A reader struggles with infallibility

A reader struggles with infallibility July 29, 2015

He writes:

Good afternoon!

I have a question about church infallibility that I’m hoping you might be able to answer (or direct me to a great answer already articulated by you or someone else).

I’m an almost-new Catholic (finished RCIA, soon to be accepted into the Church).  I was raised Protestant – Lutheran as a kid, Fundamentalist/Evangelical in my adolescence, and fell away from faith in my twenties.  I’ll spare you the details on how I arrived at the Catholic Church’s door, but I do want to thank you for the work you do because you are on a short-list of people who saved my Christian faith by convincing me of the truth of the Catholic Church.  The effects of that are far-reaching, as I’ve brought my wife and toddler daughter into the Church with me.

Glorious news about you and your family!  Welcome!

Since I’ve converted, some of my non-Catholic friends and family have challenged the idea that the Church is guided by the Holy Spirit and has been given authority by Jesus Christ.  Their contention is that can’t be true in light of some of the Church’s misdeeds in the past.  I don’t doubt that the Church is infallible, but I’m having a hard time articulating why.  That is, I’m having a hard time explaining the tension between Church mistakes and Church infallibility.

Do you have any guidance on this issue?

As to the question of the misdeeds of Catholics (and never forget that this includes Popes, priests, and bishops), the distinction you are looking for is infallibility vs. impeccability.  The Church claims only the former and, indeed, presumes that infallibility is necessary precisely *because* of the sinfulness of the Church’s members.  It is *because* the Church is composed of sinners, scoundrel, and dunderheads that a special gift of the Holy Spirit–infallibility–is necessary to keep the Church from completely losing track of the gospel, not centuries after her founding, but five minutes after her founding.  Infallibility is an entirely *negative* protection.  It does not mean that Catholics are smarter, better, or holier than everybody else.  It means only that the Holy Spirit, and him alone, keeps the Church from defining as doctrine things that are not part of  the apostolic faith.  Here’s a piece I wrote on it some time ago. In short, the only reason the Church is infallible is not that Catholics are awesome, but because the Holy Spirit is the soul of the Church.

Thank you again for what you do.  I’m an avid blog reader, a daily Connecting the Dots listener, and my Amazon wishlist is peppered with your books.

I’m grateful to you for reading and listening!  God bless you and yours as you seek to follow Jesus in his Holy Church!

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  • ivan_the_mad

    “The effects of that are far-reaching, as I’ve brought my wife and toddler daughter into the Church with me.”

    Deo gratias! A great victory indeed 🙂

  • Phil

    Well, I hope your reader struggles with infallibility…unless he’s the Pope!

  • Alma Peregrina

    To the reader: Do you think that the apostles couldn’t have been chosen by Christ to guide the Church, since they were always blundering His teachings, proving that they didn’t understand what He was talking about, trying to turn Him into a political tool, sinking by not having faith, runing away from death or denying Him?

    • AJG

      Hi, I’m the reader. Two responses:

      1. Please note that *I* don’t doubt infallibility, I’m just not good at explaining it because I’m new.

      2. What those who struggle to “get” infallibility doubt is not things like whether or not Christ chose imperfect, confused, and generally bumbling apostles to guide His Church, but rather whether a Church that has from time to time become systemically corrupted can claim to be infallible.

      Mr. Shea’s explanation of what the Church means when it uses the word “infallible,” which is the critical element to understanding the doctrine, is excellent.

      • Alma Peregrina

        Hum… I didn’t understand your second response. But I’m glad that Mark’s explanation helped you. God bless!