Thoughts towards Infallibility and the Church

Ok—I’ve been intending to tackle this one for a while and, rightly, I do so with trepidation… My trepidation is all the greater because this cannot be a full post but must only be suggestions towards a full-on thought. (Time is quite lacking at the moment–if I shoot for the full-on thing it won’t get posted until sometime next year…)

I agree with YF and others that the fundamental difference between the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches over and against the others is the issue of infallibility.That’s truly what separates me as an Anglo-Catholic from Rome. I do not and, at this present time, can not accept the doctrine of infallibility as laid out in The Catechism of the Catholic Church (2nd ed.).

I’ll also note that there are a number of philosophical subtleties floating around this whole topic and, as a biblical scholar, I’m not real big on the philosophical subtleties. I’m a neo-Stoic pragmatist; some of the subtleties I’m sure I’ll miss—others I’ll simply dismiss as being overly subtle. This relates back to some things I wrote earlier and what I write here builds on these bits: On Theology and Personality and A Bit on Sin. The main points I want to drag up from these posts are as follows—from the first, I have a moderate-to-low need for theological certainty and have a decent tolerance for ambiguity. My personality doesn’t require infallibility, and saying that neither the Church nor the Scriptures are infallible doesn’t cast me into a faith crisis of any sort. From the second, one of the important manifestations of sin is the human capacity and instinct for self-deception.

As I said above, this isn’t going to be a fully worked-out post. Instead, I’d like to offer three directions that indicate the directions my thought is moving in. Perhaps later I’ll have the leisure to link them up.


Ecclesiology and the Hypostatic Union

The hypostatic union is the Chalcedonian position that we’ve all heard and are wise enough now not to try and understand fully. That is, it’s the doctrine that Christ is simultaneously human and divine. The two natures exist within him simultaneously; there’s no mingling of the the natures but nor can the natures be separated. As I understand this, it means—among other things—that we can’t sort through the words and deeds recorded in the Gospels and try to sort out which actions, words, or thoughts were “human” and which “divine.”

There’s a certain mystery factor here that will have to endure that is related to our inability to wrap our heads and words around our own being, let alone God’s being.

Now—the Incarnation is about the conjunction of these natures: the Word taking flesh. Theologically there are three other loci where I believe that something similar is happening. That is, in the Holy Scriptures, the Word becomes joined to human language and words as a means of God’s self-revelation. Similarly in the Holy Eucharist, Christ becomes joined to the physical elements of bread and wine as a means of God’s self-revelation and a means of grace. Finally, in the Holy Church, Christ incorporates us into his mystical body which becomes a single organism, a living church built of living stones to use the imagery of Paul, Peter, and John.

So—if the hypostatic union is held of the Incarnation (which it is) does it, can it, to what degree can we posit or perceive it within these other three incarnational entities?

(That’s an open question, by the way, not just a rhetorical one…)

I can’t answer this right now. But here’s an interesting place where I seer this particular thought experiment moving… I wonder if one way to characterize or to examine positions related to infallibility and the nature of the Church is not to utilize the language and understandings of Chalcedon. That is, when I look at YF’s position, I find it docetic; it relies too heavily on the divine character of the church to the diminishment and exclusion of the human nature at work within it. By the same token, I’d guess that he sees mine as being too Arian—recognizing the created, limited, and fallen aspects of the Church and tending too little to the divinity of Christ shared within the Church and within which it participates.

Thus, this is a big-picture point that gives us a theological entre into the topic.


Apprehension of the Good

Ok, this will get into the philosophical weeds and I have no doubt I’ll say some howlers which will be pointed out by our resident philosophy-types.

I’ll start with two sections from the Roman Catechism:

2030 It is in the Church, in communion with all the baptized, that the Christian fulfills his vocation. From the Church he receives the Word of God containing the teachings of “the law of Christ.” From the Church he receives the grace of the sacraments that sustains him on the “way.” From the Church he learns the example of holiness and recognizes its model and source in the all-holy Virgin Mary; he discerns it in the authentic witness of those who live it; he discovers it in the spiritual tradition and long history of the saints who have gone before him and whom the liturgy celebrates in the rhythms of the sanctoral cycle.

2031 The moral life is spiritual worship. We “present [our] bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God,” within the Body of Christ that we form and in communion with the offering of his Eucharist. In the liturgy and the celebration of the sacraments, prayer and teaching are conjoined with the grace of Christ to enlighten and nourish Christian activity. As does the whole of the Christian life, the moral life finds its source and summit in the Eucharistic sacrifice.

I agree with these.

My only quibble is with the first section when it draws too narrowly the model and source of the example of holiness. While I have argued something similar of the Blessed Virgin, Christ himself must not be excluded and ought to be specifically named as well.

These two sections do not touch on the issue of infallibility. The next few will move towards it. Proceeding…

2032 The Church, the “pillar and bulwark of the truth,” “has received this solemn command of Christ from the apostles to announce the saving truth.” “To the Church belongs the right always and everywhere to announce moral principles, including those pertaining to the social order, and to make judgments on any human affairs to the extent that they are required by the fundamental rights of the human person or the salvation of souls.”

I don’t even have an issue with this based on its literal meaning. I agree entirely with the first sentence—one of the central purposes of the Church is the announcement of the saving truth: the loving action of God preeminently at work in the birth, life, death,resurrection, and ascension of Christ and our call to share in his divine life. The second is true as well—the church has the right to make announcement on moral issues—but this does not ensure that the church is always right.


2033 The Magisterium of the Pastors of the Church in moral matters is ordinarily exercised in catechesis and preaching, with the help of the works of theologians and spiritual authors. Thus from generation to generation, under the aegis and vigilance of the pastors, the “deposit” of Christian moral teaching has been handed on, a deposit composed of a characteristic body of rules, commandments, and virtues proceeding from faith in Christ and animated by charity. Alongside the Creed and the Our Father, the basis for this catechesis has traditionally been the Decalogue which sets out the principles of moral life valid for all men.

I don’t see anything that I must disagree with here, unless it be an assumption that the “deposit” is of a fixed nature. I would, however, order the list differently; I see it as a characterstic body of virtues, commandments, and rules proceeding from faith in Christ and animated by charity. In my counter-formulation, the list is book-ended by the virtues which take preeminence over rules and commandments. (More on this anon.)


2034 The Roman Pontiff and the bishops are “authentic teachers, that is, teachers endowed with the authority of Christ, who preach the faith to the people entrusted to them, the faith to be believed and put into practice.” The ordinary and universal Magisterium of the Pope and the bishops in communion with him teach the faithful the truth to believe, the charity to practice, the beatitude to hope for.

2035 The supreme degree of participation in the authority of Christ is ensured by the charism of infallibility. This infallibility extends as far as does the deposit of divine Revelation; it also extends to all those elements of doctrine, including morals, without which the saving truths of the faith cannot be preserved, explained, or observed.

Ok—now we’ve got issues and it’s precisely with the notion of the bishops holding the authority of Christ and infallibility as an aspect of that authority. First, I’m unclear where this appears in Scripture—and I’m sure there’s a long and persistently argued set of devices and ploys used to argue these points in Catholic/Protestant apologetics so I won’t even broach that topic. Rather, I’d like to move from a different angle.

I have trouble with the term “infallible” when it’s applied either to Scripture or teachings. I assume that it means, that the Scripture or teaching is unable to fail in its purpose. But that’s clearly not the case. The intent of Scripture is to form mature disciples of Christ. Yet reading the Bible does not produce this result. The teaching of the Church is intended to, well, do the same thing. And yet it does not. Therefore “infallible” must refer to something much narrower than what it first appears to me.

The way I’ve generally heard it described is “infallible” means that the teaching is absolutely correct and is guaranteed to be true. Its truth is preserved by supernatural means. And yet when we talk about the teaching of moral truths, teaching happens in two main mutually reinforcing ways: through words and deeds. Anyone who knows their history can point out often very graphic instances where each of the main bodies of Christendom—my own included—have dramatically failed to teach the truth on its most basic level and have betrayed the Gospel we were entrusted to proclaim.  Our collective actions have most certainly not been supernaturally preserved from error.

The infallibility of the church’s teaching, therefore, must be further circumscribed. It cannot extended to the teaching that comes through action and example and must be an intellectual category only. But what kind of intellectual category is it? When it comes to the moral life in particular, are we able to apprehend the good purely in and through an intellectual state or must we participate within right action to apprehend it and its nature?

I think we could care this line of thought further but I’ll stop here. I do believe that there have been saintly bishops who have lived, apprehended, and taught the truth as found in Jesus Christ far better than I ever will. There are likely popes among that number as well. And yet, the argument for supernatural preservation of certain circumscribed parts of intellectual truth as I understand it fails to move me. Perhaps it’s because I don’t understand it rightly; perhaps it’s because I don’t regard that piece as essential for my faith. There’s probably a decent counter-argument to the moral issue that I raise that takes a line along freedom of the will and a reticence on the part of the supernatural agent against coersion—perhaps that road can be taken at a later date…


On the Provisional Teaching of the Church

“There was at that time a meeting in Scetis about a brother who had sinned. The Fathers spoke, but Abba Pior kept silence. Later, he got up and went out; he took a sack, filled it with sand and carried it on his shoulder. He put a little sand also into a small bag which he carried in front of him. When the Fathers asked him what this meant he said, ‘In this sack which contains much sand are my sins which are many; I have put them behind me so as not to be troubled about them and so as not to weep; and see here are the little sins of my brother which are in front of me and I spend my time judging them. This is not right, I ought rather to carry my sins in front of me and concern myself with them, begging God to forgive me for them.’ The Fathers stood up and said, ‘Truly, this is the way of salvation.’ (Sayings of the Desert Fathers, 199-200)

In the field notes from the first great laboratory of Christian spirituality—the Egyptian and Palestinian deserts—I’m constantly amazed at how much discussion is given to not judging the sins of others. Abba Pior indicates the reason for this counsel. It’s not because what others do doesn’t effect us—it does. Rather, the issue is that judging others provides an opportunity to leave our own sins aside, to put off our own amendment of life, and to focus on the shortcomings of others.

In the main, I think that the Church’s moral teaching is mostly right. I don’t argue against infallibility because I’m an antinomian or lapse into situation ethics or because I think there should be no standards at all. There must be standards and I think the historic teaching of the church has done the best job of consistently safeguarding the central teaching required by the Gospel of Christ. I’m just not persuaded that its retention or continued teaching is infallible. From my years of concentrated study of the Scriptures, the Fathers, and the teachers of the Church, I do believe that our truest guide lies in virtue as exemplified by the character of God as revealed in Scripture and in the sacramental life of the Church. Virtue and character are, admittedly, a little fuzzier than rules and commandments. There’s more to debate and there exist in the borders between virtue and vice strips—even swathes—of grey area. And, as one who does not believe in infallibility, that’s the price I have to pay.

I don’t believe that the teaching of the Church is supernaturally preserved from error. I do believe, though, that we are supernaturally aided and that the church has been supernaturally graced in those who have taught its teachings in both word and works. None of us have been—or will be—perfect and therefore our teaching will necessarily fall short. We as individuals and as a organization composed of flawed individuals will fail to proclaim in word and example the good news of God in Christ. And yet we do believe and confess that the Holy Spirit will never abandon the Church, will not leave us orphans. The Spirit and the Bride say “Come” and we will stumble towards that voice. As long as the Church remains faithful to that calling, we will not lose our way entirely. We may even walk a more direct path as time goes on. But our knowledge of that path and our apprehension of that path will always be provisional rather than infallible. Given our capacity for and our track record of self-deception we should start worrying the most when we believe ourselves to be most right. But our constant goal is the mind, the character, and the virtue of Christ. Thus, we once more join in asking for the inspiration that, as the book says: “we may think those things that are right, and by thy merciful guiding may perform the same; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.”

11 thoughts on “Thoughts towards Infallibility and the Church

  1. rick allen

    To me the infallibility of the Church is little more than the assurance that, when the Church reaches one of those great crossroads of controversy, as it must if we are not to deny our questioning nature, then the Church is capable of reaching the right answer, and we may rely on it.

    Thus the infallibility of the Church frees me from having to constantly worry about whether the canon of scripture was correctly established, whether Arius was right, whether the Chalcedonian teaching should be re-considered, whether I am violating the second commandment in venerating an icon. It’s very freeing to know that the Church is competent to face and address and decide those issues. I am of course free to look into and question those decisions, but the whole Church is not going to be thrown into turmoil again by, say, doceticism–even if I may be.

    I don’t think the opposite of infallibility is provisionality. What is in scripture is infallible, but it still needs interpretation. What one general council said may need interpretation by a later one. What is infallibly believed or defined is not necessarily exhaustively expounded. This is certainly shown by the emptiness of the fears of those who thought that Vatican I somehow spelled the end of Catholic theology. Of the making of books there is and will be no end.

  2. The young fogey

    Thanks, Derek. As I wrote in my blog, it impresses me as an educated Protestant answer.

    Re: Docetism, well, Monophysitism arguably is a cartoon of o/Orthodoxy and I’ve read that Protestantism is arguably rather Arian, having come from a part of Europe, the Germanic north, where Arians once held sway and that arguably was never entirely ‘churched’, never entirely brought into the Catholic way of looking at things unlike the Mediterranean countries (which is not to say the latter are perfect). So yes, one can say that Protestant ecclesiology looks Arian to me.

    Rick: yes.

  3. Lee

    Derek: Excellent post; I’m still mulling it over.

    One thing I might pick at is the application of the hypostatic union to the church. This is because, while I agree that the church’s Christology has been functionally Docetic, I also worry about a too-close identification between Christ and the church (and maybe an over-realized eschatology too). At the very least, I think the “body” metaphor needs to be balanced with others to avoid the suggestion that the church (a) is not a creature and (b) is somehow a direct expression or instrument of Christ’s will.

  4. Derek Olsen

    Lee, IIRC you always objected to my application of the hypostatic union to Scripture earlier.

    To what degree then, do you think that we can speak of the Church as the Body of Christ or the scriptures as the Word of God? Are these descriptions best left at the level of metaphor or do they contain a truth and a mystical reality beyond mere metaphor (as I’d argue)?

    YF, I am an educated protestant, and can’t deny that fact. :-)

    Rick, perhaps the church can arrive at the right answers, I just wonder if it has specifically on issues like the ordination of women.

  5. Lee

    Derek: I do want to affirm that the church is the Body of Christ and the Bible is the Word of God at more than a metaphorical level. That said, I still think there’s a difference in kind between the way in which God is present in the church/Bible and the way God is present in Jesus. In some sense at least, the relationship between Jesus and God is one of identity. We wouldn’t say the same–I suggest–of the church or the Bible.

    I’ll have to think on this some more…

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  7. John Robison

    I’m going to cut/paste this into a word file and read it while I travel to the Carmelite Symposium. Two days should be enough time for me to give a substantive response of more than a single sentence. (I, being a ruminant animal, takes m y time for my brain to engage enough.)

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