Something I never understood (Question for catholics)

I don’t understand your view on the truth and how this interacts with your view on the inerrancy or infallibility.

I think I understand what you believe about the truth. Basically dogma as represented by the catholic church. Again this is just is just one sentence, and not a complete overview of your view on truth.

Sometimes when I talk to catholics it seems like only the Pope can be infallible and only when he speaks ex-cathedrally. Then sometimes it seems that all of catholic dogma as pronounced by ecumenical councils(as long as the Pope is there) is infallible as well. I guess my major question is which is it? But it is not just a dogma that you have to believe as being the truth. All catholic teaching on faith and morals has to be treated as truth. At least according to some people I have talked to one here.

I think this will be a rather short thread, but it is something I don’t understand because it seems to me to be misrepresented by your community. My understanding of your beliefs most come from people on this site and on newadvent


There are special rules about when the Pope is protected by doctrines of inerrancy. There are special rules about what ecumenical councils declare. It all depends on the context of the claim being asserted.

But it is not just a dogma that you have to believe as being the truth. All catholic teaching on faith and morals has to be treated as truth. At least according to some people I have talked to one here.

People on the internet can say anything they want. It’s a great place for people with an ax to grind, because they can say virtually anything. Uber-traditionalists can throw their weight around in a way they can’t actually do in the parish, and uber-radicals can be snarky and dismissive from the safety of their keyboards.

All of the concepts you are talking about–inerrancy, infallibility, dogma, ecumenism, faith, morals–have a long history of development in Catholicism, over several centuries. Even the terminology itself shifts and changes over time. Often people will leap to defend their understanding of a particular subject, dogma, or tradition, unaware of the much larger issues. I know I have fallen into this trap before.

If you’re really interested in understanding the Catholic position on truth and belief, you should read the Catholic Catechism, which is free and easy to find on the web. I put it off for years, but when I finally did read it, I was surprised to learn that many of my biases against Catholicism were the consequence of Protestant ignorance, both willful and unintentional ignorance of the actual facts.

But be careful. Now I’m Catholic. It has a way of pulling in genuine seekers. :wink:

The pope has the ability to speak on behalf of the Magisterium, even if the Magisterium has not had the opportunity of considering the matter. :smiley: if He speaks Ex Cathedra, which he must draw on his authority as chief Bishop in the office which St Peter held, and the matter is strickly regarding faith and morals, he can bind this as a Truth on the entire Church Universal.

I would say, this is by far, put into practice in the manner of Confirmation of what was already formulated through the Magisterium in some way, as opposed to direct inspiration to the pontiff outside his fellow Bishops. This means, he is more of a spokesman for the magisterium than someone giving orders and dogmas alone. Thus the biblical language, “In those days, Peter stood up among the brothers…”

The authority of the Church is fashioned to uphold and govern the body. To keep its members in unity and convicted in what is reliable and Confirmed. Scripture is a huge portion of this. The authority of the Church was necessary to Confirm which writings were inerrant or infailible. Without Church authority, the Scriptures would not be nearly as effective. They would still exist and be the Word of God, but the seperation of These particular letters were set apart through the Church with real binding authority.

There are lots of interesting articles on the levels of Catholic teaching:


I agree with the previous replies, and would just like to address some specific points.

That is incorrect. The Bible is infallible and the ecumenical councils are also infallible.

This is correct, except that the Pope does not have to be there. AFAIK he usually does not attend the council, leaving the Bishops to discuss the matters without his direction. When the council reaches a decision the Pope ratifies it. In recent times, eg the Second Vatican Council in the 1960’s, this ratification has been explicit and the Pope himself promulgates the decree, but I don’t know whether that has always been the case. I suspect that in the past he has given his consent by silence. There was one instance (which I can’t recall at the moment - it was about 400AD) where a Pope rejected the decision of a council and the Church followed the Pope.

For practical purposes, we accept all teaching on faith and morals as truth. That is, we attempt to live it in our lives rather than argue with it, and we teach our children and other Catholics to do the same. However, strictly speaking, only these teachings which have been formally promulgated by council, or the Pope, are infallible.

Many people think, or expect, that the Church should have a simple method for deciding what Catholics must believe and practice, down to every important detail. In fact it does not. It treats us as adults and expects us to form our own faith, under guidance. There are some boundaries (as I described above), but in most of our lives we are actually working it out as we go, through prayer, study and asking about particular topics. On a particular issue (eg. what is a valid reason to miss Mass?) we may decide one way at one time, and then change our mind later - without sinning in either case.

We are always expected to inform our own conscience, and to follow it. See The Judgement of Conscience in the Catechism.

The impression I have of your understanding of the nature of the truth as taught by the Catholic Church is that the Church says something in the correct way (the Pope ex cathedra, for example), and then it becomes the truth we have to believe.

But this is not our view at all (or it shouldn’t be!). The Catholic view is that truth exists independently of what we do, and that the Church *finds *the truth.

Most proclamations of “new” Church doctrines or dogmas are not new at all. Most times, they are proclaimed because there was disagreement in the Church over different ideas. The Pope may call a council if it is a serious issue or serious disagreement, or the Pope may act on his own. Either way, the problem is resolved and the truth is proclaimed. The Council’s decisions are not binding unless the Pope has assented to them.

This is theology, which was once called the Queen of the Sciences. Just like science, we are in search of the truth, not looking to make up new stuff.

I figured this would not get a lot of traffic, and frankly I am glad that no one tried to start an argument. Anymore great articles or peoples thoughts are welcome.

Check this thread…

Did any of the responses help you understand better? Do you have more questions about what we wrote?

I do. One of the posters said “For practical purposes, we accept all teaching on faith and morals as truth. That is, we attempt to live it in our lives rather than argue with it, and we teach our children and other Catholics to do the same. However, strictly speaking, only these teachings which have been formally promulgated by council, or the Pope, are infallible”.

Yet in a booklet with an imprimatur of an archbishop I have outlining the Catholic faith, it says the Pope is infallible and he can not err when he solemnly defines a doctrine.

But then on the next pg says what infallibility means is the Church can not err when teaching faith and morals.

So is the booklet with the imprimatur wrong and instead as the poster said it’s only for practical purposes that you just accept rather than argue and that actually only those formally promulgated are infallible?

Or is it that all taught matters of faith and morals are infallible?

Not every decision by a pope is infallible. That’s a common misconception. He always has authority to make decisions, but not all sorts enjoy infallibility.

This is dense stuff and the widely considered best book on the topic is “Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma” by Ludwig Ott. Often available used.

As I understand it, that’s the idea behind Papal Infallibility. The idea being that the Holy-Spirit would prevent such an occurrence.

Depending on your viewpoint, there are cases where a Pope has sand something incorrect, but when that happens, it’s deemed a private teaching in retrospect.

The most famous example:

Thanks for the well-considered response, with reference to the the booklet you are reading!

First of all, you should be aware that an Imprimatur is not a guarantee that the entire contents of the book are an accurate statement of Catholic teaching. The Nihil Obstat says “there are no objections”, and the Imprimatur says “Let it be printed”. The authority (bishop) is not necessarily agreeing with all the contents.

Nevertheless, the statements you selected are a good representation of church teaching on authority, and are often repeated.

I will admit that I am somewhat out of my depth here, and, indeed the nuances of Church authority (including “infallibility”) are disputed by people more learned than myself.

When we say that the Church will not err on faith and morals we mean, at the very least, that when a solemn decision is made at the highest level (Pope or Council) that it is infallible.

Do we also mean that universal teachings which have not been solemnly promulgated are “infallible”? Most would argue “Yes”, in principle, however the problem is determining exactly what the teaching is, when it has not yet been solemnly decreed. To give an example of “morals”, the Church is infallible in the teaching that to murder is a mortal sin (which really comes from Biblical Inerrancy), however, is it “murder” to wage an unjust war? We have criteria for a just war (in the Catholic Catechism) but are they infallible? Is it “murder” when a chronically abused person strikes back at their abuser?

In another example of “morals” the Church has historically taught that the husband is the head of house, and such can be found in papal letters on the subject (and in the Bible). This teaching was mysteriously omitted from the Catholic Catechism of 1992. In this case it really is hard to determine exactly what the teaching is!

When I posted “For practical purposes, we accept all teaching on faith and morals as truth. …” I meant that, most of the time, in most cases, we don’t go into a fine grained discussion of “is this teaching infallible?”. We believe it, as received, and practice it. For instance, I believe, with 100% certainty, that the Church cannot ordain women as priests, without knowing whether the Apostolic Letter “Ordinatio Sacerdotalis” of Pope John Paul II meets the criteria for infallibility. I would not have disputed this even before the Apostolic Letter, however some did. They were within their rights to argue that the Church has never solemnly decreed on the subject, and to debate the ordination of women. However, when JPII issued his letter the subject was closed, for all time. What was a valid debate before now become out-of-bounds, and subject to severe discipline. Yet JPII did not create a new teaching, he merely stated, with authority, the ancient and universal teaching of the Church.

Every teaching of the Church (eg. the Trinity) has been through this process of: dispute until it is solemnly decreed, with most people accepting the historic teaching without question (eg. “for practical purposes”), a small number disputing it without falling into formal heresy, and then, after it has been solemnly decreed, to dispute it does become formal heresy.

Let’s cut to a very practical example: contraception. The Church teaches that to deliberately impede reproduction with contraception is a mortal sin. Such is the historic teaching of the Church. It is “infallible” through the Ordinary Magisterium and will never change. In the 1960’s we had some dispute about whether “the pill” is actually contraception, with many Catholics arguing that it was not. Pope Paul VI considered the matter and ruled, in Humanae Vitae, that the pill was a contraceptive device and hence fell under the traditional condemnation. We see here some shades of gray and legitimate dispute in a matter of morals, however the infallible teaching remains constant, and it’s application to a particular matter is ruled with authority. This may be contrasted with Protestant teaching which holds few absolutes in matters of morals.

Thank you Ben and for the link. And Edmundus for your thorough clarification of your earlier post.

The book by Ott is the best explanation. No amateur on the internet is going to come close.

The fact that it is so dense and as you said “no amateur on the internet is going to come close” to explaining it, leads me to something else I’ve never quite understood about the Catholic faith. And that is why does the faith need to be sooo detailed? Besides Scripture there is the very large CCC and all sorts of things to observe, do’s and don’ts and can’s and cant’s. And one is expected to conform their consciences to things. Period. With little leeway allowed. I realize disputes arrive on all sorts of matters and details. But Jesus said in Matthew 11:30 His yoke is easy and His burden light. :confused:

The rules and theology are complicated because reality is complicated. Humans are messy creatures. A mark of the truth of Catholicism is that many with Down’s Syndrome can comprehend it well enough to be able to accept and receive Christ via informed decision while at the same time the greatest geniuses of history have never plumbed its full depths. Such a characteristic of a religion is absolutely necessary for a faith that claims that God created all with equal dignity and loves us all.

As an analogy, most 16 year olds can drive a car and get to their destination. And yet there are many who spend their entire lives working to improve the efficiency of the gasoline engine, to increase the safety of roadway designs, to lengthen the lifespan of the mechanical systems, etc.

If God were someone you could fully comprehend in a weekend training course, He wouldn’t be much of a God. And if we humans were only minorly flawed such that those flaws could be corrected in a week, it wouldn’t have been necessary for God to become incarnate on a cross and die for us in order for there to be ANY hope for us!

His yoke is easy and his burden is light because our life’s work of knowing God and conforming ourselves to Him is joyful. Find somebody who works HARD for a living, but loves every minute of it. (I’m jealous of those guys!). Also, Jesus was a carpenter for many years. He’s telling a bit of a pun on his past. The fit of a yoke was crucial to the survival and usefulness of the animal or person using it. If it fit badly, whoever/whatever used it would not get much out of it. Jesus probably MADE yokes in his carpenter days. He’s promising that he’s built the yolk and that it will fit well, not that the work won’t be tough.

Infallibility is a knotty issue even for Catholics, so don’t feel bad because it perplexes you.

When we say that the Church is infallible, we mean that the Church cannot error in her objective definitive teaching regarding faith and morals.

The basic Scriptural proofs for this assertion are Matthew 28:18-20, Matthew 16:18,
John 14, 15, and 16, I Timothy 3:14-15, and Acts 15:1-31.

The basic organs of infallibility are ecumenical councils, teaching in union with the Holy Father as successor to Peter; the Holy Father when he speaks ex cathedra - that is by virtue of his supreme Apostolic authority proclaiming a doctrine of faith or morals to be held by the whole Church - and so infallibility is not attributed to every doctrinal act of the Pope; the ordinary and universal Magisterium in which the bishops dispersed through the world, in the bond of communion among themselves and with the successor of Peter, and authentically teaching matters of faith and morals, are in agreement on one position as definitively to be held.

Positions on infallibility that are contrary to the Catholic Faith include the position that an ecumenical council may contravene the Holy Father on matters of faith or morals, that the Church only teaches infallibly when the Holy Father speaks ex cathedra, that every doctrinal position of the Holy Father is infallible, that only teachings which can be proved entirely by reference to Scripture are infallible, and that the faithful may in some manner veto or disapprove a doctrine of faith or morals to be held by the whole Church.

The most common disputes concerning infallibility in the current age deal with the infallible teachings on the inability of the Church to ordain women, the immorality of artificial birth control, and intrinsic immorality of abortion and homosexual relations.


I think I can help you in one sentence: don’t believe everything you hear/read. :cool:

Seriously, if a claim about C-ism is posted on a blog or forum, don’t automatically assume that it’s true (excepting if it’s posted by me – in that case believe it! :D).

I don’t believe it has to be, but other Christians (and non-Christians too, I assume, although I seldom read those threads) tend to ask us a lot of question, and I guess it’s hard for us to resist answering.

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