Infallibility of the Church in Scripture

I have been asked by a reader of the blog to explain where the idea of the infallible church comes from. Where is it in Scripture? I’m glad for the opportunity.

The infallibility of the Catholic Church is based on the infallibility of Christ. The Catechism says that Christ “grants a measure of his infallibility to his Church.” This is seen in the New Testament very clearly. First of all we see time and again throughout the gospels that Jesus is a man of authority. He teaches as “one with authority” the people are “amazed at his authority” to show that he “has authority to forgive sins” he heals the paralytic. He says it most clearly Mt. 28:18 that “all authority on heaven and earth has been given to him from his father.” The epistles corroborate this for Christ is given all authority. Before him every knee shall bow and every tongue confess. He preaches with authority and preaches without error.

Then in the gospels time and again Jesus calls the twelve and “gives them authority” to heal the sick and preach the gospel and overcome evil. He says, “As the father has sent me I am sending you.” In Matthew 28 after he says, “All authority in heaven and earth has been given to me.” he goes on, “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations,baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

This passage, along with the others in which Jesus promises the Holy Spirit “which will teach them all things” for “they cannot know everything now” indicates that the apostles bear the authority of Christ not only to preach the gospel and baptize in the name (and therefore the authority of) of the Holy Trinity, but to teach the truth and obey Christ’s teachings. The fact that he promises to be with them to the end of the age indicates that this authority will continue after the death of the apostles.

A quick read of the rest of the New Testament will confirm that the apostles considered their teaching to be directly from God, and not of their own invention. Time and again St Paul says to his hearers words to the effect, “I speak as an apostle of Jesus Christ. These are not my words, but the teachings of Christ himself.”

This is a supernatural promise that through the Holy Spirit Christ’s own divine authority will be perpetrated in witness and teachings of the apostles (and by logical extension) to their successors. How could that supernatural teaching be allowed to contain error? If it is from Christ it must be infallible. This is why the  Catechism teaches that Christ grants a measure of his own infallibility to the Church. He does so as he grants his apostles the authority to teach the truth from God.

The definition of infallibility according to my quotation of the catechism in the earlier post matches this perfectly. The infallibility of the Catholic Church is simply the promise that what she teaches in the matters of faith and morals is without error. In other words, it is what the Holy Spirit has revealed for the salvation of mankind.

What remains, therefore, is for anyone who understands the fullness of historic Christian doctrine and teaching on morality to show where, any time in history the formal teaching of the Catholic Church has erred. If that teaching has strayed into heresy or immorality, then the dogma of infallibility must be wrong. If, however, it cannot be shown that the formal teaching of the Catholic Church has erred, then we can rightly assume that the dogma of infallibility is tenable and reasonable.

Of course it can be shown that Catholics have sinned. Catholics have been hypocrites–terrible hypocrites. Wrong judgements and mistakes have been made in the areas of politics, arts, sciences or learning by individual Catholics–bishops and popes included. This is not what we mean by infallibility. It must be shown that in the formal, written teachings of the church (not just particular theologians or bishops) there is immorality or doctrinal heresy taught.

I have not heard of one instance where this can be shown.

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  • flyingvic

    Father, thank you for going the extra mile! I see the reasoning but I’m not sure that I can accept it. It seems to me that the leap from “giving them authority” to “sharing his infallibility” is too great to be justified, depending as it does upon the kind of “logical extension” that seems to be part of Roman Catholic thinking.

    No Christian will argue that Christ was perfect, nor that we also are called to be perfect; it is then only a small step to suggest that if we were perfect we would be able to do the things that Jesus did. But then, if we were perfect already there would be no need for us to called to become so. The fact is that the followers of Christ, from the apostles onward, have all been less than perfect and have therefore not been able to carry into their daily lives the full perfection of Christ. And when we consider that Christ himself acknowledged that there were things he did not know, the idea that the apostles (never mind their successors) might be capable of infallible utterances seems to me to be a step too far. To maintain that infallibility is possible today, and then to define the circumstances under which the Holy Spirit would not “allow” the Church to be in error, seems to me to be applying human logic to things that are properly divine – and that always sets alarm bells ringing for me!

    As I read your discussion recently about the status and titles of the BVM I had the same feeling: that what might for some be an insight helpful to devotion should not be made for all a belief necessary to salvation.

    But then that’s why I’m an Anglican rather than a Roman Catholic!

  • Fr. Dwight Longenecker

    I do not wish to get into a full discussion of this because I simply haven’t the time, but allow me to make two points. Firstly, the definition of infallibility does not mean that “we know everything” only that what we do teach in matters of faith and morals is without error. We admit that we are sinners and our knowledge is limited and that we do not practice what we preach. Nevertheless, what we do teach is without error in matters of doctrine and morals. This is not really so difficult to understand. A murderer may declare that murder is a terrible sin. His being a murderer would not make his teaching false.

  • Christian

    “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” and “thou mayest know how thou oughtest to behave thyself in the house of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth” imply more than humans careening around in the usual way.

  • flyingvic

    What you say is perfectly easy to understand – for the reasons given, I simply cannot accept it!

  • Bernie

    Why would Jesus Christ establish His church through His apostles and allow it to teach errors?

  • flyingvic

    For the same reason that he allowed those who listened to his parables to make up their own minds about what he meant, and allowed Pilate to ask, “What is truth?” without giving him an answer. Jesus did not go round proclaiming that he was speaking infallibly and that therefore everyone ought to believe him. If you accept that God gave us free will you accept also the possibility that we will misunderstand and get things wrong.

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  • Fr. Dwight Longenecker

    Let’s try this tack: Vic, please propose which formal Catholic teachings on faith and morals you consider to be in error and why.

    Secondly, please propose which truths you consider necessary for a person to hold for their soul’s salvation. If there is even one such truth, then you too believe in an infallible teaching authority. In other words–there is some authority somewhere which said, “This truth is reliable, true and not only worthy of belief, but necessary for salvation.” Once you have established that, then please tell me what authority established this and why you think it trustworthy.

  • Fallibility is Church

    in·fal·li·ble   [in-fal-uh-buhl] Show IPA
    adjective 1.
    absolutely trustworthy or sure: an infallible rule.

    The Catholic church is far from infalible. Take a look at history and you will see. Find your own spiritual path as an educated individual.

  • Bernie

    It looks like you haven’t read a word Father Longenecker posted.

  • Bernie

    Flying Vic, you’re not makeing any sense.

  • johnpaul79

    seriously, did you read any of the post at all!

  • flyingvic

    Father, my opinion on”Papal Infallibility” is not dependent on whether or not I believe that certain statements on faith and morals are incorrect. As stated, my opposition is to the idea of “Infallibility” itself. I do not believe that it is possible to justify the leap from “giving authority” to “sharing infallibility” – the former is well-attested in scripture and beyond argument, the latter is not.

    What is necessary?
    “This is a true saying and worthy of all men to be received, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.”
    “So God loved the world, that he gave his only-begotten Son, to the end that all that believe in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”
    “But to all who did accept him, to those who put their trust in him, he gave the right to become children of God…”
    “No one who puts his faith in him comes under judgement… To accept his witness is to affirm that God speaks the truth… Whoever puts his faith in the Son has eternal life.”

    I haven’t included the references but I’m sure that you can join up the dots.

  • Fr. Dwight Longenecker

    These are certainly infallible doctrinal statements and “worthy of all men to be believed”. By what authority do we esteem them infallible? They are the sacred scriptures’ witness of the words of Jesus Christ. By what authority do we say which Sacred Scripture is the authoritative words of Our Lord? Now we’re back to an infallible church again are we not?

  • Mark Ferris


    I have a high respect for Vic so please do not take this wrong. But it seems to me the argument that Jesus lacked the power to keep his church infallible, or choose not too, are similar to the arguments my Islamic friends make about why Islam, and not Christianity, is in fact, the one true and un-corrupted religion. As a Catholic, I of course, beg to differ!

  • flyingvic

    No! I think your logic is at fault here. You think these statements are infallible. I think these statements are infallible. But they are not infallible just because the church says so – they carry, and have carried for two thousand years, the ring of truth for all Christians, who need no further authority than the witness of their own hearts.

    Of course that makes the faith a risky business. Of course that opens the door to the muddled and the misled as well as to those whom we might regard as being more “orthodox”. It seems that a major difference between us is that I am willing to accept that risk and you are not!

  • Fr. Dwight Longenecker

    These statements are infallible and have been accepted by “all Christians everywhere” because they were first recorded by the infallible Apostolic Church, and these words and truths were validated by the preaching of the infallible apostolic church, they were then gathered into the Scriptures by the infallible apostolic church, the canon was decided by the infallible apostolic church and they were preserved, expounded, expanded and developed by the infallible apostolic church. Part of this whole process is that they were also believed and trusted by the “all Christians” who are also part of the infallible apostolic church.

    All Catholics are doing is affirming this ongoing, Spirit filled process accomplished by the Holy Spirit within his whole church and then taking it one logical step further by saying that this same infallible church does indeed teach infallibly and does so through the anointed persons of the bishops–the successors to the Apostles.

    On a smaller point–you again make the mistake of imagining that if we believe in infallibility we have no room for discussion or taking risks, and that we cling to infallibility as if it is some sort of comfort blanket. We do not consider it a blanket under which to hide, but a rock on which to build.

  • EPG

    At the risk of sounding like a broken record, I will point out that the Orthodox accept the infallibility of the Church as a whole, but believe it is manifest in the conciliar actions of the Church, and not in the Bishop of Rome.

  • flyingvic

    “…and then taking it one logical step further …” Precisely! In a nutshell! And I am not prepared to apply my fallible human logic to something that is undeniably divine. If the Church is human then it is fallible, as are all its members, whether speaking ‘ex cathedra’ or not. If the Church is divine then we ought not to be presumptuous and claim to know what God would or would not do in particular circumstances. “The Holy Spirit will lead you into all truth” is not the same as “The Holy Spirit will not allow you to fall into error.”

  • Fr. Dwight Longenecker

    you needn’t apply your fallible human logic when the infallible church makes the call. The Holy Spirit may allow me to fall into error, but he will not allow the church to do so in matters relating to faith and morals.

    But I don’t expect to convince you. It’s kind of like riding a bike. Before you do it it seems impossible. Then you learn, and you don’t know why other’s can’t and what the problem is.

  • rick

    Flyingvic said “they carry, and have carried for two thousand years, the ring of truth for all Christians, who need no further authority than the witness of their own hearts.

    Sounds to me as though you have attributed infallibility to yourself, among others: you have effectively said: ‘I cannot possibly be wrong in this case”.

  • flyingvic

    But that’s not what “the ring of truth” actually means, is it?