Explaining the Idea of Infallibility

Author: Fr. William Saunders


Father William Saunders

Time magazine made Pope John Paul II "Man of the Year." In the article, a survey was included which asked about infallibility. I think the survey questions and other statements were confused. Would you please explain the idea of infallibility?—A reader in Woodbridge

Before delving into the question of infallibility, we must be certain as to how we understand truth. As Catholics, we believe in an absolute, immutable truth rooted in God. This truth has been perfectly revealed in Christ, for He is the Word who became flesh (Jn 1:14), and "the way, and the truth and the life" (Jn 14:6).

Jesus also promised the Apostles that He would send the Holy Spirit, whom He identified as the Spirit of Truth, who would instruct them in everything and remind them of all that He had revealed (cf. Jn 14:17, 26). Pope John Paul II beautifully underscored this notion of truth in the opening of his encyclical "Veritatis Splendor": "The Splendor of Truth shines forth in the works of the Creator and, in a special way, in man, created in the image and likeness of God. Truth enlightens man's intelligence and shapes his freedom, leading him to know and love the Lord."

Our Lord entrusted His teaching office to the Apostles—in particular to St. Peter, the first pope—and their successors. The Second Vatican Council, in the "Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation," asserted, "The task of authentically interpreting the Word of God, whether in its written form or in that of tradition, has been entrusted only to those charged with the Church's living magisterium, whose authority is exercised in the name of Jesus Christ" (No. 10). The purpose of the magisterium—the teaching authority of the Church—is thereby to preserve the deposit of faith handed on to us from Christ Himself and to apply its principles of truth to our modern day situation so that each Catholic can live an authentically Christian life. The Catechism of the Catholic Church highlighted that "it is the magisterium's task to preserve God's people from deviations and to guarantee them the objective possibility of professing the true faith without error" (No. 890).

To fulfill this task of teaching the faith without error, Christ granted the Church the charism of infallibility in faith and morals: "In order to preserve the Church in the purity of the faith handed on by the Apostles, Christ who is the Truth willed to confer on her a share in His own infallibility" (No. 889). In essence, the charism of infallibility is the magisterium's ability to know the truth of God and to teach without error. As explained in Vatican II's "Dogmatic Constitution on the Church" (No. 25), this charism of infallibility is exercised in two ways: First, the college of bishops united with the Holy Father, "in their authoritative teaching concerning faith and morals," can render an infallible teaching when "they are in agreement that a particular teaching is to be held definitively and absolutely."

The exercise of the charism of infallibility often occurs during an ecumenical council (a formal meeting of all the bishops with the Holy Father). For instance, the Ecumenical Councils of Nicaea I (325) and Constantinople I (381) promulgated the Nicene Creed, an infallible testament of our faith. The articles of the creed are true and certain, and to deny any or part of them is heresy. These decisions of the councils on matters of faith and morals "must be adhered to with the loyal and obedient assent of faith" (No. 25).

Second, the pope, as successor of St. Peter—the one declared as Rock and given the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven along with the authority of bonding and loosing (Mt 16:13ff)—by virtue of his office as supreme pastor and teacher of the faithful, enjoys the charism of infallibility. Note that the emphasis is on the office of the pope, not on his human person. When the pope teaches infallibly, he is said to speak ex cathedra ("from the chair"), meaning by the authority given to the office of the pope by our Lord.

When the pope renders an infallible teaching, he clearly states that he is teaching as the successor of St. Peter on an issue of faith and morals and that this teaching is binding for the universal Church, irreformable (meaning it will not change) and infallible (meaning it is without error). Actually, only twice in the history of our Church has the Holy Father by himself exercised the charism of infallibility: when Pope Pius IX pronounced the dogma of the Immaculate Conception (1854) and when Pius XII pronounced the dogma of the Assumption (1950). Interestingly, in both cases, these beliefs were long held by the Church, but after seeing the crisis of faith in the world and after polling the bishops, the Holy Father in both instances decided to put forth a truth to bolster the faith of the people.

Nevertheless, even when the pope does not speak ex cathedra, Vatican II reminded us that, "loyal submission of the will and intellect must be given,...that his supreme teaching authority be acknowledged with respect and sincerest assent be given to decisions made by him..." (No. 25). Therefore, when the pope issues a teaching on a moral issue, the Church respects it as a true teaching guided by the Holy Spirit even though it is not technically declared "infallible" and may later undergo further clarification. For instance, our Church has moral teachings on euthanasia and bioethics which provide true guidance to the faithful, but probably will be further clarified—not changed—as the parameters of these issues evolve.

In a world where so many people think truth fluctuates or is simply a matter of personal whim—"Whatever I decide, goes"—we should rejoice that we have truth and a magisterium that courageously teaches the truth. The charism of infallibility is a tremendous gift from our Lord to the Church. In conforming to this truth, each of us finds genuine freedom in living the life God has called us to live. St. Paul captured this notion well in his first letter to St. Timothy: "I am writing you about these matters so that...you will know what kind of conduct befits a member of God's household, the Church of the living God, the pillar and bulwark of truth" (3:14-15).

Fr. Saunders is president of Notre Dame Institute and associate pastor of Queen of Apostles Parish, both in Alexandria. This article appeared in the January 5, 1995 issue of "The Arlington Catholic Herald."

 Courtesy of the "Arlington Catholic Herald" diocesan newspaper of the Arlington (VA) diocese. For subscription information, call 1-800-377-0511 or write 200 North Glebe Road, Suite 607 Arlington, VA 22203.

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