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Question: Has the Catholic Church ever made a proclamation ex cathedra (as in, one which it declares is infallible) that it later retracted?

This could literally be any form of the following:

  • Some statement X was made, intended to be infallible
  • Later, X was retracted/reformulated/revised by a subsequent "infallible" statement, illustrating that the previous statement was obviously not infallible

Background: I was recently shown the site Catholics Come Home and was perusing their top ten reasons to "come home," which featured this (LINK):

This [Catholic] Church has been guided by the Holy Spirit and protected from teaching error on issues of faith and morals from generation to generation for some two thousand years, as Our Lord Jesus promised: (foretold Isaiah 22:15-25) Matt 16:13-20; Matthew 18:15-18 (in this verse the word is church, not community); 1 Tim 3:15.

While the phrase above seems bold, I have the feeling it's meaning only to apply to statements made, ex cathedra (from the chair), i.e. those statements made explicitly as infallible by the Pope. For background, the Church's stance on papal infallibility only applies to faith and morals (hence I'm thinking the above quote is only referring to those instances):

To fulfill this service, Christ endowed the Church's shepherds with the charism of infallibility in matters of faith and morals. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, #891 (LINK))

For a short list of times this actually happened see Wikipedia (HERE)

I found some people asking this question on Catholic Answers Forum, most notably THIS list, extracted from a recommended book on the matter, Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma.

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    @Skliwz: I mostly agree, but not entirely. There may be examples of infallibly declared statements that interact with testable reality, but I'm just not aware of them. As an example, imagine that it was deemed (infallibly) that homosexuality is a sin or that women can never be priests... and then this was changed. Obviously that could refute the claim. I'm interested if some case like this exists, any sort of "retraction" or "updating" that says something different than a previously-existing statement. – Hendy Jul 14 '11 at 20:32
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    @Slivvz: good point..., but I'm only making illustrative examples, which you seem to be attacking to a bloody pulp. All I'm trying to point out is that it's plausible that the Church has said something it intended to be infallible which could be later disproven or retracted... and I want to know if such a thing exists. – Hendy Jul 14 '11 at 21:33
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    If your question is: has the Church ever admitted an error in an ex-cathedra infallible declaration of the Pope, then your question should say so clearly - which it doesn't - and without the philosophical parts. As is it's completely philosophical. We also have a philosophy site, you should ask this question there. – Sklivvz Jul 15 '11 at 0:26
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    @Sklivvz “matters of faith” does not preclude testability. This is a common claim but it’s simply false, and is only sustained by shifting the goalpost. – Konrad Rudolph Jul 15 '11 at 10:45
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    meta question here: meta.skeptics.stackexchange.com/questions/991/… – Sklivvz Jul 15 '11 at 13:26
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No clear case known

  • Some statement X was made, intended to be infallible
  • Later, 1) evidence has shown X to be false or 2) X was retracted/reformulated/revised by a subsequent statement, illustrating that the previous statement was obviously not infallible

It is not possible to find a simple contraction like this, because the statement is mostly not marked as "infallible" when made, its infallibility is only derived from context. There are only two statements made by a pope which are not disputed regarding their "ex cathedra" status, and those are two recent dogmas of the Immaculate Conception (1854) and the Assumption (1950). See Instances of papal infallibility in Wikipedia.

With any other statement which you may think that it was made ex-cathedra in its time and can be shown as not held any more, or not true, the proponents of the papal infallibility faith will claim it was not made "ex cathedra" at all.

I will try to search for some particular case which could could be used to demonstrate this, but as it is time consuming, I have no idea now when I will be able to do it.

What is ex-cathedra

The currently used definition comes from First Vatican Council (1869-1870):

"When the Roman Pontiff speaks ex cathedra...as the pastor and teacher of all Christians [and] defines a doctrine of faith and morals that must be held by the Universal Church, he is empowered, through the divine assistance promised him in blessed Peter, with the infallibility with which the Divine Redeemer willed to endow his Church."(24)

A trouble is there is not a clear consensus between catholics regarding how to recognize when a statement is made Ex cathedra, therefore it may easily happen a statement which might had been considered as ex cathedra at the time it was issued is classified as an ordinary statement later. See e.g. Encyclical entry in the New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia:

it is generally admitted that the mere fact that the pope should have given to any of his utterances the form of an encyclical does not necessarily constitute it an ex-cathedra pronouncement and invest it with infallible authority. The degree in which the infallible magisterium of the Holy See is committed must be judged from the circumstances, and from the language used in the particular case.

The guide how you can distinguish an "infallible statement" nowadays, as accepted by the Catholic Church is as follows:

  • "the Roman Pontiff"
  • "speaks ex cathedra" ("that is, when in the discharge of his office as shepherd and teacher of all Christians, and by virtue of his supreme apostolic authority….")
  • "he defines"
  • "that a doctrine concerning faith or morals"
  • "must be held by the whole Church" (Pastor Aeternus, chap. 4)

And there are similiar rules for "infallible council teaching":

  • a verbal formula indicating that this teaching is definitive (such as "We declare, decree and define..."), or
  • an accompanying anathema stating that anyone who deliberately dissents is outside the Catholic Church.

However, there is a caveat: there is no guarantee the guide will not change in the future, as it has never been rigorously formulated by an "infallible" authority.

  • Open to this answer... but if only two have ever been made, why does WIKI list seven, and why does THIS guy think that THIS book lists at least 49 instances? – Hendy Jul 15 '11 at 14:58
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    @Hendy: because you're mixing two completely different things. See: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roman_Catholic_dogma – vartec Jul 15 '11 at 15:27
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    I do not claim two were ever made, I write there are only two which are undisputed. Some sources claim more, some less, but these two are never disputed. Furthermore, "dogma" is not the same as "pope speaking ex-cathedra" - many dogmas were formulated by councils. To make things more confusing, while ex-cathedra is mostly used for pope infallibility only, some sources use it for council infallibility as well (see e.g ewtn.com/library/curia/mdpd.htm for extended discussion). – Suma Jul 15 '11 at 16:12
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    @Suma: agreed. Both papal infallibility and "council" infallibility (proclamations by the magisterium) count as infallible. I was hoping for both, but realize the question only asks about papal forms... – Hendy Jul 15 '11 at 18:27
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    ... It sounds very much like Ex Cathedra infallibility is being No True Scotsman'd -- "Ex Cathedra statements are never wrong or retracted; if a statement was retracted then it wasn't properly Ex Cathedra to begin with" – Shadur Mar 13 '17 at 8:06
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In addition to an answer above, the quote you provided is also seemingly historically inaccurate:

This [Catholic] Church has been guided by the Holy Spirit and protected from teaching error on issues of faith and morals from generation to generation for some two thousand years, as Our Lord Jesus promised: (foretold Isaiah 22:15-25) Matt 16:13-20; Matthew 18:15-18 (in this verse the word is church, not community); 1 Tim 3:15.

However, the infallibility of the Pope was only formally defined in 1870

  • Was the infallibility of the Pope declared ex cathedra? – yters Jul 25 '15 at 0:20

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