Recently, on Twitter under the hash tag #ThingsPopeWontTweet, I suggested one. “Today’s the day. I can feel it. I’m infallible.” I thought it was pretty funny. Which got me thinking…
Taken together, the doctrine of infallibility, the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception (we celebrate the Feast day on December 8) and faith is to some like eating a Thanksgiving dinner on a surfboard riding a wave at Jaws Beach, Hawaii. Difficult at best and almost impossible to digest.
So, let’s first talk about infallibility. The following is a good summary.
The doctrine of infallibility, officially defined at the Vatican I council of 1870, says that when the Pope is officially defining church dogma, the Holy Spirit is also. There are three requirements for infallibility to be invoked:
1. The pronouncement must be made by the official successor to Peter.
2. The subject matter must be in the area of faith and morals.
3. The Pope must be speaking ex cathedra (from the chair) of Peter, and must be intending to proclaim a doctrine that binds the entire Church to assent.
“There have been three instances of an officially declared Papal Infallible doctrine. The first was in 1854, when Pope Pius IX declared the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception (the blessed Virgin Mary was conceived in St. Anne’s womb free from original sin), then in 1870 at the first Vatican Council when the doctrine of Papal Infallibility was officially declared to be true, and then in 1950 by Pope Pius XII when he declared the doctrine of the Assumption (the blessed Virgin Mary was assumed body and soul into Heaven).”
That’s it. Just three times.
On this subject, many folks confuse infallibility with impeccability. The pope can sin, he is not impeccable. He can also be in error as to his private theological opinions. Nevertheless, as to solemn, official teachings on faith and morals, the pope is considered infallible as the Holy Spirit guides him. By the way, infallibility also defines the teaching authority of the bishops when in doctrinal unity with the pope.
Now let’s consider The Feast of the Immaculate Conception.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains it this way:
To become the mother of the Saviour, Mary “was enriched by God with gifts appropriate to such a role.” The angel Gabriel at the moment of the annunciation salutes her as “full of grace.” In fact, in order for Mary to be able to give the free assent of her faith to the announcement of her vocation, it was necessary that she be wholly borne by God’s grace.
Through the centuries the Church has become ever more aware that Mary, “full of grace” through God, was redeemed from the moment of her conception. That is what the dogma of the Immaculate Conception confesses, as Pope Pius IX proclaimed in 1854:
The most Blessed Virgin Mary was, from the first moment of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege of almighty God and by virtue of the merits of Jesus Christ, Saviour of the human race, preserved immune from all stain of original sin.
This teaching reminds me somewhat of calculus. Its nuanced concepts can be summarized on a page but if one is going to expertly explain it, I would hope that they’re well versed in the subject. Additionally, their explanation will be built on the brains of a lot of smart people who came before and thoughtfully, brilliantly developed the concepts. Over centuries. Writing lots of books and disquisitions. Some of them were saints.
Now, if it so happens that I don’t understand the concept, theory or belief that is being described––calculus in this example––I shouldn’t just dismiss it but be open to the possibility that the teaching is true and factual and that I haven’t quite caught up to it in terms of comprehension.
Having said all of the above, here’s how infallibility and the Immaculate Conception align with my Catholic faith.
With all humility, I believe in the Catholic Church’s teaching on these two doctrines, I trust in Her authority and as a function of faith, I accept the truths as promulgated by the Holy Trinity.
When Jesus stopped walking among us, some non believers or skeptics have suggested that his teachings would have been co-opted by the times and thus ebbed and flowed with the prevailing “wisdom.” Does that make sense? Would He have left us in the lurch with subjective knowledge? The objective and unassailable truth as taught by Jesus Christ would have to endure in some way, wouldn’t it? It would have to be accurate and convey His teachings precisely for all time.
And He addressed that very point. “He who hears you hears me, and he who rejects you rejects me, and he who rejects me rejects him who sent me” (Luke 10:16). Additionally, Christ instructed the Church to preach everything He taught (Matt. 28:19–20) and promised the protection of the Holy Spirit to “guide you into all the truth” (John 16:13). That mandate and that promise guarantee the Church will never fall away from His teachings (Matt. 16:18, 1 Tim. 3:15), even if individual Catholics might such as the pope or bishops.
This next paragraph comes under the heading of “I speak of what I know.” One of my criticisms of people who are trigger loaded to discount or deny Christian or Catholic dogmas, doctrines or disciplines––either out of hatred or laziness or because they don’t make obvious sense or a slew of other reasons, and I was a leader of this camp––is that they don’t take the time to study the particular issue with patience and an open heart.
Here’s my direct plea. Please. Do the work. Take an eternal perspective; there is nothing more important. God and everything He taught and even salvation may actually be true! I ask that you approach the issue in question with humility whatever it is; perhaps you will learn something and discover that, just possibly, you don’t have all the answers. I know it’s difficult to park ego on the sidelines but give it a shot. Smart people––throughout the ages––could be very good guides. Is reading or listening to the opinions, conclusions and teachings of great minds a merit-less proposition?
“Since Christ said the gates of hell would not prevail against His Church (Matt. 16:18b), this means that His Church can never pass out of existence. But if the Church ever apostatized by teaching heresy, then it would cease to exist; because it would cease to be Jesus’ Church. Thus the Church cannot teach heresy, meaning that anything it solemnly defines for the faithful to believe is true.”
Dear Lord, your Church is truly home.