“I am the Way, the Truth and the Life,” said Christ. To preserve His Church on the Way to eternal Life, and to prevent them from deviating from the Truth, “Christ endowed the Church’s shepherds with the charism of infallibility in matters of faith and morals.” (The Catechism of the Catholic Church, CCC 890) What does this mean?
The Church’s shepherds
In the New Testament, these shepherds of the people of God were the Twelve Apostles. “When Christ instituted the Twelve, he constituted them in the form of a college or permanent assembly, at the head of which he placed Peter, chosen from among them.” (CCC 880).
Today, this pastoral office of Peter and the other apostles is continued in the College of Bishops with the Pope as its head. This College, made up of all the Catholic bishops in the world, represents the universality of the people of God and the unity of the flock of Christ under one shepherd. Together, they are called the Church’s Magisterium (from magister in Latin, meaning ‘teacher’). They are the teaching authority of the Church. Our Archbishop William Goh is a member of the College of Bishops as a successor to the apostles, and Pope Francis is the head of the College of Bishops as the successor of St Peter.
The charism of infallibility
A charism is a gift of the Holy Spirit. Infallibility is immunity from error. So what CCC 890 means is that the Church’s Magisterium is free from error when it teaches on matters of faith and morals. However, because only God (who is Truth itself) is free from error, and the Magisterium comprises fallible human beings, this charism of immunity from error is only given in rare and restricted circumstances, especially to the Pope.
2020 marks the 150th anniversary of the First Vatican Council (Vatican I)’s constitution Pastor Aeternus (1870) which declared: “When the Roman Pontiff speaks ex cathedra (from the Chair of St Peter), that is when, as the pastor and teacher of all Christians in virtue of his highest apostolic authority, he defines a doctrine of faith and morals that must be held by the universal Church, he is empowered…with that infallibility with which the Divine Redeemer willed to endow His Church.”
Informed about infallibility: 7 things to know
- Vatican I did not say “the Pope is infallible.” Infallibility is not “impeccability” i.e. immunity from sin. Infallibility is also not “omniscience” i.e. knowledge of everything.
- Vatican I said the Pope was “empowered with infallibility”. The Pope is a fallible human person who can make mistakes just like anyone else. But when he teaches ex cathedra, the power of the Holy Spirit prevents him from being in error.
- Papal infallibility only applies when the Pope defines a doctrine of faith and morals ex cathedra. (Such a doctrine is called a dogma). The Pope is not infallible when he writes encyclicals or apostolic exhortations, or when he gives homilies or speeches, and certainly not when he writes on non-religious topics such as economics, chemistry, or art.
- In exercising his power of infallibility, the Pope cannot add or subtract from Divine Revelation. For example, he cannot create an 11th commandment or take away a Beatitude. All he can do is “define”, i.e. confirm and state with clarity, an aspect of Divine Revelation that, until then, was hidden or disputed, but had always been accepted and lived by the Church. Usually, this power is wielded to counter heresies.
- The exercise of |infallibility is extremely rare: there have been only two instances i.e. the defining of the Dogmas of the Immaculate Conception by Pope Pius IX in 1854 and that of Our Lady’s Assumption by Pope Pius XII in 1950.
- Infallibility can also be exercised by the College of Bishops, either gathered together in what is called an Ecumenical Council (e.g. Vatican I), or dispersed around the world, in communion with the Pope – individual bishops cannot exercise infallibility.
- When dogmas are infallibly defined, the people of God must irrevocably adhere to them with the obedience of faith (CCC 88).
Dogmas are “truths contained in Divine Revelation” and hence “lights along the path of faith; they illuminate it and make it secure. Conversely, if our life is upright, our intellect and heart will be open to welcome the light shed by the light shed by the dogmas of faith”.
On the 70th anniversary of the pronouncement of the Dogma of the Assumption, may our whole-hearted belief in the truth that Our Lady was taken, at the end of her life, body and soul into heaven, be the dazzling light that illuminates and keeps us securely on the Way to eternal life with Him in heaven, and the glorious hope of our own resurrection on the Last Day.