Christ gave to Simon Peter and his successors, the Keys to the Kingdom and
the power of binding and loosing. To the Popes was given the authority to
teach. To them, in this regard, was given the charism of infallibility.
"Infallibility" is not "impeccability" -- the inability to sin. Catholics
do not believe that Popes are sinless and never err. Infallibility is simply
a gift that is expressed in very specific ways, limited by Sacred Deposit
of Faith -- Tradition, Scripture, and the unanimous writings of the early
Fathers. As put by Vatican I:
For the Holy Spirit
was promised to the successors of Peter not so that they might, by His
revelation, make known some new doctrine, but that, by His assistance, they
might religiously guard and faithfully expound the revelation or Deposit
of Faith transmitted by the Apostles.
Or, as put even
more bluntly by Pope Pius XII in Mystici Coporis Christi:
[Nor] may anyone
argue that the primacy of jurisdiction established in the Church gives such
a Mystical Body two heads. For Peter in virtue of his Primacy is only Christ's
Vicar; so that there is only one chief Head of this Body, namely Christ,
who never ceases Himself to guide the Church invisible, though at the same
time He rules it visibly, through Church rested not on Him alone, but on
Peter too, its visible foundation stone.
The Pope may explain
doctrines more fully, he may go more deeply into them, he can extrapolate
from moral principles to shed light on new situations that arise, but he
cannot contradict what has been handed down by Christ and the Apostles and
still claim infallibility for that teaching.
the first Pope possessed the charism of infallibility.
Now, they might not believe that Peter was the first Pope
(which he was), but they believe that his Epistles
are infallible. They also believe that Luke, Matthew, Mark, Paul, Jude and
John wrote infallibly. They believe that Moses "was infallible," too. And
Hosea, Micah, Nehemiah, Isaiah, David, Solomon, Zechariah -- any Patriarch,
Prophet, Apostle, or Evangelist who wrote a Bibilical Book is deemed by
Protestants to be infallible.
But somehow they see things as having changed, and the idea of the gift of
infallibility being given to man is laughed off as "Popish superstition"
at best, and as "Romish sacrilege" at worst.
Why they believe this, when since Israel's origins God has always
provided authoritative leaders, I don't know. From Abraham to Jacob to
Moses to David to Solomon, et. al., throughout the thousands and thousands
of years of Israel's existence, God gave Israel earthly authority. But
Protestants see this authority as having abruptly ended when the Old Testament
Covenant was fulfilled and Israel's King of Kings took on flesh.
For the priest's lips should keep knowledge, and they should seek the law
at his mouth: for he is the messenger of the Lord of hosts.
The scribes and Pharisees sit on Moses' seat; so practice and observe whatever
they tell you, but not what they do; for they preach, but do not
earthly authorty pass away? If not, where did that authority pass
And I will clothe him with thy robe, and strengthen him with thy girdle,
and I will commit thy government into his hand: and he shall be a father
to the inhabitants of Jerusalem, and to the house of Judah. And the key
of the house of David will I lay upon his shoulder; so he shall open,
and none shall shut; and he shall shut, and none shall open. And I will fasten
him as a nail in a sure place; and he shall be for a glorious throne to his
And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will
build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. And
I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven: and whatsoever
thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt
loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.
The authority passed
to Peter and to the priests of the New Covenant.
"But we don't believe that Moses and Jacob and David were perfect!
Look at David -- he committed adultery! Just because they wrote infallible
books doesn't mean they were perfect!"
Precisely. And Catholics don't believe that Popes are perfect and can't sin
or that every word a Pope mutters is infallible. When David whored around,
he sinned. When Solomon prayed to pagan gods, he sinned. When Peter denied
Christ three times, he sinned. When Pope John Paul II kissed the Koran or
failed to deal with heretic, Modernist Bishops and homosexualist priests,
he sinned. Impeccability is not a part of the deal -- but all of these sinners
had/have the charism of infallibility.
How Infallibility Works
The Authentic (i.e.
"authoritative") Magisterium of the Church -- i.e., the teaching office of
the Church exercised by proper authority -- has different levels of
Infallible Magisterium ("Solemn Magisterium"): this is exercised when
the Pope, as supreme pastor of the entire Church, speaks ex cathedra
(from the Chair of Peter) and solemnly defines a dogma concerning faith and
morals to be held by the entire Church, or when a Dogmatic Council convened
and endorsed by a Pope formally defines a matter of faith and morals to be
held by the entire Church. This is a very rarely excercised assertion of
authority (only a few times in the past few hundred years). When the Pope
teaches using his extraordinary infallible Magisterium, or when a Council
dogmatically defines something and the Pope endorses that defintion, Catholics
must believe what is taught de fide, as an article of faith.
Magisterium ("Constant Magisterium" or "Universal Magisterium"): this
is exercised when the Pope, Council, Bishop, priest or any authorized teacher
teaches in accordance with Tradition, the Sacred Deposit of Faith, and what
has been always accepted and taught by the Church in the past
Ordinary Magisterium: any teaching by Pope, Bishop, priest, or any authorized
teacher, that does not fall into the above two levels of infallibility is,
quite simply, fallible, even though it may be part of the Authentic Magisterium
(that is, it is "authorized" teaching). Teaching at this level is owed obedience
-- as long as obeying does not harm the Faith, lead to sin or the loss of
souls, does not contradict the Faith, etc. If what is being taught contradicts
the Faith, it not only can be resisted, it must be resisted.
In addition to Magisterium, the Pope can, of course, simply act as a private
person and offer his personal opinions on anything from current events to
sports to food to movies. These may be of interest to us Catholics, who tend
to sensibly love -- or at least respect the office of -- the Holy Father,
but they are not "Church teaching" in any way. In the same way, a Council
may be called that is pastoral and not dogmatic in nature (such as Vatican
Now, some Catholics forget the second level of the Magisterium, the "Ordinary
Infallible Magisterium." They forget the Sacred Deposit of Faith, the unanimous
agreement of the early Christian Fathers, and Sacred Tradition. These "Catholics"
are the "liberal Catholics" or "modernist Catholics" you hear so much from
in the media. They are the ones who root for the ordination of women, the
eradication of the Christian view of homosexuality, etc. These are
the well-organized, well-funded loudmouth "Catholics" who eat away at the
Church's teachings and have become well-entrenched in various dioceses.
Another type of Catholic forgets about that third level of teaching that
is not infallible at all. Any time the Pope teaches, he must be heard, his
authority given respect, and the teaching given the benefit of the
doubt because it comes from the Vicar of Christ. But if it contradicts
prior infallible Magisterium, it is not infallible -- and it must not
be obeyed if it proves harmful to the faith. Catholics who forget this
level of Magisterium try very hard to be "orthodox" by being obedient, but
they often have a false sense of obedience -- an obedience that sometimes
borders on a pre-conscious papolatry ("pope worship"), though, of course,
they know better and know that "worshipping the Pope" would be a terrible
sin. They usually have a very healthy sensus catholicus, a desire
for traditional Catholicism, and a virtuous patience, but they simply attribute
to the Pope authority he does not have and they truly need to come to a better
understanding of what the Magisterium is. These Catholics are often called
"neo-conservatives," "conservatives," or "neo-Catholics" (they often think
of and refer to themselves as "traditional Catholics" though they are not).
You will see these otherwise wonderful Catholics tying themselves into knots
trying to defend some of the novelties that followed Vatican II, or sweating
bullets making excuses for some of the Holy Father's more scandalous actions
(e.g., "ecumenical" services that include praying with Animists, Buddhists,
Muslims, Jews, Protestants; allowing altar girls and "Extraordinary Eucharistic
Ministers", etc.), failures to act (e.g., lack of discipline given to Bishops),
and opinions (e.g., support for the anti-subsidiarity, anti-life, anti-Christ
Their desire to protect the Holy Father is understandable -- and laudable!
-- especially since the papacy has been attacked so unfairly since the Protestant
Rebellion and the ensuing secular revolution, most often with
outrageous lies. But these Catholics have to wake up, study a bit,
and defend true Catholic teaching as it has been known for 2,000
How to recognize what is and isn't infallible
If it has always
been taught by the Church as a matter of faith or morals to be held by all Catholics everywhere (both Eastern and Roman Catholics), it is infallible.
If it is a solemn definition, it is infallible.
Ex., you are reading two Encyclicals. The first Encyclical reads:
the red dogs runs at night. The cow jumped over the Moon. Jesus Christ is
God. Little Jack Horner sat in a corner. Women may not be ordained to the
In this document,
the only parts which would be infallible would be the lines "Jesus Christ
is God" and "women may not be ordained to the priesthood" because these have
always been taught. This is teaching at the level of the Universal Magisterium,
which is infallible.
The second Encyclical reads:
By the authority
of our Lord Jesus Christ, of the Blessed Apostles Peter and Paul, and by
our own authority, we pronounce, declare, and define it to be a divinely
revealed dogma: that X, Y, Z. Hence if anyone, which God forbid,
should dare willfully to deny or to call into doubt that which we have defined,
let him know that he has fallen away completely from the divine and Catholic
Faith. And, by the way, the red dog runs at night.
Notice the explicit
"we define" here? Notice that it is addressed to "anyone," not just
to members of the Latin Church or of the Eastern Churches, etc.? Notice the
penalty in place for non-acceptance of what is being said (if you don't believe
this, you have fallen away from the Catholic Faith)? By these marks, you
can know that infallible teaching is being expressed.
In this document, X, Y, and Z are infallible, but not "the red dog runs at
night." This is teaching at the level of the Extraordinary (or Solemn)
Magisterium, which is also infallible and is to be accepted "de fide." (Note:
Protestants and uneducated Catholics who ask blankly, "Is Enclyclical X
infallible?" need to recognize that a 100-page Encyclical may be written
that is not infallible in any way, or has 10 paragraphs that are infallible,
or 1 sentence that is infallible, etc.). This sort of exercise of the Solemn
Magisterium is very rare, but very necessary when clarity is needed over
a teaching that has always been taught, but whose details haven't been strictly
All other teachings are owed obedience as long as they do not lead to a loss
of Faith, harm the Church, impede the salvation of souls, lead to an evil,
Always and everywhere been taught
and believed: infallible
by Pope or Council: infallible
fallible, but owed
religious assent unless they prove harmful, lead to sin, etc.
How the teachings are passed down
In addition to
the above authoritative excercises of the Magisterium is "ecclesiastical
tradition." Ecclesiastical tradition is the body of disciplines and practices
which Christ's Church has ordained to be the manner in which our Faith is
lived out and expressed. To quote Brother Alexis Bugnolo, writing in Seattle
Tradition is the term used by the Second Ecumenical Council of Nicaea, in
787 A.D., to speak of those pious customs of the Churches founded by the
Apostles, which in some manner correctly apply the Catholic Religion to concrete
practice over many generations. It does this most importantly in its 4th
"If anyone despises
or rejects any written or unwritten ecclesiastical tradition, anathema
Some examples cited
by this council of ecclesiastical tradition are the veneration of the symbol
of the Cross, icons, and statues. As an unwritten practice, kneeling for
Communion is an ecclesiastical tradition.
of ecclesiastical tradition (small "T") are not a matter of dogma per
se, but they are the inerrant manner in which dogma and doctrine are
taught, learned, expressed, and lived. The details of ecclesiastical
tradition may develop; they are not written in stone. But they may develop
only slowly, "organically," in terms of quantity or quality and not of substance,
and in such a manner that is consistent with Natural Law and which better
expresses the Faith or at least doesn't harm the Faith, such as the novel
practices since Vatican II do. Many of the problems in the Church since
the Second Vatican Council stem from the almost complete eradication or
revolutionizing of ecclesiastical tradition, in spite of the Second Council
of Nicaea's anathema against such things and in spite of the fact that they
have proven dangerous to the Faith.