Proof the Church is inerrant?

I asked an apologist about this, but I’m still discussing it with the man and an answer is kind of urgent. I don’t want to have to wait five days to see if my question is answered!
“How do you know the Church is inerrant?” This question was asked of me yesterday by an agnostic atheist, and it’s puzzling. There are a few answers touching on it here, but they all revert to Bible verses. That’s fine when trying to convince a non-Catholic Christian, but obviously “because the bible said so” isn’t going to help an atheist.
I’m no apologist, but I can’t think of any way to answer this without first convincing the person that there is a God, and the Bible is real. Is there a way, or are there some truths in the Church that can’t be explained from a non-Christian viewpoint?
I couldn’t find an answer for him that wasn’t using circular reasoning. We have proof of this through the Bible and Catechism and private revelation, but I can’t find a way to explain it to an atheist.

Unless he’s only wondering why you believe it, then I don’t think there’s much you can do unless he can first acknowledge that a creator exists. At best you could show him how the Church has not been contradictory in dogma or doctrine, or challenge him to prove that it has, but I feel like that’s not what your acquaintance is looking for. The proof is in the revelation, and if he doesn’t accept the revelation as evidence I don’t know what I’d do.

I hope others here or the apologist know better on how to address this.

And in the Revelator!


Sulli, my friend, you ask a question when you already have the answer! The question of “how do you know the church is inerrant” is a question of the NATURE of God, not of the existence of God. In other words, your atheist friend is attempting to discredit faith altogether by being willing to beg the question that some strawman God exists, while at the same time rejecting any theological argument about the nature of that God.


This is the same trap that atheists set when trying to make the argument of evil as a proof against God (aka, if volcanos erupt and cause suffering, God can’t exist because God wouldn’t let people suffer is a FALSE syllogism because it begs the question of the nature of God as necessitating that suffering is evil and that God could not tolerate any suffering… both of which are false statements, which render the argument invalid). Simply put, back them up.

Tell them that the question of the inerrant nature of the church is really one that can only be discussed if he’s willing to admit that the Christian God exists, and until he’s willing to make that admission, you must start with the more fundamental argument of whether or not SOME god exists, then discuss whether or not that God is the Christian God. and only then can you discuss God’s nature.

One of my first thoughts is, you could show him that the Church has never changed its teachings in all its 2000 years. That’s a long time for a human institution to keep the same doctrine, and implies supernatural guidance. Most churches change their doctrines often.

Martin Luther is an example of how Protestant churches change their doctrines. First he believed in free will, then he stopped believing in it, then his successor changed the Lutheran church back to believing in free will. Luther’s 1534 Bible removed four books from the New Testament canon, but in a later edition he put them back in.

The Anglican church believed in Purgatory in 1534 when Henry VIII founded it. They stopped believing in it after the 39 Articles were published in 1563. They changed their doctrine to allow contraception in 1930. Then they changed it to allow female priests in the 1970s. They changed it to allow “same-sex partnerships” in 2008. They are expected to change it to allow “same-sex marriages” in 2016.

The Southern Baptist Church resolved in 1971 that church members should seek to legalize abortion in a great variety of cases. In 1982 they changed their doctrine to allow only a few exceptional cases. Nowadays they don’t admit any exceptions that I can see.

As you can see, when a doctrine becomes a hot-button issue, churches tend to change their teachings quickly. Only the Catholic Church has never changed its doctrine, not only on these issues, but not on any of the issues that have become “hot button” issues over the course of 2000 years. That’s pretty impressive and unexplainable unless the Church is protected by God.

Apart from that, I think the best way to show that the Church is inerrant is by talking about God. God is inerrant, and if He wants to speak to His people, is He going to send them a church that might be wrong or a church that will always be right? Add to that that the Bible says He gave us a Church which would teach “all truth” and you’ve got Scriptural, logical, and historical reasons for believing that the Church is inerrant.

Well, you have two different questions here, although you may not realize it.

“How do you know the Church is inerrant” is not the same as “Can you prove that the Church is inerrant.” I think the answer to the second is frankly “no.” It would be proving a negative (because the question is, in effect, "can you prove that the Church is not capable of making an error), which is notoriously problematic. The fact that it can’t be proved with logical precision is sometimes taken to mean that there is no evidence for it. That is not the case–there is evidence, it just isn’t possible to be certain based on empirical evidence. I don;'t see what other kind of evidence an at\heist would admit.

There are many ways I know the Church is inerrant, even if I can’t prove it. Some are objective, and some are admittedly subjective. You can see that it is a different question, though.

Also, it is important to make sure it is clear that the Church is inerrant on matters of faith and morals, when she is speaking in the exercise of the Magisterium. That doesn’t mean that if an early pope (Possibly Pope St. Peter, for example) said something about the sun moving around the earth, it proves the Church is in error. That is a teaching of science, not of faith and morals, and it was not proclaimed as an official teaching in any case.

As for what the evidence is, I think dmar198 stated some very good evidence. I would add the interesting story about the pope who was a heretic (an Arian), and was favored to become pope because the empress someone-or-other was an Arian, who still never declared any false doctrine after he was pope. That is, I would add the story if I remembered what pope it was and who the empress was and so forth. :blush: Perhaps someone who remembers the story better could add it instead. :smiley:

However, I am not sure of the point of discussing it with an atheist. If there is no God, then clearly the Church is not inerrant, because she teaches that there is a God. I suppose he is wondering if the inerrancy of the Church is evidence of God’s existance? Well, so it is, but it seems like a very tricky place to start the process of convincing him that God exists.


As far as I can tell, he is really a truth-seeking man, not just your average “God doesn’t exist, fight me about it because that would be fun.” I can see his logic though. He told me, “I know you have all of these beliefs because of stories from the Bible and other Catholic sources you’ve read, and you’ve said you believed them because the Church said so and they are inerrant in these matters, though we got stuck at circular reasoning on trying to explain how you know they are inerrant without relying on what they’re telling you.”
I think his main problem is he has studied lots of religions, and he thinks they’re all the same…one person making up things. I want to say the right things and intrigue him, so I’m hesitant to just send anything back to him. Anyway, thanks guys for all of your answers I’ll piece something together and hopefully he can make sense out of it!

It would be easy to prove that the Church is NOT inerrant. All you have to do is find just one example when the Church has ever added, deleted, or changed a dogmatic teaching. It’s OK for doctrine to develop and grow more complete, but it can’t spring up from nowhere, and it can’t just go away, and it can’t change in any substantive way.

The Church should have a very high exposure to this sort of thing. It is, after all, 2000 years old, the oldest system of governance the world has ever known. And, in the computer age, it is fairly simple (and free!) to find quite a lot of Church teachings online. Since these will often pre-date the English language, an English version might not be available, but Google Translate does a sufficiently good job.

The US Supreme Court reverses the decision of previous Courts more than once a year, on average. They are using the same Constitution, but coming to completely different conclusions.

There have been 17 chief justices. There have been 266 Popes. There have been 21 Ecumenical Councils. Surely somebody has tampered with doctrine (probably without even knowing it).

This is the Holy Grail for anti-Catholics. And with good reason - just one example in 2000 years of teaching will discredit the whole Church. And, from time to time, these guys show up here to float their latest historical discovery. And we dismantle them all the time.

That’s not PROOF that the Church is inerrant, but anybody should be able to understand that it’s quite inexplicable and remarkable. One might even say miraculous.

Amen! And thanks be to God!


this may not be the answer you need, but consider that the Church acts with the authority of God and under the inspiration of God.

in this world, it is impossible to imagine any organization more inerrant that the one that acts with God’s authority and under God’s inspiration.

what kind of proof or what is the nature of the proof are you seeking?

I seriously doubt any type or level of proof will satisfy an atheist so it may be that you are on a futile mission.

The Church is not entirely inerrant.

Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture are entirely inerrant in all that they assert as true.

The Magisterium teaches infallibly (inerrant) in only three ways:

  1. Papal Infallibility
  2. Conciliar Infallibility
  3. the ordinary and universal Magisterium

In all other cases, the authentic teaching of the Magisterium is non-infallible and subject to a limited possibility of error, though never to such an extent as to lead the faithful away from the path of salvation.

infallible teach require the full assent of faith
non-infallible teachings require only religious assent, not the full assent of faith

Most decisions of the Church on discipline and judgments of the prudential order are fallible. Dogmatic facts are infallible.

Can you give an example of such a teaching? I believe that I can, but I want to know if you would cite the same teaching.

The individual Bishops cannot teach infallibly, except as a body led by the Pope. So each teaching of each Bishop – unless it is infallible having been taught by one of the modes of infallibility elsewhere – is non-infallible.

The teachings of the Pope are generally non-infallible, unless it falls under one of the three modes of infallibility. So there must be many examples of non-infallible teachings. Much of what Vatican II taught was non-infallible. Some of the teachings of other Councils are non-infallible (except for the dogmas they issued).

Are you asking for a non-infallible teaching which is also in error?

The Church did teach, formerly and only non-infallibly, that unbaptized infants go to limbo (a third final destination of natural happiness). But that teaching has changed. Non-infallible teachings are subject to a limited possibility of error and reform.

The question reveals a superficial and childish notion of what the church claims. The question is often asked by people who believe that everything that the church says must be true and believed, which is not the case at all. Or worse yet it is an intentional loaded question, or logical fallacy which is intended to entrap you.

The question is an example of a logical fallacy, or loaded question just like the question: ‘When did you stop beating your wife?’

If you answer it, you have been sucked in to admitted something which has made you guilty.

In this case, if you attempt to answer the question, “How do I know the church is inerrant?” you will attempting to prove something that is not true, and you are doomed.

If you attempt to even answer this question, you will be doomed. You need to first clarify the assumption built into it as being false.

People who are interested in this question might want to consider watching this: Limits of Power: Popes, Councils, Synods, and the Infallibility of the Catholic Church

It will be streaming live this Thursday evening and next Thursday evening, and will be available shortly after in their library for replay. If you watch it live, you can ask questions online. The presenter is extremely good, but of course I haven’t seen this presentation because it hasn’t happened yet. :slight_smile:

While you’re there, you might want to poke around the library for former talks. There is a lot of interesting, and completely faithful to the Magisterium, information there.


I must be misunderstanding you. I thought there were always competing theories. Are you saying that limbo was once a required belief? If so, what Church document ever said so?

It is my understanding that various theories other than limbo were permitted by the Church throughout Church history. For example, one alternative theory, which I believe was permitted in Augustine’s day and in the 1600s, was that infants who die without baptism suffer for eternity in hell. I’m not sure if that theory has been formally rejected by the Church’s magisterium since that time, but I think it is very likely that, if it has been rejected at all, it was only once the theory that God redeems them through some unknown means became a popular alternative to limbo.

Because I think alternative theories have always been permitted, I don’t think it is entirely correct to say that limbo was ever a required belief. So I think I must be misunderstanding something. Are we in disagreement on this somewhere?

Also, didn’t many theologians throughout Church history simply say we don’t know what happens to infants who die without baptism?

You seem to say the Church’s teaching on limbo has changed. What exactly was the change? Did it go from “You must believe in limbo” to “You don’t need to believe in limbo”? Or did it go from “You may believe in limbo” to “You must not believe in limbo”? Because either way I think the evidence suggests otherwise: the Church has never said we must believe in limbo, at least I’m not aware of any document in Church history saying we must believe in limbo and I’m not aware of any unanimity of theologians in history to that effect; and likewise I’m not aware of any document in Church history saying we must not believe in limbo or any unanimity of theologians in history to that effect. Therefore, I don’t think it can ever be called a Church doctrine, if by that term you mean a statement that must be believed. Therefore I think I must be misunderstanding something.

Also, I hope you are not suggesting that the Church could require people to believe something false, on the grounds that some of its teachings are not infallible but must be believed anyway. I think that theory is contrary to the Church’s sanctity. Unless I’ve misunderstood something, falsehoods are evil, and requiring people to believe them until you change your mind would also be evil. I may be wrong, but that seems like a serious dilemma, and I think it is therefore likely that I am misunderstanding you.

Limbo as a third final destination was taught by individual Bishops and in the 1949 Revised Edition of the Baltimore Catechism (n. 3). But it was never taught infallibly or definitively. But I don’t want to get into a long discussion of limbo here.

It is beyond dispute that many teachings of the Magisterium are non-infallible and non-irreformable.

The First Vatican Council infallibly teaches that the teaching of the Pope is only infallible when it meets certain criteria. The claim that the teaching of the Pope is always infallible contradicts that dogma.

Pope John Paul II: “With respect to the non-infallible expressions of the authentic magisterium of the Church, these should be received with religious submission of mind and will.” [1]

Licit dissent from non-infallible teachings is possible: Human Life in Our Day (n. 49ff).

The non-infallible and non-irreformable teachings of the Magisterium are discussed in DONUM VERITATIS as well.

[1] Address of Pope John Paul II to the Bishops from the United States on their ‘Ad Limina’ visit, 15 October 1988, n. 5.

It is not correct to say that the Church requires the faithful to believe something false. Non-infallible teachings require only religious submission of will and intellect. Some licit dissent is possible. So nothing false is required belief. Only infallible teachings require the full assent of faith.

Thank you for the clarification. I knew I was misunderstanding!

This is an example of what happens when you put the cart before the horse.

Arguing about the nature of the Church doesn’t make sense until someone agrees that there is a God who established it.

I think that Sacred Scripture is “inerrant” and the Church “infallible”, but, quibbling aside, here’s something I posted a while back on this very subject. I apologise in advance for its lack of brevity.

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