Infallibility, Defined

My good friend and author of the Platypus Manifesto is currently an inquirer in the RCIA at his local parish, the stage of the Rite in which one decides whether or not to convert to the Roman Catholic Church. Recently, he posted a blog entry which generated quite a few comments, mostly from Protestant friends. One of the main issues brought up was the doctrine of the infallibility of papal and conciliar pronouncements. It was clear that the exact details and corollaries of this doctrine, much less the evidence supporting it, are not well-known within Protestantism. Hopefully, this series of posts may alleviate some of that confusion and ignorance, and encourage productive discussions on exactly what promises and guarantees are made to the Church.

The purpose of this first entry will be to define what is meant by the indefectibility and infallibility of the Church. What is indefectibility? Dr. Ludwig Ott’s Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma (a standard reference text on dogmatics) puts it this way: 

“In saying that the Church is indefectible we assert both her imperishableness, that is, her constant duration to the end of the world, and the essential immutability of her teaching, her constitution, and her liturgy. This does not exclude the decay of individual ‘churches’ (i.e. parts of the Church) and accidental changes” Part 2, Section 12 (Chapter 4).

This indefectibility is primarily promised in the institution of the papacy as recorded by Matthew (Matt. 16:17-19 “and the Gates of Hell shall not prevail against it”). Christ’s words at the end of the Great Commission also implicitly gives this promise. “And I will be with you always, even unto the ending of the age” implies that a Church will always exist for Christ to ‘be with.’ Of course, the controversial part of indefectibility is that if the Church will last for all the ages, and the deposit of faith is constant, the Church cannot wholly err from that deposit of faith, lest it cease to be the Church. This inability to fall into error is called infallibility.

According to Dr. Ott, this infallibility takes an active and a passive form. The active form relates to the teaching office of the Church, and the passive form is the inability of the entire Church to fall away from this teaching office. The purpose of this office is to preserve and interpret the deposit of faith. The scope of this teaching office are the truths of Christian teaching on faith and morals, whether they be formally revealed by Scripture or Tradition, or closely connected to formally revealed truths. This power to define Christian teaching without question has been most commonly used to reject dangerous errors as they crop up. For example, the Council of Trent infallibly defined the 73 book canon of Scripture – a canon that had been in use since 382 A.D. Is it true that before the 1500s the canon had been different or undefined, and this 73-book list was only forced on Catholics at Trent? By no means – the canon of Scripture hadn’t been seriously challenged until Luther popped up. Furthermore, since the deposit of faith is fixed for all time, if not immediately and fully understood, such pronouncements can only clarify and expound upon what is revealed.

Those who may exercise the teaching office of the Church infallibly are the Pope, and the unanimous body of the bishops. The first Vatican Council defines the extent of papal infallibility: “The Roman Pontiff when he speaks ex cathedra…he defines a doctrine concerning faith or morals to be held by the whole Church, he possesses, by the divine assistance promised to him in blessed Peter, that infallibility which the divine Redeemer willed his Church to enjoy in defining doctrine concerning faith or morals.” The complete body of the bishops may be infallible in their teaching either when gathered together in a representative council, presided over by the Pope, issue some statement on faith and morals, or when separately throughout the world, the bishops unanimously teach a particular thing regarding faith and morals. The teaching of individual bishops, while worthwhile, may certainly fall into error.

The purpose of this post is to inform, not defend. I want to start off by clearly presenting what Roman Catholics believe about the hierarchy of the Church – I’ll do my best to mount a defense of such doctrines later. In the (very) near future I hope to tackle:

  • The origins of the papacy: Matthew 16 and Acts 15
  • What is the deposit of faith
  • Apostolic succession and authority
  • and some common objections to papal infallibility



2 responses to “Infallibility, Defined

  1. I would be important to note also that, to my Protestant knowledge, papal infallibility has only been technically invoked three times since Vatican I, which formally defined it. Many misinformed Protestants believe that papal infallibility means that the Pope can say anything at anytime on anything and is automatically perfectly correct. Come to think of it, many misinformed Protestants (and there are far more than I could have dreamed) have some pretty wild ideas about all sorts of things.

    The line drawn between the whole church falling into error and only parts of it falling into error is a very, very blurry line. And the thinking depends on the assumption that the whole of the church universal is the Roman Catholic church.

    This is always a delicate argument to be made. I look forward to reading it.

  2. Pingback: Peter and the Council of Jerusalem | Orange Catholic

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