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.

Kyle Cupp

Kyle Cupp is a freelance writer who blogs about culture, philosophy, politics, postmodernism, and religion. He is a contributor to the group Catholic blog Vox Nova. Kyle lives with his wife, son, and daughter in North Texas. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.

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11 Responses

  1. Pierre Corneille says:

    Then why would one, knowing this, assent to the magisterium unless the majesterium just happens to conform to one’s preexisting notions of rightness and wrongness?

    • Kyle Cupp says:

      Good question, Pierre. First, it should be noted that this is my take on the idea of infallibility. Many and maybe most defenders of the magisterium would profess much more certainty about the meaning of magisterial statements and of infallibility itself. Second, I find that few Catholics follow the magisterium to the letter, and some of those who do follow suit creatively pick and choose by interpreting official teaching in ways that suit their interests, politics, etc.

      • Kyle,

        Thanks for your answer. I would like to nudge you a bit and commit the rudeness of posing a personal question: why do you assent to the magisterium? A related (again and alas, personal) question: do you, like many of your fellow Catholics, “pick and choose” or reinterpret some portions of the magisterium.

        I am assuming, of course, that you do so assent. At least, that is how I interpret some of your other writings on this blog and your other “journeys in alterity” blog. I understand that you do not claim certainty and in fact you embrace uncertainty, or at least seem okay with the impossibility of certainty, if I read you right.

        As I said, I realize that this is a personal question that, to my knowledge, you haven’t engaged in explicitly online. That is, you discuss your faith and related conceptual challenges it poses: the question of certainty and the question of authority, for example. But from what I have read, you have chosen not to go into a lot of the nuts and bolts of your personal relationship with most of the magisterium, pro-life issues and a few other issues aside. In other words, if you deem my questions beyond the pale of where you want to go and wish not to answer them, I understand and respect that decision.

        • Kyle Cupp says:

          You’re so rude, Pierre. 😉 No, your question is not beyond the pale, but my answer may cloud more than it reveals, as I’m going to try to give a brief response to a question that calls for more than a brief answer. You could justly categorize me as one of those Catholics who claims a respect for orthodoxy, yet has, shall we say, an atypical approach to the development of doctrine, the teachings of the church, and the magisterium itself. My faith is distinctively postmodern, in that I approach my faith within a cloud of epistemological uncertainty and with an incredulity toward grand systematic explanations. I’m also a pluralist. I don’t think anyone can have a monopoly on the truth. Nor do I think the truth is something that can be put together into a coherent whole. The pursuit and expression of truth is a creative act, one in which truth is, in a sense, produced. Finally, I’m happy to admit that my religion and my philosophy may be a bunch of hooey.

          Anyhow, philosophically, I’m out of the Catholic mainstream. Very out of the mainstream. I’m suspicious of pretty much all non-verifiable truth claims, especially those made by religious authorities. When I assent, I do so with what I think is a healthy suspicion. You won’t be surprised to know that this approach to my religious faith has gotten me called a dissenter, a heretic, a person of weak faith, etc. Do I believe the church has everything figured out? No, I do not. Do I agree with everything the bishops say? Nope. A quick survey of the history of church teaching shows that the bishops don’t agree with everything the bishops have said. Catholic beliefs and “official” Catholic thinking have changed with the times, especially in light of science, but also in light of developments in moral and political philosophy. They change very slowly, and with much protest, kicking and screaming from the powers that be, but they have changed. And a good thing too, as not a tiny bit of Catholic beliefs and thinking has been tied historically to ugly prejudices and despicable power plays, not to mention faulty science and metaphysics. I’m a firm believer in putting ecclesial and magisterial truth-claims to the tests of reason, intuition, one’s well-developed conscience, etc. Popes and bishops can be wrong about stuff, even about matters supposedly in their realm of expertise. When I think they are wrong, I hope and pray they “develop” their ideas, but I also, at times, entertain the notion that they’re actually right and I’m wrong.

          I trust I make myself obscure.

  2. Rodak says:

    God is omniscient. God therefore knows, eternally, that I will receive a certain teaching, or a certain scriptural passage, at a time when I am troubled by X, Y and Z and in need of the idea, or ideas, that will help me work through those troubles. Therefore, there is no correct interpretation of any teaching, be it authoritative, or scriptural; one size does not fit all. Now, in order for me to receive the help I need, I must want it, and I must be open to it. Nobody can do that for me; not even the greatest saint. Neither can the wisest scholar, or the most perfect saint instill in me any truth that I have not prepared myself to receive. The scholar and the saint are conduits, not programmers. There are interpretations, one imagines, that are not possibly correct. But there is no measurable limit to the possibilities of correct interpretation outside of absurd self-contradiction.

  3. God handles things. We, and the magisterium, do our best to follow. God alone is infallible.

  4. Tom Van Dyke says:

    I’m not sure this is on top of things. The magisterium contemplates the guidance of the Holy Spirit as an immanent presence: the Church—or the men in it—do not take their best guess and declare it to be infallible. The Church must freely admit the men in it have often been wrong throughout history.

    “Infallibility” itself is a doctrine only from the late 1800s, and has been invoked sparingly [ex cathedra]. Not all Church teachings are pronounced ex cathedra, and then, only in the areas of faith and morals.

    As for the omniscient God, although not normative, “process theology” is not to my knowledge yet pronounced heresy. I’m not big on it, but I believe it’s in A.N.Whitehead, Teilhard de Chardin, and the fascinating American philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce.

    History unfolds, more than follows a preordained script. A provocative alternate theory for those troubled by predestination, etc.

    • Kyle Cupp says:

      The doctrine of infallibility was formally defined in the first Vatican Council (1869-70), but the idea predates the formal definition, although how far it goes back in a form that resembles the doctrine is a matter of debate. You’re right that ex cathedra statements have been rare. There have only been two–maybe one, depending on who you ask. “Ex cathedra” statements are a specific kind of papal authority, which is itself distinguishable from the infallibility of the ordinary, universal magisterium (the college of bishops acting in union with the pope).

  5. Rodak says:

    Re: “30K” Protestant sects: Matthew 18:20 – For where there are two or three gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.

    Interpret that.