The Protestant is not usually aware of these basic assumptions. They are just there. They are beneath the surface. That’s why I call them foundational. The first foundational assumption is that popes are pretty much a bad thing. When they hear the word “Pope” they think immediately of a corpulent Renaissance monarch. They think of a fellow who dines with his courtesans and makes his “nephews” into cardinals at the age of fourteen. They imagine a lush, decadent fellow with his catamite or an arrogant monster who rides out to war and comes home to tell Michelangelo how to paint. When they hear “Pope” they think of the Spanish Inquisition and the “Secret Archives” and whisperings of conspiracy and Italians and the mafia and the Vatican Bank and international intrigue. So the first assumption is that “Pope” simply means “monster”.
The second foundational assumption is that Catholics “worship the Pope”. They hear us call the Pope “the Vicar of Christ” and believe that we worship the Pope instead of Jesus, and that has to be wrong.
The third foundational assumption is that infallibility is quite simply–preposterous. How can Catholics suggest that any human being who puts his trousers on one leg at a time like everybody else could possibly be “infallible”? Everybody knows the Pope is a flawed human being and not some sort of god.
The fourth foundational assumption comes from the third. The Pope (and by extension the Catholic Church) cannot possibly be infallible since there are so many stinkers. How can the Catholic Church and the Pope be infallible when bishops have covered up child abuse or conducted the inquisition and burnt people at the stake or sold indulgences and being not very nice people?
These foundational assumptions are very deeply rooted. They are part of the Protestant culture especially in England and America. This is why a Catholic can explain the doctrine of infallibility to a Protestant and they will nod and understand and maybe even agree that the doctrine as stated is pretty simple and even acceptable, but then they will smile knowingly and say, “Yes, but how can you believe in infallibility when you’re faced with the Inquisition?” Or they will smile and nod and change the subject while they’re thinking, “Sure. Sure. They always have a plausible explanation these Catholics, but I know that’s not what they really believe. They’re just being tricky. They really believe that the Pope is infallible and we know that’s impossible.” They respond this way because the foundational assumptions are held at a deeper–sub rational level. The foundational assumptions were imbibed in the earliest years of their formation, so they are pretty hard to shake.
Putting all that on one side then, here is the simple Catholic explanation of Papal infallibility. It can be found in the Catechism of the Catholic Church at paras.889-891.
In order to preserve the Church in the purity of the faith handed on by the apostles, Christ who is the Truth willed to confer on her a share in his own infallibility. By a “supernatural sense of faith” the People of God, under the guidance of the Church’s living Magisterium, “unfailingly adheres to this faith.”
890 The mission of the Magisterium is linked to the definitive nature of the covenant established by God with his people in Christ. It is this Magisterium’s task to preserve God’s people from deviations and defections and to guarantee them the objective possibility of professing the true faith without error. Thus, the pastoral duty of the Magisterium is aimed at seeing to it that the People of God abides in the truth that liberates. To fulfill this service, Christ endowed the Church’s shepherds with the charism of infallibility in matters of faith and morals. the exercise of this charism takes several forms:
891 “The Roman Pontiff, head of the college of bishops, enjoys this infallibility in virtue of his office, when, as supreme pastor and teacher of all the faithful – who confirms his brethren in the faith he proclaims by a definitive act a doctrine pertaining to faith or morals…. the infallibility promised to the Church is also present in the body of bishops when, together with Peter’s successor, they exercise the supreme Magisterium,” above all in an Ecumenical Council. When the Church through its supreme Magisterium proposes a doctrine “for belief as being divinely revealed,” and as the teaching of Christ, the definitions “must be adhered to with the obedience of faith.” This infallibility extends as far as the deposit of divine Revelation itself.
The infallibility which we claim for the Catholic Church is first and foremost the infallibility of Christ. He grants to his church “a measure of his own infallibility.” This infallibility is provided so that the church can “preserve God’s people from deviations and defections and to guarantee them the objective possibility of professing the true faith without error.”
It is important to remember that the infallibility of the Church is a negative definition. In other words, it does not profess to have all the answers totally and completely. It does not profess to be the end of all truth. It is a simple definition that what is taught in the area of faith and morals will be without error. Look at it this way. If someone gives you a guaranteed Rolex watch, you can be sure it is a genuine Rolex watch. No one pretends it is the best watch in the world or that it will never break or that it may not need to be maintained or repaired. No one pretends that it is the only watch in the world, or that it will do everything an iPhone can do. Just that it is a genuine Rolex. So it is with infallibility. It doesn’t cover everything, but is a guarantee that what is taught is without error.
Therefore, when we say the Catholic Church has an infallible authority we mean that in matters of faith and morals what she teaches is guaranteed by the Holy Spirit to be without error. It’s reliable. It’s dependable. It’s objectively true. There is much, much more to the Catholic faith and to human life, but these foundational truths in the areas of doctrine and morals are solid.
The next thing to remember is that this infallibility is held by the whole church, voiced by the bishops, but is held in a special way by the Holy Father and is exercised with he (in union with the whole church) defines a particular moral or doctrinal teaching. This is an important distinction: infallibility is not a blanket that covers everything Catholic. It is a limited to a specific action of definition and clarification of the faith in order to deliver the faithful from confusion and then move on with the mission of the church. An example of this teaching was the one on women’s ordination. The definition was simple and straightforward with a simple explanation. A question came up. The controversy was studied. Experts were consulted. Tradition was examined. Scripture was weighed. Consultations took place in the church at every level. Then the top guy made the call. Rome has spoken. That settles it.
The last thing to remember is that this infallible teaching authority has nothing to do with the sinfulness of the Pope or any other individual Catholic. Popes and Archbishops and ordinary Catholics have sinned. They’ve made disastrous decisions. They’ve been foolish and greedy and vain and stupid. That doesn’t affect the charism of infallibility at all.
Infallibility is about the competence and charism to teach the truth–not the competence and charism to abide by it. Moses was a sinner, but he gave us the Ten Commandments and every preacher worth doing his job has stood up in the pulpit and preached against sins of which he himself is guilty.
A Pope may be a thief, a glutton, and a fornicator–but no pope has taught that stealing, gluttony, and fornication are virtues.
Further reading: How do We Know it is the True Church? This short article from the archives outlines six criteria for authentic authority. This longer article Biblical Support for the Authority of the Pope is available as a digital download. Is the Pope a Dictator? – an archived post comparing popes and dictators. Another archived post discussed the necessity of an infallible interpreter of the Christian faith. Go here.