Regína sacratíssimi Rosárii, ora pro nobis!

Indefectibility and Infallibility
From the April AD 1996
Our Lady of the Rosary
Parish Bulletin
Our Sacred Faith - Part X

    The Church, as a divine institution, was founded by Christ to continue His mission of teaching and conferring grace. To this end, our Lord has endowed His Church with certain gifts, or "charisms," beyond those of any manmade institution, to insure its long-term survival and success of mission. There are two distinct (yet intimately related) gifts conferred by Christ upon the Church: Indefectibility and Infallibility.

    Not understanding these charisms has caused many Catholics to lose their faith during the past thirty years -- some perceive the destruction wrought by Vatican II as proof that the Church's claims to divine protection are false -- others refuse to accept the postconciliar popes as true popes because their behavior seems so fallible -- and yet others, with an exaggerated sense of loyalty to the Holy See feel that God's truth has changed and they must now believe a new set of doctrines alien to the Catholic Faith. An accurate understanding of Catholic teaching will show that none of these is correct.


    There are two passages in Sacred Scripture that point to the indefectible character of the Church:

        I say to thee, thou art Peter and upon this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.
        Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and behold, I am with you all days, even unto the consummation of the world.(1)

    The second of the two clearly promises that the Church will endure for all time, "even unto the consummation of the world." And the first guarantees some measure of success in performing Its mission, at least in the long term; the forces of hell will not gain the upper hand and eliminate It. The two passages do not guarantee that the Church will have holy popes, bishops, and people, nor do they guarantee that the Church will continue to exist as It was found in any particular period of history. The Church has survived a number of unholy rulers, and no longer possesses the temporal power It held in the middle ages. Difficult times are possible, and the Church may not be universally available to everyone throughout the world. There certainly is no guarantee that the Church will be able to save every- one with whom It comes into contact.

    In his encyclical, Satis cognitum,(2) Pope Leo XIII refers to Matthew, chapter 16, asserting the jurisdiction and authority of the Pope. He quotes Origen, to suggest that the passage has a certain ambiguity, and refers both to the Church and to the Pope: "The gates of hell shall not prevail against it. What is the it? Is it the rock upon which Christ builds the Church, or is it the Church?(3) [Leo goes on to answer that:] it can never be that the Church entrusted to the care of Peter, shall succumb or in any wise fail." The Petrine primacy is the indispensable ingredient for the Church's promised survival. But it remains a means to that end. Indefectibility is located in the Church, not in Peter.

    One has only to read a few verses farther in Saint Matthew to see that Peter is the defectible means to the Church's indefectibility: "Get behind Me, Satan [Jesus addresses Peter!], thou art a scandal to Me; for thou dost not mind the things of God, but those of men."(4) Or a few chapters to: And again he [Peter] denied with an oath, "I do not know the man!"(5) And when Peter acquiesced to the errors of those who insisted that gentile converts to the Faith had to observe the Jewish law, Paul "withstood him to his face, because he was deserving of blame."(6)

    "The Church entrusted to the care of Peter" does not fail, but Peter and his successors are mortal men like any others. Peter did not remain "until the consummation of the world," but died in 64 AD. Like Peter, all of his successors have been mortals, and some of their deaths have left the Church leaderless for prolonged periods. Sometimes there were two or even three men with reasonably good claims to the papal chair. And no Catholic apologist would ever try to make the claim that all of Peter's successors were saints! Some led immoral lives, and several at least tolerated heresy, even if they did not personally adhere to it.(7)

    One of the more speculative questions among theologians concerns the removal of the Pope. What is the relationship of the Pope to the Church? Can the Pope be removed? If so, for what causes, how, and by whom? Some modern Catholics are surprised to find that most theologians hold that the Pope can be removed. Even those theologians who state categorically that he cannot, usually make an exception in the case of a Pope who is guilty of heresy.

    At least as early as 1150, the canon lawyer John Gratian wrote: "No mortal shall presume to rebuke [the pope's] faults, for he who is judge of all shall be judged by no one, unless he is found straying from the faith...."(8) Gratian's collection of Canon Laws is significant in that it bears the approbation of Pope Gregory XIII, who sponsored the printing of a critical edition in 1582. Gratian's work inspired many commentators, most of whom agreed that the pope could be removed for heresy, and some who held that even lesser charges would suffice.(9)

    Blessed Henry of Segusio (d. 1271), bishop of Ostia (Hostiensis in Latin), treated the Church something like a modern corporation. He likened the pope and cardinals to the chairmen and officers of a company. For the most part, executive power was vested in the pope, who might and should seek advice from his officers, but whose routine decisions in running the corporate body were not questioned. However, were the pope to do things beyond the normal scope of his office and clearly detrimental to the corporation, the cardinals could remove him. Hostiensis included removal for heresy, citing Gratian as his authority. He offered the continued functioning of the Church after the death of a pope as evidence that the governing power reposed ultimately in the Church as a college or corporation and not in any one individual.(10)   Henry was known in life as "Monarcha juris, lumen lucidissimum Decretorum" ("King of law, most lucid light of the Decretals,") and was declared "Blessed" after his death.

    The right of an ecumenical council to depose a pope continued to be held in spite of the best efforts of Pope John XXII (himself a suspect of heresy).(11) In response to the Great Schism of 1378-1417, the Council of Constance declared itself empowered to discipline the pope and called for the regular summoning of future councils to oversee his behavior.(12) It deposed or forced the resignation of all three men then claiming to be pope and elected Martin V.(13) The Council of Basel (1439), claiming to be a continuation of the Council of Florence, removed Eugene IV, although he was successful in refusing to recognize it as a legitimate council.(14) In 1460, Pius II (who had been active in removing a pope at Basel!) declared future appeals to a general council invalid.(15) Pius may have been more successful in resisting deposition than his predecessors because the advance of the Turks into Europe demanded a united Christendom.

    Yet, we have seen that in 1582, Gregory XIII republished Gratian's canons. And we find in St. Robert Bellarmine's (d. 1621) writing: ... a pope who is a manifest heretic by that fact ceases to be pope and head, just as he by that fact ceases to be a Christian and a member of the body of the Church; and for this reason he can be judged and punished by the Church. This is the judgment of all the early fathers...."(16) Note that the heretical pope is to be "judged and punished by the Church." His removal is not automatic, as some modern writers claim. If bishops, and a fortiori, the Pope, removed themselves every time they had an heretical idea the Church would be in constant chaos. Modern canon law provides otherwise.(17) The current Code of Canon Law prohibits any appeal over the head of the pope to a general council.(18) But even here the context would seem to bar an appeal about some policy of the Pope, but not a hearing to confirm his unfitness to hold office.

    While the procedure for removing an heretical Pope may be up for debate, the possibility of having such a Pope is not. Again it is the Church that enjoys indefectibility and not any one individual.

    We have the divine promise that "the gates of hell will not prevail." Things may go wrong in the short run, times may be difficult, and there may be great anxiety among those loyal to the Catholic Faith -- but the Church will prevail.

    Under normal circumstances, the Pope will be a primary force in making good the promise of the Church's indefectibility. But it can accurately be said that the Church's ability to survive her more inept and even her ruthless leaders is the best proof of her divine protection. She must sometimes be indefectible in spite of her Pope.


    One of the major reasons for the existence of the Church is to make God's teachings about Himself and His laws known. Belief in this revelation is essential to salvation. In order for the Church to carry out its mission, it must have a reliable way of determining the essential truths of faith and morals. For this reason the Church, and specifically the Roman Pontiff as successor to Saint Peter, possesses the charism of infallibility. Catholic belief in Papal infallibility is based on Sacred Scripture and the constant tradition of the Church from the time of the Apostles.

    After announcing that He was going to establish an indefectible Church upon the rock of Peter, our Lord gave Peter a tool to be used in keeping the "gates of hell" from prevailing: "And I will give thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven; and whatever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven."(19)

    That they used this authority as the ultimate arbiters of Catholic faith and morality is seen in history as bishops, emperors, and kings had recourse to the Popes for authoritative doctrinal definitions: While St. John the Apostle was still alive, Pope Clement I intervened in a dispute at Corinth. Constantine asked Pope Melchiades to hear the case of the Donatists in North Africa. Bishops Polycarp of Smyrna and Polycrates of Ephesus came to the Pope to resolve the date of Easter. The Council of Chalcedon received Pope St. Leo the Great's pronouncements, saying "Peter speaks through Leo." The list goes on.(20)

    Infallibility keeps the Pope from teaching error in matters of faith or morals, when, as head of the Church, he proposes something for the belief of all Christians:

        The Roman Pontiff, when he speaks ex cathedra, that is, when, acting in the office of shepherd and teacher of all Christians, he defines, by virtue of his supreme apostolic authority, doctrine concerning faith or morals to be held by the universal Church, possesses through the divine assistance promised to him in the person of St. Peter, the infallibility which the divine Redeemer willed His Church to be endowed in defining doctrine concerning faith or morals; and that such definitions of the Roman Pontiff are therefore irreformable because of their nature, but not because of the agreement of the Church. (Vatican I, First Dogmatic Constitution on the Church of Christ (Ch. 4))

    That an infallible pronouncement must apply to all alike is clear from the nature of truth. A moral or doctrinal proposition cannot be true for some and false for others. It would be absurd to think, for example, that Christ could be divine for Americans and Africans but merely human for Europeans and Asians, or that one race might be permitted polygamy while another must remain monogamous. So, clearly, an infallible pronouncement must be true for everyone; white or black, eastern or western, or whatever.

    Likewise, from the nature of truth, an infallible pronouncement cannot contradict or pretend to change an earlier infallible pronouncement or divine revelation. As Vatican I says, such pronouncements are "irreformable because of their nature." In doctrinal and moral matters, what is true today must have been true yesterday and will be true tomorrow.

    Apart from matters of faith and morals the Pope has no special intellectual competence beyond his personal training and experience. His views as an historian, economist, liturgist, musician, or scientist must be evaluated like those of anyone with similar qualifications. Even in matters of faith and morals the Pope is capable of being wrong when not making an "ex cathedra" pronouncement; that is when he is not speaking within the parameters defined by Vatican I. No doctrine is understood to be defined "ex cathedra" unless it is clear that these conditions are fulfilled.(21) In practice, infallible pronouncements consist of a sentence or two accompanied by phrases that indicate that it is the pope's intention to exercise this supreme teaching authority. For example, in defining the Immaculate Conception, Pope Pius IX concisely stated: "We declare, pronounce, and define that the doctrine which holds that the most Blessed Virgin Mary, in the first instant of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege granted by Almighty God, in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Savior of the human race, was preserved free from original sin, is a doctrine revealed by God and therefore to be believed firmly and constantly by all the faithful."(22)

    Infallibility is a "negative" charism in the sense that while it keeps the Pope from uttering error, it does not inspire him to speak new and previously unrevealed doctrines or things about which he has no knowledge in the normal intellectual sense. The example of the Immaculate Conception reflects this; as Pius IX reminds us, the doc- trine had been discussed for centuries by the best minds of the Church, and was the object of the almost universal devotion of Catholic people.(23) Pius IX did no more than determine precisely what it was that God had already revealed. Pope Pius XII followed the same pattern in citing the same authorities and defining the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin: "We pronounce, declare and define it to be a divinely revealed dogma that...."(24) While not strictly required in an ex cathedra pronouncement, it is no coincidence that each of these Popes immediately followed his pronouncement with a statement of the penalties to be incurred by those who refused belief, for a law with no sanctions is no law.

    It should be obvious that Church disciplines cannot be the subject of infallible pronouncement. By definition they are man made laws which did not always exist and may not be useful or advisable in the future. In most cases, disciplines vary somewhat from one Rite to another or even from one diocese to another within a Rite. Some affect women differently than men; adults differently than children; and the various classes of clergy, one differently from the others. Thus, disciplinary pronouncements are neither statements of divine truth about faith and morals, nor are they universal in character.

Ordinary vs Extraordinary Magisterium

    When we speak of ex cathedra declarations, strictly speaking, we refer to an activity of the Pope alone. ("Cathedra," or "seat," refers to the papal throne.) The bishops together with the Pope can issue similarly infallible pronouncements in the decrees of an Ecumenical Council. In both cases there is a formal intention to define the Church's teaching, and the Pope, or the Pope and Council are said to be exercising the "extraordinary magisterium," or "extraordinary teaching authority" of the Church. Not all the documents of an Ecumenical Council are part of the extraordinary magisterium, any more than those issued by a Pope. The decrees of Vatican II, for example, do not invoke this extraordinary authority at all.(25)

    As individuals, the bishops do not exercise the extraordinary magisterium, are not infallible in doctrine, and are incapable of permanently settling dogmatic disputes. Yet, under the authority of the Pope, they are the authentic teachers of Catholic doctrine within their proper realm.(26) This ordinary magisterium is said to be expressed in: "[the Church's] universal practices connected with faith or morals, in the unanimous consent of the Fathers and theologians, in the decisions of the Roman Congregations concerning faith and morals, in the common sense of the faithful, and various historical documents in which the faith is declared."(27) The ordinary magisterium is exercised infallibly in so far as these elements are in agreement throughout the Church and across the ages.

The Resistance

    Even in matters that are not infallibly defined, Catholics have an obligation to give at least tentative assent and genuine obedience to the doctrinal decrees of the Holy See (the Pope and Roman Congregations). When it is clear, however, that such decrees contradict the already defined tenets of the Catholic Faith they must be resisted. The Church is indefectible, but her leaders are capable of defection; under precisely defined conditions the Pope is infallible, but is capable of heresy in his private opinions.

    Ordinary Catholics, lay people, priests, and even most bishops are not theologians, skilled in the fine points of detecting heresy. But they are capable of knowing when "the Church's universal practices" are being violated. They are able to recognize innovations that do not have the "unanimous consent of the Fathers" or which contradict the long standing "decisions of the Roman Congregations." They certainly possess "the common sense of the faithful," and in a world filled with information can easily acquire the "various historical documents in which the faith is declared."

    Three of the worst mistakes Catholics can make are listed in the introduction to this article. The Church has not been proven wrong in her claim to indefectibility as long as there are believing Catholics resisting unbelief. None of the errors of the conciliar Popes have even been attempted to be passed off as the extraordinary magisterium of the Church. Accepting error as truth is the worst mistake; a surrender of the ability to resist, a denial of the Catholic Faith, and a sure road to perdition.

Postscript - mid 1998

    Since writing this article in April of 1996, a statement became available, issued by a priest trying to justify his defection from a mainstream organization of the Catholic Resistance. It contained a parochial attempt to suggest that the Church's disciplines are infallible -- but more significantly it contained a grammatical ambiguity that is often imitated equally by those who claim that the Pope can do no wrong as well as by those who claim that there is no Pope.

    Regularly repeated in this rather lengthy letter, and essential to the his rationalization, was the writer's inability or unwillingness to distinguish between the various uses of the word "magisterium." He failed to distinguish between (1) authority, (2) those who exercise authority, and (3) the authoritative pronouncements produced by those in authority. It was as if he were saying, "the Magisterium produces Magisterium by virtue of its Magisterium." This lack of distinction had the effect of making illogical arguments appear to be logical.

    What does a statement like "Completely loyal to the Magisterium" actually mean? Loyal to the concept or office of the Papacy? Loyal to the current Pope? Loyal to a past Pope? Loyal to certain documents issued by certain Popes? All documents? All Popes? All Councils?

    We are probably all guilty of some of this imprecision , but when reading an article that makes unreasonable claims about the papacy seem plausible, the use of the word "magisterium" bears watching very carefully.

    Be wary, in general, of the erroneous proposition that the Pope is indefectible.  Both sides of the argument have been known to make the claim, just reasoning a little bit differently from the same premise:

     The Pope can do no wrong                      The Pope can do no wrong
     The Pope has made many changes                The Pope has made many bad changes
     Since the Pope can do no wrong,               therefore
     the changes must be good                      The Pope is not really the Pope.


    1. Matthew 16 & 28. 

    2. Page 33 in the Daughter's of Saint Paul (DSP) edition. 

    3. Commentary on Matthew, Tom. 12, n. 2. 

    4. Matthew 16: 23. 

    5. Matthew 26: 73. 

    6. Galatians 2: 11-14. 

    7. St. Marcellinus 296-304, Liberius 352-366, Anastasius II (496- 498), Honorous I 625-638, John XXII 1316-1334. 

    8. Gratian, Dist. 40 c.6.

     9. Decretists and Decretalists. See Brian Tierney, The Crisis of Church and State 1050-1300 (Toronto: Medieval Academy Reprints, 1988). 

    10. Brian Tierney, "A Conciliar Theory of the Thirteenth Century," The Catholic Historical Review 36 (January 1951): 415-440. 

    11. Pope John XXII, Constitution "Licet iuxta doctrinam," to the bishop of Worcester, 23 October 1327. Denzinger, 941-946. 

    12. Council of Constance, Decrees "Sacrosancta," 6 April 1415 and "Frequens," 9 October 1417, in Barry, Readings in Church History, 494-495. 

    13. Constance forced the resignation of the Roman Pope Gregory XII, deposed the Avignon Pope Benedict XIII, and posthumously deposed Alexander V, the Pope elected at Pisa, in an earlier (abortive) attempt at ending the schism in 1409. 

    14. Council of Basel, Decree Sacrosancta, 7 July 1439, in Barry, Readings in Church History, 500-502.

     15. Pius II, Bull Execrabilis, 18 January 1460. Denzinger 1375. 

    16. Robert Bellarmine's, De Romano Pontifice, bk. 2 ch. xxix. 

    17. The claim is made that an heretical pope "tacitly resigns his office" according to c. 188.4. Such a solution would be chaotic, and ignores the safeguards of c. 2227.   The Code itself provides procedures for "due process" in c.188.4 cases!

    18. o.c. 228; n.c. 1372. 

    19. Matthew 16. 

    20. Ott, Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma (Rockford: TAN, 1974) p.282ff. 

    21. o.c. 1323; n.c. 749.3.

    22. Pope Pius IX, Ineffabilis Deus, DSP edition, p. 21. 

    23. Ibid. pp. 4-19. 

    24. Pope Pius XII, Munificentissimus Deus (1 Nov 1950), # 12-38; 44. 

    25. Pope John XXIII, "Opening Speech," 11 Oct. 1962, in Abbott, Documents of Vatican II, page 715; Pope Paul VI, 7 Dec. 1965, in Closing Speeches - Vatican Council II (DSP edition), p. 12.

     26. o.c. 1326; n.c. 749.2. 

    27. Donald Attwater, A Catholic Dictionary (NY: Macmillan, 1958), s.v. "Magisterium," p. 301.


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