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How Many Infallible Teachings?
By Father Pat McCloskey, O.F.M.


Q: I am having a debate with another Catholic. She says that the Church has spoken infallibly only twice: Mary’s Immaculate Conception and Mary’s Assumption.

I say that it has spoken infallibly many times, especially through its 21 ecumenical councils. Which one of us is right?

A: Strictly speaking, neither of you is correct. Papal infallibility was defined by Vatican I in 1870, 16 years after Pope Pius IX had solemnly declared the Immaculate Conception of Mary.

Various people have gone backwards from 1870 and sometimes inaccurately labeled various statements as infallible.

The pope’s infallibility in his extraordinary magisterium (teaching role) has been used only once since 1870—when Pope Pius XII solemnly defined in 1950 that belief in Mary’s Assumption is part of Catholic faith. Belief in that teaching had long been reflected in the Church’s liturgy.

Since 1870, some people have argued that canonizing a saint is an infallible act, but that assertion is a debatable point at this time.

Not all decisions by each ecumenical council are automatically infallible. The Nicene Creed (adopted by the Council of Nicaea in 325 A.D.) states the faith of the Church on a very crucial point: Is Jesus “of the same substance” [nature] as God the Father? The Council of Nicaea said that Jesus is and, therefore, took an existing Profession of Faith and inserted the term homoousious (“of the same substance”) at the proper place. This is an infallible statement of what the Church believes.

That same creed was expanded at the Council of Constantinople in 381 A.D., stating more explicitly the Church’s belief in the Holy Spirit’s divinity. If you said the creed adopted in 325 was infallible, you might also argue that it could not be amended. The Catholic Church does not understand infallibility to mean that.

Ecumenical councils also make many prudential judgments and issue disciplinary decrees. Back in the 1960s, the world’s bishops asked themselves: Should Vatican II draw up a document on relations with non-Christians? Should the council’s treatment of Mary be a separate document or part of the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church? Should Vatican II issue a document explicitly condemning Communism?

Even though councils have given infallible teachings on matters of faith and morals, they have also made some prudential judgments about which there can be very legitimate disagreement.

A disciplinary decree approved by an ecumenical council can be binding without being declared infallible. A canon of the Second Lateran Council (1139) forbade Christians to engage in usury (charging any interest on a loan). Usury was later understood as charging excessive interest on a loan.

Vatican I taught that the pope is infallible when, as the Church’s supreme pastor and successor of Peter, he solemnly teaches some revealed truth about faith or morals ex cathedra (“from the chair”). He must intend to teach infallibly and make this known at the time of that teaching.

Most papal and conciliar teachings pertain to the Church’s ordinary teaching authority (magisterium) and are understood as authentic teachings—but not infallible in the sense of Vatican I’s teaching about infallibility.

Q: The story of Jesus’ cure of two men by casting their demons into swine (Matthew 8:28-34) has me very confused. It ends by saying, “Thereupon the whole town came out to meet Jesus, and when they saw him they begged him to leave their district.”

Why did the people want Jesus to leave after he cured the demoniacs? Why didn’t they invite Jesus to remain there and continue teaching?

A: Jesus’ unusual display of divine power probably evoked in these people feelings of joy and dread—joy for the demoniacs who were cured but dread because Jesus might upset their lives in some major way.

One way to understand this is that, if the people can get Jesus to leave immediately, they can keep the joy and avoid the dread. If Jesus leaves, then no repentance is necessary on the part of the townspeople. All of them can return to a simpler life than if they accept Jesus and the conversion he may (will!) require.

Perhaps the townspeople prefer to remember Jesus as a powerful miracle-worker rather than open themselves to ongoing (and progressively larger) changes in their lives. We can hope that later they were more open to God’s ways.

Q: I recently made a Cursillo and have noticed many Catholic publications are now referring to the practice of having a spiritual advisor or director. How do I do this? What does a spiritual advisor do? I really feel the need to grow spiritually, but I am unsure how to start.

A: A spiritual advisor or director can be a companion on your spiritual journey. She or he can be a “sounding board,” helping you identify obstacles to God’s grace that you may be setting up. A spiritual director can also assist you in naming how God may already be working in your life.

If the Pharisee praying in the front of the Temple (Luke 18:11-12), for example, had had a spiritual advisor, he or she might have asked, “Is this type of prayer really opening you up to God’s grace? Isn’t that what all prayer is supposed to do? Is this prayer possibly a way of congratulating God for having you on God’s side?”

Spiritual direction is about grace, about honesty, about how we are cooperating with God’s desire to share divine life with us or how we could be obstructing that life. A spiritual director might help a person make connections that the individual had missed.

When I asked a Franciscan who is a veteran spiritual director about this ministry, he emphasized that a spiritual director can help a person deal with conscious images of God and identify other images of God perhaps accepted unconsciously but never probed. How we think about (and pray to) God influences how we see ourselves and other people. An imbalance in one area causes problems in the other two.

He continued: “For me the aim of spiritual direction is to help the directee become aware of the depth of God’s love for that individual and to remove misconceptions, incorrect beliefs and misunderstandings obstructing awareness of God’s love. Spiritual direction helps a person see the beauty and goodness of God and then give oneself to God in love.”

Where to find a spiritual advisor? I frequently encourage people to contact a nearby retreat house and see if the staff has any suggestions of good directors in that area. Some retreat houses have programs for training spiritual directors.

A spiritual director can be ordained, but that is not essential because such direction is not the same as the Sacrament of Reconciliation.

There are many helps to growing in the life of God’s grace. A spiritual director is one very valid way, but so too are studying the Scriptures, praying the Liturgy of the Hours or participating in reflection groups or small Christian communities. Some people very involved in these activities have a spiritual director and others do not.

Perhaps someone within your Cursillo network can suggest a spiritual director in your area.

Q: As a Catholic, I have great difficulty in understanding Protestants who speak of salvation by faith alone. Does this come from differences between the King James Bible and Catholic translations of the Bible? Don’t other Bible passages explain salvation differently?

A: This, of course, was the subject of much misunderstanding at the time of the Reformation in the 16th century. The expression “faith alone” is not found anywhere in the Bible’s original Hebrew or Greek texts. Some people have mentally inserted this expression into Romans 1:17b (“As it is written, ‘The one who is righteous by faith will live’”) and in related biblical passages.

The problem here is that “faith alone” could be understood as merely an activity of the mind. Someone could say: “I have faith; I am saved. My future decisions do not matter.”

It might have been to counteract such an interpretation of faith that Jesus clearly explains that saying, “Lord, Lord,” is not enough to be saved because people must do “the will of my Father in heaven” (Matthew 7:21). Matthew 25:31-46 and James 2:14-17 make for sober reading about the importance of a person’s daily decisions. A living faith already includes a response to God’s grace.

If you have a question for Father Pat, please submit it here. Include your street address for personal replies enclosing a stamped, self-addressed envelope, please. Some answer material must be mailed since it is not available in digital form. You can still send questions to: Ask a Franciscan, 28 W. Liberty Street, Cincinnati, OH 45202.

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