When most folks (Catholic and non-Catholic alike) hear “papal infallibility”, they often think “Catholics have to believe everything the pope says. They have to believe he’s never wrong.” Except that sometimes he is wrong, and that idea is too. In light of all the commentary we are going to hear in the coming weeks as the Church prepares to elect a new pope, it’s a good time to take a look at this particular Church teaching.

First, Catholics believe that Christ himself established the papacy by declaring Peter “rock” (Mt. 16:18) Thus, the “Chair of Peter” is the one the pope occupies as Bishop of Rome and Supreme Pontiff of the Church. All popes are heir to the legacy of Peter. As John Zmirak explains, “What the bishop is for his diocese, the pope is for the whole church.”

Being selected pope does not, however, make one perfect. Peter is a terrific example; after all, he denied Christ. One needn’t dig too far into papal history to find scoundrels, scalawags and sinners. So, what does “papal infallibility” mean?

First, it is not a common occurrence that a pope invokes this level of authority, and it never covers private opinions of the man in the Chair of St. Peter. A pope may look out the window and say, “I think it’s going to rain.” That doesn’t mean Catholics should put their money into the stock of Widgets Umbrella Inc. No, infallibility is something far more serious and slightly less tangible, covering issues only of faith and morals, as explained by Zmirak:

The pope is there to oversee this complex genealogy of authority, but he doesn’t rule it as a dictator. He is bound by the teachings of his predecessors, and his role is to hand on faithfully – and sometimes more fully unfold or better explain – the revelation that was complete with the death of St. John the Apostle.

How can you tell the pope is declaring something infallible? Jimmy Akin says that there is one easy (but not the only) way:

If you see a pope say “we define” or “I define,” it is a signal that he is making a definition and thus exercising the Church’s gift of infallibility. (This is not the only way in which he can do this, but it is the standard way.)

As the Catholic world prepares for a new pope, it’s good to know that if the pope says the Cubs are going to win the World Series, a billion Catholics aren’t required to believe it. Hope springs eternal for Cubs’ fans, but the pope can still be wrong.

(Quotes from John Zmirak can be found in his book, “The Bad Catholic’s Guide to the Catechism“. For those with a sense of humor, Zmirak’s video, “How to Explain Papal Infallibility in Two Minutes” is worth, well, two minutes.)