Dispelling the Rumors of the Catholic Church
Part 1 of an Ongoing Series: Papal Infallability
The idea of Papal infallibility scares many Protestants. The idea that a Church based on the teachings of Christ would claim any man to be infallible is mind boggling. However, that fear is greatly misplaced due to an incorrect misconception of the Catholic doctrine.
Let's start out small. The Pope can not change doctrine. The office of the Bishop of Rome has since the days of the early Church held a primacy, respected and turned to by other Bishops of the Church for corrections and clarifications of Church teaching. It was held in higher regard than Antioch and Alexandria, though all 3 were based on Apostolic founding. The Pope is regarded by Catholic teaching as the guardian of doctrine, with no power to change doctrine. Their task, like those who followed Peter is to pass on, in its integrity the whole of Catholic teaching.
Now the Pope can change Church customs, such as celebrating the Mass in the vernacular as opposed to Latin (though I prefer the Latin).
A rule of thumb that I think is helpful to understand this concept is that doctrine is what is believed and customs are the way things are done. No Pope could ever state that the resurrection was only symbolic, or that the body of Jesus remained in the tomb on the 3rd day. The Pope could instruct that priests celebrate Mass in tuxes with tophats and tails, which though amusing and a visual disaster, it is possible.
infallibility also does not mean the Pope is correct on everything. He is a sinner, just like you and I (and as had been the trend of recent Popes, takes the Sacrament of Reconciliation on a weekly basis). You could not go and have an audience with the Pope in March and ask for the winners of the Kentucky Derby, Indy 500, World Cup, World Series, NBA Playoffs, and Stanley Cup and get the right answers. Sure you might get an answer, but to not head to Las Vegas or Monte Carlo and place bets on his answers. As is evidenced and history and defined in Vatican I (one must note that most Catholic Doctrine is not seriously defined until heresy's and false teachings arise against it) and taught in Vatican II, the Pope can only teach infallibly when "he proclaims by a definitive act some doctrine of faith and morals." So even if he were giving a lecture on history and got a date a wrong that's ok. The definitive act means a formal, public statement.
infallibility is not limited to the Pope or to papal decrees. The bishops of the Church when united with the Pope in an ecumenical council (something that has been practiced since the first councils) also teach infallibly on matters of faith and morals. There have been 21 ecumenical councils and almost all of them have issued some decree on faith and morals, these decrees are infallible. Most Protestants will quickly take a stand against the Council of Trent being ecumenical, however Protestants Reformers were invited, but chose not to attend. Now Protestants will protest up and down on Trents decrees, however if they read the documents as a whole, there is nothing in there that they can disagree with, though their biases will hamper those attempts.
There is still a third mode of infallibility, which I thing is very much assumed, but it was defined anyway. The popes on their own are infallible whenever the reiterate what the Church has always taught.
The Pope is not Superman, he is not perfect, he is a man, placed in a position of great responsibility. He doesn't know everything nor is that claim ever made. The only area of infallibility is that of faith and morals and when one looks out over the history of the Church this has been the case since the time of the Apostles.