The Need for Infallibility in the Church

It would make no sense for the Lord to establish his Church and then not to insure its constant fidelity to his revelation.  The books of the Bible had to be established and a definite canon set. The Church does this but no book is truly self-interpreting. The Scriptures must be faithfully translated, passed down and explained.  All this takes place within a living Church and against the backdrop of sacred tradition.

We believe that God has given us in divine revelation a trustworthy source for Christian doctrine. While certain truths, like the existence of God, might be ascertained by unaided reason; many more truths are only known through God’s intervention in human history. God reveals himself and his plans for us so that we might enter into a saving relationship with him. Humility is an essential ingredient to faith as we must trust what is imparted to us. While truths might be misconstrued by men, it must be acknowledged that God communicates the truth without error. This does not mean that everything in the Bible must be accepted in a fundamentalist manner. Indeed, it is understood by the ancients that divine truth can be transmitted in many ways, including through myths or stories and even exaggeration. However, the life of Christ and his teachings are still regarded as certain. Our Lord, himself, admits that much is permitted in the Old Testament and under the Mosaic Law because of the hardness of hearts.  The Bible is neither a science text nor a history book.  It is the sacred text which chronicles the life of God’s people and their relationship with God— the story of salvation climaxing with Jesus Christ. 

The fragmentation of the many Protestant sects and their conflicting beliefs is not something our Lord desired. He prays in his humanity that we might all be one. Indeed, the divergent non-Catholic faith communities are proof that the Magisterium or teaching authority of the true Church is absolutely necessary. Catholicism has sought throughout the ages to preserve the unity of faith. Inconsistent explanations of important doctrines would signify a nullification of revelation. Either there exists a certain teaching authority or everything is questionable and up for grabs.   

The fundamentalist use of selective proof texts often distorts Scriptural teaching just as the Catholic contextual approach helps to preserve the overall meaning of biblical revelation.  It is reasonable that God establishes a teaching authority both commissioned by him and protected by the Holy Spirit to perform the task of faithfully transmitting divine truths.  This authority (in matters of faith and morals) must be infallible or it is no authority at all.

Sometimes coordinators of bible study groups will turn to members studying a passage and ask, “What do you think?” Hopefully the participants have already been suitably informed to come forward with accurate and reasoned responses. More so than not, they will say silly things like, “Well, it means for me or personally I think it says such and such.” I am not denying the value of personal insights from biblical texts. However, such answers could hardly have a bearing upon the universal teachings of the Catholic Church.  Personal insights into biblical teaching, despite holiness of life, are frequently wrong or incomplete when not informed by the Church and the catechism. (Beware of those who tell gatherings there is no right or wrong answer. This is a lie.) Such  an overly open mentality is one of the worries about current efforts at synodality.  Believers, who are largely ignorant of the faith, or worse yet, dissenters, are being led to think that they will have some say in the teachings and morality of a new Catholic Church. In truth, while the current ecclesial etiquette would politely listen to their take on faith and behavior— ultimately they will have to be put back into their places— no to priestesses, no to sodomy, no to fornication, no to adultery, no to contraception and abortion, no to universal salvation, and no to any fabricated new church.  Truth builds upon truth.  Something that is objectively and universally true on Monday cannot be false on Tuesday. 

The charism of infallibility flows from the integrity of God. As all-perfect and good, God would never deceive his children. A deity who would lie or mislead subjects would be no deity at all but a demonic entity. If men oppose or separate themselves from the charism of truth, then false teachings become possible.  Indeed, even within the Church, the Pope who is a successor of Peter must always approach the revealed doctrines as a servant of the Word, not its master. Further, the bishops of the Church must remain faithful to what they have received and teach as a college in union with the See of Peter.  A genuine “sensus fidelium” of the people of God also falls under this infallibility, albeit within a profound solidarity and fidelity. This latter instance is often omitted because dissenters are often wrongly counted within this sense of the faithful. The most vigorous example of this “sense” in history is within the Arian controversy where many bishops were heretical but the People of God preserved the truth about Jesus’ divinity.

While many Protestant churches wrongly assume that the Bible without an official interpreter is enough; in fact, their many pastors and biblical commentaries illustrate that in practice they do not believe this. Their authorities might be fallible, but the alternative is chaos where “there are as many churches as heads.” Indeed, this is something of Martin Luther’s lament on his deathbed.  Note that Protestants may not look to Rome or to the ancient Church fathers, who are overwhelmingly “catholic” in their perspective, but to their many ministers— collecting their sermons and bible study guides.

Other churches, like the Anglican communion, have adopted a dictatorial synodality where secular humanism and human whim seems to have sway even over Scriptural teachings and long standing beliefs and practices in their history. This constitutes a warning today for those Catholics clamoring for a synodal church that would take precedence over divinely safeguarded hierarchical authority and constant teachings. Of course, what is left unsaid is that given the abuse scandals and a lack of transparency, increasing numbers of critics place no credence in claims for infallibility. A few critics would point to the Orthodox churches of the East as an alternative to Catholicism. However, while they have maintained a genuine priesthood and Eucharist, there is no good mechanism for the development of doctrine. If Protestantism is overly dynamic, the Eastern churches may be too stagnant.  I will admit that this may be an unfair evaluation as they have many first-class bishops and theologians. (Might our conflict with them in regard to the Filioque clause be a case in point?)  In any case, many Orthodox churches have moved in the direction of Protestantism when it comes to the understanding of Scripture, additional books or not. Further, penitential second marriages tolerated by the Eastern churches would be regarded by Catholicism as irregular or adulterous. The truth is best preserved within Catholicism.

Peripheral issues and many pragmatic concerns are earthly and not pertaining to the deposit of faith. There can be all sorts of discretion about matters of earthly expediency.  Critics from the right and the left can rightly comment and criticize these sorts of things. But dogmatic concerns apply to revealed and objective truths. The charism of infallibility does not have to be aggressively energetic. Regarding much of Catholic belief, it permits development as a result of intense theological reflection but not wholesale abnegation or repudiation. If particular matters of faith and morals bound the generations before us in conscience and discipleship then such must still be the case today. While active in the organic development of doctrine, the charism of infallibility operates also in a passive mode walling the truth from the deviation of heresy.  When it comes to legitimate development, we see this in both faith and morals. What are possible examples? When it comes to the dogmatic, there is a better appreciation of Christ as the Divine Mercy and the clear definition of Mary’s Immaculate Conception.  When it comes to morality, the seed planted by the Gospel of Life has grown beyond the sanctity of life in the womb to include all stages of life. Indeed, we are most at odds with the world because the Church’s perspective on life and the dignity of persons would invalidate matters like human trafficking, slavery and possibly capital punishment. As the late Pope St. John Paul II would teach, a society that would destroy the innocent in the womb has likely forfeited its right to take the lives of the guilty on death row. Indeed, even matters like self-defense and just war (which are left to civil authorities) becomes more problematical in a society armed with weapons of mass destruction and saturated by injustice, prejudice and hate. Infallibility insures that the Church remains the nagging conscience of the world and not just one more manipulated and selfish voice among many.

If truths are entirely subjective and capricious then they are not truths at all but opinions void of any command for assent. It is this mentality that belies demands for obedience, today. We hear it all the time. “Who do these old men with pointy hats think they are to tell me what to do? What does a celibate priest know about marriage and sexuality? How dare you tell me what I can and cannot do with my body?  I am whatever gender I decide to be and I will love whomever I please— and you have to accept it, or else! I go to church when I feel like it. I was raised Catholic, but  . . . .” It is because the charism of infallibility is rejected, along with the notion of objective truth, that every directive from the Church is viewed as a tyranny to be opposed. It forces the Church into the posture of Christ— a sign that is opposed.

About Father Joe

Father Joe Jenkins I am the pastor of Holy Family Church and a Catholic priest in the Archdiocese of Washington, DC.
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