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The Infallibility of the Church

God has planted in our hearts a longing for truth which must be satisfied. Our first parents had no difficulties to face in the search for truth. “In the state of innocence,” says St. Thomas, “it was impossible for man to mistake false for true.” Ever since the Fall, to err is human. God, however, sent an infallible Teacher, His only begotten Son, that man might again find the truth; hence the words of Christ to Pilate: “For this came I into the world that I should give testimony of the truth.” (John xviii. 37) Christ was to be a light to our understandings”, darkened as they were by sin (John iii. 19). As Christ was not to remain always on earth, He appointed another infallible teacher, His Church, and provided it with the necessary gifts, especially with the assistance of the Holy Spirit.

Christ conferred on His apostles and their successors the teaching office and promised them His divine assistance.

Thus He said at His ascension into heaven: “Going, teach ye all nations . . . and behold I am with you all days, even to the consummation of the world.” (Matt. xxviii. 19, 20); and at the Last Supper: “I will ask the Father and He shall give you another Paraclete that He may abide with you forever, the Spirit of truth” (John xiv. 16, 17). To St. Peter He said: “The gates of hell shall not prevail against the Church” (Matt. xvi. 18). Since Christ is the Son of God, His words must be true. If the Church, in the carrying out of her teaching office, could lead man into error, Christ would not have kept His word. Hence St. Paul calls the Church “the pillar and ground of the truth” (1 Tim. iii. 15), and the measures decided upon by the apostles in the Council of Jerusalem were introduced with the words: “For it hath seemed good to the Holy Ghost and to us” (Acts xv. 28). It is no recent belief that the Church is infallible. Long ago Origen writes, “As in the heavens there are two great sources of light, the sun, and the moon which borrows its light from the sun, so there are two sources of our interior light Christ and the Church. Christ, the Light of the world, shares His light with the Church, and she enlightens all the earth.” In the words of St. Irenaeus: “Where the Church is, there is also the Spirit of God.”

1. The Catholic Church is infallible in her teaching; i.e., the Holy Spirit assists the Church in such a manner that she cannot err in the preserving and announcing of revealed doctrine.

Just as our reason prevents us from making statements which are contrary to certain fundamental truths, so the Holy Ghost exerts His influence to prevent the Church giving any decision contrary to the truths taught by Christ. The infallibility of the Church is not in any way like that of God with God, for she attributes it not to herself but to God’s special providence over her.

2. The Church delivers her infallible decisions through general councils and through the Pope.

In every kingdom some court is established for the settlement of doubtful cases; it is evident that the all-wise God must have instituted some such tribunal in His kingdom; and this tribunal is the general assembly of the bishops, for at His ascent into heaven He gave them the power to teach, and promised them immunity from error (Matt. xxviii. 18-20). Hence the expression of St. Cyprian: “The Church is in the bishops.”  Now since the bishop cannot always assemble together on account of their duties towards their particular dioceses, some other tribunal must exist with power to give infallible decisions. This tribunal is the Pope speaking ex cathedra. The priests have not this infallibility secured to them, though their services “are indispensable to the bishops in the carrying out of the teaching office. Priests when present in the assemblies of bishops are so as counsellors, but without any deciding vote in the questions under consideration. So soon as the Church defines a question of doctrine, every one is bound before God to submit under pain of excommunication.

A general council is the assembly of the bishops of the world presided over by the Pope.

The apostles in the year 51 held the first Council of Jerusalem, and announced their decisions as coming from God. Of the first four general councils St. Gregory the Great asserted that he held them in equal honor with the four gospels. Since the Council at Jerusalem there have been twenty general councils assembled. The first of these was held at Nicaea, in the year 325, to repel the Arian heresy. The following are specially worthy of note: the Third Council at Ephesus in 425, where Mary was declared to be the Mother of God; the Seventh General Council, or Second of Nicaea in 787, where the veneration of images was declared lawful; the Twelfth General Council or Fourth Lateran in 1215, which imposed the obligation of the Easter communion; the Nineteenth General Council at Trent (1545-1563), occasioned by Luther’s heresies; the Twentieth General Council in the Vatican (1870), where the infallibility of the Pope was defined as an article of faith. The presence of all the bishops is not required for a general council, but the greater number of them must be there; nor is a unanimous vote in any way necessary to secure a definition; a majority of votes approaching more or less to unanimity is quite sufficient. Thus in the Vatican Council five hundred and thirty-three bishops voted for the definition of Papal in fallibility; two voted against, and fifty-two were absent from the meeting. Nor is it necessary that the Pope should preside in person; he may act through his legates as in the first, third, and fourth general councils. All that is necessary is that the Pope should approve of the decrees of the council. Others besides bishops have a vote, such as the cardinals, generals of religious Orders, and all who have episcopal authority, as in the case of many prelates and abbots; suffragans have also a vote when they are summoned, as happened in 1870. The general council only settles questions after mature consideration, relying generally on the teaching of the Catholic Church in the early ages. Besides general councils there are national councils, or assemblies of the bishops of a nation or kingdom under their primate, and also provincial councils or meetings of the bishops and dignitaries of a district under the archbishop; and finally diocesan synods, or assemblies of the clergy under their bishop. Such assemblies have no claim to infallibility.

The general consent of the bishops all over the world confirmed by the Pope is also infallible; this may happen when the Pope asks their opinion on a question of doctrine or morals.

A case of the kind happened in 1854. The Pope sent round to the various bishops of the world to ascertain the feeling of Christians at large as regarded the Immaculate Conception of Our Lady. As nearly all the replies approved of the doctrine, it was solemnly denned as of faith. This consensus of the bishops, though living apart at the time, was infallible, because the Holy Spirit is not confined by limitations of place. Nor was this solemn declaration necessary; it was quite sufficient that all the bishops should teach in the same sense in regard of any given subject to make that teaching infallible; were it otherwise the Church would be capable of teaching heresy, or of falling away from the truth. Hence the Vatican Council declared that not only must that be accepted which has been solemnly defined by the Church, but also whatever is proposed by the lawful and general teaching authority (Vatican Council, 3, 3).

The Pope makes an infallible definition when, as teacher and guide of the Church, he proposes to the universal Church a doctrine of faith or morals. These decrees are called doctrinal.

The Vatican Council in 1870 decreed that all doctrinal decisions of the Pope were infallible. This is the logical consequence of the words of Christ to St. Peter: “Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build My Church” (Matt. xvi. 18). If the foundation of the Church were to fail, it would not be a rock but a quicksand. More over St. Peter was appointed shepherd of the apostles and the faithful in these words of Our Lord: “Feed My lambs, feed My sheep” (John xxi. 15, 17), and he received power to confirm his brethren in the faith (Luke xxii. 32). If then the Pope were to teach error, Our Lord’s promise would have come to naught. Decisions in matters of doctrine were held in the greatest reverence from the earliest times. When the Roman See condemned in 417 the errors of Pelagius St. Augustine cried out: “Rome has spoken; the cause is at an end.”  And St. Cyprian says: “No heretics can gain admittance to the Church.”  Even general councils call the Bishop of Rome “the father and teacher of all Christians” (Council of Florence, 1439), and the Roman Church “the Mother and Teacher of the faithful” (Council of Lateran, iv., 1215); of course the Church understood here is the teaching, the “hearing” Church having no claim to teach. The Pope must be infallible for this reason, too, that “he has full power to govern the whole Church” (Council of Florence); for with this power is necessarily linked authority to teach. The supreme teaching office of the Church involves infallibility in accordance with the divine promise of the assistance of the Holy Ghost. In consequence of this the decisions of the Pope are infallible of themselves, quite independently of the consent of the bishops (Council of Vatican, iv. 4). Were it otherwise the rock (or successor of St. Peter) would derive its strength and solidity from the building raised upon it (the Church). It would, however, be quite wrong to assert that the Pope is infallible in all things; for he is a man and can make mistakes as other men in writing, speaking, etc. He can also commit sin as other men, and unhappily some of the Popes led very scandalous lives. When the Pope gives a decision on a doctrinal matter, it is Christ Who keeps him from error by the agency of the Holy Ghost; moreover the bishops are always consulted before any such decision is given. Addresses to pilgrims, letters to kings and princes, the brief of suppression of the Society of Jesus in 1773, are not infallible pronouncements. Doctrinal decisions are usually accompanied by sentence of excommunication against those who refuse to submit to them; hence such decisions are binding for all Catholics. Although the Pope is infallible in his solemn decisions, general councils are not for that reason superfluous; for they confer a greater external solemnity on the Pope’s decrees, and the teaching of the Church can be more thoroughly examined in these assemblies. Hence these general councils may, under certain circumstances, be necessary as well as useful. Even the apostles held a general council at Jerusalem, though each single apostle was infallible in his office as teacher.

3. The Church pronounces infallible judgments in the following cases: On doctrines of faith and morals and their meaning and interpretation, on the Holy Scripture and Tradition and their interpretation.

If, for instance, the Church declares that the punishments of hell are eternal, the declaration is infallible, for it is made on a doctrine of faith; or again if it declare that the observation of Sun day is a command of God, the declaration turns on teaching with regard to morals and is therefore infallible. Christ made a special promise to His apostles that the Holy Ghost should teach them all truth (John xvi. 13); in other words that the Holy Ghost would teach them all truth bearing on religion; and that religion included morality as well as belief may be gathered from the words of Christ just before His ascent into heaven: “Going therefore teach ye all nations . . . teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you” (Matt. xxviii. 19, 20), and with regard to this last order He promised them the assistance of the Holy Ghost, and con sequently, infallibility. Since the Church derives her doctrine from two sources, Holy Scripture and Tradition, it must be infallible in its interpretation of both.

Moreover, it is certain that the Church is infallible when it declares that any given opinion on faith or morals is contrary to revealed teaching, as also in the canonization of saints.

It is the common opinion of theologians that the Church is infallible in judging whether a proposition is opposed to revealed teaching. If, for example, the Church were to condemn the assertion that man is the offspring of a pair of apes as contrary to revelation, it would be acting quite within the limits of its infallibility, and on a subject most intimately connected with revealed doctrine. If the Church can see truth it must also be able to recognize error. From the earliest times the Church has condemned error, whether taught by writing or by word of mouth. At the Council of Nicaea (325), the errors of Arius were condemned by the bishops. Up to the present day the Pope has continually condemned books which have attacked faith or morals; and this could not have been unless God had conferred such powers. Any mistake in either beatifying or canonizing seems well-nigh impossible even on natural grounds, on account of the strict examination insisted on. By the act of canonization, the veneration of a saint, and so to a certain extent the acknowledgment of the Church’s belief in him, is imposed on the faithful, and he is then officially recognized in the Church’s offices, as in the Mass and Breviary; hence if any one not a saint were declared holy, the whole Church would approve an error. Such a supposition is impossible. Pope Benedict XIV. declares his own experience in these cases of the assistance of the Holy Spirit in removing insuperable difficulties which beset a process, or, on the other hand, in breaking it off entirely. Finally the Church in its decisions whether of beatification or canonization is dealing with things which have the closest connection with doctrine of faith or morals.


This article, The Infallibility of the Church is a post from The Bellarmine Forum.
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