There’s been some Facebook and blogging debates going on about the authority of the teaching of the Church and infallibility. Unfortunately, some of this discussion is muddled because of a confusion of two issues: The issue of obedience and the issue of infallibility. Some, in attempting to argue against obedience to the Church in an issue they dislike, try to explain away binding authority this way. They begin by pointing out that the ordinary magisterium is not formally protected from error in the same way that an ex cathedra statement is protected. They point out that technically, the rest of the Church teachings are non infallible. Now that is true. The ex cathedra statement is a special magisterial action, and it has special protections, given the level of authority they invoke.
But, then the fallacy of equivocation comes into play. Because the teachings of the ordinary magisterium are non infallible, it is argued that they are in fact “fallible,” and the word is stretched into the claim that the Pope or the bishop is teaching error and must be resisted. That is a distortion of the Church teaching. Everything that was eventually defined infallibly by the Church was previously taught by the ordinary magisterium. The infallible definition essentially made the ordinary magisterium more specific. But people were still obligated to obey the ordinary magisterial teaching before it was defined ex cathedra.
So the Catholics who believe the Papal teaching is not error object to this argument. They say that the teaching is not in error and that God is with the Church, protecting her from teaching error in matters of faith and morals in which the faithful are obligated to obey. At this time, we see another example of equivocation. When we say that the Church is protected from teaching error in matters of faith and morals, some try to turn this onto a claim that “the ordinary magisterium is infallible.” But claiming the Church is protected from teaching error is not the same as claiming that the Ordinary teaching of the Church is ex cathedra statement. This can get muddled of course. Some Catholics may start using the term “infallible” when they mean “protected from error” as a kind of shorthand, and that plays into the hands of the dissenting Catholic who accuses him of “Papolatry" or "Ultramontanism."
It’s easy to do. I’ve done it too, and we shouldn’t. But the problem is, this confusion over shorthand is not saying every utterance of the Pope is infallible, and it is unethical to accuse such Catholics of dong so.
What we need to remember is that the Pope’s teaching is not automatically prone to error as a part of the Ordinary Magisterium. Transubstantiation was not formally defined until AD 1215. That does not mean that Transubstantiation was an opinion that could be in error before AD 1215. Berengarius of Tours was condemned in AD 1079—which was 136 years before the definition in AD 1215. But, if one wants to deny that an Ordinary Magisterium statement is binding and wants to claim that any such statement is prone to error, then that person is effectively arguing that everything us up for grabs until such a time that it is defined ex cathedra. But that would be absurd.
The problem is, the Church very seldom uses an ex cathedra definition to proclaim her teachings. It is normally when there is a serious rebellion against the ordinary magisterium of the Church that the extraordinary magisterium is deemed as necessary. Those people who reject the authority of the ordinary magisterium of the Church are still committing the sin of schism. Our Canon Law tells us:
can. 751† Heresy is the obstinate denial or obstinate doubt after the reception of baptism of some truth which is to be believed by divine and Catholic faith; apostasy is the total repudiation of the Christian faith; schism is the refusal of submission to the Supreme Pontiff or of communion with the members of the Church subject to him.
can. 752† Although not an assent of faith, a religious submission of the intellect and will must be given to a doctrine which the Supreme Pontiff or the college of bishops declares concerning faith or morals when they exercise the authentic magisterium, even if they do not intend to proclaim it by definitive act; therefore, the Christian faithful are to take care to avoid those things which do not agree with it.
can. 753† Although the bishops who are in communion with the head and members of the college, whether individually or joined together in conferences of bishops or in particular councils, do not possess infallibility in teaching, they are authentic teachers and instructors of the faith for the Christian faithful entrusted to their care; the Christian faithful are bound to adhere with religious submission of mind to the authentic magisterium of their bishops.
can. 754† All the Christian faithful are obliged to observe the constitutions and decrees which the legitimate authority of the Church issues in order to propose doctrine and to proscribe erroneous opinions, particularly those which the Roman Pontiff or the college of bishops puts forth.
Code of Canon Law: New English Translation (Washington, DC: Canon Law Society of America, 1998), 247–248.
Notice what these canons cover here—Ordinary Magisterium. We are bound to obey the authentic magisterium of the Church, even when it is not an ex cathedra pronunciation. Moreover, the Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us:
892 Divine assistance is also given to the successors of the apostles, teaching in communion with the successor of Peter, and, in a particular way, to the bishop of Rome, pastor of the whole Church, when, without arriving at an infallible definition and without pronouncing in a “definitive manner,” they propose in the exercise of the ordinary Magisterium a teaching that leads to better understanding of Revelation in matters of faith and morals. To this ordinary teaching the faithful “are to adhere to it with religious assent” which, though distinct from the assent of faith, is nonetheless an extension of it.
Catholic Church, Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd Ed. (Washington, DC: United States Catholic Conference, 2000), 236.
Note that term—Divine assistance. God provides assistance to the Pope and the bishops in communion with him when using the ordinary magisterium of faith and morals. That doesn’t mean we have a finished product in the sense of the ex cathedra pronunciation. There is still room to become more precise as time goes by. But the Church has Divine Assistance.
What follows from this is that we can trust God to prevent the Church from teaching that homosexuality is OK or that the divorced and remarried can receive the Eucharist. Individual Catholics (even individual Catholic bishops) can err, and err badly. But we can trust the magisterium not to err in her binding teaching. We don’t have this trust because of the quality of the individuals in office. We have this trust because of the fidelity of Our Lord to His promises.