The Indefectibility of the holy Mass

The indefectibility of the Church is a dogmatic teaching, based on the words of Christ:
{16:18} And I say to you, that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of Hell shall not prevail against it.

Some Catholic authors today have proposed a minimalist version of indefectibility, whereby the Church can fall into grave error for long periods of time, an Ecumenical Council can err gravely, multiple Popes can teach heresy or commit apostasy, heresy, or schism, and many other grave problems can overwhelm and eclipse the Church. This version of indefectibility is heresy, and it is fundamentally unfaithful to Christ the Lord. How could Christ’s promise of indefectibility be so limited that it offers very little to the Lord’s beloved people?

Or is it that Christ lacks the power to keep the Church from such grave errors? Some commentators claim that God is literally unable to prevent the many grave errors and failings of faith — of which these accusers claim the Church to be guilty — due to free will. Such a position badly misrepresents the power of God in grace and providence. Prevenient grace can accomplish whatever God wills by grace, including keeping each Roman Pontiff secure in a never-failing faith. So free will is no obstacle to Christ keeping his Promise that His Church, which is His body, indefectible.

Instead, the indefectibility of the Church keeps the Church always secure in Her essential characteristics. It cannot be otherwise, not only because of the promise of Christ, but also because of the teachings on the nature of the Church. To claim that the Church has defected in any substantial way, contradicting Her own essential nature, is to claim that the body of Christ has ceased to be His Body, or that His Body has become corrupt.

{15:8} I have made provision for the Lord always in my sight. For he is at my right hand, so that I may not be disturbed.
{15:9} Because of this, my heart has been joyful, and my tongue has exulted. Moreover, even my body will rest in hope.
{15:10} For you will not abandon my soul to Hell, nor will you allow your holy one to see corruption.

The gates of Hell cannot prevail over the Church, nor can the Church, which is the Body of Christ, the holy one, be subject to corruption.

The Nature of the Church

The Church is one holy catholic and apostolic. Each of these four essential characteristics must endure at all times for the Church to be indefectible. A Church which no longer possesses the things that make it truly the Body of Christ and truly the very Church established by Christ would have defected, which is not possible.

The Church can never go astray in Her Roman Pontiff or Her body of Bishops, and instead become a set of scattered flocks, each with their own separate shepherds. She must always be One, and both the Roman Pontiff as the Head of the Church, and the body of Bishops united by the Roman Pontiff, secure this unity.

We know that the members of the Church are fallen sinners. No one is surprised that the Roman Pontiff and the Bishops go to Confession. But the Church can never be corrupted, as some have claimed under the term “pornocracy”, such that Her leaders are leading the faithful into unholiness and grave sin. Never has, does, or will the Church deserve to be called by such a corrupt term. The claim of a pornocracy contradicts the dogma of indefectibility and is heretical.

The Church will always retain her characteristic called “catholic”, meaning universal. Those who claim that Vatican II, or Vatican I and II, and multiple successive Popes, and the vast majority of Bishops as well, have all gone astray imply that the Church is no longer universal. For without the continued faithfulness of the Roman Pontiffs, approved Ecumenical Councils, and the body of Bishops, the Church would not be universal in Her teaching and discipline, but instead would be subject to whatever local ideas prevail among different groups in different places.

Neither the Roman Pontiff, nor the body of Bishops led by him, can go astray from the true faith. For they are the successors to the Apostles, and their defection would make the Church no longer truly Apostolic. A few scattered Bishops who adhere to the same ideas is not sufficient to retain this characteristic of being apostolic.

The indefectibility of the Church implies the indefectibility of the Roman Pontiffs, the body of Bishops continuously, and the Ecumenical Councils approved by the Pope and Bishops. But there is more to the Church. The Church can never be merely the Shepherds, without their faithful flock, nor merely a faithful flock, without their Shepherds. So the body of the faithful are also indefectible, in the sense that they cannot, as a body, depart from the true faith. This must be understood in the context of the faithful in this life being fallen sinners. Indefectibility does not imply freedom from all sin, but rather continued faithfulness to Christ and His teachings, despite sins and failings.

What other characteristics of the Church are essential to Her nature and therefore protected by the dogma of indefectibility? The Seven Sacraments, the holy Mass, some form of discipline which may change from time to time, and a devotion to both Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture are all essential to the nature of the Church. There are two types of authority in the Church: doctrine and discipline.

In particular, I’d like to emphasize that the holy Mass is part of the indefectibility of the Church, and therefore the accusations made by the “restorationists” against the Novus Ordo Mass must be false, since such claims accuse the Church of a serious defection from oneness, holiness, the universality of the faith, and apostolic tradition. It is therefore a matter of dogma that the form of the Mass approved for widespread use in the Church is free from grave errors and grave failings of faith. The indefectibility of the Church includes the holy Mass, which not only contains the Sacrament of the Eucharist, with the Real Presence of Christ, but also contains the real presence, as we might phrase it, of the one timeless Sacrifice of Christ, made effective at any time in any place when and where a Mass is celebrated. To claim that the Mass in any form approved by the Roman Pontiff and the body of Bishops is gravely contrary to the will of Christ and the true nature of the Church is to reject the dogma of the indefectibility of the Church.

The Mass in this life is never perfect. Even if the priest has the same opinions on every topic in religion and politics as the people attending Mass, and even if the priest follows the exact (current) form of the Latin Mass, this is not perfection.

{23:25} Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites! For you clean what is outside the cup and the dish, but on the inside you are full of avarice and impurity.
{23:26} You blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and the dish, and then what is outside becomes clean.

And since the priest and people at Mass are all fallen sinners, no Mass in this life is perfect. The Mass said by Christ, called the Last Supper, was perfect as concerns its celebration by Christ, who is perfect God and perfect Man, but the Apostles present were not perfect, as Judas Iscariot was also present, and Peter would later betray Christ (at a time before Peter had become the Roman Pontiff).

But the form of the Mass chosen and approved by the Roman Pontiff and the body of Bishops cannot contain grave errors or grave failings in faith, which would lead the faithful astray from the one holy catholic and apostolic faith, or from the path of salvation. The Mass is so important to the Catholic Christian faith, that a defection of the Mass would imply a defection of the indefectible Church, which is impossible.

If you prefer the Latin Mass, which has long been approved by the successive Popes and Bishops, then that form of the Mass, too, is indefectible. But it would be schismatic and heretical to accuse the Novus Ordo Mass of having defected from the true faith, since the same authority in the Church has approved of this form of the Mass as well.

Therefore, grave accusations made against the form of the Novus Ordo Mass are contrary to the dogma of indefectibility, and so cannot be true.

However, individual celebrations of the Mass, which gravely depart from the approved form, can contain grave errors. Similarly, the body of Bishops is indefectible, but individual Bishops can defect by apostasy, heresy, or schism. Each of the Sacraments is indefectible, but the individual attempted administration of a Sacrament can be invalid. One hears often of individual Masses in the Novus Ordo form, where the celebrants behaved badly, in one way or another. Such instances are never the norm, as the Church is indefectible, not corrupt. But the internet permits these relatively rare occasions of liturgical abuse to seem more common as news of these instances spreads quickly throughout the Church. This makes rare events seem more common than they are.

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

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2 Responses to The Indefectibility of the holy Mass

  1. Robert Fastiggi says:

    Thank you, Ron, for this very good article. Unfortunately some members of the Society of Saint Pius X argue that the Missal of St. Pius V and the Missal of St. Paul VI are fundamentally incompatible and doctrinally opposed. This article by Fr. Jean-Michel Gleize, a professor at the SSPX seminary in Switzerland promotes this supposed incompatibility: We need to pray that this hostility to the Missal of St. Paul VI is overcome. For Fr. Gleize, it seems impossible to reconcile the older Missal with Vatican II.

    • Ron Conte says:

      These opponents of the Missal of Saint Paul (and of Vatican II) tend to make the same type of mistake, putting their own opinions above what the Church decides in doctrine and discipline. They have many explanations for why they are right, but I think they are ignoring or misinterpreting what the Church teaches.

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