Thursday, November 4, 2010

Thoughts on Infallibility (Article IIIa): On That Which the Church Does Not Teach

The Series Thus Far:


Now that I have dealt with Peter, his primacy and that he made decisions for the Church which were either protected from error or else throws the entire belief of Christianity into doubt, it is time to move on to what some people might have wanted me to cover from the beginning — the belief of Papal Infallibility itself.

However (you knew there had to be a catch, didn't you?) before we can do this, we effectively need to define what it is not.

Two Forms of Rejection

There tends to be two forms to the rejection of the authority of the Church as binding.

  1. Those who reject the Catholic claim of infallibility and that the Church can be free from error when she teaches.
  2. Those who deny that a part of Catholic teaching, which they dislike, is binding.

Non Catholics tend to fall into the first group.  Because they believe the Catholic Church teaches wrongly, it makes sense they would not believe that the Catholic Church could be protected from error.  Some Catholics fall into the first group, but unlike the non-Catholic, they are being hypocritical for remaining within the Church when they reject what it teaches on teaching without error.

The second position tends to be held by Cafeteria Catholics (Catholics who arbitrarily choose which teachings they will follow and which they will not).  Such individuals deny they are at odds with the Church, their argument going as follows:

  1. I am a faithful Catholic
  2. I am at odds with the Church on Teaching X.
  3. Therefore Teaching X is not binding.

Such an argument is in fact based on the belief that "whatever I do is good" and those who indicate otherwise are in the wrong.  Ironically such a view denies that the Church itself can be infallible, but insists on the infallibility of the self in a way far beyond what the Church teaches on the subject.

What Catholics DO NOT Believe on Infallibility

The first step for this section of the series is to eliminate what is outside of the Catholic teaching on Infallibility.  I start with this because pretty much all the attacks which seek to deny this teaching are based on assumptions which Catholics do not believe.  Attacks which say "What about X?" which cover material which Catholics do not believe is covered by the doctrine on infallibility would be examples of the Straw man fallacy.

So let us look at some things which Infallibility is NOT:

1) Infallibility is not impeccability.  Belief that the Pope is infallible does not mean a belief that the Pope cannot sin.  The Pope is a man, just as much in need of Christ's salvation as the rest of us.  Therefore, people who attack infallibility on the personal conduct of some Pope do not refute infallibility.

2) Infallibility does not cover the Pope's views on a subject as a private individual. Nor is what the Pope says prior to being Pope covered by infallibility.  Infallibility comes attached to the office of the Pope, and is not a personal gift.  Nor does it involve subjects other than faith and morals.  If the Pope says he thinks investing in Microsoft is a good idea, and Microsoft stock tanks, this does not mean the Pope is not infallible.

3) Infallibility is not prophecy.  Nor is it new revelation.  The Pope cannot define new beliefs (even though some Anti-Catholics accuse us of exactly this).  The Pope is not like what Mormons believe of their leader.  His words are not revelation from God.  Now I recognize that some non-Catholic readers will say "What about X?  That contradicts the Bible!"  This will be a topic further on in this series.  For now, the short answer is, we do not contradict the Bible, and the issue is over who has the authority to interpret what the Bible means.

4) The Pope's infallibility does not deal with the administration or governance of the Church.  People who point to actions by the Papal States prior to 1870, to the handling of the Sexual Abuse scandals of today or the recent news of the Vatican Banking controversy must realize that we do not believe that such actions are covered by infallibility.

5) Infallibility is not disproved by the changing of Church disciplines.  Whether the Mass is in English or Latin, whether we receive the Eucharist on the hand or the tongue, whether the laity receives both the host and the chalice or just the host… these changes do not mean the Church contradicts herself.  Rather these are things the Church binds and looses depending on the needs of the faithful at the time.  If for example, there is a false view that one must receive both the host and the chalice or one does not properly receive the Eucharist (as Jan Hus wrongly believed), the Church can withhold the Chalice from the laity.  If the Church decides that it would be more beneficial for the Mass to be said in the vernacular or uniformly in Latin, it can make a binding decree.  However, in such disciplines, the Church was not wrong then and is now right.  Nor was it right in the past and wrong now.  Both were decisions which fit the needs of the time.

6) Finally, Infallible teachings are not what people misunderstand them to be.  If a person misunderstands a teaching of the Church (such "Catholics worship Mary!") and point to an Infallible statement as if it promotes this false understanding, the fault is with the individual who misunderstands, not with the Church which is misunderstood.

It is important to make these distinctions because essentially every attack against infallibility falls into these categories.  Since Catholics do not believe infallibility is involved in these situations, any attack against the Catholic belief in infallibility which invokes these areas are false and do not refute infallibility.

There are of course more things which infallibility is not.  However these will be brought up at the proper time (such as the "If it isn't declared infallible, it's merely an opinion and I can ignore it" canard so beloved by modernists and traditionalists).

To Be Continued

In the next article, I intend to move on to what the Church DOES teach about infallibility.

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