Summary of “The Indefectibility of the Roman Pontiff”

This post is a summary of my book: The Indefectibility of the Roman Pontiff

Which Popes Are Valid?

The three conditions for a valid papacy are:
1. valid election;
2. free acceptance of the office;
3. ordination to the episcopal degree (as a Bishop).

What if the conditions of an election are disputed, and some of the faithful propose that the election and the Roman Pontiff are not valid? The doctrine called the indefectibility of the Church means that the Church can never fail in any way. Therefore, God does not permit an invalid Pope to be accepted by the body of Bishops. If a newly-elected Pope is accepted by the body of Bishops, this confirms the validity of his election and his papacy as a dogmatic fact.

Is the Pope an Office or a Person?

The Roman Pontiff is not merely an office, but a person. Therefore, the protections given to the Roman Pontiff do not only protect his official decisions, but also his mind and heart, and his whole person. The Lord Jesus protects not only the office, but also the person of the Pope from certain types of sins and errors, even within his very soul.

God’s grace, then, protects each and every Roman Pontiff, as a person, from committing those types of sin which are entirely incompatible with the theological gift of faith. The sins against faith are three: apostasy, heresy, and schism. No Pope can commit apostasy, heresy, or schism, not even hidden in his heart and mind, not even if that failure of faith has no effect on the teaching of the Pope or his decisions for the Church.

How can this occur, since each Pope is a fallen sinner who has free will? The prevenient grace of God affects all of us. It is a type of grace which operates apart from free will. We each receive prevenient grace, and we cannot refuse it. The very worst sinners as well as the holiest Saints, and everyone in-between, receive prevenient grace.

Infallible Teachings

When a teaching meets the conditions for Papal Infallibility, it is certainly true. Such teachings are not subject to the judgment or approval of anyone. And anyone who offers a theological argument, however sound it may appear to be, to the contrary, is nevertheless a heretic. We are called by faith to believe all of the teachings of Sacred Tradition, of Sacred Scripture, and all of the infallible teachings of the Magisterium — whether those teachings seem right to us or not.

The Broken Bowl Argument

Some say that the protections from error and sin given to each Roman Pontiff do not apply once a valid Roman Pontiff commits an error, the penalty for which is automatic excommunication. He is excommunicated; therefore, he is no longer a member of the Church; he is no longer Pope. And the protections in question are only given to Popes. That is the argument.

The refutation of that argument is an analogy. A person gives you the gift of an unbreakable bowl. The gift-giver says: “This bowl can never be broken, no matter what may happen.” Then, when you drop the bowl, it shatters into a thousand pieces. You ask, “How can this be?” And the answer is: “When broken, it is no longer a bowl; therefore, it is no longer an unbreakable bowl.” But such an answer is absurd. The property of being unbreakable would be meaningless and useless in such a case.

The same applies to the Roman Pontiff. If the Pope is only protected from error until he commits a grave error, which then makes him no longer Pope, that is a useless type of protection. It is like the bowl that is only unbreakable when it is not broken.

Can Non-infallible Teachings of the Pope Err?

Only to a limited extent. All grave errors are prevented, even in non-infallible teachings of the Roman Pontiff, for the sake of the indefectibility of the Church and the salvation of souls.

It is contrary to the indefectibility of the Church for God’s grace to permit the Pope, or the body of Bishops with the Pope, to teach, even under the ordinary non-infallible magisterium, any grave error. The Church goes astray (defects) if She teaches heresy or any error so grave as to endanger the salvation of souls. Therefore, the Pope at any time, an Ecumenical Council at any time, and the body of Bishops when teaching as a body with the Pope, can never teach heresy nor any grave error on faith or morals. Otherwise, the Church would not be indefectible.

Can His Personal Opinions Err?

If a Pope could commit apostasy, heresy, or schism, even hidden in his heart and mind, his faith would have failed. But the First Vatican Council taught, infallibly, what was previously the opinion of Doctor of the Church Saint Robert Bellarmine that each Pope has the gift of truth and a never-failing faith.

And since the First Vatican Council has already decided the question, it is no longer open for debate. Every Pope has the “gift of truth and never-failing faith” which is “divinely conferred on Peter and his successors”. Whosoever says otherwise contradicts the dogma of an Ecumenical Council.

And how does this apply to the personal theological opinions of the Roman Pontiff? The gifts are given to the person, and the person cannot in any way be a heretic. This implies that the Pope cannot adhere to heresy, whether it is hidden in his heart and mind, or expressed as a theological opinion. So while the opinions of the Pope can err, they cannot err to the extent of heresy.

Accusations of Heresy

The gift of truth prevents each valid Pope from teaching heresy and other grave errors (which, though grave, fall short of heresy). The same gift prevents the Pope from teaching heresy or grave error as a personal theological opinion. For the harm done even if such an error were proposed as opinion would be contrary to the indefectibility of the Church.

It is a dogma of the First Vatican Council and a dogma of the ordinary and universal Magisterium that each Pope has the gift of truth, that is, of immunity from grave error, and the gift of a never-failing faith. No Pope can ever teach heresy, nor commit apostasy, heresy, or schism.

The Roman Pontiff has the gift of truth and a never-failing faith, so he cannot propagate heresy with any degree of awareness, nor even inadvertently. The Pope is also incapable of upholding heresy, directly, nor in any substantial, though indirect, manner.

Personal Mortal Sins

The prevenient grace of God does not prevent the Roman Pontiff from committing objective mortal sin, nor actual mortal sin. But for the sake of the indefectibility of the Church, not every type of sin or error is permitted by God. Otherwise, the Church would not be a reliable guide on the path of salvation, and the Popes would not be the Rock on which the indefectibility of the Church is founded. Therefore, God does prevent the Popes from committing certain kinds of mortal sins, those that would harm the indefectibility of the Church, harm the Faith, or lead astray the faithful.

The Body of Bishops

Jesus prayed for Peter, so that, once he became Pope, his faith would never fail.

{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.”

The indefectibility of the Roman Pontiff is based on the promise of Jesus, our Lord, to Peter in Sacred Scripture. But notice that the promise includes mention of the body of Bishops: “strengthen your brethren.” The Lord Jesus does not pray only for each Pope, but also for his brethren, the Bishops. And this implies that a similar gift of truth and never-failing faith is given to the Bishops, though only as a body, not individually.

The Bishops are protected, only as a body, from teaching heresy and grave error, and from committing apostasy, heresy, or schism.


The indefectibility of the Church necessarily implies that both the Roman Pontiff and the body of Bishops are indefectible. For the Pope and the Bishops are the teachers and leaders of the Church. If they were to go astray, then the Church could not be said to have retained Her indefectibility.

The Church is like the Blessed Virgin Mary, full of grace. The Pope is preserved by grace from heresy and grave error, from the sins of apostasy, heresy, and schism, and from any grave sin that would substantially harm the Church, the Faith, or the salvation of souls. The Bishops are similarly guarded by grace, but only as a body. And the history of the Church, despite Popes and Bishops who have sinned gravely in many ways, has shown this preservation in grace to be true and full. For even the most sinful Popes did not commit the sins and errors that are prevented by the prevenient grace of God for the sake of the indefectibility of the Church.

Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian and translator of the Catholic Public Domain Version of the Bible.

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