Catholic & Mormon Concepts of Infallibility

18 Oct

A few thoughts from the Mormon Heretic:

I looked up “Infallibility”, and according to, “Roman Catholics hold that the infallibility of the church is vested in the pope…on matters of faith and morals. Definitive pronouncements resulting from an ecumenical council, when ratified by the pope, are also held to be infallible.”

In Official Declaration 1:12, Wilford Woodruff writes, “The Lord will never permit me or any other man who stands as President of this Church to lead you astray. It is not in the programme. It is not in the mind of God. If I were to attempt that, the Lord would remove me out of my place, and so He will any other man who attempts to lead the children of men astray from the oracles of God and from their duty.”

Is there a fundamental difference between these? Growing up in the church, I scoffed at this doctrine of infallibility, yet believed fervently that our prophet would never lead us astray. Now I’m beginning to wonder if these two doctrines are expressing the same thing.It is interesting to see the “Explanation of Papal Infallibility” on the Catholic Encyclopedia. It seems to tone done the rhetoric somewhat and says that yes, the pope can sin, but will never lead the church astray. It seems to whittle away at this controversial subject, making it sounds less controversial.  Also, the Catholic Answers website also seems to tone it down, and gets into whether the pope is giving his opinion or speaking for the church. The Catholic church seems to have had problems embracing modernism, and excommunicated some of its’ intellectuals, such as Galileo, who seemed to contradict official church teachings.  It seems easy for non-Catholics to reject this dogma.

I see many similarities in the LDS beliefs.  It seems like the LDS church also seems to embrace, yet distance itself somewhat on this doctrine. I guess it comes down to how you define “astray.” Were the polygamy revelations or the Manifesto “astray” doctrines or not? How about the Adam-God theory, or King Follet discourse?  I understand that as LDS, we believe that God reveals line upon line, but when he turns a 180, it causes most people in and out of church to question why there was a change in policy.

Did the exclusion of blacks from the priesthood imply that previous bans were “astray” or not? Regarding this point, it seems that Joseph Smith was quite “ahead of the curve” when he ordained Elijah Abel, yet Brigham seemed to roll back these doctrines to allow apostles with slaves to be more comfortable.

While Official Declaration 1 deals primarily with the polygamy issue, there is another important doctrine there that doesn’t get as much emphasis, except when we are told to trust our leaders because they won’t lead us astray.  This other doctrine doesn’t have a fancy title like “papal infallibility”.  However isn’t the doctrine that the Lord won’t allow his prophet to lead the church astray basically the same thing?  If we’re uncomfortable with the Catholics proclaiming infallibility, shouldn’t we be uncomfortable with the LDS proclaiming it also?  I am sure it was meant to comfort the members of the church during a difficult time, but if the prophet suddenly allowed gay members to go to the temple, women to hold the priesthood, or dropped it’s opposition to gambling, wouldn’t church members rightly wonder if we were being led astray?  Aren’t the polygamy and priesthood bans similar reversals of doctrine/policy?

A few comments were worthy of note here:

Steve M wrote:

LDS will never deny the fallibility of their leaders, but if pressed to identify specific instances where leaders (especially current leaders) have been in error, tend to skirt the issue, usually with the excuse that we’re not supposed to be “fault-finders.”

In practice, many Mormons take their leaders’ implied infallibility more seriously than Catholics take the pope’s express infallibility. …

The only meaningful purpose that the notion of leaders’ fallibility seems to serve in Mormonism is as a means of discrediting teachings that we no longer agree with (e.g., Adam-God, racist doctrines). Cognitive dissonance is minimized and deeper analysis is short-circuited by the simple explanation that the leader in question was “speaking as a man” or merely “expressing his opinion.”

What most Mormons don’t apparently realize is that President Woodruff’s assertion that the President of the Church will never lead the people astray is circular; it assumes that President Woodruff was not himself mistaken. And even if we credit the statement, there is certainly room for different interpretations of what it means to “lead astray.” It may have a very narrow definition, i.e., leading the Church into apostasy. Mormons tend to give it a broad definition, however, interpreting it to mean that virtually every jot and tittle of what leaders say will be inspired.

Wendy Ulrich was quoted as having said –

“In the Catholic church everyone says the pope is infallible but nobody believes it; and in the Mormon church everybody says the prophet is fallible but nobody believes it.”

Patrick wrote:

The main problem with infallibility doctrines is that they inevitably get abused. Popes of renown , as more honest scholars have clearly uncovered, used or denounced the doctrine as it suited their own selfish ends. For those who have not checked their brains in at the door, and are not in slavish bondage to a peculiar religious group – such as Roman Catholicism – acknowledge where matters of faith and dogma have been in error with scripture and science, especially when Popes, or other prophets, have spoken ex cathedra. But of course the tangled web of excuses, deceptions, threats, and hokey explanations are perennially spun by the leadership to keep their members quelled and in line. The wise see it and get out, the rest go on and become victims, just as the poor souls who trusted in Jim Jones. Lies are lies, no matter where they come from, and they all have the same end result.

I would encourage all who trust in, or are struggling with, infallibility doctrines to: 1) listen to what other scholars and persons of faith have to say about the dangers of it. As a matter of practice always be vigilant to hear why others disagree with any controversial doctrine. 2) Don’t let religious leaders intimidate you with threats. Remember this is the tactic the Pharisees used as a means to keep people from hearing Jesus or believing in the Gospel. They claimed to be speaking ex cathedra 3) Spend time alone with the Lord and the Scriptures. Is it too hard to conceive that He will guide you directly by His Spirit and Word?


Posted by on October 18, 2009 in History


7 responses to “Catholic & Mormon Concepts of Infallibility

  1. hermite2000

    October 19, 2009 at 2:47 am

    As a Mormon I feel that it is up to each of us to gain personal testimony of the truthfulness of the Church and its Prophet. If the Church is true and the current prophet is a Prophet, then Christ would never lead that Prophet “astray”. Does that mean that the Prophet, a man, is perfect and infallible, no. I believe that when acting as the Prophet he will do so infallibly. It is up to us to use the guidance of the Spirit to help up discern when he speaks as a Prophet and to follow. Thus we are not lemmings following our Prophet blindly, but actually the opposite. We follow whole heartily with our eyes, ears, minds, and hearts wide open.

    • mahonri

      October 19, 2009 at 8:59 pm

      What does it mean to be led astray? Wilford Woodruff said that no man could lead the Saints astray, Heber C. Kimball said no man could be led astray who doesn’t want to be, and the scriptures say that he could give a prophet the wrong information (strong delusion) to test us. We must also remember that (as Joseph Smith taught) a prophet is only a prophet when acting as such. So perhaps the power to lead astray is only within us. If we are living up to our covenants, and if we have personal revelation then we cannot be led astray by anyone.

  2. Christian

    December 11, 2009 at 7:06 pm

    The LDS doctrine of Common Consent requires that a doctrine be accepted by the body of the church before it becomes scripture. And that’s only after it’s been accepted by the first presidency and unanimously by the Quorum of the twelve. D&C 50 and other scriptures make clear that we have the power and duty to discern truth from error, through the spirit.

    Thus, even if a prophet taught racist and bizarre doctrines back in the 1800s, the fact that he didn’t have a full quorum behind them, prevented these doctrines from becoming church doctrines. Thus the church was not led astray. That’s the way the church has always worked. It sometimes takes us a few generations to figure something out, and God isn’t done with us yet.

  3. Rich

    April 29, 2010 at 12:46 am

    When Mormons base their faith (or “testimonies”) on false doctrine, they are prone to falling away from the church (or “losing their testimonies”). The truth is that all humans make mistakes, even a man who holds the keys to the Priesthood, or the authority to at for and speak for God to his children on earth. It’s easy to find contradictions between what long-dead LDS presidents and modern LDS presidents have written or said. If these men held the keys to the priesthood, how could that be? The answer is simple: Prophets rely on the still, small voice of the Holy Spirit (or Holy Ghost) for inspiration. Rarely or perhaps never do they speak with God in a physical sense or see him with their natural eyes. The promptings of the Holy Spirit are often subtle and difficult to ascertain. Often a person can be so convinced through his or her own perceptions, background, knowledge, environment, education and observations that he or she assumes facts that do not exist. It is often repeated in the LDS Church that members who are seeking spiritual confirmation of their choice of a spouse sometimes “give revelations to themselves.” In other words, God might be silent on the matter, or his replies to prayers are so quiet and subtle that a person’s raging hormones or infatuation can overcome, overshadow and shout down the voice of God on the matter. I would guess that a prophet’s biases sometimes come into play. Am I saying that Brigham Young and some of his successors banned blacks from holding the priesthood because they made human errors? Not necessarily, but I do not think that holding to such a belief is cause for apostacy. Perhaps God had his own reasons for keeping the priesthood from blacks for more than 100 years. We know that only descendants of Levi were allowed to hold the priesthood before the scattering of the Ten Tribes. Maybe it was simply the time for God to reinstitute a policy allowing blacks to hold the priesthood. I don’t bother troubling myself excessively with issues for which there are no answers. My faith is based on study, a great deal of meditation and prayer and upon the promptings of that still, small voice that indicates to me what is right and good. also, I don’t think we will be judged on where our beliefs might have diverged somewhat from the truth. What counts is our heart, our desire to do righteousness, and upon our actions. If I am serving my fellow man, doing my best to help my brothers and sisters, then I find that I do not have time to judge them or to become upset with the obscure mysteries of the gospel. At times I enjoy studying esoteric topics relating to my faith, but overall I must say that the basics will do for me.

    Incidentally, this is also how I view the Old Testament as it was passed by oral tradition for generations of error-prone human beings before any of it ever was written. The written word also was subject to interpretation, translation and the personal errors of the writers and translators. Even the New Testament contains clear contradictions in the four gospels, which again are due to the fallibility of man. When people say that God destroyed disobedient children through hurricanes, rainstorms, pestilences, and so forth, that easily could be an assumption of a fallible human being, not the “gospel truth.” Does God have the power to punish men physically? Certainly. Is any physical disaster a literal act of God. I think not.

    Again, it is the basics that are paramount in importance. I view those as faith, repentance, baptism, continued repentance, obeying God’s commandments (which he said those who love him will do), and treating our neighbors with love and forgiveness. And, finally, in the LDS faith, it is centrally important to accept that a man on earth, however fallible he might be, actually holds the keys to restored priesthood of God. If I cannot believe that, then I must assume that the LDS Church is simply an organization created and maintained by well-meaning men.

  4. Samuel Shaffer

    May 21, 2010 at 7:37 pm

    1. I have some serious reservations with the last comment, you said, “Thus, even if a prophet taught racist and bizarre doctrines back in the 1800s, the fact that he didn’t have a full quorum behind them, prevented these doctrines from becoming church doctrines.” The fact that Blacks could not hold the Priesthood, and were clearly less noble in the Pre-existence, was unanimously held as official Church doctrine for well over a hundred years, and when Spencer W Kimball decided to reverse it he did not have a full quorum behind him, so he just made emeritus the ones who disagreed with him, such as Alvin R. Dyer, LeGrand Richards, Eldridge G. Smith and others. It was also a Church mandate to high councils to excommunicate anyone who disagreed with it, which happened to one of my friends.
    2. You say the Church is run by common consent but if you are inspired to raise you hand contrary to anything the brethren are doing, you are severely ostracized and commonly excommunicated. My father, James Calvin Shaffer of Pleasant Grove is going through that right now, so don’t give me that doesn’t happen bit.
    3. Heber J. Grant said to Marion G. Romney, “My boy, you always keep your eye on the President of the Church, and if he ever tells you to do anything, and it is wrong, and you do it, the Lord will bless you for it.” (Conference Report, October 1960, p. 78.)
    However Joseph Smith said, “We have heard men who hold the priesthood remark that they would do anything they were told to do by those who preside over them even if they knew it was wrong; but such obedience is worse than folly to us; it is slavery in the extreme; and the man who would thus willingly degrade himself, should not claim a rank among intelligent beings, until he turns from his folly. A man of God would despise the idea. Others, in the extreme exercise of their almighty authority have taught that such obedience was necessary, and that no matter what the saints were told to do by their presidents, they should do it without any questions. When Elders of Israel will so far indulge in these extreme notions of obedience as to teach them to the people, it is generally because they have it in their hearts to do wrong themselves.”(Millenial Star, Volume 14, No. 38, Pages 593-595.)
    So in essence Joseph just said that the modern Church has it in their hearts to do wrong, and that anyone who follows them do not rank with intelligent beings. I am not the one who said it.

    Sincerely Samuel Shaffer

  5. Climber

    September 17, 2010 at 1:55 am

    Consider this: even though the Jews were in a state of apostasy during his life, Jesus still participated, he still went to the temple and synagogue, he was even put to death by the leadership of his ‘church’. Even with all of that, they were still God’s people. We know that God has said that “upon my house it shall begin” when it comes to the ‘cleansing’ before the tribulations that will come into this world. We know that the 10 virgins represent the members of the modern church, but how far up the chain of command will those five foolish virgins extend?

    I think all of our modern General authorities are great. I haven’t found one that I distrust, but I trust the Spirit more, just like we’ve always been wisely counseled. But then there are these Abrahamic tests like God telling Abraham to kill his own son that are contrary to the law, but yet sustained by God. Remember when God commanded the Israelites to slaughter the men, women and children of their enemies? Was that right? That seems horrific! But God commanded it and it was right. God has allowed many things to happen that we look at and exclaim “injustice!, evil!” But is that just because we’re seeing these events through our own eyes? Would you have picked up a sword and killed a baby if that was you back then in the Old Testament?

    I guess it really comes down to having the spirit to know whether you are led astray or not. I don’t believe it is possible to be led astray if you are following what you know is the Spirit of the Lord, no matter how crazy what you are asked to do seems.

    • Samuel Shaffer

      June 26, 2013 at 7:27 am

      Dear Climber and to whoever reads this,

      I have had a change of heart since I wrote that previous comment. I started reading the Reed Smoot hearings some time ago and began reading about all the times Brigham Young killed people. I had been so orthodox and fundamental before because I had been taught to believe in the Prophets beyond reason. I read about a certain man who had sold his mill and started traveling east because he had left the Church; and the Danites rode up, slit his throat and stole all his things and money from selling the mill that he had built with his own hands. I started becoming moved and even more as I read about the Morrisite massacre, during which Brigham did verifiably order the murder of women and children. I began to see how hard my heart had been.

      When the Israelites committed genocide they did it because the inhabitants of Canaan had a different religion. Human sacrifices or not, the Israelites shed more blood than the Canaanites could have done in eons of time. It was, what it was and time does not change what is right and what is wrong. It was just as wrong for them to do that as it would be for Muslims to kill us today; it is just as wrong as the crusades, inquisitions and witch hunts. If you believe in murder, rape, genocide and human sacrifice that the Israelites were commanded to commit; then you do not stand for free-agency or love. Brigham was a murderer and so was Moses and Joshua. The knowledge that these orthodox religions have destroyed and the unimaginable suffering they have caused is evil and always has been.

      If you think having any part of those atrocities could ever be right, then you are dangerous. I know how revelation can just come sometimes in all shapes and sizes; and if you cannot reason it out in your mind, you are a danger to yourself and those around you. Joseph Smith said that there are all kinds of revelations, and I personally know how a Spirit that makes you feel good can be wrong! I have also totally changed my stance on blacks and the Priesthood; that was something else that Brigham messed up. Brigham was the closest thing to a son of Perdition that you could ever read about in modern history. If those atrocities were right, then you need to give Hitler and Stalin the benefit of the doubt too. Doing things the scriptures say because you think you feel good, can be dangerous, abusive, evil and murderous. We can reason and know what brings suffering and what is right.

      I hope you come out of this fog of darkness that orthodox religion has put on our civilization for the last nearly two and a half thousand years. There are Gods many and they have many children; you can covenant with them and receive their Priesthood and gain your own revelations and test them with reason and know your own Parents in Heaven. You will learn on that journey that there is opposition in all things, in heaven and on earth. Everything is in perfect balance and enlightenment is realizing that you are a part of it, and it is a part of you. You are a flowing of particles; or in other words you are a different core being every moment; and life is here to experience (or have joy). Don’t harden your heart, and throw off the shekels of orthodoxy knowing that the most important things to uphold are freedom and love. I hope that helps and may the Gods be with you.

      Sincerely Samuel Shaffer


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