.

Pope Saint Felix I, 269-274, speaking on the Roman Church: “As it took up in the beginning the norm of the Christian Faith from its authors, the Princes of the Apostles of Christ, She remains unsullied according to what the Lord said: ‘I have prayed for thee, etc.’ [Lk 22:32]”

~ The Christian Faith remains unsullied due to the never-failing faith of Peter.

Saint Theodoret of Antioch, c. 360: “This holy See holds the reign of the Churches of the world, not only on account of other things, but also because she remains free from the heretical stench.”

~ The See of Peter remains always free from heresy; for the gift of never-failing faith protects the Roman Pontiff from any grave failure of faith: apostasy, heresy, schism, or idolatry.

Pope Damasus I, c. 380: “The First See, therefore, is that of Peter the Apostle, that of the Roman Church, which has neither stain nor blemish nor anything like it.”

~ The freedom from stain and blemish and anything like it, of the Roman Church or Apostolic See is due to the protection the grace of God provides to Peter and his successors, preserving them from grave errors on doctrine and discipline.

Saint Cyril, Archbishop of Alexandria, AD 412: “According to this promise of the Lord, the Apostolic Church of Peter remains pure and spotless from all leading into error, or heretical fraud, above all Heads and Bishops, and Primates of Churches and people, with its own Pontiffs, with most abundant faith, and the authority of Peter. And while other Churches have to blush for the error of some of their members, this [See of Peter] reigns alone, immovably established, enforcing silence, and stopping the mouths of all heretics; and we, from the necessity of salvation, not drunken with the wine of pride, confess, together with it, the formula of truth and of the holy apostolic tradition.”

~ The promise of the Lord to Peter of never-failing faith keeps the Apostolic See free from “all leading into error” including heresy. The role of Peter and his successors in silencing heretics requires this gift of unfailing faith.

Pope Saint Gelasius I, 492-496, epistle to the Emperor Anastasius: “This is what the Apostolic See guards against with all her strength because the glorious confession of the Apostle is the root of the world, so that she is polluted by no crack of depravity and altogether no contagion. For if such a thing would ever occur (which may God forbid and we trust cannot be), why would we make bold to resist any error?”

~ The Apostolic See is free from every trace of doctrinal depravity and spiritual contagion. For the charism of truth and of never-failing faith, as Vatican I later taught, has preserved every Roman Pontiff in the true faith.

The example of Pope Vigilius, d. 555, as related by Saint Bellarmine: “It happened a little afterward, that [Pope] Sylverius died and Vigilius, who to that point sat in schism, now began to be the sole and legitimate Pontiff for certain through the confirmation and reception by the clergy and the Roman people. From this time neither error nor feigning of error was discovered in Vigilius, but rather, supreme constancy in the faith even to death, as it shall appear. For he received with the pontificate the strength of faith and he was changed from a weak chaff into the most solid rock.”

~ What a thoroughly clear proof of the power of grace in the Roman Pontiffs! An antipope who taught manifest heresy became the true Pope, and he was immediately changed by grace into a Rock of never-failing faith.

Saint Gregory the Great, 590-604: “Who does not know that the whole Church was strengthened in the firmness of the Prince of the Apostles, to whom it was said, ‘Upon this rock I will build my Church … and thou, being converted, confirm thy brethren?’ [Mt 16:18; Lk 22:32] ” [Lib. 7, epist. 37 ad Eulogium] Saint Bellarmine: “There Gregory clearly teaches the strength of the Church depends upon the strength of Peter, and hence Peter is less able to err than the Church herself.”

~ The charism of truth and of never-failing faith includes freedom from grave error, which would be contrary to truth, and freedom from all grave failures of faith. And since the indefectible Church is founded on Peter, he also has the gift of indefectibility. For an indefectible Church cannot be founded upon a Rock which can go astray or lead astray.

Pope Pelagius II, 590 AD, writing to the Bishops of Istria: “For you know how the Lord in the Gospel declares: ‘Simon, Simon, behold Satan has desired you that he might sift you as wheat, but I have prayed to the Father for thee, that thy faith fail not, and thou, being converted, confirm thy brethren.’ [Lk 22:32] See, beloved, the truth cannot be falsified, nor can the faith of Peter ever be shaken or changed.”

~ The faith of Peter can never be shaken or changed; this teaching recurs again and again in Church history, proving that it is a dogma under the ordinary universal Magisterium.

Pope Saint Agatho, Letter accepted by the Sixth Ecumenical Council, 680: Peter, “under whose protecting shield, this Apostolic Church of his has never turned away from the path of truth in any direction of error…whose authority, as that of the Prince of all the Apostles, the whole Catholic Church and the Ecumenical Synods have faithfully embraced and followed in all things…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 Savior himself, which he uttered in the holy Gospels to the prince of his disciples: saying, ‘Peter, Peter, behold, Satan hath desired to have you, that he might sift you as wheat; but I have prayed for thee, that (thy) faith fail not. And when thou art converted, strengthen thy brethren.’ [Lk 22:32] Let your tranquil Clemency therefore consider, since it is the Lord and Savior 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….that they might not make themselves aliens froth our communion, that is from the communion of blessed Peter the Apostle, whose ministry, we (though unworthy) exercise, and preach the faith he has handed down….”

Pope Saint Leo IX, 1053 AD: “By the See of the Chief of the Apostles, namely by the Roman Church, through the same Peter, as well as through his successors, have not the comments of all the heretics been disapproved, rejected, and overcome, and the hearts of the brethren in the faith of Peter — which so far neither has failed, nor up to the end will fail — been strengthened?”

Pope Saint Leo IX, 1049-54, in an Epistle to Peter of Antioch: “Without a doubt, it was for he alone whom the Lord and Savior asserted that he prayed that his faith would not fail, saying, ‘I have prayed for thee, etc.’ [Lk 22:32]. Such a venerable and efficacious prayer obtained that to this point the faith of Peter has not failed, nor can it be believed that it is ever going to fail in his throne.”

Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, 1090-1153: “It is fitting that every danger and scandal of the kingdom of God be referred to your Apostolate and especially these which touch upon the faith. For I regard it worthy that there, above all, dangers to the faith are mended, where one cannot think the faith is lacking. For to what other See was it ever said: ‘I have prayed for thee, that thy faith not fail?’ [Lk 22:32]”

Pope Innocent III, 1198-1216, Epistle to the Bishop of Arles: “The Fathers, for the sake of the Church, understood especially in regard to articles of faith that those words refer to the See of Peter, who knew the Lord had prayed for him, lest his faith would fail.”

Pope Boniface VIII, Unam Sanctam, 1302: “Moreover, that every human creature is to be subject to the Roman pontiff, we declare, we state, we define, and we pronounce to be entirely from the necessity of salvation.”

Fifth Lateran Council, 1517: “It arises from the necessity of salvation that all the faithful of Christ are to be subject to the Roman Pontiff.”

~ Salvation would not require subjection to the Roman Pontiff, if any Roman Pontiff could fail in faith by apostasy, heresy, or idolatry.

Pope Gregory XI (1377), Condemned the Error that “19. An ecclesiastic, even the Roman Pontiff, can legitimately be corrected, and even accused, by subjects and lay persons.”

~ Those who today accuse Pope Francis and many other Popes, as well as Ecumenical Councils, of grave error do not have any authority to judge or condemn.

The Council of Florence 1438 AD taught that the “Roman Church”, meaning the Apostolic See of the Roman Pontiffs, is always free from error: “the most illustrious profession of the Roman Church about the truth of the faith, which has always been pure from all stain of error.”

~ This teaching of an Ecumenical Council must be understood, as explained above, to preclude all grave error in non-infallible teachings, and all error whatsoever in infallible teachings.

Saint Bellarmine, d. 1621: “Now our adversaries respond that the Church ought to hear him [the Roman Pontiff] so long as he teaches correctly, for God must be heard more than men. On the other hand, who will judge whether the Pope has taught rightly or not? For it is not for the sheep to judge whether the shepherd wanders off, not even and especially in those matters which are truly doubtful. Nor do Christian sheep have any greater judge or teacher to whom they might have recourse. As we showed above, from the whole Church one can appeal to the Pope; yet from him no one is able to appeal; therefore necessarily the whole Church will err, if the Pontiff would err.”

~ All the foolish and arrogant persons who accuse Popes of grave error never consider that they themselves may be the ones who have erred. Since the Church cannot go astray or lead astray, by any grave error, neither can the Head and foundation of the Church go astray or lead astray.

Saint Robert Bellarmine, interpreting Lk 22:32: “Therefore, the true exposition is that the Lord asked for two privileges for Peter…. The second privilege is that he, as the Pope, could never teach something against the faith, or that there would never be found one in his See who would teach against the true faith. From these privileges, we see that the first did not remain to his successors, but the second without a doubt did.”

~ Bellarmine believed that no Pope could ever teach heresy.

Bellarmine: “The first [opinion] is of Albert Pighius, who contends that the Pope cannot be a heretic, and hence would not be deposed in any case: such an opinion is probable, and can easily be defended, as we will show in its proper place.”

Bellarmine: “THE FOURTH proposition. It is probable and may piously be believed that not only as ‘Pope’ can the Supreme Pontiff not err, but he cannot be a heretic even as a particular person by pertinaciously believing something false against the faith.

“It is proved: 1) because it seems to require the sweet disposition of the providence of God. For the Pope not only should not, but cannot preach heresy, but rather should always preach the truth. He will certainly do that, since the Lord commanded him to confirm his brethren, and for that reason added: “I have prayed for thee, that thy faith shall not fail,” that is, that at least the preaching of the true faith shall not fail in thy throne. How, I ask, will a heretical Pope confirm the brethren in faith and always preach the true faith? Certainly God can wrench the confession of the true faith out of the heart of a heretic just as he placed the words in the mouth of Balaam’s ass. Still, this will be a great violence, and not in keeping with the providence of God that sweetly disposes all things.

“2) It is proved ab eventu. For to this point no [Pontiff] has been a heretic, or certainly it cannot be proven that any of them were heretics; therefore it is a sign that such a thing cannot be.” [Bellarmine, Robert. On the Roman Pontiff, vol. 2: Books III-V (De Controversiis) (p. 171). Mediatrix Press. Kindle Edition.]

~ The preservation of the Roman Pontiff from heresy is part of his charism of truth and of never-failing faith, promised to Peter and his successors.

Cardinal Manning, 1870: “The application of the promise ‘Ego rogavi pro te,’ [“I have prayed for you”] etc. to the infallible faith of Peter and his successors, is made by St. Ambrose, St. Augustine, St. Leo, St. Gelasius, Pelagius II., St. Gregory the Great, Stephen Bishop of Dori in a Lateran Council [of 649, not Ecumenical], St. Vitalian, the Bishops of the IV Ecumenical Council AD 451 [Chalcedon], St. Agatho in the VI. AD 680 [Constantinople III], St. Bernard AD 1153, St. Thomas Aquinas AD 1274, St. Bonaventure AD 1274: that is, this interpretation is given by three out of the four Doctors of the Church, by six Pontiffs down to the seventh century. It was recognized in two Ecumenical Councils. It is expressly declared by the Angelic Doctor, who may be taken as the exponent of the Dominican school, and by the Seraphic Doctor, who is likewise the witness of the Franciscan; and by a multitude of Saints.”

Cardinal Manning, 1870: “The interpretation by the Fathers of the words ‘On this rock,’ etc. is fourfold, but all four interpretations are not more than four aspects of one and the same truth, and all are necessary to complete its full meaning. They all implicitly or explicitly contain the perpetual stability of Peter’s faith….”

Cardinal Manning, 1870: “In these two promises [Lk 22:32, Mt 16:18] a divine assistance is pledged to Peter and to his successors, and that divine assistance is promised to secure the stability and indefectibility of the Faith in the supreme Doctor and Head of the Church, for the general good of the Church itself.”

Pope Leo XIII, 1890: “And since all Christians must be closely united in the communion of one immutable faith, Christ the Lord, in virtue of His prayers, obtained for Peter that in the fulfilment of his office he should never fall away from the faith. ‘But I have asked for thee that thy faith fail not’ [Luke 22:32], and He furthermore commanded him to impart light and strength to his brethren as often as the need should arise: ‘Confirm thy brethren’ [ibid.]. He willed then that he whom He had designated as the foundation of the Church should be the defense of its faith. ‘Could not Christ who confided to him the Kingdom by His own authority have strengthened the faith of the one whom He designated a Rock to show the foundation of the Church?’ [St. Ambrose, De Fide, bk. 4, n. 56].”

Blessed Pope Pius IX, 1873, on those who reject the teachings of the First Vatican Council: “Incredibly, they boldly affirm that the Roman Pontiff and all the bishops, the priests and the people conjoined with him in the unity of faith and communion fell into heresy when they approved and professed the definitions of the Ecumenical Vatican Council. Therefore they deny also the indefectibility of the Church and blasphemously declare that it has perished throughout the world and that its visible Head and the bishops have erred.” [Etsi Multa 22]

Pope Pius XII, 1943: “That Christ and His Vicar constitute one only Head is the solemn teaching of Our predecessor of immortal memory Boniface VIII in the Apostolic Letter Unam Sanctam; and his successors have never ceased to repeat the same.”

~ Since Jesus, the Son of God, and each Roman Pontiff, “constitute only one Head” of the indefectible Church, it cannot be the case that any Roman Pontiff fails in faith by heresy, apostasy, or idolatry. For then that failure of faith would be of the Church, and of Christ himself, which is not possible.

Pope Pius XII, 1943: “They, therefore, walk in the path of dangerous error who believe that they can accept Christ as the Head of the Church, while not adhering loyally to His Vicar on earth. They have taken away the visible head, broken the visible bonds of unity and left the Mystical Body of the Redeemer so obscured and so maimed, that those who are seeking the haven of eternal salvation can neither see it nor find it.”

~ Those who refuse to adhere loyally to the visible Head of the Church, the Roman Pontiff, are rejecting Christ himself, the invisible Head of the Church.


How many times does the Church have to teach the same teaching, before you will believe it?

From all of the above teachings, it is clear that each Roman Pontiff has the charism of truth and of never-failing faith, such that he can never fall into heresy, apostasy, or idolatry. This teaching is found in Vatican I as well as in the perennial teaching of the ordinary universal Magisterium. And this charism preserves the Pope not only from heresy, but also from grave errors on doctrine and discipline. For the authority of the Roman Pontiff is one authority in Christ; it cannot be the case that the authority of the Pope is corrupt in discipline, but pure in doctrine, nor vice versa. The One Head of the indefectible Church must be fully indefectible himself.

Ronald L. Conte Jr.

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9 Responses to Dogma: Popes Can Never Fail in Faith or Err Gravely

  1. John says:

    Outstanding work, thanks for this. I’m very interested in Indefectibility – specifically a list of things that would constitute a defection such as the Body of Bishops selecting a pope who intends on destroying the church. What are some resources for the teaching? I have been reading Arthur Devin The Creed Explained which seems good but i don’t know who he is. Is there something like this article for “the gates of hell shall not prevail” or other explicit verses from our Lord that prove the indefectibility of the Church and referenced by Fathers, Saints, Popes, Doctors to show indefectibility?

    • Ron Conte says:

      I’m writing a book on the subject. Available soon.
      Until then, see this article:

    • Carn says:

      To be clear the Pope cannot speak hearsay WHEN he is speaking ex- cathedral. That is the only time a Catholic must listen.

    • Ron Conte says:

      False. The Church is indefectible. The Pope has the charism of truth and never failing faith, and the apostolic see is unblemished by any grave error. So the infallible teachings of the Pope are free from all error, and the non-infallible teachings are free from grave error. Then we have an obligation to accept even ordinary non-infallible papal teachings.

      The Syllabus of Errors issued by Blessed Pope Pius IX:
      Condemned Error: “22. The obligation by which Catholic teachers and authors are strictly bound is confined to those things only which are proposed to universal belief as dogmas of faith by the infallible judgment of the Church.”

  2. decker2003 says:

    You write: “Since non-infallible errors are non-irreformable, less than grave, can be corrected by subsequent Popes or Councils, and do not require the full assent of faith, but only require religious assent, with the possibility of limited licit theological dissent, such errors do not rise to the level of a blemish on the Apostolic See. ” This seems to say that if a non-infallible teaching contains error, that error is not “grave”, precisely because it is presented as non-infallible and reformable, and requires only religious assent, not faith. Is that your position? Can one imagine a teaching which would be both “grave error” and non-infallible?

    • Ron Conte says:

      Yes, a non-infallible teaching could hypothetically be grave. What I’m saying is that, given an error that is less than grave, the other factors (reformable, not requiring full assent, etc.) cause such errors not to be said to detract from the unblemished Apostolic See.

  3. decker2003 says:

    I’m still not following you. Please clarify:
    1. Can one – hypothetically – imagine an error in a non-infallible teaching which would not be heretical, but be a “grave” error? The example that comes to mind for me is to teach an erroneous position regarding a matter of faith and morals in a non-infallible manner before the magisterium has taught definitively on the question.
    2. If so, would the other factors you mention (reformable, not requiring full assent, etc.) cause such errors not to be said to detract from the unblemished Apostolic See?

    • Ron Conte says:

      The error itself must not be grave. A grave error does not become possible as a teaching due to the other factors. Popes are not permitted by God to teach grave errors or heresy. #1 sounds like a grave error that is not heretical; but a pope could not teach such a thing.

      What I’m saying is that the error is less than grave AND the reason the Church can teach that the Apostolic See is unblemished “by any error” is that these less than grave errors are reduced further by the other factors, so as not to be considered blemishes. But the error must always be less than grave.

  4. Alex says:

    Here comes to mind how we define a sin. Was it a sin for Abraham to have two wives? Was it a sin for David to have several wives? The list is long. Yes we prefer to skip those inconvenient questions saying it was the customs at that time. But still we call Abraham our father in faith in the eucharistic prayer N1, yes? Still we read the Psalms of St David, yes?

    Jesus said to Peter “whatever you lose…” for a good reason. Furthermore, Jesus told the disciples at the Supper that there were more things (than those already revealed by Him directly) that they could not bear them by that time, but that the Holy Spirit would tell them later.

    In other words, it is not we to determine what is a sin. It is the successor of Peter to say that. Therefore, all our reasoning could, did, or will a pope err gravely, disregards those words of Jesus that it is Peter who decides what to lose and what to bound and not vice versus. Even the Heaven accepts the decisions of the appointed Peter by Jesus. It is not we, not the tradition, not the saints, not even the Church fathers those who were not popes. It is Peter at the time being, in every century, up until the Second Coming of Jesus.
    I’d wish somehow the conservatives who believe they are always right and hold the truth that is complete in their grasp, to somehow begin to understand it is not they who hold the Tree, and the Tree was planted by God, not by the tradition. That God is above them and above the tradition as well. Jesus has harsh words about those who kept the Sabbath at the expense of the brotherly love, and the common sense.

    So no, the pope does not err gravely. It is those who opposed Vatican I, then Vatican II, then the subsequent popes, who err gravely even mortally. Let they repent until they still have time, and let they stop pretend to teaching others. They are not popes and never will be.

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