Medieval Conditions for Papal Infallibility

Contemporary conditions for papal infallibility are occasionally seen as contrived and have been likened to someone who shoots an arrow at the wall and then paints a target around it. A concrete example is the First Vatican Council’s conditions for papal infallibility, which some skeptics see as having created a manufactured system to reconcile papal infallibility with the historical record.[1] What are Catholics to make of this objection? Are the conditions given by the First Vatican Council, and other contemporary magisterial interventions, truly engineered to justify an artificial system?

The conditions formulated by the First Vatican Council were not novel, as any cursory study of the medieval period would establish.[2] Theologians and canonists in the middle ages were aware of the conceptual distinction between extraordinary and ordinary magisterium, for instance.[3] They even theorized about heretical popes, qualifications for infallible papal pronouncements and the relationship between popes and councils. These, and others which will be examined below, demonstrate the medieval church had a robust system which accounted for many of the conditions articulated by contemporary Catholic theologians.

Pope John XXII and the Spiritual Franciscans

Many of the important conditions for papal infallibility in contemporary Catholic theology manifested during pontificate of Pope John XXII (1316-1334) after he made a judgment on the Spiritual Franciscans. Several popes, including Pope Nicholas III, Alexander IV and Gregory IX, confirmed the lifestyle of the Franciscans perfectly resembled the poverty of Christ.[4] Pope John XXII was skeptical of what his predecessors concluded and in a papal bull officially ruled against this claim. The famous Franciscan theologian Peter Olivi responded with contempt and claimed Pope Nicholas III had infallibly pronounced on the matter, leaving no room for Pope John XXII to overturn the decision. This opposition sparked lively debate and forced popes and theologians to reflect on conditions for papal infallibility.

Decrees vs. Dogmas

One of the conditions for papal infallibility that was clearly formulated from this debate was the distinction between papal decrees and papal dogmas. Pope John XXII claimed the decrees of his predecessors did not meet the conditions for the latter, only the former.[5] Therefore, he believed he was free to revise the decisions of previous popes on the matter of Franciscan poverty.

Papal Censures

Another condition concerned how to identify definitive papal language. In the case of Pope Alexander IV, the pope claimed anyone who disagreed with his decree on Franciscan poverty was guilty of being “contumacious” which is a lesser censure than the one used for a denial of dogma.[6] In other words, one could establish that Pope Alexander IV had not ruled on the matter definitively because he did not use the theological censure of heresy for those who opposed his decree.

Discipline vs. Faith and Morals

Pope John XXII used additional distinctions to bolster his decision. Preceding some of the conditions established by the First Vatican Council for papal infallibility, he expressed the difference between a judgment on discipline versus one on faith and morals. Pope John XXII used this condition to claim he was free to revise this decision of his predecessors, as they judged with the former, rather than the latter.[7]

Papal Intentions

The qualifications for papal infallibility did not stop here. Pope John XXII appealed to the matter of papal intention in discerning papal definitions.[8] In other words, it was not enough to simply appeal to the language used by a pope, but his intention of deciding a matter definitively was crucial.

Private Theologian vs. Universal Shepherd

Following the controversy of the Spiritual Franciscans, further differences were outlined between theologians and canonists. In some cases, medieval theologians noted a pope could teach as a private theologian or as the universal shepherd of all Christians.[9] This was yet another qualification the First Vatican Council expressly intimated.

Having considered the information above, it is clear contemporary Catholic conditions for papal infallibility are not novel. Rather, these were qualifications expressly outlined by medieval popes, theologians and canonists in the face of controversy, in order to clarify when a pope teaches infallibly. In other words, the First Vatican Council did not manufacture conditions for papal infallibility out of thin air but drew from its own historical heritage.


[1] Some conditions include that the pope speak on a matter of faith and morals and do so with his apostolic authority, as opposed to speaking as a private theologian.

[2] For a great summary of medieval theologians and canonists on papal infallibility, see King, Lawrence Jerome. 2016. “The Authoritative Weight of Non-Definitive Magisterial Teaching.” Order No. 10117597, The Catholic University of America, https://search-proquest-com.christendom.idm.oclc.org/docview/1795088450?accountid=26787. ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global.

[3] Ibid., 46.

[4] Ibid., 41-43.

[5] Ibid., 42.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid., 44-45.

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