| 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
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.
[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.
believe 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
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
earthly authorty pass away? If not, where did that authority
pass on to?
authority passed to Peter and to the priests of the New Covenant.
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 father's house.
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.
"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
(i.e. "authoritative") Magisterium of the Church -- i.e., the teaching
office of the Church exercised by proper authority -- has different
levels of infallibility:
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 II).
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.
Infallible 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.
Authentic 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.
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 United
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 years.
How to recognize what is and isn't infallible
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
Ex., you are reading two Encyclicals. The first Encyclical reads:
Brethren, 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 priesthood.
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.
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
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 defined.
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, etc.
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 Catholic:
details 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.
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 Anathema:
despises or rejects any written or unwritten ecclesiastical tradition, anathema
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.