How Can the Church be Infallible If One Church Council Contradicts Another?

Author: Dr. Jeffrey Mirus


How can the Church be infallible if one Church Council contradicts another?

One of our friends said it was his understanding that teachings from all the Church Councils through the centuries are considered infallible. That makes it difficult to reconcile the teaching from the Council after the Reformation about salvation only through the Catholic Church with the teaching from Vatican II that there is some truth in every religion. Is the teaching of all Councils infallible? Is there a contradiction in these two Councils?

Thanks for your question.

Whenever the Pope alone or the bishops in union with the Pope exercise their divinely appointed office to teach on a matter of faith and morals to the whole Church, the teaching is infallible. The most solemn expression of this teaching authority would be an ecumenical council (which by definition would include and be in union with the Pope). Therefore, all the solemn teachings on faith and morals promulgated by the ecumenical councils are infallible.

Given this fact, it is necessary to be careful in dealing with what might on the surface appear to be contradictions between the teachings of two popes, a pope and a council, or two councils. The same is true of an apparent contradiction between Scripture and the Magisterium of the Church. These apparent contradictions must be resolved according to the "analogy of faith". In other words, since we know that both (or several) teachings are inspired by the same Holy Spirit, it is unacceptable to reject one in favor of another. Rather, the key is to find out how they fit together.

In the case you mention (the case of salvation outside the Catholic Church), while some have charged that Vatican II changed the teaching, this is really not the case. While this is a complex topic, here are some points to consider:

(1) Vatican II did teach that all Christian religions participate in some of the "bona" (goods) of which the Catholic Church is the full and complete repository—such as Scripture, certain forms of prayer, baptism, and other goods of Christian faith and life which are retained more or less undistorted in many congregations. However, this is not the same thing as saying that these other Christian denominations constitute the true Church of Christ, or that they are in any way equal to the Church of Christ. No, Vatican II taught that the Church of Christ in fact subsists in the Catholic Church. These other churches simply possess, by historical accident so to speak, some of the goods originally entrusted by Christ to His Church. Therefore, this observation of Vatican II—so important to a just assessment of the conditions of our separated brethren—does not contradict any earlier teaching.

(2) Vatican II also taught (as had several Popes before it) that it is possible for non-Catholics (and, indeed, non-Christians) who sincerely strive to know and follow the good to be saved. This has appeared to many to contradict prior teachings to the effect that there is no salvation outside the Church. On closer examination, however, one finds that the earlier teachings don't in fact claim that one has to be a juridical member of the Church to fulfill the requirement of not being "outside" her. Rather, one can be joined to the Church in various mysterious ways. A common example would be someone who dies for Christ without having first been received into the Church (called baptism by blood).

(3) In fact, the Church has always held (both before, during and since Vatican II) that it is possible for someone to be joined to the Church in various ways without actually being a juridical member. One of the ways that this is possible is "desiderio ac voto" (by an intense wish or desire). This is considered to be the condition of a person who tries sincerely to discover God and the good insofar as he is able to know it, and to live by what he discovers. Such a person would surely join the Church if he or she could but see clearly that this is what God wishes, presuming the opportunity to do so.

(4) There are many people who are not members of the Church through no fault of their own. They have never encountered the Church; they have been conditioned so much against her that they lack the psychological capacity to justly evaluate her claims; they are invincibly ignorant; and so on. In a largely secular and anti-Catholic world, with the Church herself in such turmoil, this is as painfully obvious to all now as it was already to the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council, and to many popes before that time.

But only those who knowingly and willfully reject the Church are completely cut off from Her. Only these are in an absolute sense "outside the Church", apart from which there is no salvation. Only God Himself can judge for certain which souls fall into this category of having known and deliberately rejected His Church.

In other words, on close examination, the two sides of this teaching do not contradict each other. Meanwhile, the fullness of the goods offered for our salvation reside only in the Catholic Church, and salvation is far easier by availing oneself of these goods than by any other path. Given this state of affairs, it is far more important for Catholics to focus less on who may be completely cut off from the Church and focus more on the fact that, since they themselves have been given so much, much will be expected of them.