Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Infallible Folly

I believe the Church of Jesus Christ, which I call the Catholic Church, is protected by the Holy Spirit from making doctrinal errors. This divine protection is called infallibility (see my Quick Primer on Infallibility).

Some people have a ludicrous misunderstanding of infallibility. I have encountered Protestants who believe infallibility means the pope is sinless and decry, “The Pope is a sinner like any other man!” I have also encountered Catholics who believe the only teachings worth following are from the pope. For example, when I was speaking to another Catholic and referring him to an explanation by a popular Catholic author, he halted me and said, “I only read things that are infallible.” Laugh out loud! But in all seriousness, both are incorrect.

Catholic bishops can “fall short in many respects” (Jas 3:1-2). There are many spectacular bishops throughout the world, but then there are those few who make headlines with either sordid personal lives, sheepish governing, or lack of good judgment. The history of popes follow the same pattern; lots of exceptional Bishops of Rome and then a few of scandalous nature. With that said, bishops are mere mortals who, like the rest of humanity, are under the threat of temptation and sin, and must "fight the good fight" (1 Tim 6:12) to stay spiritually fit for the sake of their sheep. Infallibility is clearly not about raising the pope to the level of sinlessness "for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" (Rom 3:23). Given that the "wages of sin is death" (Rom 6:23), and all former popes have died, sinlessness is contradicted.

Infallibility is only about protection from formal doctrinal error.

Peter, the senior apostle, was prayed for by the Lord that his "faith will not fail" (Luke 22:32). He made headlines in the Bible by denying the Lord (Luke 22:54-62) and avoiding meals with Gentiles (Gal 2:11-14), but succeeded in giving a teaching that "seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us" (Acts 15:28). For that brief moment at the Council of Jerusalem, when Peter was teaching the entire Church regarding circumcision, he was infallible -- Peter's faith was not able to fail.

The Pope, who is the Bishop of Rome and successor to Peter (who died in Rome), continues in the same teaching authority with the same divine protection. Extrapolating from the Bible, it can be said that Peter and his successors become infallible when:
  1. He intends to teach
  2. In his official capacity as supreme pastor
  3. On a matter of faith or morals
  4. To the whole Church
Although the pope may be protected from error under these extremely restricted conditions, the protection doesn't extend to the vanity of wordsmithing or timeliness. The teaching can be right, but perhaps better phrasing was available or a better moment in history to teach it. As Vatican II noted, "Today as well, the Church is not blind to the discrepancy between the message it proclaims and the human weakness of those to whom the Gospel has been entrusted." (Gaudium et Spes 43).

It is also often overlooked that the pope rarely speaks infallibly. Based on the conditions above, there may be only handful of times in Church history where the pope taught as such, either by himself or as part of an Ecumenical Council. It rarely happens. Being so rare, it probably won't happen in your lifetime. Papal infallibility is the exception.

Being exceptional, the Catholic who says, "I only read things that are infallible," won't have much to read if he limits himself to infallible papal pronouncements. Rather, he should be reading the Catechism of the Catholic Church to understand the ordinary teachings of 2000 years; such as the Holy Scriptures, the divinity of Christ, the seven sacraments, the ten commandments, and the necessity of prayer. None of these require papal infallibility and yet these doctrines are also infallible because they are universally taught by all bishops.

What??? Infallibility can exist without the pope teaching? Yes. Remember, the pope is just one bishop among thousands of bishops, and each has a duty to transmit the Catholic faith like the pope. When all bishops, which includes the pope, are in general agreement regarding a matter of faith and morals, their ecumenical witness is a testament to the faith of the apostles. This is the ordinary way Christians experience the infallibility of the Church.