A Call To Faith

Suppose that a Pope, any Pope at all, issues a papal document, containing a new definition of dogma. In this hypothetical, everyone agrees that the teaching meets all of the conditions for it to be infallible under Papal Infallibility. However, some prominent faithful Catholics believe the contents of the teaching to be a grave error.

Is this possible? Of course, some Catholics can opine, unfaithfully, that [1] an infallible teaching of a Pope, or [2] of a Council, or [3] of the ordinary and universal Magisterium is error, not infallible truth. But what I am asking is, do the conditions for an infallible teaching, under any of the three modes of magisterial infallibility, include an evaluation as to whether the teaching is true? Or is it true merely because it meets those conditions?

The answer here is not speculative. This is not mere opinion. The First Vatican Council was clear on the conditions for Papal Infallibility:

“when the Roman Pontiff speaks Ex Cathedra, that is, when, in the exercise of his office as shepherd and teacher of all Christians, in virtue of his supreme apostolic authority, he defines a doctrine concerning faith or morals to be held by the whole Church, he possesses, by the divine assistance promised to him in blessed Peter, that infallibility which the divine Redeemer willed his Church to enjoy in defining doctrine concerning faith or morals.”

None of these conditions requires the content of the teaching to be true. Thus, none of these conditions permits the faithful, of any rank or number, to judge the content of the teaching as error, and therefore to claim that the conditions for infallibility have not been met. Rather, when a teaching — without any judgment as to the correctness of its assertion — meets these conditions, it must be true. It is true because it meets the conditions.

If the Roman Pontiff is speaking as Teacher of the universal Church, not merely expressing an opinion, and if his assertion is a definition, a definitive act which proclaims a teaching, on a subject area of faith or morals, which is proposed to the whole Church as a required belief, then the teaching must be true, as it falls under Papal Infallibility — without regard to content.

If it seems to millions of Catholics, and if it seems to a vast number of Catholic leaders, however scholarly, wise, and holy they may be, that the contents of the teaching are in error, if it seems to many of the faithful that the new definition of dogma is entirely incompatible with the teachings of Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture, as well as past magisterial teachings — even so, the new definition must be believed, with the full assent of faith, to be an infallible truth of Divine Revelation. And the faithful must set aside their own contrary understanding, and adhere to the new definition. They must change their interpretation of any other teachings of Tradition, Scripture, Magisterium, which would seem to conflict with the new definition. For the new definition of dogma is a teaching of Christ, the Lord.

How can this be? It is a matter of faith. Consider the situation of the first disciples of Christ.

They were Jews being taught Christianity. They were being taught by someone claiming to be the Messiah, or whom many said was the Messiah. And He was not what anyone expected. If you polled the Jews of that time, just before Jesus began teaching, and asked what the Messiah would be like, and what He might teach, none of them would have gotten it right. For we are fallen sinners who can easily misunderstand what God knows to be truth.

If the first disciples took the attitude of some Catholics today, that those things only are true teachings of the Church which seem true to their own understanding, how many would have followed Jesus? None. He did not teach what anyone expected. He said eat my flesh and drink my blood. Which of the most holy rabbis, teaching about the future Messiah, got that point right: “He will tell us to eat his flesh and drink his blood. Then he will turn bread and wine into his body and blood.” No one anticipated that teaching.

Faith is believing in ideas that make no sense to your own mind. And that goes for the minds of Saints, theologians, Cardinals, and little children — everyone. If you believe everything that the Catholic Church teaches, but only because it all seems right to your own mind, then you do not have faith at all and you are not in the state of grace. If so, then when you die, you will be judged by God and sent to Hell. For you did not believe the only-begotten Son of God made man, in His teachings through His Church. Instead, you treated your own mind as if it were the Messiah.

Consider the teaching of the Church on the Eucharist. What if the Magisterium had not yet defined transubstantiation, or the real presence? What if these ideas were still open questions, and the position we all know to be true were a minority view? And then the Pope defines transubstantiation and the real presence. How many Catholic leaders would object, since it would not be the majority view? How many would refuse to believe, since the teaching would not make sense to them, and would not seem to be in accord with Tradition? (I’m assuming, in this hypothetical, that Aquinas did not teach the doctrine, and Augustine’s error continued to be held as an opinion.) I think it is clear, from the way that many prominent Catholic leaders speak and act today, that they would reject that dogma.

Back to the question of Papal Infallibility. What if the Pope defines a new dogma, which meets all the conditions for Papal Infallibility? Well, then the contents of that teaching must necessarily be true. The faithful may not judge the contents of the teaching, compare it to Tradition and Scripture and past magisterial teachings, and decide whether or not it is true. Even if it seems to be in conflict with past teachings, they must believe it to be true — and in fact it is true. The Pope cannot err, when he exercises Papal Infallibility.

The only other possibility is that Jesus is a liar and not the Son of God at all. Those are the only two options. The reason that Papal Infallibility, and Conciliar Infallibility, and the infallibility of the ordinary and universal Magisterium are wonderful gifts to the Church is that they allow us to perceive and adhere to truths which are beyond the ability of the fallen sinner to understand. And the Holy Spirit absolutely prevents any errors at all from entering any teaching which meets the conditions for any of the three modes of infallibility of the Magisterium. It doesn’t matter who the Pope is, or what is personality is like, or how many sins he has (supposedly) committed. When his teaching meets the conditions, it is true. No matter how clearly wrong the teaching might seem to be to innumerable scholars, theologians, and faithful lifelong Catholics, and no matter how foolish or sinful the Pope who teaches may seem to be, it is true.

{11:49} Then one of them, named Caiaphas, since he was the high priest that year, said to them: “You do not understand anything.
{11:50} Nor do you realize that it is expedient for you that one man should die for the people, and that the entire nation should not perish.”
{11:51} Yet he did not say this from himself, but since he was the high priest that year, he prophesied that Jesus would die for the nation.

Caiaphas was a particularly wicked person. And he did not have a gift similar to Papal Infallibility, such as “high priest infallibility”. Yet Scripture says that, despite his wickedness, he was able to prophesy truth. Therefore, we should understand that, no matter who the Pope may be, he can still teach infallibly, by the power of God.

Now consider an alternate proposal. What if a Pope teaches heresy in a teaching that meets the conditions for Papal Infallibility? Can we say that the Pope has thereby ceased to be Pope, and therefore the teaching does not meet the first condition (that it be taught by the Pope) or the second condition (that it be taught as an exercise of the Pope’s full authority over doctrine)? No, we cannot. Such a claim would leave all infallible teachings in doubt, and would make a mockery of the gift of infallibility given to the Church, exercised by the Magisterium. How would it be at all useful to have the gift of infallibility, if it could fail in any manner?

It would be as if you gave someone the gift of a crystal bowl, and you told them that the bowl is unbreakable. Then, when the bowl is dropped, it shatters into a thousand pieces. The other person complains, “You said this was an unbreakable bowl!” And you reply: “Yes, but it is only unbreakable when it is a bowl. And when it breaks, it ceases to be a bowl.”

The usefulness of infallibility would be shattered if heresy could be taught by a valid Pope, such that he then becomes not the Pope. And then the explanation would be, “He is only able to teach without error when he is Pope. When he teaches error, he ceases to be Pope.”

That would be a foolish system, which conferred no benefit on the Church. Instead, the prevenient grace of God ascertains that no valid Pope will ever teach or commit heresy, and so he will never cease to be a valid Pope, until his death or valid resignation. Therefore, when a teaching meets the conditions for infallibility, it is certainly true.

The papal critics all make the same mistake, substituting their own understanding and that of the conservative Catholic subculture, for faith itself. Catholics are not called to resist any Pope who teaches ideas contrary to their own understanding. For that attitude makes the arrogant assumption that their own understanding is infallible. Instead, we are called to believe truths that are contrary to our own understanding. That is faith itself.

Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian and translator of the Catholic Public Domain Version of the Bible.

Please take a look at this list of my books and booklets, and see if any topic interests you.

This entry was posted in Popes. Bookmark the permalink.

25 Responses to A Call To Faith

  1. sircliges says:

    The decisive statement in this argument against violent conversion is this: not to act in accordance with reason is contrary to God’s nature.[5] The editor, Theodore Khoury, observes: For the emperor, as a Byzantine shaped by Greek philosophy, this statement is self-evident. But for Muslim teaching, God is absolutely transcendent. His will is not bound up with any of our categories, even that of rationality.[6] Here Khoury quotes a work of the noted French Islamist R. Arnaldez, who points out that Ibn Hazm went so far as to state that God is not bound even by his own word, and that nothing would oblige him to reveal the truth to us. Were it God’s will, we would even have to practise idolatry.[7]

    At this point, as far as understanding of God and thus the concrete practice of religion is concerned, we are faced with an unavoidable dilemma. Is the conviction that acting unreasonably contradicts God’s nature merely a Greek idea, or is it always and intrinsically true? I believe that here we can see the profound harmony between what is Greek in the best sense of the word and the biblical understanding of faith in God. Modifying the first verse of the Book of Genesis, the first verse of the whole Bible, John began the prologue of his Gospel with the words: “In the beginning was the λόγος”. This is the very word used by the emperor: God acts, σὺν λόγω, with logos. Logos means both reason and word – a reason which is creative and capable of self-communication, precisely as reason. John thus spoke the final word on the biblical concept of God, and in this word all the often toilsome and tortuous threads of biblical faith find their culmination and synthesis. In the beginning was the logos, and the logos is God, says the Evangelist. The encounter between the Biblical message and Greek thought did not happen by chance. The vision of Saint Paul, who saw the roads to Asia barred and in a dream saw a Macedonian man plead with him: “Come over to Macedonia and help us!” (cf. Acts 16:6-10) – this vision can be interpreted as a “distillation” of the intrinsic necessity of a rapprochement between Biblical faith and Greek inquiry.


    • Maurilio Piazza says:

      This is right but remains immaterial to the very subject of Mr. Conte’s article.

      The above quote cannot be used to justify disobedience to papal ex cathedra definitions as if they could possibily be false, under the pretext that they seem to be irrational or inconsistent with established dogma or in any way unwarranted, otherwise there would have been no point for Vat I to specify that those papal propositions are irreformable “ex sese, non autem ex consensu Ecclesiae” (“of themselves, and not by consent of the Church”): as with many council fathers at Vat I (or Nicaea, Ephesus, Chalcedon, etc.) it may well be the case that infallible definitions contradict one’s own understanding of the matter, yet the full assent of Faith is objectively due nonetheless.

      Nor can the above quote be used to justify violation of Vat 1’s doctrine of “fidei numquam deficientis”, the personal “never-failing faith” of every pope (which is not the same as the dogma of papal ex cathedra infallibility, but serves as its necessary logical foundation), as if any pope’s faith could possibily, at any time and at any level, err in definitive matters. In extreme cases, popes could lie out or fear or duress or other factors conditioning their personal freedom, by consciously denying what they know and believe to be definitive truths (this was the case with Peter himself and – as they say – pope Liberius), but they cannot possibly err in those matters out of their own mind, whether wittingly or unwittingly.

  2. Matt says:

    4,634 – Message of Our Lady Queen of Peace, transmitted on 05/10/2018 – Pedro Regis – Google translation

    Dear children, from the Palace will come an order that will do great harm to the faith of My poor children. Bend your knees in prayer. This is the time of the great battle between good and evil. Keep the truth. Accept the Gospel, for only in this way can you remain on the Path of Salvation. I am your Mother and I came from Heaven to call you to conversion. Get away from the things of the world. You are not slaves. You are free to be of the Lord. Turn to Him, who is your Absolute Good and knows you by name. You are the Lord’s and you alone must follow and serve Him. Forward in the defense of truth. My Lord expects much from you. This is the message I am sending you today in the name of the Most Holy Trinity. Thank You for allowing Me to meet you here one more time. I bless you in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen. Be at peace.

    • Ron Conte says:

      Mary says to be faithful to the Magisterium. She also says “an order” will come from “the Palace” that will harm faith. An order is not a teaching. And the “Palace” is not the Magisterium. This could be a decision of discipline, though I’m not sure which one. That women can be ordained deacons would be a teaching, but then discipline would be changed to allow it. Perhaps women will be made Cardinals? That does not seem very harmful, though (just misguided). So I don’t know what order she is speaking of.

      Possibly, this refers to the time when a popular antipope reigns, having been elected by some Cardinals and Bishops, illicitly and invalidly. That event causes very much harm. Hmm. And the word “Palace” is used because the order does not come from true authority, from the Holy See or the Magisterium. It comes from pseudo-authority, accepted by those who are “of the world”, but not of the faith. That makes the most sense, I think.

  3. Matt says:

    4,630 – Message of Our Lady Queen of Peace, in Jardim Ipê / Goiás, transmitted on 04/30/2018 – Pedro Regis – Google Translation

    Dear children, I am your Sorrowful Mother and I suffer for what awaits you. Bend your knees in prayer. Difficult times will come to men and women of faith. True doctrine will be wounded and in many places the flock will disperse. I ask you to remain faithful to Jesus. Do not allow the enemy of God to steal what is most precious within you. Seek strength in prayer and in the Eucharist. Accept the Gospel and listen to the true Magisterium of the Church of My Jesus. Do not let the flame of faith fade within you. You are the Lord’s and you alone must follow and serve Him. Trust fully in the Power of God. Those who remain faithful to the end will be rewarded generously. Do not retreat. I need you. Whatever you do for My Plans will be kept in My Immaculate Heart. Go forward with courage. This is the message I am sending you today in the name of the Most Holy Trinity. Thank You for allowing Me to meet you here one more time. I bless you in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen. Be at peace

  4. sircliges says:

    Ron Conte, I sigh of relief if you were rhetorical, but the problem is still here. What kind of faith are you talking about? You need to explain better the relationship between faith and reason.
    Faith can be “praeter rationem”, beyond reason, but cannot be “contra rationem”, opposing to the reason. Because God is Logos and Logos is Reason.
    I know it’s a difficult grasp the difference. For example, Trinity Dogma says that God is One Nature and Three Persons; this BEYOND our reason; but the Dogma cannot say that God is One Persons and Three Persons at the same time. That would be AGAINST reason because implying a violation of the not contradiction principle.

    A Pope cannot contradict a formal solemn statement of a previus Pope. That would be a logical contradiction, ERGO against Logos, against God. If a Pope would ask me to believe something that, I would object that he is destroying catholocism. If a previous Pope could be wrong, why not an actual Pope?

  5. sircliges says:

    Maurilio Piazza, you say:

    “…Vat 1’s doctrine of “fidei numquam deficientis”, the personal “never-failing faith” of every pope (which is not the same as the dogma of papal ex cathedra infallibility, but serves as its necessary logical foundation)…”

    This is a personal opinion that I respect, but is not Magisterium. The dogma focus about PUBLIC infallibility of the Pope, who cannot teach definitively something wrong; but the dogma doesn’t says about the thinking of the Pope “in foro interno”. What you say is a necessary logical foundation, actually isn’t necessary.
    The Bishop Vincent Ferrer Gasser, in his official speach of July 11 1870 at the I Vatican Council, did say that the Pastor Aeternus werent’ an official stance about the hypothesis of the heretical Pope.
    So you cannot infer by the dogma what you are infering.

  6. sircliges says:

    «Neque enim Petri successoribus Spiritus Sanctus promissus est, ut eo revelante novam doctrinam patefacerent, sed ut eo assistente traditam per Apostolos revelationem seu fidei depositum sancte custodirent et fideliter exponerent.»


    The mission of the Pope is not teaching the new, but the true.

Comments are closed.