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John and Eileen wrote:

Hi, guys—

  • Can you explain what infallibility is, and its scope?

John and Eileen

  { Can you explain what infallibility is, and its scope? }

Richard replied:

Hi, John —
Hi, Eileen —

Here are some notes on infallibility.

The Church is actually infallible in all her authoritative teachings. The Church's "Magisterium", which has the authority and the duty to teach, is placed by God on the Pope and the bishops in union with him.

Here's what the Catechism says:

The teaching office (Cross references CCC 85-87, 2032-2040)
890 The mission of the Magisterium is linked to the definitive nature of the covenant established by God with his people in Christ. It is this Magisterium's task to preserve God's people from deviations and defections and to guarantee them the objective possibility of professing the true faith without error. Thus, the pastoral duty of the Magisterium is aimed at seeing to it that the People of God abides in the truth that liberates. To fulfill this service, Christ endowed the Church's shepherds with the charism of infallibility in matters of faith and morals.

People examining the question of infallibility often make the mistake of focusing on the *manner* the Church uses to teach a doctrine. Some doctrines are defined in a solemn (or extraordinary) manner by:

  1. a Church council
  2. the Pope issuing an Apostolic Constitution or a Bull, or
  3. some other document of a solemn type.

    <Encyclicals are a little less solemn than those documents mentioned in 2, but still fairly formal.>

Other doctrines are simply taught by the Pope and bishops in an ordinary manner from day to day; they are united in their teaching, even while they remain dispersed throughout the world, and in teaching together, they also are protected by the Holy Spirit's gift of infallibility.

People tend to think that more solemn = more authoritative and infallible because it's fairly easy to identify doctrines that have been declared in solemn documents from those that haven't, but it's a misunderstanding, because the solemnity, or lack thereof, of the teaching, does not matter!

Vatican II wrote about the infallibility of the ordinary magisterium in Lumen Gentium, Chapter 25:

"Although the bishops, taken individually, do not enjoy the privilege of infallibility, they do, however, proclaim infallibly the doctrine of Christ on the following conditions: namely, when, even though dispersed throughout the world but preserving for all that amongst themselves and with Peter's successor the bond of communion, in their authoritative teaching concerning matters of faith and morals, they are in agreement that a particular teaching is to be held definitively and absolutely."

So the key question for any doctrine is:

Does the Church *teach* it as a matter of faith, or of morals?

If so, the Church's gift of infallibility protects Her from error.

The Pope and the bishops do make other statements besides teachings on faith and morals:

  • statements about issues in international diplomacy
  • humanitarian concerns
  • recommending particular solutions to economic problems, or
  • statements about art, science, and culture.

While these often involve the application of Catholic teachings to particular matters, the Church does not intend to put her authority behind them as statements of teaching.

There are even documents on religious matters in which the Pope or a council issues an exhortation to the faithful regarding some aspect of the Christian life; for example, the Pope's annual letter to priests on Holy Thursday. These documents are not intended as an exercise of authority; they do not intend to settle any dispute, and the gift of infallibility does not apply to them.

So to get back to the original question: there are many infallible doctrines besides the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption:

  • some are well-known, like the doctrines of the Creed (defined by the councils of Nicea and Constantinople); and
  • some not so well-known, like a certain technical question about the sacrament of ordination which Pope Pius XII settled in 1947 in a document called Sacramentum Ordinis.

Both of those examples were solemnly defined doctrines. To see examples of the ordinary magisterium at work, you can look to the moral teachings of the Church; most of them are not defined in Council meetings or solemn documents, but just taught from day to day, infallibly.

Here's a website you may find helpful:

Thanks for writing in and giving us the opportunity to do a little research! :-)

— Richard Chonak, Stoneham, MA
Another RCIA convert, 1980

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