Sunday, 24 August 2008

Infallibility: What does it mean and does it matter?

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‘Infallibility’ is the term that is used to describe the fact that the Catholic Church teaches the truth and the way that it teaches the truth. Without it we cannot know the truth with certainty.

The Mission to Teach to Truth
Jesus Christ declared Himself to be “the way the truth and the life” (Jn 14:6)
He came to teach the truth. Christ willed that the truth be known by all peoples and so He appointed His apostles to go out and teach the truth:
"All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age" (Mt 28:18-20).

The Catechism points out that the Church’s mission is the same as the mission of Christ and was founded by Christ for this very purpose:
"The Church's mission is not an addition to that of Christ and the Holy Spirit, but is its sacrament" (Catechism of the Catholic Church n. 738).

This teaching mission was entrusted in a particular way to the 12 Apostles who Christ singled out for this role, and these Apostles appointed the bishops to continue this role. The Church thus has a structure that was given to it by Christ:
"The Lord Jesus endowed his community with a structure that will remain until the Kingdom is fully achieved. Before all else there is the choice of the Twelve with Peter as their head" (Catechism n. 765).

The Promise that Christ would Guide the Teaching of His Church
Christ not only commanded His Apostles to teach the truth but He promised that when they taught they would teach faithfully:
“He that hears you hears me; and he that rejects you rejects me (Lk 10:16).

By the gift of the Holy Spirit the Apostles were promised to know the whole truth:
“When the Spirit of truth comes he will lead you to the complete truth” (Jn 16:13).

The Apostles thus teach accurately not by their own ability or wisdom but by the Holy Spirit. This was the same with the first pope, St Peter, who recognised Jesus as the Christ only by the power of God:
"Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jona! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven” (Mt 16:17).

Authority and Division
The teaching authority in the Church was given to us by Christ in order that we might have a focus for unity when divisions come. Christ knew that divisions would come (e.g. Mt 24:24).

Pope Clement in 96AD wrote:
“Our Apostles knew, through our Lord Jesus Christ, that there would be dissensions over the title of bishop. In their full knowledge of this, therefore, they proceeded to appoint the ministers I spoke of, and they went on to add an instruction that if these would die, other accredited persons should succeed them in their office” (Corinthians, n. 44).

When divisions come we should listen to those who hold proper authority. It is the pope, as the successor of St Peter who possesses the fullness of Christ’s teaching authority. It was St Peter who was appointed as the visible head of Christ’s Church:
“And I tell you, you are Peter [‘Rock’], and on this rock I will build my church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Mt 16:18-19).

The bishops as individuals do not all possess the full charism of infallibility. They possess it if they speak in union with the pope and in as much as they speak in union with the pope:
“the bishops, taken individually, do not enjoy the privilege of infallibility, they do, however, proclaim infallibly the doctrine of Christ on the following conditions: namely, when, even though dispersed throughout the world but preserving for all that amongst themselves and with Peter's Successor the bond of communion, in their authoritative teachings concerning matters of faith and morals, they are in agreement that a particular teaching is to be held definitively and absolutely” (Lumen Gentium n.25).

What does ‘Infallible’ mean?
Literally, the dictionary definition of infallible is: "incapability of error or deception".
This means that when the Church teaches authoritatively it is not capable of error, i.e. it is protected by Christ from teaching error.
Similarly the Bible is called ‘inerrant’, free from error.

However, neither the writers of the Bible nor the popes are free from sin. The promise of Christ concerns their role of teaching and is restricted to their role of teaching -it does not concern their personal lives.

Note also: being free from error does not necessarily guarantee that the pope will be courageous in his teaching and it does not even guarantee that he will teach beautifully –but it does guarantee that he will teach free from error. This means that we can listen to the pope with confidence and believe what he teaches.

Is everything the pope teaches infallible?
The pope’s infallibility relates only to those acts by which he is acts as pope. i.e. there are certain conditions that must hold for his teaching to be infallible.

Vatican I and II taught that there are four conditions for a papal teaching to be infallible: The pope must be speaking "ex cathedra" ("that is, when in the discharge of his office as shepherd and teacher of all Christians, and by virtue of his supreme apostolic authority…."); he must be defining something (in “a definitive act”); it must concern “faith or morals”; and he must be teaching something that "must be held by the whole Church". i.e. a ‘definitive’ act is not just a casual comment or even a usual Sunday sermon.

The bishops met in union with the pope in Council, or in a Council authorised by the pope, teach infallibly when they define doctrine under the same conditions. The bishops and pope also teach infallibly outside of a Council when they re-iterate what the Church has always taught.

Bishops or church leaders who have separated themselves from the authority of the pope lack the authority that would otherwise give them infallibility. They thus do not have this guarantee of truth. It is thus unsurprising that the Protestant ecclesial communities that have separated themselves from Rome divide again and again over doctrine. Present divisions in the Anglican Communion over homosexuality and women bishops are a tragic example of this.

Does it matter?
It matters to us that the Church teaches infallibly because if the Church is not infallible then there is no secure means by which we can know the truth. If we cannot know the truth then we cannot know Christ.
If the Church is not infallible then Christ’s mission to teach the truth was only successful for His own generation. Conversely, because the Church is infallible then the truth of Christ can be known in every age by all those who choose to recognise the authority of the Vicar of Christ, the pope, the successor of St Peter and Christ’s voice on earth.

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