Tuesday, 22 March 2011

Who is infallible anyway?

It is always surprising and very disappointing to hear lifelong Anglican Catholics on the BBC and in other media saying things like: “I can't join the Ordinariate because I don't think that one man - the Pope - can be infallible.”

Many people have uninformed opinions of the Catholic Church. This is often because of a handful of catch-phrases which they have heard from childhood but have never really examined in any serious way. Such an attitude is particularly serious when they claim to be Anglican Catholics, Christians or simply educated people.

It is not the pope on his own who claims to make statements for the life of the Church, statements that will keep the Church from falling into ultimate error. In fact, the pope makes only a very few ex cathedra i.e. formally infallible statements on behalf of the universal Church. Popes only do so after a long period of prayer and reflection in consultation with the Church worldwide and upon the very best advice available.
Sometimes it is helpful to consider the opposite case.  Consider what it would be like if there was no final authority to articulate the faith and morals of the Church. There would be people vying for position and promoting their own opinions against others, despite what many thought was the settled faith of the Church.

Yes, you've got it. That would be fissiparous, schismatic Protestantism with people hiving off in every direction according to their own fundamentalist or liberal whims; filling the airwaves with often half-baked opinions. Many are simply following winds of social fashion. In fact, this is very like the sad state of Anglicanism at present.

Unfortunate popular interpretations of the word "infallible" have given rise to many of the problems well intentioned non-Catholic Christians have. Many read into the term, as they define it, pride and control: "Who does the Pope think he is anyway?"

This is just the reverse of what the Petrine ministry of the Pope actually is. The ministry of the Holy Father is to articulate the mind of the Church in the area of faith and morals only after long and serious consideration of the essential matter. Knowing that certain moral, ethical and theological issues require people to make decisions, the Church, as the Body of Christ, makes clear its position so that people may inform their consciences. This is a service to the whole body and to humanity generally exercised by the earthly Vicar of Christ.  

Without such a ministry of oversight there is a cacophony of voices confusing the faithful and damaging the innocent and vulnerable. 

John Henry Newman, the great Anglican scholar who was reconciled to Rome in 1845, put it this way:

"And as to faith, my great principle was: 'securus judicat orbis terrarum.' [the judgement of the whole world is secure] So I say now -- and in all these questions of detail I say to myself, I believe whatever the Church teaches as the voice of God -- and this or that particular inclusively, if she teaches this -- it is this fides implicita which is our comfort in these irritating times. And I cannot go beyond this -- I see arguments here, arguments there -- I incline one way today another tomorrow -- on the whole I more than incline in one direction -- but I do not dogmatise....I have only an opinion at best (not faith) that the Pope is infallible."     Life of John Henry Cardinal Newman, W.P. Ward, p.234

Certainly no individual is perfect, pope or other. However, the doctrine of infallibility has little to do with the personal qualities of individuals. It merely states that the Holy Spirit will not allow the Church, the beloved people of God, to fall into irretrievable error and so guides the bishops of the Church into truth. This truth is stated formally, when necessary, by the leading bishop and centre of unity, the Bishop of Rome, recognized since the time of the Apostles as the Church’s spokesman.

The pope and bishops are not individually perfect or infallible in the common sense of the word (e.g. the pope has his own confessor). Anyone can list the failings of certain popes just as we have good, bad and indifferent people in all areas of life. The failings of individual judges in the Justice System, for example, does not invalidate the Rule of Law or argue against the need for the Courts to make judgements and determine truth.

In the end it comes down to an understanding of the Holy Spirit guiding the Church, the bride of Christ. Either we believe that the Holy Spirit is active and guiding the largest number of Christians (Catholics) or we believe that, over time, billions have been misled and that God only speaks to individuals alone allowing them to come up with a countless host of contradictory opinions on faith and morals.

Because Christ loves the Church and is in communion with the Father and the Holy Spirit, it is essential that the discernment of his body be articulated under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Left to our own devices we would fall into confusion and sin.

It is really about what God thinks of the successor of St. Peter, not what we many think. After all, St. Peter is the one to whom Jesus said: “You are the rock and upon this rock I will build my Church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it.” 

This phrase has been interpreted in many ways but we cannot escape the fact that Jesus refers to the solidity of what Peter is and/or stands for. The office of Peter needs to be steady and to speak the truth . . . unquestionably and indefectibly, to use a preferred phrase of John Henry Newman. That is what the ministry of the Fisherman is, a humble service to the truth as it is discerned by the whole Church praying and working together.

So, if we accept this action of the Holy Spirit discerned by the whole people of God and articulated by our leader then we thank God for the ministry of unity which the Chair of St. Peter represents while its occupants articulate and define the faith of the Church developing over time within the Body of Christ.