Each issue carries
an imprimatur from
the Archdiocese of Cincinnati. Reprinting prohibited
The Spirit’s Gift to the Whole Church
It’s amazing how many people misunderstand the doctrine of infallibility
and other questions of church authority. One common misconception is that everything the
pope says is infallible. Parish leaders tell me that the issue of infallibility still troubles
many adults interested in becoming Catholics. As a teacher, I’ve run into serious
misunderstandings from various people—from college freshmen to hospital administrators.
The usual response to a careful explanation of infallibility or Church authority is: Why
haven’t we been told this before?
Discussions about infallibility are not limited to theologians or classrooms.
My mother recently told me of a hot debate she had with other senior-citizen members
of her card club over the question of Church authority and dissent. This Catholic Update,
then, will take a close look at the meaning of Church authority and infallibility and how
these teachings fit into our everyday lives as followers of Christ.
The magisterium. The Catholic Church holds that the pope,
and the bishops in union with the pope, enjoy teaching prerogatives of a unique kind. The
pope and bishops are commissioned to teach authoritatively on faith and morals in a way
no other teacher in the Church can claim to do. Catholic teaching holds that the supreme
doctrinal authority in the Roman Catholic Church is all the bishops together with and under
the pope. In ordinary usage in the contemporary Church this teaching authority is called
the “magisterium.” The guidance and pastoral concern of this teaching authority
is a great gift to the Church. Aided by the Holy Spirit, the magisterium helps protect
the Church from needless errors and wrong turns.
There remains widespread confusion, however, concerning the exact nature
and role of the magisterium. We can find some clarity in this confusion by carefully considering
these related topics: collegiality, infallibility, noninfallible teachings, the magisterium
as listeners and conscience.
In its discussion of Church authority, Vatican II stressed that all the bishops
(the college of bishops) share responsibility for the Church, not just the pope. The pope,
however, is head of this college. Therefore, even when he acts separately (that is, not
specifically commissioned by the rest of the bishops), he acts as the visible head of the
Church—and indeed as head of the college of bishops. The concepts of “pope” and “college
of bishops” are inseparable from each other. There is one supreme authority which
can be expressed in two ways: 1) through a collegiate act (as in an ecumenical council,
a worldwide gathering of bishops), or 2) through the act of the pope as a head of the college
(as in an encyclical letter).
Another distinction applies to these two expressions of the supreme teaching
authority: the distinction between extraordinary and ordinary magisterium. The teaching
authority is called “extraordinary” when referring to a solemn act of defining
a dogma of faith—that is, an infallible pronouncement of some truth as divinely revealed
for the sake of our salvation. In this context, “define” means giving a definitive
judgment on a particular question. Either an ecumenical council or a pope can exercise
extraordinary teaching authority. The most recent example of such a pronouncement is the
teaching about the Assumption of Mary, which was defined by Pope Pius XII in 1950. These
are examples of infallible teachings by extraordinary magisterium.
Any other exercise of the teaching authority of the bishops or the pope is
called “ordinary.” Examples of this ordinary teaching authority include the
teachings of a local bishop, the pastoral letters of the bishops' conference, the encyclical
letters of the popes, and the documents of Vatican II (because the Council did not use
its authority to define any new dogma of Catholic faith). Although these teachings are
certainly authoritative, they do not as such fall under the category of infallible teaching.
At the risk of confusion—but actually for the sake of clarity—one more
point must be made: The universal ordinary magisterium—that is, the teaching of all the
bishops dispersed throughout the world with the pope—can proclaim doctrine infallibly.
In other words, there can be cases of infallible teaching by ordinary magisterium. Vatican
II described the necessary conditions: 1) the doctrine must be taught unanimously by all
the bishops, 2) absolute assent on the part of all the faithful must explicitly be called for.
Examples of such teachings not solemnly defined but taught as divinely revealed include
some of the basic articles of the Christian faith: for example, that Jesus is Lord and
that God raised him from the dead.
But what is infallibility? The heart of infallibility is this: The power
of divine grace (not the human strength of its members) cannot allow the Church as a whole
to fall away from the truth of God. Simply put, the presence of God will not allow the
Church to self-destruct. Infallibility is a characteristic of the Church, vested in those
who have supreme authority over the whole Church. As stated above, this supreme authority
is the college of bishops with the pope as head of the college.
Thus, infallibility is not a characteristic of the pope's personal conduct
or his private views. Even when Vatican I (1869-1870) defined papal infallibility, it did
so in terms of the Church. Vatican I stated that when the pope defines a dogma of faith
(often described as speaking “ex cathedra”—from the chair), he is gifted
by the Holy Spirit with that infallibility with which God wished the Church to be endowed
in defining a doctrine of faith or morals.
Vatican II reemphasized this point when it stated: “This infallibility
with which the divine Redeemer willed His Church to be endowed in defining a doctrine of
faith and morals is co-extensive with the deposit of divine revelation, which must be religiously
guarded and faithfully expounded. This is the infallibility which the Roman pontiff, the
head of the college of bishops, enjoys in virtue of this office, when, as the supreme shepherd
and teacher of all the faith, who confirms his brethren in their faith, he proclaims by
a definitive act some doctrine of faith or morals—.The infallibility promised to the Church
resides also in the body of the bishops when that body exercises supreme teaching authority
with the successor of Peter.”
Infallibility does not mean that the Church will avoid all mistakes. The
Church has certainly made its share of mistakes; history teaches that clearly. It does
mean that the Church is not going to self-destruct, because the presence of the Spirit
at work in the community will prevent this. This conviction, of course, cannot be proved;
it is a statement of faith. This conviction, rooted in the experience of the Church and
expressed in the Scriptures in Jesus' promise to be with the Church, is validated again
and again throughout the centuries in the life of the Christian community. The presence
and action of the Spirit will not allow the Church as a whole to turn away from God!
Vatican I and Vatican II specified the conditions necessary for an expression
of an infallible doctrinal pronouncement. Conditions for such a pronouncement are: 1) It
must be a collegial act dealing with a revealed truth concerning faith or morals; 2) there
must be an explicit call for absolute assent; 3) the pronouncement must be the unanimous
teaching of all the bishops. Thus infallibility means that the Holy Spirit so assists the
magisterium that it only solemnly obliges the faithful to believe what is contained in
God's word. Vatican II's document on revelation describes the magisterium's
role this way: “The task of authentically interpreting the word of God, whether written
or handed on, has been entrusted exclusively to the living teaching office of the Church,
whose authority is exercised in the name of Jesus Christ. This teaching office is not above
the word of God, but serves it, teaching only what has been handed on, listening to it
devoutly, guarding it scrupulously, and explaining it faithfully by divine commission and
with the help of the Holy Spirit; it draws from this one deposit of faith everything which
it presents for belief as divinely revealed.”
Infallibility guarantees the truth of the meaning of a statement, not the
particular formulation of the meaning. Every formulation is limited to particular words,
concepts, theological viewpoints. As times and cultures change, these particulars may need
different formulations to express the central meaning. Given these severely limiting conditions
for an infallible pronouncement, such pronouncements are very rare. Indeed, since Vatican
I, there has been only one: the definition of Mary's Assumption (1950).
What, then, is to be said about other official statements, such as the documents
of Vatican II and the papal encyclicals? Not too creatively, these documents are called
noninfallible but authoritative teachings. They are not infallible declarations, yet they
carry the weight of the magisterium. A proper understanding of noninfallible, authoritative
teachings is absolutely essential for clarifying the confusion surrounding infallibility.
Noninfallible, authoritative teachings of the Church are presumed to be true.
This presumption is based on the faith conviction that the Spirit is present in the magisterium,
guiding it so that its teaching will be accurate. When an official teaching is given, the
theoretically expected response of the Roman Catholic is: This is a true teaching.
Still, noninfallible teachings do not require blind acceptance. For you or
me to respond properly to such a teaching with religious submission of will and of mind,
certainly study, discussion, reflection and prayer are presupposed on our part. Such a
response takes seriously the distinction between infallible and noninfallible teachings.
Such a response also steers between two extremes: 1) an absolute, blind submission to authority
(this approach seems to say that the reasons for the teaching really do not matter), or
2) the rejection of any unique teaching prerogative on the part of the magisterium (this
approach judges the argument to be only as good as the reasons given). The proper response,
then, finds the delicate blend both of individual reflection and of acceptance of the authoritative
role of the magisterium.
Such a response also acknowledges—and here is where caution is especially
needed—the possibility of error. This is part of the distinction between infallible
and noninfallible teachings. However, if the magisterium is carefully doing its preparation
for such noninfallible teachings, then such occasions of error should be very rare. To
sum up then, even in noninfallible yet authoritative teachings, the presupposition of truth
is in favor of the teaching.
An inconsistent ethic?
This is not to say that good Catholics may never genuinely question such
noninfallible teachings. Such questioning occurred very publicly in the debate over birth
control. At other times, the debate has centered on the Church's teaching about politics,
economics and other social justice issues. For example, Paul VI's encyclical on the
development of peoples was dismissed by some as warmed-over Marxism.
However, not all of these controversies result merely from the casual rejection
of the magisterium's authority. At the root of this debate and division, some scholars
state, is an inconsistency in the way judgments about morality are made. The church teachings
seem to be using two different methods for making these judgments. One way emphasizes abstract
principles and the answers of tradition. This way then stresses the need to obey these
answers. Many of the teachings on sexuality and medical issues are arrived at by this method.
The second method is quite different. It starts with an understanding of
the human person which is based on the key ideas and images of the Bible. It also emphasizes
the need to be open to input from contemporary sciences and calls for personal and communal
responsibility. Many of the social teachings are arrived at by this method.
This second way better embodies Vatican II's directive that all dimensions
which constitute human well-being be included in judging the morality of human action.
Yet the first model also continues to be stressed, in part leading to debate and for some
people making the presupposition of truth more difficult.
Official teachers as learners
It is our human experience that good teachers are also good listeners. Moreover,
they come to the classroom well-prepared. The same is true of the magisterium which, like
any teacher, must carefully do its homework. Being official teachers demands being official
learners as well. The Spirit—s presence which guides the magisterium is a gift. But the
Spirit is present in other people and events also! The magisterium must therefore make
every effort to listen and to learn from as many sources as possible: not only Scripture
and tradition, but also theologians, psychologists, sociologists, physicians and just plain
people (the “sensus fidelium”—the sense of the faithful).
Such openness acknowledges that the Spirit is teaching in the experience
of experts and of ordinary folks alike. Vatican II expressed this conviction well in The
Church in the Modern World: “The Church requires special help, particularly in
our day, when things are changing very rapidly and the ways of thinking are exceedingly
various. She must rely on those who live in the world, are versed in different institutions
and specialties, and grasp their innermost significance in the eyes of both believers and
unbelievers. With the help of the Holy Spirit, it is the task of the entire People of God,
especially pastors and theologians, to hear, distinguish and interpret the many voices
of our age, and to judge them in the light of the divine Word. In this way, revealed truth
can always be more deeply penetrated, better understood, and set forth to greater advantage.”
Because most of the magisterium's teachings fall under the noninfallible
category, there is a possibility of error. All too easily dissent is interpreted in purely
negative ways and equated with the hostile rejection of authority. Such suspicion is an
overreaction, for properly expressed and respectful dissent can, in the long run, help
refine and enrich the teaching. Dissent helps insure that official teaching will not be
expressed in incomplete or erroneous ways. Indeed, such dissent may be necessary for the
health of the Church.
We must remember that noninfallible, authoritative teachings carry much weight
and are presumed to be true. Thus they play an important role in the formation of conscience.
Conscience is often a loaded word. How east to proclaim: “I must follow my conscience!” Yet
conscience—our ability to judge right and wrong behavior—is a complex reality. In the difficult
process of forming our consciences, we must search for the truth: is this act good or evil?
This search involves reflection upon basic sources of information in the
Church: Scripture and tradition. It includes the wisdom of the ages as expressed in law.
It looks for contemporary insights from sciences of all kinds. It takes personal experience
seriously. Of course, as indicated above, official Church teaching (including noninfallible,
authoritative statements) has a privileged role here. (For a more detailed analysis of
conscience, see my October 1983 Catholic Update, “Birth Control and the Conscientious
Catholic.” That Update also serves as a careful study of a noninfallible teaching.)
As Catholics, we should take noninfallible Church teachings very seriously
in forming our consciences. As indicated above, noninfallible Church teaching is expressed
in different forms: in papal letters and documents of councils, but also in local letters
and directives, such as the American bishops— pastoral letters on war and peace and on
the economy. These latter statements do not claim to have the same weight as the documents
of Vatican II. Yet they do represent the collective teaching of the bishops of the United
States and so participate in the official teaching. Accordingly, individuals must take
this teaching seriously in the formation of conscience.
Because human beings are more than computers or subjects to be programmed,
such teachings must be seen as privileged sources of guidance—not merely programs for uniformity.
A proper understanding of noninfallible Church teaching and of conscience focuses attention
on mature, personal responsibility in making moral decisions. As a human being created in
God—s image, the individual has the right and responsibility to experience, to reflect,
to pray and to decide. We are expected to use all our God-given gifts in coming to
A middle path
This emphasis on mature responsibility seeks a middle path which is not easy
to follow. On the one hand, it demands much more than the blind following of a law. Such
a mechanical response robs the individual of personal responsibility and involvement and
can merely provide a false security blanket. On the other hand, the middle position also
takes a stand against the casual rejection of Church teaching and recognizes the need to
search for the truth and to listen to the wisdom of authority.
Our growing understanding of Church authority, infallibility and conscience
is an example of renewal in today—s Church. At the same time we see more clearly the value
of the Church's guidance, we also see more clearly God—s call for our responsible participation.
Topics of concern range from the very intimate (birth control) to the global (nuclear war).
Some people seek to escape responsibility and want others to make all the decisions; others
would foolishly like to eliminate authority altogether. But the middle path of mature responsibility
rejects both extremes and accepts the call and the demands of intelligent, informed participation.
Another overview of infallibility
The faithful have a ‘sense’ about God's truth