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How Infallible is the Teaching Church?

by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

The standard lexicons of the English language correctly define infallibility as exemption from fallacy or error of judgment and they also correctly say, under the word “Infallible”: “In Roman Catholic doctrine, incapable of error in matters of faith and morals.”

One of the ironies of our age is that often those who are not Catholic have a more clear understanding of what Catholicism is supposed to be than some Catholics. One reason perhaps is that there has been so much discussion and counter-discussion in Catholic circles about the fundamentals of Catholic doctrine that many are confused.

Not the least area of confusion in a growing number of Catholic minds is the subject of infallibility.

My purpose in the present study is to look at four aspects of our subject in the form of four questions. First I shall ask the questions and then answer them, not too lengthily, but I hope clearly.

  1. What is infallibility?

  2. Why must the Church founded by Christ be infallible?

  3. Who within the Church is infallible?

  4. How infallible is the teaching Church?

You notice our last question is the title of this paper. Before this question can be adequately answered, the previous three must have been responded to.

What Is Infallibility?

Infallibility, as we saw, is commonly understood to mean exemption from error. So it is. But what does this mean?

It means that a person, or persons, who are infallible not only, do not err; they cannot err. Clearly it is one thing to not make a mistake, and something else, and much more, not to be able to make a mistake.

Is that all? No, infallibility is not only something negative. It is eminently positive. It implies that the one or ones who are infallible not only do not hold what is false. It also says that they hold or declare the truth.

We might explain it this way. A person who is infallible is protected or prevented from doing something wrong, in this case being in error. Yet, as we know, a stone or a tree cannot be in error either; but neither can they (in any intelligible sense) be said to hold or profess the truth.

Infallibility makes sense only among rational beings who can be fallible. When and if they are infallible it means that they possess or proclaim the truth.

The real purpose of infallibility is not just to be infallible—but to have and declare the truth.

We might then redefine infallibility as the capacity for the truth. There is no special value in being infallible except to be assured of having and communicating what is true. To use a homely comparison, immortality is to be incapable of dying, which sounds negative but is very positive, because it means being capable of living.

Why Must the Church Be Infallible?

We now come closer to our subject when we ask, “Why must the Church founded by Christ be infallible?”

In one brisk sentence: the Church must be infallible because she is the mediator of divine grace, and the mediation of grace depends on the possession of truth.

Grace and truth are correlatives, they depend on one another as cause depends on effect, where truth is the divinely established cause and grace is the divinely conferred effect. So much so that we can affirm: “No truth, no grace,” or “Where there is truth there is the availability of grace.”

In more elaborate language this means that when God became man and called Himself the Truth and the Life, He meant these two titles to be interdependent. He is the Life of grace for us, provided we believe in Him as the Truth.

This was dramatically explained by the Savior when He foretold the Eucharist and told His followers they were to believe in Him to have eternal life. Yes, they would have this life and he saved, provided they accepted the truth of His Real Presence.

So it is with every mystery of Christian revelation which, if believed, gives the believer possession of the truth. Then, believing the truth, the Christian has access to the sources of grace that his faith tells him are available and productive of salvation and sanctification.

Thus, if I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God in human form, which is the truth, I shall invoke His divine assistance in prayer, and thus receive grace.

If I believe that Christ’s commandment to love others as He has loved me, which is the truth, I shall put this commandment into practice and merit divine grace for myself and for those whom I love.

If I believe that the sacrifice of the Mass is the re-enactment of Calvary, which is the truth, I shall assist at Mass frequently and fervently, and thus obtain grace for myself and for others according to the measure of my devotion, indeed, but only because I know that what I believe and therefore practice is the truth.

Truth is the condition of grace; it is the source of grace; it is the channel of grace; it is the divinely ordained requirement for grace.

We therefore return to our first statement in reply to why the Church must be infallible. She must be infallible because, being infallible she has the truth, and only because she has the truth can she be the mediator of grace to a sinful and desperately needy human race.

Take what happened in the 16th century, when whole nations broke with Catholic unity and, as a result, were deprived of many of the treasures of infallibility. That is a strange expression, “treasures of infallibility.” But they are treasures, treasures of grace, locked up in the Catholic Church’s assurance that she has the truth.

By the year 1600 over 200 different interpretations were being circulated among the heirs of the Reformation of Christ’s words of institution at the Last Supper “This is My Body. This is My Blood.” And none of them said precisely what the Catholic Church, trusting in her infallible Possession of the truth, held and insisted on: that these words mean that Christ is literally, physically and substantially on the altar after the words of consecration; that therefore those who worship Him here present and receive Him into their bodies are receiving grace, no, better, they are receiving the Author of grace. But they are beneficiaries of the grace because they are believers in the revealed truth of the Holy Eucharist, and behind it is the truth of the Holy Priesthood.

Everyone else if he does not believe this truth is deprived of access to this grace.

Who Within the Church Is Infallible?

Coming still closer to the center of our reflections, we now ask, “Who within the Catholic Church is infallible?”

Less than twenty years ago most Catholics would have answered, accurately but inadequately, that the Pope is infallible. Did not the First Vatican Council define papal infallibility?

So it did, but since then there has been a Second Vatican Council, and since the council there has been much thinking and writing on the subject, until now the head reels with theological theory and speculation and yet the answer to our question is very simple.

First let us give the answer, not of theologians but of the Church herself. It comes in two parts:

  1. Part One says, “The whole Church as a community of believers in divine revelation is in possession of infallible truth. We may call this the infallibility of possession, or, as we used to say, passive infallibility.”

  2. Part Two says, “Among the community of believers only the hierarchy, under the Pope, is divinely authorized to determine infallible truth. And between the hierarchy and Pope: he is normative for them, not they for him. They are infallible if they agree with him; he can teach infallibly without, in the same way, depending on them.”

In my estimation right here has been the seedbed of most of the problems facing the Church in the postconciliar period. There has been confusion twice confounded—once because there has been lack of clarity, sometimes consciously induced, between the Church’s infallibility of possession and her infallibility of determination, between the truth possessed and professed by the faithful, and the truth decided and proclaimed by the hierarchy.

Another seedbed of confusion has been a lack of clarity, also at times consciously induced, between the infallibility of the bishops apart from the Pope and the infallibility of the bishops totally dependent on the Pope.

Anything I have to say in this presentation will be only as useful as these two grounds of confusion are cleared up.

Infallibility of Possession and of Decision

There is no doubt that the Church of Christ possesses infallible truth. Unless she did, she would not be the Pillar of Truth or, as we saw, the mediator of grace to the human family.

But possessing the truth is one thing, and deciding on what is the truth and where is the truth, and where what seems to be true is false - this prerogative does not belong to all the faithful.

How do we know? From the now centuries of conflict on essentials in faith and morals:

  • In the early Church, some saying there are over twenty Gospels, others saying there are only four.

  • In the time of Athanasius, some saying that Christ is only a man, the Son of Mary, others that He is divine, the Son of God.

  • In the time of Augustine, some saying that we do not need grace to be saved, others that without grace no one can aspire to the vision of God.

  • In the time of Teresa of Avila, some saying there are at most only two sacraments, others that there are seven; some holding that so-called priests are only ministers of the Gospel, and others saying that priests are not mere functionaries but ordained to offer the Holy Sacrifice and in Christ’s name forgive sinners their sins.

  • In our day, some claiming that lifelong marriage is only an ideal, others that Christian spouses are obliged by divine will not to remarry while their partner is alive.

This has been the history and the tragedy of Christianity since the apostolic age: Christians holding not only different but totally opposite views on elements of faith and norms of moral behavior. And their divergence of view has become concretized in ecclesiastical forms and institutionalized on a scale that staggers the imagination.

Now surely, the Christ who wanted His followers to be united in love must have provided for this unity by giving them an organ of unity in truth. The origin of unity in truth is not the faithful at large but, among the faithful, the successors of the Apostles to whom Christ committed the People of God—to be shepherded by the shepherds and not be sheep who are starving for divine grace because there is no one to feed them the revealed truth of God.

No one else among Christians is thus qualified to guide the faithful; no one has the divine right because no one else has the light to distinguish for the faithful what is true and what is false, except those to whom Christ entrusted His flock, namely the ordained hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church.

Anyone else, no matter how intelligent or educated, and no matter how erudite, or organized, or articulate can claim what they have not received.

Theologians are not the hierarchy; they are not the magisterium; they are not the teaching authority of the Church divinely gifted to bind the consciences of the faithful in what pertains to revealed truth.

And all the talk about two magisteria, one of the hierarchy and the other of theologians, is so much learned stupidity. Let me use a simpler Anglo-Saxon word, it is a lie.

Infallibility of the Pope and of the Bishops

But this is not the end of the confusion in the over-educated part of the Catholic world today. Not only are some equating the possession of the truth with the right to decide what is the truth, but also they are obscuring the role of the papacy in the exercise of the Church's teaching authority.

Episcopal collegiality means many things, not the least of which is the bishops’ authority to instruct the faithful in the ways of salvation. Indeed whenever the bishops agree among themselves on any point of doctrine and so teach the faithful they are teaching infallibly.

But, this agreement among the hierarchy is truly collegial and therefore truly infallible only if, and when, and to the extent to which their teaching is approved by the Pope, at least implicitly.

His confirmation of their teaching is what gives the faithful the assurance of being taught the truth.

Moreover, he can do what they cannot do. He can make a decision, and proclaim a doctrine without either prior dependence on their consensus or subsequent approval from the hierarchy.

When he thus teaches, ex cathedra as we say, the Holy Spirit insures that a substantial part of the hierarchy will accept his teaching. But their acceptance is not a necessary condition for his exercise of infallibility. His intention to teach the universal Church on some matter of faith and morals, as head of the Mystical Body on earth, is sufficient security for the members of the Church that they are being taught the unalloyed truth, on which they can bank as the channel of divine grace.

How Infallible Is the Teaching Church?

There is one more level of reflection we have to make and it is in fact the title of this conference: “How infallible is the teaching Church?”

In a way we have already dealt with the “How” by addressing ourselves to the “What,” the “Why” and the “Who.” But there is a special value in looking at the “How” separately, after having seen what has already been said.

What are we asking when we ask how infallible is the teaching Church? We are asking how unchangeable and we are asking how extensive is the Church’s teaching. Each of these two aspects of the “How” of infallibility is highly, even urgently, relevant today.

How Unchangeable. Over the centuries of the Church’s exercise of her magisterium there have been those who sought to trim her teaching authority to the times. Gnosticism and Arianism, Nestorianism and Nlonophysitism, Wycliffism, and Hussitism, Calvinism and Zwinglianism, Rationalism and Modernism may be odd-sounding names. But they are all heretical efforts at changing what the Church insisted was immutable.

The situation facing the Church today is not really different, except that the focus of attention is the vortex of the tornado in modern Christianity, namely the moral order.

The prophets of change had quite exhausted the vocabulary of ethical philosophy. When words did not exist, they coined new ones to match their wits in a massive effort to remove from the Church’s infallibility its divine attribute of immutability.

And all the while the center of attention is the difficult ethic of the New Testament which is being reshaped to meet, as they say, modern means. Every moral term of the Gospels is being redefined. The body or sound of the term is kept, but the soul of its meaning is taken away.

Marriage and monogamy, love and chastity, obedience and poverty, freedom and liberation, happiness and peace—even human life is being realigned to satisfy the demands of modern secularist society.

So, too, the prohibitions of the New Testament are being reduced to verbalisms and by now millions have bought the new commodity. The title of the book, What Ever Happened to Sin?, could just as well have been “What ever happened to adultery, or fornication, or homosexuality, or perjury, or cruelty, or infanticide?”

What happened was that those who found the Church’s moral imperatives too hard made them out to be mere ideals, and then proceeded to urge a redefinition of infallibility-it is to be a pious word that has lost its real meaning. We are to have an infallible Church that keeps adjusting its moral doctrine to the moral license of the age.

Needless to say, on this level of our study, the Church’s teaching authority is unchangeably infallible. The substance of what Christ commanded His followers in first-century Palestine is what His Church teaches is commanded in twentieth-century France, America, India and Germany.

To say anything less would be to betray the Master. It would also make a mockery of the truth, which is either a constant reality or it is not the truth, and certainly not the truth once and for all revealed by Christ.

How Extensive. There is one last question to be taken care of, namely, “How extensive is the Church’s infallible teaching authority?” Or in more prosaic terms: In what matters is the Church’s magisterium exempt from error and divinely assured of proclaiming only what is true?

This is not an academic question, no less than the previous one. Here, too, a virulent reductionism has infected the ranks of Catholic thinking. And its virulence is all the more harmful in often being couched in learned and disarmingly religious language.

What are we being told? We are being informed that, along with a changeable (which means fallible) infallibility, the teaching authority of the Church has a far more limited (more modest, they say) scope than over-zealous Catholics had believed until recently.

The real irritant here, as before, is the Church’s teaching authority in the moral sphere. And the familiar ploy is to play down to the point of removing the infallibility of the Church’s universal but ordinary magisterium, while playing up the extraordinary magisterium in solemn definitions of the popes or of ecumenical councils.

The net effect of this technique is to consciously ignore the constant teaching of the Roman Catholic Church on all the substantials of Christian morality.

It was this technique which has brought Humanae Vitae into such disrepute and caused so much negative reaction to the document of the Holy See on sin and sexuality.

What, then, is the extent of the Church’s infallible teaching authority? It is wider than most Catholics perhaps have realized and certainly wider than those who are uncomfortable with the Church’s perennial teaching of the Christian moral law are willing to admit.

  1. It includes, first of all, everything which God has supernaturally revealed, beginning with the Church’s decision of what belongs to Sacred Scripture and going on through all the mysteries of faith which are part of revealed tradition.

  2. It includes such premises of revelation as in the Church’s judgment need to be infallibly held in order to safeguard the deposit of divine faith.

  3. It includes whatever conclusions the Church may draw from revealed premises-which covers a large part of conciliar teaching, notable in the Council of Trent.

  4. It includes whatever, in the Church’s judgment, needs to be held and put into practice as part of the natural law. For it should be obvious that Christians are bound not only by formally revealed commandments of the Old and the New Testament but also by the law which the Author of man’s nature has imprinted on the human heart.

Is there any limit to what the Church may teach infallibly? None by human standards. Whatever is true comes within the ambit of her infallible teaching authority—insofar as this truth has bearing on man’s salvation, which means insofar as the truth is a channel of divine grace.

Infallibility and Changes in the Church

It will be useful to look for a few minutes at one aspect of the Church’s infallibility that poses a problem to many Catholics.

If the Church is infallible, and if infallibility implies immutability, i.e., no change, then how explain the vast chain reaction of changes introduced by the Second Vatican Council?

In order to do justice to that question we first recall that the essential purpose of infallibility is to insure the preservation of the truth, as a condition for the mediation of grace.

Given this fact, we go on to ask what happens when the Church introduces changes that seem to contradict her unchangeable preservation of the truth.

One of three things happens on each of the three levels of the Church’s infallible teaching authority, or a combination of any two or three of them:

  1. Regarding Belief
    In matters of doctrine pertaining to belief, e.g., the mysteries of faith, there is such thing as development of doctrine. This means that while the substance of the mystery remains unchanged objectively, the subjective understanding or appropriation of what God has revealed can become clearer and deeper with the passage of time.

The “change” therefore is in the direction of greater clarity and depth of understanding, but no contradiction between what the Church had taught before and what it teaches now, e.g., children confessions.

  1. Regarding Moral Conduct
    In matters of morality, there is also development of doctrine and always an awareness of moral behavior as a means of meriting grace (for precepts) and of avoiding the loss of grace (for prohibitions).

Part of the Church’s development of moral doctrine is her awareness of the needs of the times, or of progress say in medicine or in social relationships—thus, e.g., the Church’s position on the social obligations of ownership. But always the substantials of moral truth remain unchanged.

  1. Regarding Worship
    In worship and ritual, the vast changes in the Liturgy and administration of the sacraments follow the same pattern. There has been development of doctrine, and there has been a divinely guided adaptation of the Liturgy to the needs of the faithful, infallibly assuring them of the communication of grace. Thus the dawn of the communications age has given rise to a greater consciousness of the faithful as community, of the Church as assembly of believers, of worshippers as a mystical body glorifying God together, and has found expression across the whole spectrum of Catholic liturgical life.

But always the faithful have the assurance that the essentials of revelation on the sacraments as channels of grace remain unchanged.


In the years to come the Church’s prerogative of teaching the truth and teaching it infallibly will be seen as one of God’s greatest gifts to modern man.

For it is not only Catholics or Christians who benefit from the access they have to truth in a world that is groping for the truth and wandering in Uncertainty. But the whole human race benefits from the continued presence on earth of Christ, who is the Truth, teaching the truth through His Church, and thus leading mankind back to the God from who it came and from whom it was made.

The Teaching Church in Our Time
Editor - Msgr. George A. Kelly © 1978,
Daughters of St. Paul, pp. 107-120

Copyright © 1998 by Inter Mirifica

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