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Where does the infallibility of the magisterium find its source?

Where does the infallibility of the magisterium find its source?

Many Catholics wrongly assume that, according to Catholic doctrine, the gift of infallibility ultimately resides in the Pope. This is not the case, however. It rests with the faithful.

The Second Vatican Council stated: “The body of the faithful as a whole, anointed as they are by the Holy One (cf. 1 John 2,20.27), cannot err in matters of belief thanks to a supernatural sense of the faith which characterizes the People as a whole . . . For, by this sense of faith which is aroused and sustained by the Spirit of truth, God’s People accepts not the word of human beings, but the very Word of God (cf. 1 Thessalonians 2,13). It clings without fail to the faith once delivered to the saints, penetrates it more deeply by accurate insights, and applies it more thoroughly to life” (Lumen Gentium 12).

The Pope and the college of bishops have a crucial role in articulating matters of faith and morals through their authoritative teaching. However, this exercise is grounded in the infallibility of the whole people of God, not the other way about.

A proposed amendment during Vatican II that wanted to make the infallibility of the magisterium the source of the people’s infallibility was rejected by the Council as being contrary to Tradition. The infallibility of the Church’s teaching office is ordered to giving explicit expression to what is infallibly believed by the whole people of God.

The Church has the infallible gift of discerning the deposit of faith. In that process of discernment, the Pope and the bishops undoubtedly perform a special role. However, they cannot make up doctrine as they please, neither can they dispense with the soul searching going on among the people of God. The result of hasty and ill-founded decisions can be seen in past errors of the magisterium.

When the Pope and the bishops exercise their teaching authority, they do not do so as individual persons, as Vatican II reminds us, but in virtue of their special office, giving expression to the deposit of faith which is carried by the People of God. This is often a drawn out process in which the whole community of believers takes part. Usually there is a searching, a stumbling here, as in all human processes, with tentative conclusions that have to be revoked later and with 'dissenters' who are proved right in the course of time.

John Wijngaards

* * * * *

In the common parlance and current thinking, infallibility has been connected with the papacy. Nothing shows it better than the frequent recurrence of the expression “papal infallibility” while hardly anyone ever speaks about “conciliar infallibility,” which is of no lesser degree than that of the pope. The church’s infallibility which is the source of the others is mentioned only in academic lectures.

The root of infallibility goes much deeper than the personal wisdom of a pope or of a council, or of the whole people of God. It is in the fidelity of the Spirit: he cannot abandon God’s chosen ones to falsehood. The Spirit who led Jesus to preach (cf. Luke 4:1), cannot let his message go.

From the fidelity of the Spirit follows the fidelity of the church to the evangelical message.

The episcopal college or the pope are instrumental in this fidelity when they solemnly proclaim the original message, they are protected from misleading the people, hence they cannot err, hence they are infallible—because the faith of the church cannot be touched by corruption. If it could, the mission which Christ has given to the apostles could not be fulfilled.

The term “infallibility” is not the best expression to tell the whole truth. It is negative, it does not specify the object of the charism, it leaves the door open for all kinds of sinister conjectures. (10)

10. Albert Lang (University Professor at the University of Bonn) writes in Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche : The term “infallibility”, in use since the late scholastic times, and dominant since the Council of Trent, was an infelicitous choice (nicht glücklich gewahlt); in its unrestricted generality it is arrogant (anmassend) and overbearing (überhelich), especially when in a one-sided fashion it brings the infallibility of the pope into the foreground. It leads easily to the misconception that the charism of infallibility excludes other types of failures in the exercise of the teaching office, such as imprudence, human weaknesses, moral failure, inaction and similar ones. Moreover, it generates a fear that the pope on the ground of his infallibility could claim an unrestricted jurisdiction to govern and to judge. But these are caricatures and distorted presentations of infallibility. (LTK 10 485). If the use of a word can give occasion for such distortions, it is reasonable to ask if the same reality could not be described better by another word; especally if we wish to facilitate the ecumenical dialogue and make easier for unbelievers the understanding of the Christian doctrine.

“Fidelity to the revelation” is a far more positive expression, and in substance it means what we intend to convey by “infallibility”; it has also a venerable history. Right from the earliest times, the Christian community believed in the unfailing fidelity of the Spirit to the church. The belief that the ecumenical councils can proclaim unfailingly “what is contained in the Scriptures” or what is an integral part of God’s revelation, developed precisely from this steady conviction. (11) One could wish Vatican Council I had chosen a better expression!

11. After all, one could ask if there is any Christian church or ecclesial community which does not believe in this unfailing fidelity of the Spirit to the “gathering” of Christians. Each group may see the ultimate manifestation of this fidelity in different ways in the definitions of an ecumenical council, or in the reading of the Scriptures coupled with an internal enlightenment in the reader, or in a convocation of clergy and laity, etc. If a Christian group did not believe in this fidelity of the Spirit to them, they could never be sure that they still have the authentic message of Christ. Catholics differ from the others not so much in their belief in infallibility (all communities seem to have that ) but in seeing the instruments or agents or the criteria of infallibility in a different way from the others.

Be that as it may, Vatican Council I defined infallibility in a very cautious and circumscribed way. It is safe to say that a large portion of the hierarchical teaching, as it is exercised now, does not fall into that category. Therefore the precise understanding of what is meant by noninfallible teaching is more important than ever. (12)

12. A theologian conscious of history will be always careful not to draw the dividing line too sharply between the infallibly defined and the not-so-defined beliefs. After all, for many centuries there was no such distinction; there was a unity of beliefs. Gradually, through councils and papal statements some parts of the beliefs have been specially marked as containing no error; some other parts have not been so marked, but for that they have not lost their organic connection with the rest.

From: The Church: Learning and Teaching, by Ladislas Örsy, Michael Glazier 1987, chapter 2. Read the whole chapter here.

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