Sunday, March 17, 2013

Infallibility - what it is and what it isn't

An old school friend, who still attends the Baptist church that we attended as teenagers, recently asked me, as a Catholic, to explain Papal Infallibility. As part of his question, he linked the following article providing a not unusual apologetic against the Catholic Church’s teaching on this topic:
I responded in two parts to my friend – the first part explaining what the Catholic Church actually teaches about Papal Infallibility (which follows below); and the second part was my response to Moises Pinedo’s article, which you can view by clicking here.

Papal Infallibility is often misunderstood by Protestants. Many Protestants think that Papal Infallibility means that the Pope can’t sin (that’s not infallibility; that’s impeccability); others think that it means that the Pope cannot believe or teach heresy in any way, shape, or form. Both of these notions are incorrect.
To start with, it’s important to understand that the doctrine of Papal Infallibility doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Rather, it exists within the context of a broader understanding of the nature of the Church as the Body of Christ.

Christ entrusted His Church with the threefold office of teaching, governing, and sanctifying. In respect of the teaching office (or Magisterium), Christ who is the Truth, in His grace blessed the Church with a share in His infallibility. He did this to fulfil His promise that He would remain with and preserve His Church with the purity of faith handed down from by the Apostles. In this gift, we also see the goodness of God who gives us as Christians an objective guarantee of being able to profess the true faith without error.
So that this role of the Magisterium could be fulfilled, Christ has blessed the Church with the gift of infallibility when it definitively makes declarations regarding matters of faith and morals.

The key thing to understand here is that the Church’s infallibility is completely and utterly a gift of God’s grace.
There are a few ways in which this infallible teaching office, or Magisterium, can be exercised. One of them is when the Church gathers in an Ecumenical Council. The other is in reference to the Bishop of Rome, as the Successor of St. Peter (the Rock upon whom Christ built His Church and gave the keys of the kingdom) and the visible head (or representative) of Christ (who is the true Head of the Holy Catholic Church). The infallibility “enjoyed” by the Bishop of Rome (or the Pope) is limited only to statements that he makes “Ex Cathedra” or “from the Chair” (of St. Peter to be precise). In these statements, and these statements alone, is he guaranteed to be preserved by the Holy Spirit from teaching error.

There are certain conditions required for a Papal statement to be considered as “Ex Cathedra”, but without going into depth regarding these, suffice it to say that it MUST be clear to everybody that it is the intention of the Pope that he is making a definitive “Ex Cathedra” statement.
With this in mind, it is clear that the personal writings or opinions of any given Pope are not infallible. Pope Benedict XVI, in his first book on “Jesus of Nazareth”, admitted as much when he said that his book was “in no way an exercise of the magisterium, but is solely an expression of my [i.e. Josef Ratzinger’s] personal search for the face of the Lord”.

In this way, when Popes express their personal views on anything they are just as infallible as the next person. That’s not to say that he won’t get it right...but, it’s also not to say that he won’t get it wrong.
Whilst the Church doesn’t adhere to a doctrine of Sola Scriptura (the Bible alone), it does adhere to the doctrine of Sola Verbum Dei (the Word of God alone). Unlike Protestants, Catholics believe that the Word of God is not limited to Scripture, but Scripture certainly plays an extremely important role in the life of the Church. And since God is One, and there is only One Truth, it is impossible for any teaching of the Catholic Church to be contrary to Sacred Scripture. The reason Protestants don’t see this is because they interpret the Bible differently to Catholics. In addition, not only does Catholic doctrine not contradict Scripture, but based on the correct interpretation of Scripture (the same interpretation used by the Church since the time of the Apostles, through the Early Church Fathers, up until today) it can be shown that all Catholic doctrine has a basis in Scripture. In respect of the infallibility of the Church, consider the following texts:

  • Matt 16:17 – St. Peter’s profession of faith; which was revealed to Him by the Father – this is not unlike what the Catholic Church continues to teach regarding the Successor of Peter – that when he makes a definitive statement regarding faith, he is enlightened by God to do so.
  • Matt 28:18-20 – Jesus promised that He would remain with the Church until the end of the ages. And we would both agree that the Lord Jesus would have no union with heretics (e.g. Rev 2 & 3). If this is true, and Jesus Christ never left His Church, then the Church never fell into heresy (despite what the Protestant Reformers thought).
  • John 14:16, 25; 16:13 – Jesus told His disciples that He would send the Holy Spirit to be with the Church FOREVER and guide the Church into ALL truth...the Protestant view which says the Catholic Church fell into heresy basically implies (whether it wants to or not) that Jesus lied on both these points.
  • Jn 11:49-51 – Ananias is granted the gift of true prophecy even though his intentions were not good. Interestingly, St. John ties this gift to his office as high priest.

Now, I suppose the claim can be made that Catholics are misinterpreting these (and other) passages of Scripture. So, how do we know what the Apostles meant when they penned the New Testament? Well, we go the witness of their disciples, the Church Fathers...and what do we see? The same thing i.e. that the interpretation followed by the Catholic Church today remains faithful to the tradition and interpretation handed down to the Fathers by the Apostles:
“For the Lord received anointing on His head in order that He might breathe incorruptibility on the Church. Do not be anointed with the evil odour of the teachings of the prince of this world...” – St. Ignatius, AD110

[Notice that the incorruptibility Christ breathed on His Church is in the context of, and in contrast to, the false teachings of the prince of this world.]
“But since it would be too long to enumerate the succession [from the Apostles] of all churches, we shall here point out the successions of the bishops of the greatest and most ancient Church known to all, founded and organised at Rome by the two most glorious Apostles, Peter and Paul....For with this Church [i.e. with the Church of Rome], because of its superior origin, all Churches must agree, that is, all the faithful in the whole world; and it is in her [i.e. the Church of Rome] that the faithful everywhere have maintained the Apostolic tradition.” – St. Irenaeus, AD180

“Grant, then, that all have erred; that the Apostle was mistaken in bearing witness; that the Holy Spirit had no such consideration for any one Church as to lead it into truth, although He was sent for that purpose by Christ, who had asked the Father to make Him the Teacher of truth; that the Steward of God and Vicar of Christ neglected his office, and permitted the Churches for a time to understand otherwise and to believe otherwise than He Himself had preached through the Apostles: now, is it likely that so many and such great Churches should have gone astray into a unity of faith?” – Tertullian, AD200
“With a false bishop appointed for themselves by heretics, they dare even to set sail and carry letters from schismatics and blasphemers to the chair of Peter and to the principal Church [i.e. Rome], in which sacerdotal unity has its source; nor did they take thought that these are Romans, whose faith was praised by the preaching Apostle, and among whom it is not possible for perfidy to have entrance.” – St. Cyprian, AD252

In the understanding of the Church Fathers, the Church of Jesus Christ which had descended from the Apostles, by way of Apostolic Succession, was (and is) not able to fall into heresy. Not because the Church is so wonderful; but rather because of her infallible Head, the Lord Jesus Christ, who promised that He would be with His Bride throughout all the ages, protecting her and nourishing her. To deny the doctrine of the infallibility of the Magisterium of the Church is nothing less than to deny the gracious gift that Jesus Christ has given His Most Holy Bride.


  1. This is very timely. So many people who have never paid attention to a pope before are paying attention to Pope Francis. Baptists commenting on my daughter's Facebook page were claiming all sorts of nonsense with regard to Catholic teaching on the office of the papacy. She'll now know where to direct people sincerely seeking information on papal infallibility!

    Thank you for all the effort you put into this!