The Third Set of Four Charisms: Unity (11) Papal Infallibility

11. The Pope has the charism to teach infallibly, unifying the faithful in one doctrine.

The charism of infallibility is a gift to the whole Church, but it is exercised only by the Roman Pontiff, or by the body of Bishops led by the Roman Pontiff. Papal Infallibility is exercised by the Roman Pontiff, teaching by his sole authority. The infallibility exercised by Ecumenical Councils (“Conciliar Infallibility” for short) requires at least the confirmation of the Roman Pontiff. The infallibility of the ordinary universal Magisterium requires that the same teaching have been taught by at least one Roman Pontiff (but as often happens, multiple Popes will have taught the same).

The papal charism of infallibility differs from Papal Infallibility. The papal charism of infallibility is the divinely-conferred gift to be able to teach infallibly (and also decide matters of dogmatic fact). This charism resides in the Roman Pontiff — “in whom the charism of infallibility of the Church itself is individually present” — and “resides also in the body of Bishops”, as Vatican II, Lumen Gentium 25 teaches. Papal Infallibility is the exercise of that papal charism solely by the Roman Pontiff, in a teaching which meets the criteria for Papal Infallibility; it is exercised by the sole authority of the Roman Pontiff, without the necessity of any participation by the body of Bishops. But for the other types of exercise of the charism of infallibility (Conciliar Infallibility; the ordinary universal Magisterium), the body of Bishops and the Pope must agree.

* Vatican II, Lumen Gentium: “Although the individual bishops do not enjoy the prerogative of infallibility, they nevertheless proclaim Christ’s doctrine infallibly whenever, even though dispersed through the world, but still maintaining the bond of communion among themselves and with the successor of Peter, and authentically teaching matters of faith and morals, they are in agreement on one position as definitively to be held. This is even more clearly verified when, gathered together in an ecumenical council, they are teachers and judges of faith and morals for the universal Church, whose definitions must be adhered to with the submission of faith.”

The above paragraph describes the infallibility of the ordinary universal Magisterium, and also Conciliar Infallibility. Each requires the participation or confirmation of the Roman Pontiff. The body of Bishops, by definition, includes the Roman Pontiff has the head of the body. So that body cannot teach infallibly without the Roman Pontiff. But the Roman Pontiff can teach infallibly without the body, since the visible head of the Church is ever united to the invisible head of the Church, Christ the Lord.

The infallible teaching authority of the Roman Pontiff also unifies the faithful, since he can decide a matter of faith or morals definitively, ending all controversy. Those who continue to argue, after an infallible decision by the Roman Pontiff (or by the body of Bishops with him in an Ecumenical Council) are heretics and schismatics. This ability to cut away the unfaithful from the body of the faithful (anathema means “cut off”) by means of infallible teachings keeps the Church unified in faith and communion. Otherwise, the multiplicity of views among fallen sinners in the Church would tear the seamless garment of the Church into small patches, as has happened to the Protestant denominations, to the “old Catholic Church” (as they call themselves), and others. As for the ordinary universal Magisterium, this too requires an exercise of the charism of infallibility by the Roman Pontiff along with the body of Bishops.

The papal charism of infallibility is expressed in three ways: (1) Papal Infallibility, (2) Conciliar Infallibility, and (3) the ordinary universal Magisterium.

In the first, the Roman Pontiff teaches by his sole authority. He need consult no one; he need obtain the consent or agreement of no one. For he teaches in and through the Holy Spirit, by the authority of Christ, to whom he is united as one only Head of the one Church. Did Christ obtain the consultation, consent, or agreement of the Apostles before teaching? No, the Lord Jesus did not. With the very same authority does each Roman Pontiff teach.

In the second, the Roman Pontiff teaches with the body of Bishops (most commonly with a subset of the worldwide Bishops gathered together, who represent the larger body of Bishops). But when an Ecumenical Council writes a document and agrees to its contents, nothing therein has the authority of an Ecumenical Council without the approval of the Roman Pontiff. Therefore, the 28th Canon of the Ecumenical Council of Chalcedon, having been rejected by the Apostolic See merely through the papal legates: “by the very fact that it lacks the assent and approval of the Apostolic See, is admitted by all to be worthless,” as Pope Leo XIII states in Satis Cognitum 15.

In the third, the Roman Pontiff teaches with the body of Bishops dispersed in the world. But for such a teaching to be truly of the ordinary universal Magisterium, it absolutely must have been taught or approved by at least one Roman Pontiff, and not only by the other Bishops dispersed in the world. For the Pope can teach infallibly without the other Bishops, but all the other Bishops together cannot teach infallibly without the Pope. The reason is that the Roman Pontiff is the head, and they are the body. A body, apart from its head, cannot exercise the supreme authority of the Church.

* Vatican I: “9. Therefore, faithfully adhering to the tradition received from the beginning of the Christian faith, to the glory of God our savior, for the exaltation of the Catholic religion and for the salvation of the Christian people, with the approval of the Sacred Council, we teach and define as a divinely revealed dogma that 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. Therefore, such definitions of the Roman Pontiff are of themselves, and not by the consent of the Church, irreformable. So then, should anyone, which God forbid, have the temerity to reject this definition of ours: let him be anathema.”

The above is the formal definition of Papal Infallibility by the First Vatican Council. The Second Vatican Council then reiterated the same teaching, with different wording:

* Vatican II: “And this infallibility with which the Divine Redeemer willed His Church to be endowed in defining doctrine of faith and morals, extends as far as the deposit of Revelation extends, which must be religiously guarded and faithfully expounded. And this is the infallibility which the Roman Pontiff, the head of the college of bishops, enjoys in virtue of his office, when, as the supreme shepherd and teacher of all the faithful, who confirms his brethren in their faith, by a definitive act he proclaims a doctrine of faith or morals. And therefore his definitions, of themselves, and not from the consent of the Church, are justly styled irreformable, since they are pronounced with the assistance of the Holy Spirit, promised to him in blessed Peter, and therefore they need no approval of others, nor do they allow an appeal to any other judgment. For then the Roman Pontiff is not pronouncing judgment as a private person, but as the supreme teacher of the universal Church, in whom the charism of infallibility of the Church itself is individually present, he is expounding or defending a doctrine of Catholic faith. The infallibility promised to the Church resides also in the body of Bishops, when that body exercises the supreme magisterium with the successor of Peter. 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.”

The infallible teachings of the Roman Pontiff under Papal Infallibility “need no approval of others”, are above appeal to any authority, are irreformable, and does not require the consent of the rest of the Church, such as the Bishops or the rest of the faithful. However, “the assent of the Church” is never lacking, because the Church is indefectible not only in Her Head, the Roman Pontiff, and in the body of Bishops led by the Pope, but also in the body of the faithful. The Church can never be merely the faithful Shepherds who have lost all their sheep. For then the gates of Hell would have prevailed — something Christ promised and guarantees will never happen. So the faithful as a body never refuse to accept the infallible teaching of the Magisterium.

Now we all know that the faithful, including laity, religious, deacons, priests, Bishops, are fallen sinners. And so some of these will reject or resist almost any infallible doctrine that is taught by the Magisterium (under any of the three modes of infallibility). But the faithful as a body do not and cannot refuse to assent to such teachings, as none of those given by the Father to the Son are lost:

{17:11} And though I am not in the world, these are in the world, and I am coming to you. Father most holy, preserve them in your name, those whom you have given to me, so that they may be one, even as we are one.
{17:12} While I was with them, I preserved them in your name. I have guarded those whom you have given to me, and not one of them is lost, except the son of perdition, so that the Scripture may be fulfilled.

Notice the doctrine of unity, “so that they may be one”, and the doctrine of indefectibility, “and not one of them is lost”, except those who choose to be lost, as Judas Iscariot (“the son of perdition”) did. For Christ has guarded and continues to guard Peter and his successors, the body of Bishops, and the body of the faithful.

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2 Responses to The Third Set of Four Charisms: Unity (11) Papal Infallibility

  1. Vít Lacman says:

    NOTE: I have already written the very same comment under your last article, but I am not sure if it got sent correctly. To be sure I am writing to You again. Please ignore one of these two comments, if I sent both.

    Dear mr. Conte
    I am very sorry that I am again annoying You with my silly questions, but I am currently immersed in scruples and You are the only person to whom I can turn to with my questions. Hopefully this will be the last time.

    Firstly, I would like to ask you about the catholic probabilism. I have read that “an opinion is solidly probable which by reason of intrinsic or extrinsic arguments is able to gain the assent of many prudent men ”. But are those prudent men really necessary? Can I myself decide if an opinion for liberty is sufficiently probable? For example if I feel I have a good argument in favor of liberty, even though I believe arguments for abiding law are much more probable?

    Secondly, I would like to ask You again about the question of idolatry, again very similar to the previous questions.
    I have found many (protestant) definitions, which define an idol as: anything we run for fulfillment, satisfaction, hope, purpose in life, happiness, comfort; something that brings us more pleasure than God; anything we rely upon for some blessing or help, and so on and so forth. Are those definitions right? I am afraid some of them are, which would probably make me an idolater.
    On the internet an idol is defined in many different ways. There are surely many others which I haven’t disvovered. May I still ask You for your definition of an idol, even if You said that it’s hard to tell, so I could know which definitions are correct? I want to be sure I am not sinning, at least mortally.

    I will not ask You anymore, if You don’t wish to. But believe that all of your answers have greatly helped me and spared me from a lot of scruples and worries.
    God bless You.

    • Ron Conte says:

      Again, those definitions of idolatry are far too broad. Idolatry as a mortal sin is narrow. A believing and practicing Catholic who prays regularly to God is not committing idolatry. So you don’t need to worry about inappropriate or overly broad definitions of idolatry.

      Probabilism is not useful to someone with scruples. Ignore it. It is only used by some theologians, for certain arguments, and I find this approach of very limited value. Christ did not leave His faithful with only probabilities of what is moral or immoral, true or false.

      You may ask additional questions, if you wish.

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