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It may seem odd to bring up the topic of Papal Infallibility during this week when we are reflecting on Mary of Nazareth, the wife of Joseph and the Mother of Jesus. The reason for this detour on our road to the Assumption is that this simple young woman from the small and insignificant town of Nazareth is at the centre of the only two times (this is a mater of some debate but let’s go with two) the Pope has spoken from the “Chair” with infallibility.

A little History:

The infallibility of the pope was formally defined in 1870, although the tradition behind this view goes back much further. In the conclusion of the fourth chapter of its Dogmatic Constitution on the Church Pastor aeternus, the First Vatican Council declared the following:

“ We teach and define that it is a dogma Divinely revealed that the Roman pontiff when he speaks ex cathedra, that is when in discharge of the office of pastor and doctor of all Christians, by virtue of his supreme Apostolic authority, he defines a doctrine regarding faith or morals to be held by the universal Church, by the Divine assistance promised to him in Blessed Peter, is possessed of that infallibility with which the Divine Redeemer willed that his Church should be endowed in defining doctrine regarding faith or morals, and that therefore such definitions of the Roman pontiff are of themselves and not from the consent of the Church irreformable.

What does the term: ex cathedra mean:

In Catholic theology, the Latin phrase ex cathedra, literally meaning “from the chair”, refers to a teaching by the pope that is considered to be made with the intention of invoking infallibility.

The “chair” referred to is not a literal chair, but refers metaphorically to the pope’s position, or office, as the official teacher of Catholic doctrine: the chair was the symbol of the teacher in the ancient world, and bishops to this day have a cathedra, a seat or throne, as a symbol of their teaching and governing authority. The pope is said to occupy the “chair of Peter”, as Catholics hold that among the apostles Peter had a special role as the preserver of unity, so the pope as successor of Peter holds the role of spokesman for the whole church among the bishops, the successors as a group of the apostles.

The reason I bring this up is that many people, Catholics and others, assume that every time  the Pope ‘speaks’ he does so with infallibility.  In July 2005 Pope Benedict XVI asserted during an impromptu address to priests in Aosta that: “The Pope is not an oracle; he is infallible in very rare situations, as we know.”

Two of these ex cathedra,  “from the chair” teachings involve Mary and they are the Dogmas of The Immaculate Conception of Mary and the Assumption of Mary into heaven when her time here on earth had been completed.

Stay tuned and we will look at each of these teachings over the next few days.

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