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The Infallibility of the Catholic Church

By Bishop Mark A. Pivarunas, CMRI


Dearly beloved in Christ,

The Epistle for the feast of Pentecost is taken from the Acts of the Apostles and relates to us the wonderful transformation which the Holy Ghost wrought in the souls of the Apostles when He descended upon them in the form of fiery tongues. We read in the Acts of the Apostles:

“And when the days of Pentecost were drawing to a close, they were all together in one place. And suddenly there came a sound from heaven, as of a violent wind coming, and it filled the whole house where they were sitting. And there appeared to them parted tongues as of fire, which settled upon each of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit....” (Acts 2:1-4)

And Almighty God in His infinite wisdom so arranged that the Apostles would receive the Holy Ghost in Jerusalem at the very same time that the Jews celebrated one of the three great feasts of the Old Testament — the Feast of Weeks (the feast of the in-gathered harvest). No sooner did the Advocate, the Spirit of Truth, come upon the Apostles, than they courageously went out from their retreat “to preach to all nations” all things whatsoever Christ had commanded them.

On this feast of Pentecost, it would be most appropriate for us to reflect on the one, true Church of Jesus Christ, that Church which Christ promised to be with all days, even to the consummation of the world, that Church which has the ever-abiding Presence of the Spirit of Truth — that Church called the Catholic Church. How important it is for us to clearly understand the nature of the Catholic Church, especially in our own times when the greater majority of mankind does not “endure sound doctrine, but having itching ears, heap to themselves doctrines according to their own lusts and desires.” How important is this understanding of the Church in these times when there is so much confusion among those who call themselves Catholic. A detailed study of one of the properties of the Catholic Church, her infallibility, can greatly assist us to recognize where the Catholic Church is today and also where she is not.

Before we consider the attribute of infallibility, we must understand what an attribute is. An attribute or a property is that which is inherent in the very nature of a thing and flows from its very nature. An excellent example of this is water. Water has the property of wetness. Wetness is inherent in the very nature of water; it is impossible to separate wetness from water. There are three attributes or properties in the Catholic Church: infallibility, indefectibility, and authority. These are inherent in the very nature of the Catholic Church and cannot be separated from her.

The attribute of infallibility means the inability and impossibility of the Teaching Magisterium to err when teaching the universal Church on matters of faith and morals. As Vatican Council I taught:

“Moreover, by divine and Catholic faith, everything must be believed that is contained in the written word of God or in tradition, and that is proposed by the Church as a divinely revealed object of belief either in a solemn decree or in her ordinary, universal teaching.”

The possessors of infallibility are:

a) the Pope (the Pope is infallible when he speaks ex cathedra),

b) the whole Episcopate (the totality of the bishops is infallible when they, either assembled in general council or scattered over the earth, propose a teaching of faith or morals as one to be held by all the faithful).

Many are familiar with the concept of infallibility in the ex cathedra pronouncements of the Pope and also in the decrees of an Ecumenical Council, but they are not familiar with the concept of the infallibility of “the ordinary, universal magisterium of the Church.”

What is the ordinary, universal magisterium?

For a clear and concise answer, we read in The Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, by Dr. Ludwig Ott:

“The bishops exercise their infallible teaching power in an ordinary manner when they, in their dioceses, in moral unity with the Pope, unanimously promulgate the same teachings on faith and morals. The Vatican Council expressly declared that also the truths of Revelation proposed as such by the ordinary and general teaching office of the Church are to be firmly held with ‘divine and catholic faith’ (d 1792). But the incumbents of the ordinary and general teaching office of the Church are the members of the whole episcopate scattered over the whole earth. The agreement of the bishops in doctrine may be determined from the catechisms issued by them, from their pastoral letters, from the prayer books approved by them, and from the resolutions of particular synods. A morally general agreement suffices, but in this the express or tacit assent of the Pope, as the Supreme Head of the Episcopate, is essential.”

The object of the Church’s infallibility is two-fold:

a) The primary object of the Church’s infallibility is the formally revealed truths of Christian Doctrine concerning faith and morals.

b) The secondary object of the Church’s infallibility is truths of the Christian teaching on faith and morals, which are not formally revealed, but which are closely connected with the teaching of Revelation.

Included in the secondary object of infallibility are the following:
   1) theological conclusions;
   2) dogmatic facts
   3) the general discipline of the Church;
   4) approval of religious orders;
   5) canonization of saints.

Why must these areas be objects of the Church’s infallibility?

An excellent explanation is found in Christ’s Church, by Monsignor G. Van Noort, S.T.D.:

“The charism of infallibility was bestowed upon the Church so that she could piously safeguard and confidently explain the deposit of Christian revelation, and thus could be in all ages the teacher of Christian truth and of the Christian way of life.

“It is evident from Christ’s promises that the magisterium, the teaching office of the Church, was endowed with infallibility so that she might be able to carry out her mission properly, that is, to safeguard reverently, explain confidently, and defend effectively the deposit of faith.

“The security of the deposit requires the effective warding off or elimination of all error which may be opposed to it, even though only indirectly. This would be simply impossible without infallibility in the matters listed above.”

Here it would be well for us to focus on a further explanation of the secondary object of infallibility, in the area of the general discipline of the Church.

Once again, let us read from Christ’s Church by Van Noort:

“The Church’s infallibility extends to the general discipline of the Church. This proposition is theologically certain. By the term ‘general discipline of the Church’ are meant those ecclesiastical laws passed for the universal Church for the direction of Christian worship and Christian living.

“The imposing of commands belongs not directly to the teaching office but to the ruling office; disciplinary laws are only indirectly an object of infallibility, i.e., only by reason of the doctrinal decision implicit in them. When the Church’s rulers sanction a law, they implicitly make a twofold judgment: 1. ‘This law squares with the Church’s doctrine of faith and morals;’ that is, it imposes nothing that is at odds with sound belief and good morals. This amounts to a doctrinal decree.”

“Proof: 1. From the purpose of infallibility. The Church was endowed with infallibility that it might safeguard the whole of Christ’s doctrine and be for all men a trustworthy teacher of the Christian way of life. But if the Church could make a mistake in the manner alleged when it legislated for the general discipline, it would no longer be either a loyal guardian of revealed doctrine or a trustworthy teacher of the Christian way of life. It would not be a guardian of revealed doctrine, for the imposition of a vicious law would be, for all practical purposes, tantamount to an erroneous definition of doctrine; everyone would naturally conclude that what the Church had commanded squared with sound doctrine. It would not be a teacher of the Christian way of life, for by its laws it would induce corruption into the practice of religious life. 2. From the official statement of the Church, which stigmatized as ‘at least erroneous’ the hypothesis ‘that the Church could establish discipline which would be dangerous, harmful, and conducive to superstition and materialism.’”

“The well-known axiom, Lex orandi est lex credendi (The law of prayer is the law of belief) is a special application of the doctrine of the Church’s infallibility in disciplinary matters. This axiom says in effect that formulae of prayer approved for public use in the universal Church cannot contain errors against faith or morals.”

The reason for this lengthy explantion of the Church’s property of infallibility is that this is the strongest argument against the Conciliar Church of Vatican Council II.

For how could the Catholic Church faithfully, consistently and infallibly teach the same faith for 1900 years, and then suddenly propose, during the Second Vatican Council, false doctrines previously condemned by the past Popes and Councils (viz., ecumenism and religious liberty)? How could the Catholic Church continuously renew the unbloody Sacrifice of Calvary in the Holy Mass and then abruptly substitute it with a Lutheran “memorial of the Last Supper”? How could the Catholic Church so firmly legislate in her laws against interfaith and intercommunion, as these would foster religious indifferentism, and then suddenly abrogate these laws and permits these undertakings?

Are we to suppose that the Holy Ghost, the Spirit of Truth, has suddenly changed His Mind and allowed contradictions in matters of the Faith, the Mass, and her universal laws? Are we to suppose that Christ suddenly abandoned His Church and let her fall into error and heresy?

Yet, it is primarily this issue of infallibility that divides those who call themselves traditional Catholics. Some traditional Catholics reject the errors of false ecumenism and religious liberty of the Second Vatican Council, the new Protestant memorial of the Last Supper — the Novus Ordo Missae — and the heresies of the New Code of Canon Law (1983) and yet insists that the very authors of these errors are still Christ’s representative here on earth. In reality, they say that the Living Magisterium of the Church has erred and has led the majority of Catholics into error, and continues to err. Such a conclusion is nothing more than to deny the infallibility of the Church.

There can be no doubt that the Conciliar Church has erred. Not only in 1965 at the conclusion of Vatican Council II, but also for the past thirty years in its ordinary universal magisterium. How can it be any more clear — this Conciliar Church is not the Catholic Church!

As Pope Leo XIII taught in Satis Cognitum:

“If the living magisterium could be in any way false — an evident contradiction would follow, for then God would be the author of error.”

And also the First Vatican Council (1870), in the Dogmatic Constitution, Pastor Aeternus, reaffirmed the teaching of the Fourth Council of Constantinople:

“And their truth has been proved by the course of history, for in the Apostolic See, the Catholic religion has always been kept unsullied and her teachings kept holy.”

And again, in the same Dogmatic Constitution:

“Indeed, it was this apostolic doctrine that all the Fathers held, and the holy orthodox Doctors reverenced and followed. For they fully realized that this See of St. Peter always remains untainted by any error...”

For those who continue “to walk the fence” — with one foot in the traditional movement and the other in the Conciliar Church — face the reality: there are two different Churches today, the Catholic Church and the Conciliar Church. There is the Catholic Church, which possesses the attribute of infallibility, and there is the Conciliar Church, which does not.

On this feast of Pentecost, let us call upon the Holy Ghost and His Gift of Understanding to guide us in these times prophesied by St. Paul in his Second Epistle to the Thessalonians:

“Let no one deceive you in any way for the day of the Lord will not come unless the apostasy come first... and the man of sin is revealed... so that he sits in the temple of God and gives himself out as if he were God.”

In Christo Jesu et Maria Immaculata,
Most Rev. Mark A. Pivarunas, CMRI

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