The Assurances of Infallibility
Show me an alleged divinely-revealed truth, and I will show you the operations of religious authority, for there can be no transmission of such truth-claims without some degree of power. Not every religious authority, however, claims to possess the charism of infallibility—the ability to know the truth revealed by God and to teach truth without error. The Roman Catholic Church (in)famously does, of course: its teaching authority—the magisterium—claims to be infallible when speaking definitively and authoritatively on faith and morals. Infallibility, so the argument goes, enables the church to preserve the deposit of faith entrusted to it and to provide the faithful with assured instruction on living an authentic Christian life.
Astonishing and unbelievable as the idea is, the doctrine of infallibility makes logical sense given the complex ambiguity of revelation. God supposedly speaks to humanity about matters of eternal life and death, and yet is said to do so through inerrant religious texts and traditions marked by ambiguity and layers of meaning, a variety of genres, and myriad historical and cultural nuances (not to mention inaccuracies and inconsistencies). The inerrancy of sacred scripture, for example, has little to no practical consequence if its meaning can be interpreted in a variety of diverse, conflicting ways. The assurance that the bible is divinely inspired and free from error in the essentials doesn’t mean much without any assurance that a proposed interpretation of it is true or false.
Infallibility doesn’t actually solve this hermeneutic problem, however. Magisterial interpretations are themselves texts that call for the work of interpretation. They may be more clear and straightforward than the sacred writings composed in the early decades of the church, but, as texts, they remain open to a field of valid interpretations, even if the field is smaller than, say, biblical myths. The development of doctrine testifies to this. Religious authorities clarify their own definitive statements and those of their predecessors. Yet even clarifications can retain ambiguity. Infallibility doesn’t eliminate this possibility, even in cases where some meaning has been grasped.
Therefore, whatever its overall practical value, the doctrine of infallibility offers limited assurance. In addition to the hermeneutic problem, the doctrine itself is complex and ambiguous. There are allegedly degrees of infallibility, which can in effect suggest inconclusiveness about matters deemed infallibly taught. Moreover, it remains unclear whether some magisterial statements qualify as infallible or merely authoritative. You’ll find debate in the church, for example, over whether its teachings on human sexuality have really been infallibly stated and are therefore irreformable. Rome speaks; the meaning of the matter is questioned.
Whether with or without infallibility, the faithful row from within the same boat, under the same foggy night sky, struggling against the same waves and currents, without any absolute assurances that they’re headed in the right direction. The life of faith is always a journey in the dark.