Friday, February 22, 2013

7 Things Every Catholic Should Know about the Papacy: #4 (the big one: infallibility!)

Infallibility is the big one; it's rare, but it's there.

When I've gone to the store to purchase electronics, invariably I'm asked if I want the “product protection plan” --a guarantee. It's not something I plan on using, but it's good to know it's there in case of need. Infallibility is something like that. Rarely invoked, it gets all the attention.

“Infallibility” gets thrown around a lot when the papacy is in the news. It's easy to understand why the terms is so often misunderstood. “Infallible” seems to mean “incapable of falling” (etymologically, it's failing). That must mean moral failure, right: An infallible Pope is one who can't make a mistake, commit a sin, or exercise poor judgment, right?


Infallibility refers only to teaching; the Pope cannot “fail” when teaching under certain carefully defined circumstances:
  • it is a matter of revealed faith or moral truth: something that comes to us from Christ himself
  • the Pope makes it clear he intends to teach “ex cathedra”: from the teaching chair of Peter
  • the truth (dogma) is explicitly said to be binding on all the faithful “with the assent of faith”--faith in God

This “charism” (special gift of the Holy Spirit) is at the service of the Gospel, of the whole Truth about Christ and us. The Pope does not have the option to “invent new truths” out of thin air, or create new doctrines on a whim: his teaching authority is subject to the Bible, not “over” it. It is a matter of “guaranteeing” the truth (a problematic area in an time when relativism has taken such deep root we cannot all agree that there is “one” truth).

I found this terrific image of Peter on his
teaching chair via Facebook; don't know
whom to credit.
The charism of infallibility is limited to teachings that are divinely revealed, even if those truths had not previously been expressed in the same terms. Infallibility itself, while exercised throughout Church history, was only defined infallibly in 1870! That is because dogmas are usually “defined” only when the truth they uphold is facing a grave challenge. That was the case in the late 19th century, when the very notion of truth was being undermined by the glamor of “free thought” (relativism). It was also the case when the pivotal dogmas about Jesus Christ were defined in the 4th century—those truths we restate every Sunday in the Creed, using the dogmatic language of the Councils of Nicea and Constantinople. The Council of Trent (16th century) was also rather generous in making infallible pronouncements.

When you think about it, infallibility makes sense. The whole Church has a share in Christ's infallibility, his complete trustworthiness (indeed, he is the Truth). In teaching infallibly, the Pope is acting as visible head of the Church. That is also why infallible pronouncements are unlikely to be occasions for the Pope to act alone. They are much more likely to be expressed by a Church Council (in union with the Pope, of course) than by a Pope acting without reference to the college of bishops (though he can, if need be).

Infallibility is not an excuse for ignoring or dismissing the “Ordinary” teaching authority of the Pope and bishops. It is an exceptional kind of teaching, not the norm; a guarantee of not being misled in the most fundamental matters of faith. The “ordinary” magisterium is still a unifying power in the Church; a way of keeping in touch with the Truth that makes us free.

This is Part 4 of a 7 part series. Earlier posts are:
#3, Bad Popes
#2, The Bishop of Rome is the Pope, not the other way around
#1, It was Jesus' idea

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