The Indefectibility of the Pope, the body of Bishops, and the Church

Between the first and second Ecumenical Councils of the Church, the heresy of Arianism raged. The Roman Pontiffs remained always faithful, as did the body of Bishops. Do not believe the distorted tales told about that time. Sometimes faithful Catholics believe false things, such as that Papal Infallibility has only been used twice, or that Vatican II taught nothing that is required belief, etc. Some falsehoods, similarly, have entered the Catholic consciousness about Arianism.

It is not true that 300 Bishops went astray from the true faith into Arianism. See my previous post on that point. Yet this is often stated as if it were fact.

“The whole world groaned, and was astonished to find itself Arian.” — St Jerome

The expression of Saint Jerome does not imply that the Pope, or most Bishops, or most of the faithful were Arian. Why would the whole world groan and be astonished, if everyone was willingly Arian? Rather, it means that the emperor became Arian, and with his support, the heresy spread throughout the empire.

At no time in Church history has the Roman Pontiff, or the body of Bishops, or the body of the faithful fallen into heresy. For the Church is indefectible, and Christ structured the Church in a certain way, with the Pope as her Head, the successor of Peter; the body of Bishops as the successors to the other Apostles; and the rest of the faithful as an essential part of the body of the Church. Since the Church is Apostolic and indefectible, neither the successor of the Apostle Peter, nor the successors of the other Apostles as a body, nor the body of the faithful on the whole can go astray into heresy, schism, or apostasy. Even the great apostasy will apparently see only about a third of the Bishops (or perhaps a third of the members of the Church) go astray, as Revelation 12:4 indicates.

The Pope has the charism of truth and never-failing faith, and so his faith cannot fail. The Church must always be Apostolic, so the body of Bishops, as a body, cannot fall into any grave failing of faith (apostasy, heresy, or schism). And the Church is not merely comprised of Bishops, but mainly of the sheep of the flock; since the Church cannot be only chief Shepherds without any sheep, neither can the body of the faithful fail in faith gravely, as a body.

This is not to say that the Pope, the body of Bishops as a body, and the rest of the faithful as a body are unable to sin even gravely, or unable to fall into various types of lesser errors, such as common errors in society like geocentrism. But the Church is the Body of Christ, with Christ as Her Head, and with the Holy Spirit as Her Soul. And Christ himself not only said that the gates of Hell will never prevail over the Church (Mt 16:18), but also that none of those given to Christ by the Father will be lost (Jn 17:12). Recall also that the Second Vatican Council, in Lumen Gentium, after speaking of Papal Infallibility, Conciliar Infallibility, and the infallibility of the ordinary universal Magisterium, taught the following:

“To these definitions the assent of the Church can never be wanting, on account of the activity of that same Holy Spirit, by which the whole flock of Christ is preserved and progresses in unity of faith.” [Lumen Gentium 25]

The Holy Spirit preserves the whole flock of Christ so that we all progress in the unity of faith. Again, this does not mean that some of the flock cannot fall away from the true faith, but only that the flock is necessary preserved by the Holy Spirit as a body of the faithful.

Rejections of Indefectibility

This doctrine of the indefectibility of the Church, the Pope, the body of Bishops, and the body of the faithful is under attack today by those who reject the authority of Pope Francis, Vatican I and II, as well as other Popes and Councils. They put themselves forward are reformers of the Church, or at least as Her critics. They are constantly accusing Popes, Bishops, and Councils of grave errors. They claim that most of the Church has gone astray: the Bishops who approved of Vatican II, the Bishops who accept Vatican II since that time, the Popes since Vatican II, and most of the priests, religious, and laity who follow each Pope and each Ecumenical Council.

Their arguments are useless drivel. To my mind, it is like trying to argue that Jesus Christ the Lord erred in His teaching or in His behavior. The Church is the body of Christ, and so She is indefectible. The faithful need not entertain or refute any arguments that conclude or presume the contrary of any dogma, such as the dogma of indefectibility or the dogmas of the papal charisms. Whoever says that the Church is afflicted by a false spirit of Vatican I attacks the dogmas of the papal charisms, and the dogmas of Vatican I on those charisms, including the papal charism of truth and never-failing faith, and the charism of the supreme authority of the Roman Pontiff.

Each of these papal accusers — who do not merely criticize Pope Francis but reject him, other Popes, and one or more Ecumenical Councils — sets himself up as a judge over the Church, the Popes, the Ecumenical Councils, and the Magisterium per se. They write with such arrogance, presuming their own infallibility by alleging that the Church goes astray in doctrine and discipline whenever She teaches or rules contrary to their own understanding. And it is easy to see, in many cases, another source of this error, in addition to pride. They idolize a certain subculture of conservatism and traditionalism. Whatever that subculture teaches or decides, they accept like dogma and dogmatic facts. Anything from the Church’s authority, no matter how clear and definitive, is rejected by them if it contradicts the subculture they adore and worship. This is literal idolatry, and as a result, these persons are not Catholic Christians. Like the Arians, they have departed from the true faith into a multitude of heresies, into schism from the successive Popes and the faithful Bishops, and into idolatry.

None of these papal accusers claims to be the pope, but they otherwise behave almost as if they each were antipopes. For they think to tell the entire body of Bishops and the entire body of the faithful what they must believe on doctrine and what they must do in discipline. On every point of both doctrine and discipline, they claim to know the absolute indisputable truth and the best possible discipline, with no regard for the authority of the Pope and the body of Bishops, and no regard for the work of the Holy Spirit in the true Shepherds of the Church.

They are like the Arians of old. However, instead of distorting the roles and relationships of the three persons of the most holy Trinity, they distort the roles and relationships between Tradition, Scripture, and the Magisterium. They denigrate the Magisterium, the way that Arians denigrated Christ. They reject the authority of Pope Francis, just as the Arians rejected the authority of Pope Liberius. They reject the authority of Vatican I and II, just as the Arians rejected the condemnation of Arianism by the first and second Ecumenical Councils. They have separated themselves from the body of the faithful, just as the Arians did.

This present-day heresy of the papal accusers replaces the authority of the Magisterium with a pseudo-authoritative interpretation of Tradition by a subculture. The leaders of the subculture, like the Pharisees, are not willing to humbly submit themselves to the authority of the Pope, the body of Bishops, and the Ecumenical Councils. They each have a large following, mainly due to the internet. It is a heresy that spread via the internet, and would be much smaller without the internet. Each of these leaders of the traditionalist subculture,

Some traditionalist Catholics are faithful. They accept Pope Francis, though with some criticisms of him. They accept the teachings of Vatican II, and have no argument with Vatican I. They do not have a long list of Popes whom they reject, as do the papal accusers. Some traditionalist Catholics simply like the Latin Mass and prefer the more traditional ways of past decades. They rightly criticize the Church today for certain errors found among some liberal members. They are not heretics or schismatics. Perhaps not all of their opinions or preferences are correct. But that could be said of any faithful Catholic. As a result, I do not call the heresy in question “a traditionalist heresy”. For the error is in rejecting Popes and Councils, not in being part of a traditionalist subculture.

So the traditionalist subculture has become divided between those who are heretics and schismatics, rejecting Popes and Councils, and those who remained faithful to the Popes and Councils, while preferring certain traditions. And I notice that some Bishops have said that the traditionalist Catholics in their diocese do not generally reject Vatican II.

A Bishop of Dijon, France, used to have a traditionalist priest from the FSSP. The priest was obedient and cooperative with the Bishop. The priest would fill in for other priests, when needed, and say the Novus Ordo Mass. On Maundy Thursday, the priest would concelebrate the Mass with the Bishop and other priests, to obtain the chrism oils. The FSSP wanted to move this priest to another diocese, but the Bishop asked that he stay. He stayed for a while, but then moved on. Two new priests came to the same diocese from the FSSP. They refused to ever say the Novus Ordo Mass; they reject it utterly. They refused to concelebrate the Mass ever; they refused to concelebrate even on Maundy Thursday during Holy Week. Notice the difference between the first FSSP priest and the subsequent pair of priests. Some traditionalists are faithful, and others are not.

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.

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10 Responses to The Indefectibility of the Pope, the body of Bishops, and the Church

  1. Robert Fastiggi says:

    Dear Ron,

    Thank you for this very clear and well-articulated article.

    I wonder whether the reaction of some traditionalists to the Missal of St. Paul VI is an indirect denial of the indefictibility of the Pope. In his response to Traditionis Custodes, Fr. Pagliarini of the SSPX described the New Mass as a liturgy of a Church that “no longer needs the sacrifice of the Lord”:

    Dr. John Lamont, though accepting the New Mass as valid, describes it as a “human fabrication that does damage to souls.”

    I am happy that Fr. Thomas Crean, OP, invited me to respond to Dr. Lamont in the online publication, Dialogos:

    To suggest that the Holy Spirit would allow the Pope to approve a liturgy which is a human fabrication that does damage to souls seems to be a denial of the indefectibility of the Pope? I wonder if you would agree?

    • Ron Conte says:

      I agree. Specifically, my position is that the indefectibility of the Pope is closely related to the charism of truth and never-failing faith (taught by the ordinary universal magisterium for centuries, and later confirmed by Vatican I). This charism and this indefectibility would encompass both doctrine and discipline.

      Those who oppose the Novus Ordo Mass state or imply that grave error on discipline can gravely harm the Faith and the Church. Hypothetically, if God permitted the Pope, an Ecumenical Council, or the body of Bishops with the Pope to err gravely on a matter of discipline, such as on the form of the Mass, then they are right that this would cause grave harm to the Faith and to the Church — but this is a counter-factual hypothetical. My position is that God does not permit the Pope, a Council, or the Bishops with the Pope to err gravely on discipline, which includes protection of the Holy Spirit against grave errors on the Mass. I should also mention that critics of the Novus Ordo often greatly exaggerate the importance of rather small alleged-errors in the Mass. Only errors that are actually grave, in the sense of gravely harming the Faith, the faithful, the path of salvation, or the Church, would be necessarily excluded.

      Additionally, I think that disciplines are protected both from grave error and from lesser errors that are frequent or numerous. A set of less-than-grave errors might do as much harm as an individual grave error, and so this must be prevented by grace and providence for the sake of the indefectibility of the Church, the Pope, and the body of Bishops led by the Pope.

  2. Robert Fastiggi says:

    Dear Ron,
    Thank you for your very clear and coherent explanation. I am in full agreement. The critics of the Novus Ordo often blame the liturgical reforms following Vatican II for the decline in priestly vocations. These declines, though, have many causes. Some dioceses are now actually experiencing an increase in priestly vocations. In the Archdiocese of Guadalajara, Mexico, 70 new priests were ordained earlier this month:

  3. Marcel Silva says:

    hello Ron, another great article on this issue of the popes, by the way, based on this, the question of Pope Honorius I, how would it look like? Because I see Protestants, Orthodox and even some Catholics saying that Pope Honorius would have fallen into heresy and was condemned by 3 councils and Pope Leo II

  4. A Recent Reader says:

    Dear Mr. Conte,

    Off Topic:

    Would you please consider writing an article about the feasibility and means of successfully approaching The Catholic Church, in one’s locale, for _sound_, in-person guidance, for developing one’s faith?

    My particular interest is in this context:  I live in a medium sized metropolitan area in the United States.  I am sixty, unbaptized, not in great health- with a life and past that need alot of cleaning up.  I have a sense of urgency.  I don’t want to presume that I have alot of time.  I know others in similar circumstance.

    I am studying- pretty much as fully as I can on my own, and will continue to do so- trying to see if I am to commit my life to Catholicism (lay).  I’ve reached a point where it seems wise to seek _sound_ live-guidance in case it might make my way more straight.

    Thank you very much,

    A Recent Reader 

    • Ron Conte says:

      You should be baptized as soon as practical. You can contact the Catholic parish nearest to where you live. Ask about taking an RCIA course (Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults) with a view to working toward Baptism. The Sacrament of Baptism forgives all sins. Talking with a priest in your area would be useful. (This is not a topic that I would write an article on, though.)

  5. A Recent Reader says:

    Mr. Conte,

    Thank you – I am very grateful to have your reply.

    Not trying to drag you into anthing, but in case it helps communicate what I’m asking:  I am familiar with what you wrote about, and it is what I am working toward.  Maybe I should gather from your reply that the odds of successfully finding help are better than I thought.

    I was thinking it wouldn’t necessarily be easy to find the true faith in a local church.  I was hoping for a set of guidelines, if such a thing could exist, to help me find my way while running what could be this gauntlet (not wanting to misuse your quotes, and not as comprehensive, but just a few strong fragments as examples):

    “[…] 11. Most Bishops refuse to excommunicate or otherwise strongly rebuke teachers of heresy, unfaithful politicians, and other prominent Catholics doing grave harm to souls.
    12. Most Bishops and parish pastors refuse to ensure that leadership positions in the diocese and parish are held only by persons who believe and practice the Catholic Faith. […]”

    “[…] Yet I could not find a single use of the word “hell” in any verse of the USCCB official New American Bible Revised Edition (NABRE). […]” 

    (Maybe it would be good to bring your translation of the Bible along and/or the Douay-Rheims when doing RCIA.)

    -And at the Parish level:

    “[…] have radically revised the teaching on intrinsically evil acts so that the intrinsically evil act is defined by intention or purpose, instead of by the moral object, […] I continue to speak out against this grave heresy, which is being spread by priests, theologians, ethics professors, teachers of RCIA […]”

    “[…] shockingly, the same is true, to a remarkable extent, for most persons teaching the Catholic faith: parish teachers of children or of adults in RCIA […] They might refer to the Church’s teaching on morality as they teach. But fundamentally, they only believe and teach what they themselves think is true on morality. Any difficult teaching is ignored or radically revised, so as to conform to their own understanding. They don’t accept any moral teaching of the Church on faith alone, if their ability to reason does not agree with the teaching. Not every teacher is like this, but many are.”

    -Concerns about being baptised, and the other sacraments, i.e. choosing which church:

    “[…] 2. In order for a Sacrament to be valid, the person dispensing a Sacrament must intend to do what the Church does.
    Council of Trent: “CANON XI. […]”

    Thank you very much

    • Ron Conte says:

      I am a lifelong believing and practicing Catholic Christian. I have been to Mass at many different parishes, churches, and chapels. Most priests would be worth obtaining guidance from in your situation. Regardless of some failings found in many priests, almost any one of them would guide you correctly in your case.

  6. A Recent Reader says:

    I can’t tell you how happy I am to read that from you.

    Thank you so much for helping me with this, in the midst of all that you are doing, Mr. Conte! I am very fortunate!

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