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A Primer on Infallibility

Introduction

Differing notions on Infallibility have contributed in no small way to divisions among traditional Catholics. Hence, in this series of simple questions, we wish to make most clear the research we have done in this regard.

The Congregation of Mary Immaculate Queen adheres to the sede vacante position, namely, that the Chair of Peter is vacant today because of the nature of the Church’s Infallibility, among other reasons. Though it does not exact the same view of others, nevertheless it expects other traditionalists to accept this as a certainly legitimate explanation of the situation in the Church today. (Some sedevacantists will insist that it is the only legitimate view.)

To recap, we insist that the Chair of Peter is vacant today because the New Mass, the new liturgy, the new teachings, and the new Code of Canon Law are harmful to the Faith. Moreover, the New Mass is per se invalid as well. Hence, the true Church of Christ, protected as it is by infallibility, cannot be identified with the Church that has done these evil things, though this new Church continues to call itself “Roman Catholic.”

The true Church of Christ is to be found among those clergy and laity who adhere to the traditional Mass, liturgy, law, and teachings of the Catholic Church as they existed before the Modernist changes of Vatican Council II.




1. What is Infallibility?
This is one of the three attributes of the Church, flowing from her very nature, whereby the Church is preserved from error when it teaches or believes a doctrine. The other two attributes are authority and indefectibility.

2. Why did Our Lord endow the Church with infallibility?
To have NOT given it to the Church would have voided His promises: “Thou art Peter, and upon this Rock I will build My Church, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it” (Matt. 16:18) and “I will be with you all days, even to the consummation of the world” (Matt. 28:20).

3. In what matters is the Church infallible?
The Church, naturally, is infallible only in those matters that pertain to her mission of conducting souls to heaven: faith and morals.

4. What is included under “faith and morals”?
Theologians speak of the “Object” of Infallibility, i.e., those aspects of faith and morals which necessarily pertain to the Church’s Infallibility. According to Msgr. G. Van Noort,1 there are both primary and secondary objects.

The primary object is all of the truths explicitly contained in Scripture or Tradition. The secondary object is “all those matters which are so closely connected with the revealed deposit that revelation itself would be imperiled unless an absolutely certain decision could be made about them.” Hence, the following must be considered as guaranteed by the Infallibility of the Church:
    a. theological conclusions
    b. dogmatic facts
    c. the general discipline of the Church — in other words, the Church’s laws and the Church’s liturgy cannot contain something harmful to faith and morals.
    d. approval of religious orders
    e. canonization of saints

5. In what ways is the Church’s teaching infallible?
In teaching us what God has revealed through Scripture or Tradition, the Church is infallible when she does so, “either by a solemn judgment or by her ordinary and universal magisterium.”2

6. What is meant by “a solemn judgment”?
A solemn judgment can happen in two ways: either a solemn pronouncement on faith and morals by the Holy Father or by the teachings of an ecumenical council gathered under his authority.

7. What is the “ordinary and universal magisterium”?
By this term is meant the day-to-day teaching of the Pope and of the bishops in union with him. Even though it does not consist of solemn pronouncements, it, too, cannot lead the faithful astray; it is necessarily infallible as well. To deny this would mean that the Church could lead astray on a regular basis, while remaining faithful only to those truths solemnly declared — and this is an impossibility.

8. Does anyone personally exercise infallibility in the Church?
The Pope alone has personal infallibility. Bishops share in the infallibility of the Church when they, gathered in General (Oecumenical) Council or scattered throughout the world, teach in union with the Pope.

9. What does “ex cathedra” mean?
“Ex cathedra” means “from the chair of the Pope’s teaching authority.” Theologians usually apply it to the solemn definitions which a Pope makes, such as Pius IX’s solemn definition of the Immaculate Conception in 1854, or Pius XII’s solemn proclamation of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin in 1950. “Ex cathedra” is defined thus by Vatican Council I: “when [the Pope] in discharge of the office of pastor and teacher of all Christians, by virtue of his supreme Apostolic authority, defines a doctrine regarding faith or morals to be held by the universal Church.”3

10. How do we know whether a Papal teaching is “ex cathedra”?
Fr. Joseph Fenton4 explains the conditions for a solemn infallible declaration:
    a. The Pope speaks in his capacity as Teacher and Ruler of all Christians.
    b. He uses his supreme Apostolic authority.
    c. The doctrine which he is speaking has to do with faith or morals.
    d. He issues a certain and definitive judgment on that teaching.
    e. He wills that this definitive judgment be accepted as such by the universal Church.
If the Pope declares that a doctrine was revealed by Christ (as known from Scripture or Tradition), then his teaching is a matter of “divine and catholic faith” (de fide divina et catholica). If it is not proposed as divinely revealed, then it is simply a matter of “catholic faith” (fides catholica).

11. Can a Pope err in his ex cathedra teaching?
It is impossible for him to err when his teaching meets the criteria outlined for ex cathedra teaching. The Vatican Council I declares that when he teaches ex cathedra, he is “possessed of that infallibility with which the divine Redeemer willed that His Church should be endowed in defining doctrine regarding faith or morals.”5

12. Can Catholics, in good conscience, withhold religous assent to the Pope’s ordinary universal teachings?
No, they cannot. Pope Pius XII declared in his encyclical Humani Generis (1950):6 “It is not to be thought that what is set down in Encyclical Letters does not demand assent in itself, because in this the Popes do not exercise the supreme power of their magisterium. For, these matters are taught by the ordinary magisterium, regarding which the following is pertinent: ‘He who heareth you, heareth Me’ (Luke 10:16); and usually what is set forth and inculcated in the Encyclical Letters already pertains to Catholic doctrine. But if the Supreme Pontiffs in their acts, after due consideration, express an opinion on a hitherto controversial matter, it is clear to all that this matter, according to the mind and the will of the same Pontiffs, cannot any longer be considered a question of free discussion among the theologians.”

13. Does the Pope ever teach non-infallibly?
Yes, the Pope can employ a lesser degree of his teaching authority, and hence remove his teaching from the realm of infallibility. In such cases he does not intend to bind the consciences of the faithful by issuing definitive teachings. Even so, such teaching merits the greatest respect, coming as it does from the Chief Teacher of the Catholic Church. Of course, the Pope can teach even without invoking his Apostolic authority at all, i.e., as a private theologian, and in a private or individual circumstance. His teaching could then be weighed in the same manner as other theological opinions.



1 Dogmatic Theology, Vol. II, Christ’s Church, Newman Press: Westminster, 1957, pp. 108-119
2 Vatican Council I, Session 3, Chapter 3 - “On Faith”
3 Vatican Council I, Session 4, Chapter 4 - “The Infallible Teaching Authority of the Roman Pontiff”
4 “Infallibility in Encyclicals,” American Ecclesiastical Review, Vol. 128, March, 1953, p. 186
5 Vatican Council I, Session 4, Chapter 4 - “The Infallible Teaching Authority of the Roman Pontiff”
6 Denzinger 2313

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