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Infallibility of the Church

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The Infallibility of the Church is the belief that the Holy Spirit will not allow the Church to err in its belief or teaching under certain circumstances. This belief is held by the Catholic Church, but is also held in certain degrees by the Eastern Orthodox churches, and some other Christian denominations.

Infallibility of the Catholic Church

The Catholic Church teaches that Jesus Christ, "the Word made Flesh" (John 1:14), is the source of divine revelation. The Second Vatican Council states, "For this reason Jesus perfected revelation by fulfilling it through His whole work of making Himself present and manifesting Himself: through His words and deeds, His signs and wonders, but especially through His death and glorious resurrection from the dead and final sending of the Spirit of truth." (Dei Verbum, 4). The content of Christ's divine revelation is called the Deposit of Faith, and is contained in both Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition (as John 21:25 states, "Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written.").

The Magisterium (Latin: magister, "teacher") is the teaching office of the Catholic Church. Catholic theology divides the functions of the teaching office of the Church into two categories: the infallible Sacred Magisterium and the fallible Ordinary Magisterium. The infallible Sacred Magisterium includes the extraordinary declarations of the Pope speaking ex cathedra and of ecumenical councils (traditionally expressed in conciliar creeds, canons, and decrees), as well as of the ordinary and universal Magisterium. Despite its name, the "ordinary and universal Magisterium" falls under the infallible Sacred Magisterium, and in fact is the usual manifestation of the infallibility of the Church, the decrees of popes and councils being "extraordinary".

Examples of infallible extraordinary papal definitions (and, hence, of teachings of the sacred magisterium) are Pope Pius IX's definition of the Immaculate Conception of Mary, and Pope Pius XII's definition of the Assumption of Mary. Examples of infallible extraordinary Conciliar decrees include the Council of Trent's decree on justification, and Vatican I's definition of papal infallibility. Examples of infallible teachings of the ordinary and universal Magisterium are harder to point to, since these are not contained in any one specific document, but are the common teachings found among the Bishops dispersed through the world yet united with the Pope. Pope John Paul II specifically clarified that the reservation of ordination to males is infallible under the infallibility of the ordinary and universal magisterium of the Church, without issuing a corresponding extraordinary papal definition. It has been suggested that he did this to remind everyone that the ordinary and universal magisterium is also infallible, and that an extraordinary definition is not necessary to make a teaching irrevocably binding and demanding of supernatural faith. In fact, the ordinary and universal magisterium is the usual manifestation of infallibility, the decrees of popes and councils being the extraordinary expression.

The Ordinary Magisterium includes the potentially fallible teachings of the Pope and ecumenical Councils (ie, not given ex cathedra) and, more commonly, of individual Bishops or groups of Bishops as taken separately from the whole College. Such teachings are fallible and could possibly contain errors; they are subject to revisions or even, rarely, revocation. In the case of the teachings of individual bishops to their diocese, there can of course even be disagreement among the individual bishops on such issues. However, these potentially fallible teachings are necessary to contribute to the development of doctrine. Eventually, many fallible teachings progress to the point where they can be infallibly defined (such as when they become not only Ordinary, but Ordinary AND Universal). Thus, some teachings move from the Ordinary Magisterium to the Sacred Magisterium.

Example of Ordinary Magisterium includes the so-called Social Teachings of recent popes or theological opinions that the popes or bishops make public. Catholics are not free to merely dismiss such teachings, however. The Church demands a "submission of the intellect and will" to them, even if not supernatural faith. However, this is to varying degrees depending on a variety of things, especially when teachers disagree. Catholics must respectfully hear all opinions from equal authorities and judge which is best, makes more sense, is more consonant with the tradition of the whole history of the Church, or how to reconcile them. However, the use of a higher level of authority trumps past disagreement. So, for example, if a pope condemns the teaching of a bishop (even if both the condemnation and the teaching are fallible), or if an infallible teaching disagrees with a past fallible teaching. Catholics are free to weigh a variety of factors, however, in judging divergent opinions that are of the same level of authority, and being taught more recently does not necessarily give it more authority. For example, the different teachings of two bishops may be considered and judged by Catholics, and the fallible teachings of the current pope, for example, do not necessarily trump the equally authoritative fallible teaching of previous popes even when they disagree... especially if many of them taught something different. However, the fallible teachings must always be viewed in light of the infallible teachings of the Church.

All teachings of the Sacred Magisterium are considered infallible in Catholic theology. These teachings can be divided into two categories of precedence. The highest are so-called "de fide credenda" teachings, that is to say teachings defined as explicitly and specifically Revealed in the deposit of faith: "Wherefore, by divine and Catholic faith all those things are to be believed which are contained in the word of God as found in Scripture and Tradition, and which are proposed by the Church as matters to be believed as divinely revealed, whether by her solemn judgment or in her ordinary and universal Magisterium." (First Vatican Council, Dei Filius 8.) The other category are so-called "de fide tenenda" teachings. These are equally infallible but are proposed not as being explicitly in the deposit of faith, but nevertheless implied by it or intrinsically connected to it logically or historically. These too demand supernatural faith, but not specifically in themselves on the authority of the Word of God in the Public Revelation of Scripture and Tradition. Rather, they demand supernatural faith as part of the faith in the Holy Spirit's guarantee of the authority and infallibility of the Church in discerning such matters. Further discernment may lead to the conclusion that a "de fide tenenda" teaching is not merely implied by the deposit of faith, but explicitly contained and thus it may advance to "de fide credenda" status.

Both extraordinary definitions and the universal magisterium may teach de fide credenda or de fide tenenda teachings. An example of de fide credenda teachings taught by extraordinary definition are the Christological teachings of the early ecumenical councils or the Marian dogmas of the Immaculate Conception and Assumption taught by the popes.

An example of de fide credenda teachings taught by infallible ordinary and universal magisterium include the immorality of directly taking an innocent human life, or Mary's status as Mother of Christians.

Examples of de fide tenenda teachings taught by extraordinary definition include the canonizations of Saints and Pope Leo XIII's declaration of Anglican orders as null and void (so-called "dogmatic facts"). Neither of these could advance to de fide credenda status as they are contingent on historical facts. However, certain teachings on grace and justification from the Council of Trent, currently regarded as infallible but only de fide tenenda due to disagreement about whether they are explicitly contained in the deposit of faith or merely logically implied, could someday advance to de fide credenda status either through extraordinary definition or through the consensus of the universal magisterium.

Examples of de fide tenenda teachings taught by infallible ordinary and universal magisterium include the validity of papal elections, earlier non-papal canonizations now universally accepted (of St. Agnes, for example), or the immorality of pornography. However, none of these could advance to de fide credenda status as they are contingent on historical facts or developments, as for example pornography is condemned, and infallibly so, but is likely not included specifically in the deposit of faith (there was no such concept at the time), but is nevertheless an infallibly discerned implication of the more general revealed teachings on human sexuality and chastity. However, certain teachings taught in such a manner may someday advance to de fide credenda status, either through extraordinary definition or the consensus of the ordinary universal magisterium. As, for example, the teaching on papal infallibility was infallibly taught for a long time de fide tenenda by the universal magisterium, but not de fide credenda until the extraordinary definition at Vatican I, because there was disagreement on whether it was a specifically revealed truth from the deposit of faith, or merely the logical implication of other things in the deposit of faith (as, for example, the authority of Peter in the college of apostles, the constitution of the Church, her unity, her episcopal structure, etc)


The doctrine of papal infallibility states that when the Pope teaches ex cathedra his teachings are infallible and irreformable. Such infallible papal decrees must be made by the Pope, in his role as leader of the whole Church, and they must be definitive decisions on matters of faith and morals which are binding on the whole Church. An infallible decree by a pope is often referred to as an ex cathedra statement. This type of infallibility falls under the authority of the sacred Magisterium.

This doctrine is held by the Catholic Church. It was definitively defined at the First Vatican Council in 1870, although belief in this doctrine long pre-dated this council.[1] The rejection of this doctrine is a common definitional element of the various sects of Protestantism and a break-away group, the Old Catholic Church. In the Eastern Orthodox churches, the doctrine is also not accepted as no one man can be perfect except for God himself.

Ecumenical councils

The doctrine of the infallibility of ecumenical councils states that solemn definitions of ecumenical councils, approved by the Pope, which concern faith or morals, and to which the whole Church must adhere are infallible. Such decrees are often labeled as 'Canons' and they often have an attached anathema, a penalty of excommunication, against those who refuse to believe the teaching. The doctrine does not claim that every aspect of every ecumenical council is infallible.

The Catholic Church holds this doctrine,[2] as do most or all Eastern Orthodox theologians. However, the Orthodox churches accept only the first seven general councils as genuinely ecumenical, while Catholics accept twenty-one. Some Protestants[who?] believe in the infallibility of ecumenical councils, but they usually restrict this infallibility to the Christological statements of the first seven councils.

While the Russian Orthodox Church does recognize the first seven ecumenical councils as valid, some Russian Orthodox[who?] theologians believe that the infallibility of these councils' statements derived from their acceptance by the faithful (and thus from the infallibility of all believers), and not from the acts of the councils themselves. This differs from the Greek Orthodox view, which accepts that an ecumenical council is itself infallible when pronouncing on a specific matter.[3]

Ordinary and Universal Magisterium

The Ordinary and Universal Episcopal Magisterium is infallibility as it relates to a teaching concerning a matter of faith and morals that all the Bishops of the Church (including the Pope) universally hold as needing to be accepted by all the faithful. It should be noted that this aspect of infallibility only applies to teachings about faith and morals as opposed to customs and prudential practices. Additionally, the Ordinary and Universal Episcopal Magisterium applies to a teaching held by all the bishops at any given moment in history. Thus, even if a teaching on a matter of faith and morals is out of favor among the bishops of a later date, once it has been held by all the bishops to be accepted by the faithful as infallible, then it is considered infallible and unchangeably true.

Views in other Christian faith traditions

Eastern Orthodox churches

Since the authority here claimed is associated with the doctrine of Apostolic Succession and is founded on Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition, it is also not entirely foreign to the Orthodox churches. However, the Orthodox churches believes that the bishops are responsible for preserving the faith, the dogmatic truths and traditions. This does not equate however to them being individually infallible but that, in consensus, in combined agreement, they are charged with the Universal faith. Thus, the Orthodox churches, even though they may not use the same terminology, would generally accept the Catholic views of the infallibility of bishops in an ecumenical council, with the important reservation that not every council that proclaims itself ecumenical is so in fact. The Orthodox would not accept the infallibility of the ordinary and universal Magisterium.

Anglican Church

The Anglican Church, at its origins, claimed this type of authority over the people of England, but the idea is no longer popular within the Church, owing in particular to a lack of commonly-accepted traditions and to disputes as to some peripheral doctrines. However, the Anglican Church holds to a unique ecclesiology; In the Anglican's view, the ancient and historic Churches (such as the Anglican Church, Catholic Church, Orthodox Church, and Oriental Churches) that maintained Apostolic succession, belief, and practice, are all branches of the Universal Church, and that there will always be a section of this tripartite Church which will not fall into major heresy.

The Witnesses of Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture

Catholics, some Anglicans, and Orthodox believe that Divine Revelation (the one "Word of God") is contained both in the words of God, in Sacred Scripture, and in the deeds of God, in Sacred Tradition. Everything asserted as true by either Sacred Scripture or Sacred Tradition is true and infallible.

This plan of revelation is realized by deeds and words having an inner unity: the deeds wrought by God in the history of salvation manifest and confirm the teaching and realities signified by the words, while the words proclaim the deeds and clarify the mystery contained in them. By this revelation then, the deepest truth about God and the salvation of man shines out for our sake in Christ, who is both the mediator and the fullness of all revelation.
Second Vatican Council, Dei Verbum, n. 2

Consequences for ecumenism

The Catholic Church, the Eastern and Oriental Orthodox churches, and the various Protestant denominations are divided by their different views on infallibility. The ecumenical movement, which hopes to reunify all of Christianity, has found that this is one of the most divisive of issues between churches. This term unfortunately has often been misunderstood by most Christian denominations. Infallibility cannot be understood properly unless a sound comprehension of the administration and theology of each Christian group has firstly been understood. For example, many Protestants and Eastern Orthodox believers have the belief that papal infallibility refers to papal impeccability, i.e. that the Pope cannot sin. This, however, is not the teaching of papal infallibility.

External links


  1. Vatican I, Dei Filius ch. 3 ¶ 1 and Pastor Aeternus ch. 4 ¶ 5. Vatican II, Lumen Gentium § 25 ¶ 3. 1983 Code of Canon Law 749 § 1.
  2. Vatican I, Dei Filius ch. 3 ¶ 1. Vatican II, Lumen Gentium § 25 ¶ 2. 1983 Code of Canon Law 749 § 2.
  3. "The infallibility of the Church does not mean that the Church, in the assembly of the Fathers or in the expression of the Conscience of the Church, has already formally expressed all the truths of faith and norms. The infallibility of the Church is confined to the formulation of truths in question. This infallibility is not wholly a God-inspired energy which would affect the participants of the synod to such an extent that they would be inspired to pronounce all the truths at one time as a whole system of a Christian catechism. The Synod does not formulate a system of beliefs encompassing all Christian teachings and truths, but only endeavors to define the particular disputed truth which was misunderstood and misinterpreted. The Church of Christ and its divine nature, as set forth above, is the foundation upon which the Eastern Orthodox Church [sic.] continues to administer and nourish its faithful, thereby protecting its fundamental essentials." Rev. George Mastrantonis, of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America.

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