When the Roman Pontiff or an Ecumenical Council makes a decision in a matter of prudential judgment, specifically judgments which pertain to the Church, her disciplines, her clergy, her consecrated members, and the rest of her faithful, to what extent is error possible?
First, dogmatic facts are without any error in what is judged definitively to be true, such as the nullity of Anglican Orders. This point is not in dispute.
But concerning judgments that are not dogmatic, should we consider them to be infallible, non-infallible, or entirely fallible to any extent? The latter of those three possibilities is often assumed, especially by critics of Popes and Councils. Some go so far as to claim that the recent Council and the successive recent Popes have erred in matters of prudential judgment so much so that the Church has been gravely harmed. They claim that the Novus Ordo Mass is causing many to lose their faith, to be led into grave doctrinal error by means of poor liturgy, and so the Church has, they say, gone astray by approval of this Mass.
But such a claim is contrary to the dogma of the indefectibility of the Church. The Church has two types of authority, Her two swords, the authority over doctrine and over discipline (including prudential matters). It cannot be the case that the Church is only indefectible in matters of doctrine, while She could supposedly go so far astray in discipline that many souls would be lost. For then the Church could certainly be said to have defected. Neither in her doctrine, nor in Her discipline can the Church err gravely. For then She would have defected, She would have led the faithful, as some do claim, into errors of judgment and discipline so grave as to nearly destroy the faith.
So it is certain that both Popes and Councils cannot err gravely, neither in doctrine, nor in discipline. For grave errors even in discipline and prudential judgment can have repercussions of grave consequence for the path of salvation. That is why the Church has authority over discipline, divine authority from Christ, because grave errors in such matters can gravely harm the soul.
But if such judgments are not dogmatic facts, then they would also not be fallible to any extent. So we should consider ordinary decisions of Councils and Popes on discipline and prudential matters to be non-infallible. So the extent of error is this: some errors are possible, but never to a grave extent and certainly never so as to harm the path of salvation of the faithful, for then the indefectibility of the Church would be lost.
Is this the teaching of the Church? Yes, it is. The teaching that the Apostolic See is unblemished, unsullied, and the like is always worded broadly; it is not limited to matters of faith and morals only. This claim that has been made by the Popes and Councils many times. In addition, there are a number of papal charisms, which apply to Ecumenical Councils approved by the Pope, that require the authority of the Pope and any approved Councils to be at least free from grave error in discipline, including prudential ecclesiastical matters.
For example, the dogma that from the decisions of the Roman Pontiff, there is no appeal, applies to decisions of doctrine and discipline. But if grave errors were possible, there would need to be a process of appeal or grave harm would happen to the path of salvation. Then the supreme authority of the Roman Pontiff is over both doctrine and discipline; but God would not give supreme authority, His own authority, to a mere sinful human person, the Pope, without ensuring that grave errors could not occur when using God’s authority.
The Pope is the principle of unity in the Church. But if he could err gravely in discipline, then the faithful would be right to be divided from him to avoid grave harm. This would then constitute something that is impossible: a licit schism. Since the Church must be one, Her decisions of discipline at the highest level cannot be gravely erroneous, otherwise divisions would be necessary. Then subjection to the Roman Pontiff is “from the necessity of salvation”. But our good God could not bind us to grave error in doctrine or discipline as a part of what is necessary for salvation. So grave errors must be absent in both.
Christ and His Vicar constitute one only Head is another papal charism, the gift to be one with Christ when exercising authority in His Church. And this authority is over both doctrine and discipline; therefore, the same protections from grave error for non-infallible doctrine apply to non-infallible discipline. Then discipline, broadly defined, includes prudential judgments.
Finally, since the Church has two types of authority, how could Peter, with his two Keys, only be a Rock concerning doctrine, whereby he errs not in what is infallible, and errs not gravely in what is non-infallible? He must be a Rock both in doctrine and in discipline, so that his Name given by Christ is not a mockery, and so that his Keys, plural, which can bind even heaven, do not bind heaven to grave error.
Therefore, the decisions of Popes and Councils on doctrine as well as discipline, includes freedom from grave error in everything that is not free from all error. The exercise of the Keys of Saint Peter by Popes and Councils never errs gravely, and often never errs at all.
Ronald L. Conte Jr.
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