Infallibility: Keeping the Faith

01-13-2019Weekly ReflectionFr. Wilfred Yinah, VC

The topic of infallibility in the Catholic Church is an ironic one: although intended to provide clarity, it is one of the most misunderstood topics within Catholicism. At least, humbly speaking, it was a big sticking point for me when I was a beginning Catholic. But once I understood it, I saw that it flows from a deep and beautiful faith in the active presence of the Holy Spirit in the Church.

What infallibility means

First of all, let's start with the purpose of infallibility: "It is this Magisterium's task to preserve God's people from deviations and defections and to guarantee them the objective possibility of professing the true faith without error.... To fulfill this service, Christ endowed the Church's shepherds with the charism of infallibility in matters of faith and morals." (Catechism, 890) Infallibility is a gift of Christ and the Holy Spirit that gives us clarity and certainty about the faith itself and morality. Infallibility just means that certain teachings of the Catholic Church are guaranteed to be without error. That's not to say that they are the full and final word on the topic: later teachings may deepen and further clarify aspects of the original teaching.

Exactly what teachings?

The charism of infallibility is fully engaged only in definitive Magisterial teachings on faith and morals. This can occur in either...

  • Ordinary teachings, or
  • Extraordinary teachings.

The Magisterium is the teaching office of the Catholic Church. It is exercised by the Pope alone when he teaches officially, or by the whole "college" of bishops together with the Pope. Most Magisterial teachings are ordinary. The Pope's ordinary teachings are issued in the course his normal activity: his encyclicals and other documents, various addresses, etc. The College of Bishops also has an "ordinary and universal" Magisterium. This is seen whenever the individual bishops teach the same faith — that is, in union with the Pope and each other, even if they're dispersed in their separate dioceses. It's also seen when an ecumenical council teaches definitively but without issuing a solemn definition.

Occasionally, the Magisterium issues extraordinary definitions of doctrine. This occurs when the Pope teaches ex cathedra, officially and solemnly defining some truth of the faith. The official and solemn definitions of ecumenical councils (such as the Council of Trent, the First Vatican Council, etc.) are also extraordinary pronouncements. Remember, it is the definitive teachings of the Magisterium that are considered to be infallible. This usually means that they explicitly state they're defining some matter of the faith, or put forth a position as to be definitively held. Some things that are taught repeatedly by the Magisterium can also be considered definitive, even if they're not explicitly named to be such.

Infallible teachings require the assent of faith. The Catholic Church uses its charism of infallibility to give the faithful clarity and certainty about morality and the faith itself. As such, Catholics are required to give the "assent of faith" to such teachings. This means that our faith in them rests directly on our faith either in the Word of God, or in the Holy Spirit's real & active assistance in the Magisterium.