‘To err is human; to forgive, divine’ – Medieval popes and the concept of papal infallibility

By Professor Rebecca Rist.


Pope Pius IX, who in 1854 decreed the doctrine of papal infallibility in Ineffabilis Deus. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

My research focuses on the history of religious culture and the medieval papacy, and especially the relationship between popes and specific social and religious minority groups, such as Jews (in my recent book, Popes and Jews, 1095-1291), and heretics (in my current research, which you can learn about here).

One of the key tenets of papal authority is the concept of papal infallibility: that the popes, due to the authority they have been granted by God, cannot err in their solemn pronouncements. I was one of three experts – along with Professor Tim O’Loughlin and Dr Miles Pattenden – invited onto BBC Radio 4’s In Our Time to speak to host Melvyn Bragg about the development of this concept.

We discussed how the papal institution developed, how medieval popes sought to exert sovereign power over temporal rulers, and why certain groups (such as the Franciscan friars) began to make claims about papal infallibility in order to protect their own interests. We also talked about the impact of the Reformation and the Enlightenment which in some ways challenged, but in some ways reinforced, the idea of papal infallibility. Finally, we looked at the modern papacy’s adaptations of this concept. You can listen to the episode here.

If you would like to know more about this subject, you can also read two online pieces I published this week. In this article for the Conversation, I examine the question of whether Catholics today should view the pope as infallible; and in this blog post for the University’s Connecting Research, I go into a little more detail on the medieval and later history of this idea.

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