Ex Cathedra and Infallibility

By Steve Ray


(For more background material, see Appendix B “An Old Testament Basis for the Primacy and Succession of St. Peter” in Steve Ray’s book Upon this Rock.)


Where did the whole idea of ex cathedra originate? Did the Council Fathers just pull the phrase out of a Latin hat? Actually the whole concept is Jewish! God spoke to His people at Mount Sinai n the wilderness. They now had God’s word but they feared the voice of God and told Moses, “Speak to us yourself and we will listen; but let not God speak to us, lest we die.” And Moses said to the people, “Do not be afraid; for God has come in order to test you, and in order that the fear of Him may remain with you, so that you may not sin.”  So the people stood at a distance, while Moses approached the thick cloud where God was” (Ex 20:19-21).


Moses had the practice of taking his seat among the people to judge them. “And it came about the next day that Moses sat to judge the people [NIV: “Moses took his seat”], and the people stood about Moses from the morning until the evening. . . . And Moses said to his father-in-law, ‘Because the people come to me to inquire of God. When they have a dispute, it comes to me, and I judge between a man and his neighbor, and make known the statutes of God and His laws’” (Exodus 18:13, 15-16).


This teaching authority of Moses was passed on through succession and by the time of Jesus the “chair of Moses” was on the dais in the Synagogue. Exegetical scholar of the New Testament, Floyd V. Filson, informs us, “The scribes, mostly Pharisees, copied, taught, and applied the Mosaic Law and the oral tradition, which they claimed was an integral part of the Law, received through a direct succession of teachers going back to Moses. Floyd V. Filson, A Commentary on the Gospel according to St. Matthew (New York: Harper & Row, 1960), 243; italics mine.


Jesus mentions this chair in the synagogues. He says, “Matthew 23:2: saying, “The scribes and the Pharisees have seated themselves in the chair of Moses; therefore all that they tell you, do and observe, but do not do according to their deeds; for they say things, and do not do them.” Moses’ seat [was a] synagogue chair which symbolized the origin and authority of their teaching. Jesus does not challenge their claim; he seems here to approve it. “Does Jesus deride the tradition and the teaching authority of Moses and his successors? No; in fact, he commands the listeners to obey those who teach and judge from the seat of Moses—Do what they say, not what they do. The Greek word Matthew used for “seat” is “kathedra”, from which we get the phrase ex cathedra (from the chair) and the word cathedral, which means the “Church containing the throne of the bishop.”

This teaching authority was passed on to the New Israel, the Church, and the Seat of Moses, the teaching authority of God’s people now passed to the Apostles, to Peter in particular. St. Macarius of Egypt (c. 300-c. 390 a.d.) saw the same connection. He wrote, “For of old Moses and Aaron, when this priesthood was theirs, suffered much; and Caiphas, when he had their chair, persecuted and condemned the Lord. . . . Afterwards Moses was succeeded by Peter, who had committed to his hands the new Church of Christ, and the true priesthood” (Homily 26, in Rev. T. J. Capel’s, The Faith of Catholics (New York and Cincinnati: Fr. Pustet & Co., 1885), 2:22).

The early Church spoke of the chair of Peter in Rome. St. Cyprian spoke of the “chair of Peter” on several occasions and is one of the clearest examples. About AD 252 he writes “With a false bishop appointed for themselves by heretics, they dare even to set sail and carry letters from schismatics and blasphemers to the chair of Peter and to the principal Church, in which sacerdotal unity has its source; nor did they take thought that these are Romans, whose faith was praised by the preaching Apostle, and among whom it is not possible for perfidy to have entrance” Letter of Cyprian to Cornelius of Rome 59, 14 in Jurgens’, The Faith of the Early Fathers, 1:232).”


Papal primacy based on Peter’s revelation and teaching office was affirmed in the councils by the council fathers from early times. For example, in the Ecumenical Council of Ephesus in 431 we read, “No one doubts, but rather it has been know to all generations, that the holy and most blessed Peter, chief and head of the Apostles, the pillar of the faith, the foundation stone of the Catholic Church, received the keys of the kingdom from our Lord Jesus Christ the Savior and Redeemer of the human race, and that the power of binding and loosing sins was given to him, who up to this moment and always lives in his successors, and judges” (Denzinger, 49-50).


“The Union Council of Constantinople (869-70), of Lyons (1274), and of Florence (1438-45)” already had made announcements concerning the teaching Primacy of the Pope, “which in its essence, involved infallibility” (Ludwig Ott, Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma [Rockford, IL: TAN Books, 1960], 286).


Based on earlier teaching, tradition, and councils, the fathers of the Council of Florence in 1274 state, “Also this same holy Roman Church holds the highest and complete primacy and spiritual power over the universal Catholic Church which she truly and humbly recognizes herself to have received with fullness of power from the Lord Himself in Blessed Peter’ the chief or head of the Apostles whose successor is the Roman Pontiff. And just as to defend the truth of Faith she is held before all other things, so if any questions shall arise regarding faith they ought to be defined by her judgment. And to her anyone burdened with affairs pertaining to the ecclesiastical world can appeal; and in all cases looking forward to an ecclesiastical examination, recourse can be had to her judgment, and all churches are subject to her; their prelates give obedience and reverence to her. In her, moreover, such a plentitude of power rests that she receives the other churches to a share of her solicitude, of which many patriarchal churches the same Roman Church has honored in a special way by different privileges-its own prerogative always being observed and preserved both in general Councils and in other places” (Denzinger, 185)


So, Vatican I only built upon earlier decrees and further defined a doctrine and practice already understood by the Church and the people in the Church.


“Ex Cathedra” was a definition promulgated at Vatican I in 1870 when the extent of Papal Infallibility was first solemnly defined (you can read the full text of Vatican I’s decree on Peter, Papal Primacy and ex cathedra on my website as Appendix E to my response to Bill Webster: https://www.catholic-convert.com/webster/webster9.html). Vatican II defined infallibility in even more detail in Lumen Gentium in chapter 25 (added at the end of this e-mail for your reading).


As John Henry Cardinal Newman said, “A doctrine is not defined until it is challenged.” The definition was on the agenda at Vatican I because of a radical element in the Catholic Church at the time (an extreme form of the Ultramontanism) that were enamoured with Pope Pius IX and were making claims like: “He has never ceased from one continuous ex-cathedra pronouncement.” Obviously this was a dangerous position especially considering the many errors made by Popes in the past in their non-official capacity or in their non-official comments or practices.


If this was true of Pius IX, then what of other popes like John XX, Sixtus V, and Honorius (to name a couple that come to mind) who in situations where they were not making a definitive ruling on a doctrine [under either faith or morals] and binding the whole Church to it, made either personal errors (John XX and his error on the Beatific Vision made in a sermon), tried to work beyond the extent of their capabilities (Sixtus V and his faulty translation of the Vulgate), were lax in their pastoral duties or in preventing the spread of a heresy when they could’ve done more to contain or suppress it (Honorius), etc. Since these situations are not ones where the charism of infallibility applied (infallibility does not mean impeccable as many Protestants seem to assume), then pastoral decisions, private decisions, etc. could not be infallible in the case of Pius IX to the exclusion of previous popes that went before him who had erred in these areas.


Antiquity had always recognized that a Pope’s definitive pronouncement on a doctrine or issue pertaining to faith/morals was irrevocable. An example is the re-baptism of heretics (or those who had lapsed from the faith) issue from the third century. Pope St. Stephen rendered a decision (in line with Tradition by the way) that heretics were not to be re-baptized; indeed, that baptism was valid as long as it was properly administered even by a heretic. This decision is final and irrevocable and is an example of an infallible pronouncement if not specifically “ex cathedra” but that only a few bishops challenged but quickly conceded.


I would argue (as I do in my book) that Pope Clement I’s decision to the Corinthians in 96 AD was infallible in an authoritative sense, though not specifically defined as ex cathedra even though it was not being addressed to the entire Church because, to my knowledge, no church community since then has tried to dispose of their presbyters from the ministry due to advanced age. This is what Pope Clement wrote to the Corinthians on (among other topics) and his language was certainly in the form of a definitive ruling. It’s a long epistle so I put here the passages that lend credence that this is a definitive ruling on an issue even though it was not addressed specifically to the entire Church (which is part of the requirements of an “ex cathedra” pronouncement as defined by Vatican I). I go into great detail on Clement’s letter in my book, but here are the pertinent passages:



Section 44:.”Consequently, we deem it an injustice to eject from the sacred ministry the persons who were appointed either by them, or later, with the consent of the whole Church, by other men in high repute and have ministered to the flock of Christ faultlessly, humbly, quietly and unselfishly, and have moreover, over a long period of time, earned the esteem of all. Indeed, it will be no small sin for us if we oust men who have irreproachably and piously offered the sacrifices proper to the episcopate. Happy the presbyters who have before now completed life’s journey and taken their departure in mature age and laden with fruit! They, surely, do not have to fear that anyone will dislodge them from the place built for them. Yes, we see that you removed some, their good conduct notwithstanding, from the sacred ministry on which their faultless discharge had shed luster.


Section 45. “You are given to wrangling, brethren, and are jealous in matters that bear- upon salvation...


58...Accept our counsel, and you shall have nothing to regret...


59. But should any disobey what has been said by Him through us, let them understand that they will entangle themselves in transgression and no small danger...


63. It is right, therefore, that we should adhere to so many and such notable examples and bow the neck and discharge the duty of obedience, so that, ceasing from that futile dissension, we may without any blame reach the goal set before us in truth. YOU certainly will give us the keenest pleasure if you prove obedient to what we have written through the Holy Spirit, and extirpate the lawless passion of your jealousy...


This letter from Rome to a far-off Apostolic Church, older than Rome’s Church, was received with fear and reverence and was obeyed, read in the church for centuries along side of the Scriptures.


I am of the personal opinion that this pronouncement by Pope Clement I was infallible. However, it does not meet the criteria as outlined by Vatican I as an “ex cathedra” pronouncement. However, ex cathedra pronouncements are not the only capacity of infallibility for a pope so you have to keep that in mind also.


There are varying degrees of “authoritative statements” in the Church as elsewhere. In my company, since I am the owner, a joking comment by me is not taken as authoritative decree. A suggestion on how an employee dresses gets a little more authoritative. A memo to straighten out a procedure is more authoritative, and a direct command with the threat of termination is about the highest “authoritative statement”. In the Church we have the same. The Pope, as the Pastor of the Church, has been given authority by God. However, he is also an individual person and a good or bad theologian. When he speaks in these capacities he is like us, non-infallible, non-ex cathedra. When he preaches or writes letters he is to be listened to more carefully. If he writes an encyclical or papal letter, this is getting pretty authoritative. The ex cathedra declaration, with its strict limitations, and which has only been exercised twice since its formal definition, is something that must be believed by all the faithful. People tend to understand these distinctions by common sense long before they understand them because they are officially defined.


In short, the See of Rome and her bishop have been recognized from the beginning (albeit in varying degrees) to be the final court of appeal and the final word on doctrine. Decisions on doctrinal issues, once Rome handed them down, were not (and are not) subject to change. They can be further defined in detail but they cannot be changed from their substance once defined.


That the exacting definition of ex cathedra came later, to carefully define something always known and practiced, is not a problem. We know that the definition of the New Testament canon came almost four hundred years after the life of Christ, the word “Trinity” was not hammered out in a firm definition for several centuries. Even Fundamentalist J. Vernon McGee says that the Protestant doctrine of Justification was not really defined until the 16th century and the Rapture doctrine developed in the 19th century. This is the manner in which doctrine is understood, practiced, developed and finally defined.


Remember again, that, as John Cardinal Newman says, “A doctrine is not defined until it is challenged.”


As to when lay Catholics understood ex cathedra, I don’t know if all of them do even today. Many want their own way in the Church and oppose the doctrine now. In the past, a layman was not necessarily exposed to the finer points of doctrine since times were tough and they spent most of their time just trying to scrape a living from the ground and survive. These discussions usually went on in the universities and episcopal circles. The layman knew authority, obeyed his own bishop and priest, and knew that ultimately, somehow, the bishop of Rome was the final word, but I I don’t know that the lay Christian knew the finer points of papal and episcopal hierarchy authority, as it worked out in theology, though they knew when and whom to obey when the word came down to them, especially if it came through their bishop from the see in Rome!


Hopefully this helps, Scott. Let’s continue the conversation. I am off to Church right now, but I hope this is helpful and you will comment back. God bless you and your family. I have a lot of respect for you and your honesty and intelligence.





Vatican I’s Decree: ““Chap. 4. The Infallible “Magisterium” of the Roman Pontiff

“1832 [Arguments from public documents]. Moreover, that by the very apostolic primacy which the Roman Pontiff as the successor of Peter, the chief of the Apostles, holds over the universal Church, the supreme power of the magisterium is also comprehended, this Holy See has always held, the whole experience of the Church approves, and the ecumenical Councils themselves, especially those in which the Last convened with the West in a union of faith and charity, have declared.


“1833 For the fathers of the fourth council of Constantinople, adhering to the ways of the former ones, published this solemn profession: “Our first salvation is to guard the rule of right faith [. . .]. And since the sentiment of our Lord Jesus Christ cannot be passed over when He says: ‘Thou art Peter; and upon this rock I will build my church’ [Matt. 16:18], these words which were spoken are proven true by actual results, since in the Apostolic See the Catholic religion has always been preserved untainted, and holy doctrine celebrated. Desiring, then, least of all to be separated from the faith and teaching of this [Apostolic See], We hope that We may deserve to be in the one communion which the Apostolic See proclaims, in which the solidarity of the Christian religion is whole and true”


“1834 [cf. n. 171 f.]. Moreover, with the approval of the second council of Lyons, the Greeks have professed, “that the Holy Roman Church holds the highest and the full primacy and pre-eminence over the universal Catholic Church, which it truthfully and humbly professes it has received with plenitude of power from the Lord Himself in blessed Peter, the chief or head of the Apostles, of whom the Roman Pontiff is the successor; and, just as it is bound above others to defend the truth of


“1835 faith, so, too, if any questions arise about faith, they should be defined by its judgment” [cf. n. 466]. Finally, the Council of Florence has defined: “That the Roman Pontiff is the true vicar of Christ and head of the whole Church and the father and teacher of all Christians; and to it in the blessed Peter has been handed down by the Lord Jesus Christ the full power of feeding, ruling, and guiding the universal Church” [see n. 694].


“1836 [Argument from the assent of the Church]. To satisfy this pastoral duty, our predecessors always gave tireless attention that the saving doctrine of Christ be spread among all the peoples of the earth, and with equal care they watched that, wherever it was received, it was preserved sound and pure. Therefore, the bishops of the whole world, now individually, now gathered in Synods, following a long custom of the churches and the formula of the ancient rule, referred to this Holy See those dangers particularly which emerged in the affairs of faith, that there especially the damages to faith might be repaired where faith cannot experience a failure. The Roman Pontiffs, moreover, according as the condition of the times and affairs advised, sometimes by calling ecumenical Councils or by examining the opinion of the Church spread throughout the world; sometimes by particular synods, sometimes by employing other helps which divine Providence supplied, have defined that those matters must be held which with God’s help they have recognized as in agreement with Sacred Scripture and apostolic tradition. For, the Holy Spirit was not promised to the successors of Peter that by His revelation they might disclose new doctrine, but that by His help they might guard sacredly the revelation transmitted through the apostles and the deposit of faith, and might faithfully set it forth. Indeed, all the venerable fathers have embraced their apostolic doctrine, and the holy orthodox Doctors have venerated and followed it, knowing full well that the See of St. Peter always remains unimpaired by any error, according to the divine promise of our Lord the Savior made to the chief of His disciples: “I have prayed for thee, that thy faith fail not: and thou, being once converted, confirm thy brethren” [Luke 22:32].


“1837 So, this gift of truth and a never failing faith was divinely conferred upon Peter and his successors in this chair, that they might administer their high duty for the salvation of all; that the entire flock of Christ, turned away by them from the poisonous food of error, might be nourished on the sustenance of heavenly doctrine, that with the occasion of schism removed the whole Church might be saved as one, and relying on her foundation might stay firm against the gates of hell.


“1838 [Definition of infallibility]. But since in this very age, in which the salutary efficacy of the apostolic duty is especially required, not a few are found who disparage its authority, We deem it most necessary to assert solemnly the prerogative which the Only-begotten Son of God deigned to enjoin with the highest pastoral office.

“1839 And so We, adhering faithfully to the tradition received from the beginning of the Christian faith, to the glory of God, our Savior, the elevation of the Catholic religion and the salvation of Christian peoples, with the approbation of the sacred Council, teach and explain that the dogma has been divinely revealed: that the Roman Pontiff, when he speaks ex cathedra, that is, when carrying out the duty of the pastor and teacher of all Christians by virtue of his supreme apostolic authority he defines a doctrine of faith or morals to be held by the universal Church, through the divine assistance promised him in blessed Peter, operates with that infallibility with which the divine Redeemer wished that His church be instructed in defining doctrine on faith and morals; and so such definitions of the Roman Pontiff from himself, but not from the consensus of the Church, are unalterable.

“1840 [Canon]. But if anyone presumes to contradict this definition of Ours, which may God forbid: let him be anathema [sounds just like St. Clement of Rome in 96 AD!].”


Lumen gentium 25 from Vatican II: (I would suggest reading it from the documents to get the footnotes, biblical references, etc.): “Among the principal duties of bishops the preaching of the Gospel occupies an eminent place. For bishops are preachers of the faith, who lead new disciples to Christ, and they are authentic teachers, that is, teachers endowed with the authority of Christ, who preach to the people committed to them the faith they must believe and put into practice, and by the light of the Holy Spirit illustrate that faith. They bring forth from the treasury of revelation new things and old (cf. Mt 13:52), making it bear fruit and vigilantly warding off any errors that threaten their flock (cf. 2 Tm 4:1-4). Bishops, teaching in communion with the Roman Pontiff, are to be respected by all as witnesses to divine and Catholic truth. In matters of faith and morals, the bishops speak in the name of Christ and the faithful are to accept their teaching and adhere to it with a religious assent. This religious submission of mind and will must be shown in a special way to the authentic magisterium of the Roman Pontiff, even when he is not speaking ex cathedra; that is, it must be shown in such a way that his supreme magisterium is acknowledged with reverence, the judgments made by him are sincerely adhered to, according to his manifest mind and will. His mind and will in the matter may be known either from the character of the documents, from his frequent repetition of the same doctrine, or from his manner of speaking.

     Although the individual bishops do not enjoy the prerogative of infallibility, they nevertheless proclaim Christ’s doctrine infallibly whenever, even though dispersed through the world, but still maintaining the bond of communion among themselves and with the Successor of Peter, and authentically teaching matters of faith and morals, they are in agreement on one position as definitively to be held. This is even more clearly verified when, gathered together in an ecumenical council, they are teachers and judges of faith and morals for the universal Church, whose definitions must be adhered to with the submission of faith.

     And this infallibility with which the divine Redeemer willed his Church to be endowed in defining doctrine of faith and morals extends as far as the deposit of revelation extends, which must be religiously guarded and faithfully expounded. And this is the infallibility which the Roman Pontiff, the head of the college of bishops, enjoys in virtue of his office, when as the supreme shepherd and teacher of all the faithful, who confirms his brethren in their faith (cf. Lk 22:32), by a definitive act he proclaims a doctrine of faith or morals. And therefore his definitions, of themselves, and not from the consent of the Church, are justly styled irreformable, since they are pronounced with the assistance of the Holy Spirit, promised to him in blessed Peter, and therefore they need no approval of others, nor do they allow an appeal to any other judgment. For then the Roman Pontiff is not pronouncing judgment as a private person, but as the supreme teacher of the universal Church, in whom the charism of infallibility of the Church itself is individually present, he is expounding or defending a doctrine of Catholic faith. The infallibility promised to the Church resides also in the body of bishops, when that body exercises the supreme magisterium with the Successor of Peter. To these definitions the assent of the Church can never be wanting, on account of the activity of that same Holy Spirit, by which the whole flock of Christ is preserved and progresses in unity of faith.

     But when either the Roman Pontiff or the body of bishops together with him defines a judgment, they pronounce it in accordance with revelation itself, which all are obliged to abide by and be in conformity with, that is, the revelation which as written or orally handed down is transmitted in its entirety through the legitimate succession of bishops and especially in care of the Roman Pontiff himself, and which under the guiding light of the Spirit of truth is religiously preserved and faithfully expounded in the Church. The Roman Pontiff and the bishops, in view of their office and the importance of the matter, by fitting means diligently strive to inquire properly into that revelation and to give apt expression to its contents, but a new public revelation they do not accept as pertaining to the divine deposit of faith”