Another Angle on Infallibility

The other day I was visiting with a Protestant minister who is about to leave his ministry and join the Catholic Church. He said he ended up in this situation because he had a seminary professor who kept challenging his students to “Think it through.” He tried to think through his opposition to Catholicism because he had a parishioner who was asking troublesome questions in his own journey to the Catholic Church and as the pastor tried to think things through he ended up becoming a Catholic himself. He said the key issue was the authority of the Catholic Church–and therefore the infallibility of the Pope.

When confronted with the Catholic belief in papal infallibility most non-Catholics have no idea what it really means. They have a vague idea that Catholic think the Pope is some kind of oracle of God–that whatever he says is always completely right and he can never make a mistake about anything. They also confuse infallibility with human perfection. When we say the Pope is infallible they think we mean he is a perfect human being and has never done anything wrong.

The definition of papal infallibility has been discussed on this blog over the last few days. Go here and here. Unfortunately, when in discussion about such matters the Catholic apologist comes up against the brick wall of anti-Catholic prejudice. The prejudice is understandable. Anti-Catholicism is part of the air the Protestant breathes. The basic assumption of the Protestant is that the Catholic Church simply can’t be right. That’s one of the ground rules. Therefore, when a sensible and acceptable explanation of a Catholic doctrine is given, when Scriptural support is offered and evidence from the fathers of the church one is still met with, “Yes, but I could never believe THAT!” Read more.

About Fr. Dwight Longenecker
  • Patrick

    I would think this is especially true with Anglicans, who basically have an entire religion based on “we’re not Romans.” Because otherwise, they’re a great deal like us, I’ve heard. At least a Calvinist or a Puritan disagrees fundamentally on a matter of doctrine. Anglicans, what do they really have? “Authority is in the English crown, and not the Pope, because…because…because we’re gonna rob your land and confiscate your churches, you Papist.”

  • flyingvic

    How little you know us, Patrick.

  • Patrick

    You’re right about that: I don’t think I’ve ever *met* an Anglican. I find it amusing, though, that there is an Episcopalian Church named after St. Augustine in my city, since St. Augustine really ripped into heresy (I think it was the Donatists) and was vehement about the Catholic Church being authoritative. It’s a nice looking church, though, for all that.

    However: unlike Fr. Dwight, I think discussing religious matters with Protestants is a fruitless waste of time. Having once been asked if Catholics worship Mary and having twice heard Catholics innocently distinguished from “Christians” in casual conversation has made me see what a colossal waste of time it is. The Sisysphusean task of peeling the layers of unconscious anti-Catholicism (these people didn’t mean to be obtuse when they said Catholic v. Christian: they’d obviously accepted this distinction uncritically) is too much for me, and with too little gained. For me, it’s better simply to ignore Protestantism: if we’re right and the Church is infallible, then Protestantism can’t sustain itself. And hey: if the Anglican communion will break apart whenever there is a dramatic social change since they’ve got no Authority to resist worldly trends, all we’ve got to do is wait through a few dramatic social changes until the conversation is moot!

  • flyingvic

    So you know nothing about Anglicans but nevertheless are prepared to pass comment upon them; and you are happy to close your mind against those with whom you disagree despite our Lord’s commandment to go and make disciples of all nations. Is there anything you do to make Roman Catholicism more attractive to outsiders?

  • Patrick

    “So you know nothing about Anglicans but nevertheless are prepared to pass comment upon them”

    I think I’m on solid ground when I say the fundamental part of Anglicanism is that they insist they aren’t Roman Catholics. That’s hardly a controversial statement about any Protestant faith and especially a faith that began by declaring a schism with Rome.

    “and you are happy to close your mind against those with whom you disagree despite our Lord’s commandment to go and make disciples of all nations.”

    Well, Jesus never said to be stupid about it. Look: I think Fr. Longenecker and other Protestant converts are probably better equipped to engage Protestants than a cradle Catholic like me. I didn’t even know any serious Protestants until college, and I couldn’t see why anyone would find that type of thing vaguely attractive. I could see why someone would be an atheist or a Buddhist, but I couldn’t see why someone wouldn’t want the *full* Christian teaching rather than some watered-down version of it. And I mean watered-down literally: some Protestants actually use *grape juice* for the blood of Christ. So a cradle Catholic like me is hardly equipped to engage a Protestant and probably does more harm than good.

    I think the difference between us here is that you think “open-mindedness” is a good in itself. I don’t. I think the Catholic Church is true, and engaging with the Protestants in theological discussion is only for people who are called to engage with Protestants: and I’m not one of those people, it seems.

    “Is there anything you do to make Roman Catholicism more attractive to outsiders?”

    I don’t suppose there is. But as I said: I believe in the Church’s infallibility so I don’t *have* to make Catholicism “attractive” to sustain it: it isn’t a sales job like Protestantism, which is why the Church doesn’t change it’s doctrines to accommodate social fads (unlike, say, the Anglican communion with the homosexual weddings. I don’t know much about Anglicans, but I have heard of that). Catholicism will be here in five hundred years no matter what I do: and it’ll teach the same things it does now. Who knows what the Anglicans will be teaching in five hundred years, if they even exist. So I’d rather “wait them out” than spend too much time in fruitless discussion.

  • flyingvic

    I’ll take that as a “No” then. And if you think that you’re on solid ground making statements about something which you have already admitted knowing nothing about, it doesn’t say much for the stuff you say you actually believe in, does it?

    Two things before I find something better to do:
    1. Anglicans do not define themselves in relation to Roman Catholicism.
    2. We all drink grape juice at Communion. It’s what they make wine out of.

    • Patrick

      “And if you think that you’re on solid ground making statements about something which you have already admitted knowing nothing about, it doesn’t say much for the stuff you say you actually believe in, does it?”

      Haha. I read this three times and I still have no idea what your trying to say. Catholicism is untrue because I don’t know a lot about Anglicanism? Catholicism is untrue because I’m a loud-mouthed dummy? Haha. You don’t have to be a Doctor of the Church to know what schism and heresy are. You don’t have to be intellectually uncurious to avoid a knock-off version of Christianity when you’re already used to the real thing.

      “We all drink grape juice at Communion. It’s what they make wine out of.”

      I meant they drink the unfermented juice of a grape (“grape juice”) rather than the fermented kind (“wine”). I suspect you know that and you’re just being daft. If not, go to the store and ask for “grape juice” and see where the clerk takes you. Then ask for “wine” and see if the clerk doesn’t take you somewhere else. You’ll find that although both are the juice of a grape, every speaker of English sees the difference.

      My point was that, having grown up with the consecrated wine, finding out the United Methodists drank grape juice was a shock and I thought kind of cartoonish. It was doubly silly, now that I think of it, that Protestants put so much emphasis on scripture…and then go do something like drink grape juice as the blood of the new covenant. Haha. Hey: if Jesus turned water into grape juice at Cana, we probably wouldn’t even have a religion – people would’ve gone home from the wedding early, haha.

      • flyingvic

        “I suspect you know that and you’re just being daft.”
        Hmm. I see that I’m dealing with previously unsuspected hidden depths here. But the point remains: if you’re prepared to spout off about something you freely admit you know nothing about, why should I listen to *anything* you have to say?

        • Patrick

          “…why should I listen to *anything* you have to say?”

          Huh? I’m not trying to convince you of anything. I gave my reasons for not discussing theology with Protestants. (1. Lack of knowledge 2. Belief that Protestantism can be “waited out” 3. Experience with Protestantism has been cartoonish). I couldn’t care less – I say it without malice – but I couldn’t care less if you listen to anything I have to say.

  • Anton

    ..”When confronted with the Catholic belief in papal infallibility most non-Catholics have no idea what it really means. They have a vague idea that Catholic think the Pope is some kind of oracle of God–that whatever he says is always completely right and he can never make a mistake about anything. They also confuse infallibility with human perfection. When we say the Pope is infallible they think we mean he is a perfect human being and has never done anything wrong.”………..and Father, I would argue that many non-Catholic Christians use this as an excuse and as a cover, knowing full well what is meant by infallibility. For you see, to accept the infallibility of the Church and It’s doctrines, it would put restrictions on the everyday life of a non-Catholic/Protestant that they are just not willing to accept…eg. contraception, divorce and re-marriage, sexuality etc.

    Just too comfortable in the ways of the world and the liberalism found in Protestantism, why mess it up by following the teachings of the apostolic successors of Peter and The Church established by Christ Himself and guided by His Promise through the Holy Spirit. Many so-called Catholics also fall into this category too unfortunately…..(we want our cake, let’s eat!)

    We must be humble with child-like innocence in putting our trust in Jesus and His Church for surely Our Lord would not establish a Church to have it fail without His guidance behind the scenes.

    • Bernie

      Very nicely stated, Anton, thank you.

  • Ben

    I think more effort can be spent on “authority” when talking to Protestants. There’s a whole industry out there proving that Catholicism is “biblical”. But arguing with a sola-scriptura protestant that the Catholic Church is biblical only re-affirms his belief in sola-scriptura, to my mind. At some point, you have to tackle authority. The Church has the authority to rule on things like the Priesthood, Marriage, Homosexuality, and so on. Otherwise everyone has their favorite Bible verse and exegesis to justify whatever they want. If someone wants to normalize homosexuality, he may bring up the shellfish argument and I may bring up St Paul and he’d say “See? there’s no consensus so leave me alone” . But the Catholic Church says that’s not an accurate exegesis. Do you believe the Church? If you believe it on one thing, how can to dispute it on something else. That seems to be a more fruitful argument. Rather than an endless list of Bible verses taken out of context, it comes down to a simple question: Do you trust the Church? Deal or No Deal?

  • Ben

    I would also guess that many Catholics, including most “Liberal” Catholics don’t understand infallibility. To many people, if something is not “infallible” than it doesn’t really matter. Hence the persistent arguments about whether women can be ordained and the endless arguments about whether John Paul II really made an infallible statement on the subject.


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X