The pope holds a unique position in all the world. No other existing religious or civic government has a leader of an office that has lasted for two thousand years like the Chair of St. Peter. No other religious leader represents over one billion people in a successive role founded by Jesus Christ Himself. What leader of such a longstanding organization with such massive global proportions and authority can rightfully claim to possess the charism of infallibility?

The successor of Peter uniquely fills a successive role founded by Jesus Christ Himself—to be the rock upon which the Church is built, to be the keeper of the kingdom’s keys (Matthew 16:17-19), to be the shepherd of God’s flock (John 21:15-17), and to be the visible source of unity and protector of the deposit of truth. The pope and the structure of the Church are ordained by God to maintain Christ’s visible presence and unity among the faithful.

Since the pope has the charism of infallibility, some feel that it is schismatic or heretical to question, challenge, or criticize the pope, even when he is not exercising that charism within the strictly defined conditions. Since the Church does claim that the pope has the special gift from Christ as the successor of St. Peter (CCC 891), we must ask what this infallibility consists of and if this pope, or any pope, is then beyond scrutiny and criticism?

Infallibility is a concept and power that must be defined. For example, it does not mean a pope is impeccable. Nor does it mean that everything he says or does is without error. He cannot predict baseball scores or next week’s weather. His charism of infallibility is carefully defined by the Church as to what it is and what it is not.

According to the Catechism (citing Vatican I),

The Roman Pontiff, head of the college of bishops, enjoys this infallibility in virtue of his office, when, as supreme pastor and teacher of all the faithful—who confirms his brethren in the faith—he proclaims by a definitive act a doctrine pertaining to faith or morals. (891)

The conditions for infallibility are that 1) he acts freely as supreme pastor, speaking “ex cathedra,” or “from the chair”—not expressing his own personal opinion, 2) when he intends to specifically define a doctrine binding on the Universal Church and pertaining to the Church’s deposit of faith, and 3) when the definition pertains to and is in harmony with the Church’s constant tradition regarding faith and morals. This is a very high bar that has been invoked only rarely in Church history.

Of course, a pope may freely express his opinions and teach on any matter, but infallibility does not extend to areas extraneous to faith and morals—such as science, climate change, or immigration. When the pope teaches or speaks not “ex cathedra,” are the clergy and lay people able to analyze, scrutinize, and even criticize? The answer is yes—but, certainly, with all respect for the office and deference to the successor of Peter.

Click here for the rest of the article and the proofs from Scripture, the Catechism and quotes from the popes and history.