Infallibility: An Antidote to Intellectual Madness

“I just don’t get infallibility,” lamented a college-bound student who has been studying the faith with me this year. “The rest of Catholic teaching now makes sense to me. But why is infallibility necessary?”

 He is not alone in his confusion, which, I suggest, has two causes.

One is technical: instead of understanding infallibility as Christ’s gift to the Church – that is His extension in time – it is misperceived as a superpower of the pope. Such power in the hands of one man offends our sense of equality.

The second is philosophical: in a relativistic age that believes truth lies in the eye of the beholder, claims of absolute certainty make us squeamish.

Typically, infallibility’s defenders respond by first focusing on infallibility’s limits (there are many) and conditions for use (there are a few). Though correct, beginning there implies we are minimizing infallibility’s import in a way that makes our apologia sound less like a defense – the original meaning of the Greek word – and more like an apology. We may end the confusion by starting there, but we do not inspire confidence in the teaching.

St. John Henry Newman offers a more effective approach in his Apologia pro Vita Sua, where he focuses first on infallibility’s source and purpose. Newman’s starting point is just what we need, not only to reclaim confidence in infallibility and in truth itself, but to celebrate infallibility as a gift that liberates us from confusion.

Since God chose to intervene in human affairs, writes Newman, it should not surprise us that He would “make provisions for retaining in the world a knowledge of Himself.” Left to our own devices, we would inevitably bring God’s saving message to ruin. So He established the Church and provides her the gift of infallibility, whereby, through His power, she teaches without error what God has revealed and wishes the whole world to know.

“To preserve religion in the world” is one reason for infallibility. The second is equally important, yet rarely noted: “To restrain that freedom of thought, which of course in itself is one of our greatest natural gifts, and to rescue it from its own suicidal excesses.” The Church employs this sacred power “for smiting hard and throwing back the immense energy of the aggressive, capricious, untrustworthy intellect.”

Newman is not suggesting that Catholics cannot think for themselves. Infallibility helps us think clearly by setting a proper course for the intellect, as a map does for drivers. Nor does he suggest that the Church wield infallibility in the form of an aggressive Inquisition. Infallibility is not an attack dog; it is a safeguard lest we make intellectual mistakes so dire that they threaten our own existence. It protects us from ourselves.

In every age, ideas can bring us to the edge of the precipice. In Newman’s day, it was Marxism and liberalism seeking to devour religion. In our own, we see some women thinking they have a right to kill their babies in utero, some men thinking they can become women, and some men thinking they can marry men.

Catholics dismayed by such thinking need not fret. The Church’s infallibility, says Newman, is “a supereminent prodigious power sent upon earth to encounter and master a giant evil.” The giant evil is the human intellect gone so awry that it deems good what is evil.

Through the power of infallibility, we know with the full assurance of God that the Church has the teachings about nature and human nature correct, while those who argue otherwise are wrong. There is no doubt about it. Infallibility is one answer to the final petition of the Lord’s prayer: Lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil.

Newman’s starting point, then, should be our own when discussing infallibility. It’s God’s gift to us to help us find our way back to Him amidst the wickedness and snares of the devil, and of our own minds gone astray.

In this context, we can then present infallibility’s limits and conditions in a manner that convinces the mind and the heart. For these limits and conditions are also praiseworthy, as they show how much God trusts us to work out our salvation in conjunction with Him.

The gift of infallibility illuminates the Church when she teaches what God has clearly revealed to her. The teachings that form, in Newman’s words, the “boundary and foundation” of infallibility concern who God is and how He wants us to live – commonly rendered as “faith and morals.”

These teachings are necessary for salvation, so the Church preserves them according to Christ’s own promise to the apostles: “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you.” (John 16:13-14)

Infallibility extends also to the pope when, in his official capacity as St. Peter’s successor, he solemnly teaches on matters of faith and morals. Since infallibility is a gift to the Church and not to an individual, the pope is not infallible as a private person or in his judgments of temporal affairs. God guarantees His revelation and the Church He founded, not the views of His creatures.

In these days when we can easily succumb to disillusionment over what some are teaching in schools and through the media, let us rejoice that God has given us a most praiseworthy gift: His personal guarantee that what His Church teaches about Him and about His creation is true, the rock upon which we can build our lives.


*Image: “The oecumenical council of the Vatican, convened December 8th 1869” [Lithograph, c1870]. Pius IX presides at the Council that, on July 18, 1870, issued the dogmatic constitution Pastor Aeternus, which defined papal infallibility.

You may also enjoy:

Fr. Gerald E. Murray’s Pope Francis Oversteps the Papal Office

Russell Shaw’s Infallibility: The Unopened Gift

David G. Bonagura Jr. an adjunct professor at St. Joseph’s Seminary, New York. He is the author of Steadfast in Faith: Catholicism and the Challenges of Secularism and Staying with the Catholic Church: Trusting God's Plan of Salvation.