I’m writing this column as a result of responses I received to an earlier column in which I gave practical advice to Catholics who find themselves in dialogues with non-Catholic Christians. Further, during my life as a Catholic I have come to realize that of all the truths which are professed by the Catholic Church, the one people have the most tenuous grasp of – Catholic and non-Catholic alike – is the charism of infallibility.
What routinely occurs is that when one professes infallibility for the Pope and Magisterium, someone will advance a point (often disguised as an innocent question, but which in most cases is a knife covered in satin) which points out a mistake made by someone(s) in the Church. Examples include the recent sex scandals, or a pope who had a mistress. There are other examples as well.
The view from those who ask such questions seems to be for the Pope and Magisterium to claim infallibility, there can’t ever be a sin or a mistake in anything. But being kept free from sin is called “impeccability” and was a grace that was given to the Blessed Virgin Mary. The Church has never maintained that the Pope, Magisterium, priests, nuns, or deacons are free from sin. Nor is it held that any of these human beings are perfect.
So let’s level set here. The charism of infallibility has, in fact, nothing to do with man and everything to do with God. Take a step back to understand that it was God who sent His Son to save mankind. Jesus Christ lived on this Earth as a human as well as a Divine person. When His mission was over and He left Earth, the Holy Spirit, the Third Person of the Blessed Trinity, was sent by God to the Apostles to empower them in their mission to form and grow a community of believers.
Because human beings had to be saved in the first place, due to their fallen nature, a community left solely to humanity would be destined to eventually falter. The salvific act of Jesus Christ didn’t mean that from then on human beings were created with a sinless nature. And therefore, if Jesus Christ had simply left Earth to ascend to Heaven and basically said “goodbye and good luck” the Church would not have survived past apostolic times.
The Holy Spirit, then, was sent to guide and empower the Church through the extraordinary grace of God’s presence within that same Church. And since God, in fact, built and continues to sustain the Church through His ongoing presence, and because Jesus promised to always remain with the Church (Matthew 28:20 – “And know that I am with you always, until the end of the world!”), the Church has survived for twenty centuries, far more than any government, dynasty, or movement started by man.
What the charism of infallibility means, then, is that God remains through His Holy Spirit to continually save the Church founded by Jesus Christ from faltering. Infallibility means that in regards to teachings on faith and morals, the Church (in the persons of Pope and Magisterium) is protected from making a mistake.
Think about this. When people say such teaching that the Pope is infallible means he has to be perfect, they are entirely missing the point. The fact that all human beings inherit a fallen nature cries out for God’s guidance and protection from error regarding God’s teachings and the Holy Church He brought into being.
When people point out that, yes, popes have been corrupt, that the Church has made mistakes, this, in fact, provides solid backing for the whole charism of infallibility. Because once more, infallibility deals only with the sacred teachings of the Church, and not the temporal behavior of men.
Let’s consider something further. If God went to the trouble of sending His Son to die on the cross to save humanity, and further had His Son form a community and entrust it to the Apostles, and then, when the first sign of corruption appeared, simply deserted the Church…what kind of a loving Father would God be? If corruption and sin are such that He would abandon those whom Jesus came to die to save, why bother in the first place?
So it follows that if the charism of infallibility had not been provided by God to the Church He created, what we would then have is the same chaos caused by the Protestant Reformation, but much earlier. Since the Reformation, when bodies of believers disagree on a point, they simply start a new denomination. Since they do not recognize any authority on Earth, they have no definitive way to decide what is true and what is not.
Protestants I have dialoged with say that Scripture is their sole standard. But the Protestants did not write the Bible. They received it. The Bible was put together more than 1,000 years before Martin Luther. Why, then, do Protestants accept it as truth? And how do they settle differences in understandings of passages? Why do some churches handle poisonous snakes, others that refuse to drive cars or use modern machinery, others that do not include any kind of instrumental music, and those who emphasize speaking in tongues?
Think about it.