Similarites between Papal Infallibility and Mormon Prophetic Infallibility

I looked up “Infallibility”, and according to encyclopedia.com, “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?


18 comments on “Similarites between Papal Infallibility and Mormon Prophetic Infallibility

  1. Interesting idea, the doctrine of infallibility. I am reminded of a teaching of Joseph Smith, that a prophet is not always a prophet. Joseph made mistakes. He himself said, “I never told you I was perfect. But there is no error in the revelations.” I think revelation is the key. As President Monson has frequently taught, the most important lesson that can be learned in this life is that when God speaks and man obeys, man will always be right.

    We also know that God’s ways are not our ways. And so to attempt to understand why God makes certain decisions, along with the timeframe, can be mind-boggling. For instance, why did God wait so long to restore the Church? He waited 1700 years or so to restore the Church? Why wasn’t this done sooner? We just don’t know.

    Joseph Smith also said that he didn’t always get a revelation when he wanted one, but that the revelations he had received were true. Interesting that even the Prophet could not “control,” or perhaps fully understand, the doctrines pertaining to revelation. Again, these are God’s ways, and not our ways.

    Interestingly enough, Bruce R. McConkie wrote a letter to Eugene England about how prophets can make mistakes, and are not necessarily infallible in every sense of the word. This was in response to Brother England’s teaching regarding some of the mysterious Journal of Discourses teachings.

    I’m sure this is a disappointingly orthodox response.

  2. 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. While only the most devout Catholics obey the pope’s counsel against birth control, most active Mormons would probably immediately discontinue their use of birth control were President Monson to make such a decree.

    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.

  3. 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?

    We may wonder, but we’d certainly be willing to follow! 😉

    In all seriousness, short of asking the members to engage in illegal or immoral conduct, there isn’t much that members wouldn’t accept as revelation.

  4. Joseph Fielding McConkie, Answers: Straightforward Answers to Tough Gospel Questions, 50-52.

    “Mormonism does not embrace the notion of the infallibility for any man, save Jesus only, nor does it embrace the idea of the infallibility of scriptural records.”

    I agree with McConkie. With that said, I don’t see any similarity with the the concept of Papal infallibility and Wilford Woodruff’s statement.

    Consider the chastisement the Lord dealt out to the Prophet Joseph Smith over the 116 lost pages, and at other times he was warned,

    “I say unto Joseph Smith, Jun.— You have not kept the commandments, and must needs stand rebuked before the Lord; your family must needs repent and forsake some things, and give more earnest heed unto your sayings, or be removed out of their place” (D&C 93:47-48).

    I think the problem we’re up against is members having too much faith in our leaders and not enough faith in individual members ability to access the Holy Ghost. After all, the purpose of our baptism is to receive the Gift Holy Ghost.

    I like the following thought:

    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. Ulrich, Wendy PhD

  5. Interesting points all. While I pretty much agree with all of you, I agree most with Jared’s final statement. “Everybody says the prophet is fallible, but nobody believes it.” Therein is the rub. As Steve says, it is a circular argument. I doubt most members of the church have given this much thought.

    I guess I feel that that it is not impossible for a prophet to lead us astray. I think that some of the arguments about racism and polygamy in our church do hold some water. As MP says, “why God makes certain decisions, along with the timeframe, can be mind-boggling.” I’m just trying to make sense of it all. (And MP, orthodox comments are certainly welcome here, even the so-called disappointingly predictable ones… 🙂

    It seems as though there have been corrupt popes through the last 2000 years, (such as the one who dug up the corpse of the previous pope to put him on trial-wish I had names & dates to be more accurate–of course I am neglecting others), so I am not saying it is outside the realm of possibility that it couldn’t happen in our church as well within the next 1800 years. Our church is so young relative to Catholicism, and Lutheranism, that I think often we don’t have the same perspective on issues that some other churches do.

  6. “In all seriousness, short of asking the members to engage in illegal or immoral conduct, there isn’t much that members wouldn’t accept as revelation.”

    I wonder if this is accurate.

    Polygamy was illegal in the 1800s, but members of the church followed the prophet. If President Monson were to say that he’d had a revelation reauthorizing polygamy, I wonder if members would protest over the practice’s illegality? It would certainly cut against the church’s other statements implying that we should always follow secular authorities and be law-abiding citizens.

    And as for immorality, wouldn’t a prophet’s statement count as the definition of what is moral/immoral? An interesting thought experiment here would be to consider what would happen if the prophet endorsed gay marriage and non-adulterous homosexuality. Would members of the church accept, or call him a fallen prophet? I don’t know the answer…

  7. doug:

    Would members of the church accept, or call him a fallen prophet? I don’t know the answer…

    There might be a few holdouts, but most of the membership would embrace it.

  8. I think, and hope, you’re right.

  9. I wish I’d read this post earlier. I guess Robert Millett doesn’t believe in Prophetic Infallibility, but I think most mormons do believe in it. Check it out at


  10. I thought I remembered President Hinckley saying sometime not to follow what they said unless we felt the spirit. Am I making this up so I feel better about myself and the way I approach following the prophet? I’ve always been under the impression that it is important to listen to what they say and only act if the Spirit confirms that it’s true….

  11. I don’t recall hearing that–perhaps someone can come up with a quote. To me, it seems more emphasis is placed on sustaining our leaders, and doing what they say because it is inspired, and should not be questioned. This is the circular argument that Steve mentioned.

    However, I agree with you–it would be nice if someone could find a quote to bolster the claim.

  12. This discussion may be long over, but I just found it today and thought I’d ring in on it.
    Prophetic infallibility or any kind of human infallibility should set off warning buzzers inside anyone’s mind, regardless of religion. Mormons are inclined as a people to accept what is spoken by the leaders of the Church as infallible. Recently, the Church announced that the Lamanites are NOT the only ancestors of the American Indians and that the introduction to the Book of Mormon would be changed to reflect that. So who do we blame for being wrong? We have been teaching this idea for almost 200 years and now DNA evidence says we were mistaken. Why didn’t the prophet stop this before? Did a prophet of God make a mistake?

    It is interesting to note that much of the revelation that occurred after Joseph Smith happened at a time when it was socially necessary. The OD 1 happened as Utah applied for statehood, OD 2 came at a time when the civil rights movement was in full force.

    The Church was restored when the world could accept it. Several of the practices restored (polygamy, united order) were too much for the body of the saints and the greater society to accept and were discontinued.

    I think we have to be careful when we mix the word “practice” with “doctrine.”
    Practices are based on convenience and applying doctrine in the best way possible, but they are not doctrine in and of themselves. When a prophet announces a change in practice, rarely is he altering the doctrine that underlies it.

  13. 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?

    “Stand fast therefore in the liberty by which Christ has made us free…” Gal. 5:1

  14. Patrick, well said. I couldn’t agree more.

    The faithful will not like your advice to “listen to scholars.” After all, man’s wisdom is constantly changing. I remember using the idea that man doesn’t know everything–one need look at the perception that the world was flat. (Of course, most of the religious folks thought it was flat at that time too, but that point gets conveniently misplaced.)

  15. I found a really interesting post at Mormon Matters on this subject. Check it out at http://mormonmatters.org/2008/12/30/never-lead-us-astray-and-dissonance/

  16. MH,

    Here’s a link to information about the quote in #13 which you suspected was false. Well, it isn’t false, but it wasn’t an official statement and George Albert Smith wrote a letter clarifying the church’s official position with regard to that statement:


  17. Tara, thanks for that link. It’s a shame that it wasn’t caught sooner, but I’m glad to hear Pres Smith refute it.

  18. You know what? All I know is that Jesus not only died for my sins but that he continues to forgive me daily. I do not need to belong to a religion but I do need to be a follower of Jesus. Read the bible every day and pray to God every day and put. Into practise what you read, you will be O.K.!!!

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