99 and Half Won’t Do. On the Infallibility and Indefectibility of the Church

“Aero Icarus”  Licenses under  CC BY SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons
“Aero Icarus” Licensed under CC BY SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Let’s say you have a choice to take one of two airplanes to take to a distant city, lets call our destination, “Heavenly City.”

The one plane (Church Airlines) gets there 100% of the time. The other plane (Alsoran Airlines) gets there sometimes, but other times it is in disrepair, or  it lands in the wrong city, or at still other times it crashes.

OK, which plane are you going to take?

Now I am not going to tell you that only Church Airline riders  get to Heavenly City. Some people on the other plane do sometimes get there, but its a pretty uncertain ride. At least with Church Airlines the plane is certain to get there: it won’t crash, get lost or fail to take off.

So, choose your airline!  But remember that Church Airlines has a 100 % record, Alsoran Airlines can make no such claim. When it comes to flying even 99 1/2 won’t do, gotta make a 100!

 The simple fact is that the world and other inferior brands might not get you there.  Untested spiritualities and the latest trends won’t cut it. Only Jesus and the Catholic Church he founded are up to the job 100% of the time.

Now be careful though. You have to stay on the plane for the whole journey. Don’t get off at a connecting city (such as Sin City) or  any such thing. Stay the course to Heavenly City.

Further, there is no claim that every steward or pilot is perfect or all the passengers are pleasant, or  that the ride is never bumpy and without incident. But this much is clear, the plane gets there.

The Catholic Church alone (aka Church airlines)  is 100% reliable by Jesus’ own promise.  It’s a pretty good reason to get on board before the door closes and walkway swings back. There is a mid-flight meal, (called the Eucharist), and an in-flight movie, “The Greatest Story Ever Told” (aka the Scriptures) included in the price of your ticket which is, by the way, free.

The Church is Indefectible- There are very few certainties in this world about anything but one thing is for sure: The Church will prevail, the Church will be here to infallibly lead us to the end of days.

“How arrogant!” you might say. And yet,  I did say it. Why? Not because of any human guarantee, but based rather on the firm promise of Jesus himself:

The place is Ceasarea Phillipi and Jesus is speaking to Simon Peter who had just confessed him to be the Christ and the Son of  the Living God. Now Jesus speaks and says, You are Peter (Rock), and upon this rock I will build my church,and the gates of hell  shall not prevail against it.  (Matt 16:18)

The Church will surely be hated, attacked and persecuted but Hell will never prevail, never defeat the Church Jesus founded. Not only will Hell not prevail over the Church, but the gates of Hell cannot prevail against the ultimate incursion of the Church into the territory of the Devil.

This power of the Church to endure to the end is no human power. It is not based on brilliant or perfect human leaders. It is based solely on Jesus’  promise.

So it is not arrogant to make this claim, it is simply biblical and a matter of faith in Jesus.

This prevailing power of the Church means that the Church will be here to the end.  Count on it since Jesus promised it. This is what is meant by the “indefectibility” of Church.

The Church is Infallible – Christ promise also means that the Church cannot mislead us or teach falsely in a matter of faith and morals. This is what is meant by the “infallibility” of the Church in matters of faith and morals definitively taught.  Here is the way the catechism puts it.

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…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: “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. (Catechism of the Catholic Church 889-891)

Now some object to this claim of the infallibility of the Church. But reason with me for a minute. Jesus promised that the powers of Hell could not prevail against the Church. But if the Church could formally teach error about faith and morals, and if the Church could mislead people about what was necessary for their eternal salvation, then it would be a fact that the gates of Hell HAD prevailed. But since Jesus promised it could never happen, then, by God’s grace, the Church is protected from formally teaching falsely on matters of faith and morals. Do you trust Jesus and believe his word? Then the Church is unsinkable and infallible regarding faith and morals.

 There are many other gifts given to the Church and Fr. Barron speak of them here:

43 Replies to “99 and Half Won’t Do. On the Infallibility and Indefectibility of the Church”

  1. Dear Msgr Pope, I do believe the Catholic Church is the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church, that is passed down directly from Jesus to the Apostles to the disciples and to us. I believe the Catholic Church has the fullness of faith compared to other churches or religions (that is my belief and other people may disagree). But I don’t believe these facts alone will save us as a catholic. I read somewhere that on judgement day God will not ask you whether you are a Catholic or a Protestant or a buddist or taoist, but will ask you how much love have you give others and put into what you do everyday. The buddist who gives more to charity and leads a holy life worshipping “God” may well be better received than a Christian who has not repent from sins. Indeed I worry that the Catholic or the Christian may even be judged harsher because we have all the benefit and help we can get from Jesus, Church, Sacraments, Saints, Angles, Prayers…and if we still don’t benefit from these properly, we may be punished more severely (Parable of the Talents). What are your thoughts on this?

  2. If catholic thinks one can be saved just because one is a member of the catholic church, it will be akin to the Jews thinking that they will be saved instead of the gentiles because they are “God’s chosen race”. So we are gifted to be a catholic, but that must not lead to complacency, and we must “be alert, stand firm in the faith, be brave, be strong. Do all your work in love.” (1 Cor 16:13-14).

  3. Well-preached, and I hope that’s a jumbo jet that’s large enough to hold the Ecumenical Patriarch and all our brethren (and sistren) to the East.

  4. Catholicism is like the movie Trains, Planes and Automobiles. Yesterday we were in sailboats and today we’re on a plane. I still laugh hysterically when ever I see the scene where John Candy and Steve Martin spin-out on the highway at night and unknowingly start going down the highway the wrong way. They can’t comprehend what a couple in a car on the other side of the median are yelling at them about their going the wrong way, when two large eighteen wheelers come over the hill and plane their car between the two trucks with flaming sparks flying all around the car. Steve Martin is screaming in terror when he looks over at John Candy to briefly invision John dressed in a devils costume laughing diabolically before looking again to see them both terrorized in the shear horror of the moment that seems to last far longer. Just two strangers who met on a train while trying to get home for Thanksgiving, one somewhat arrogant, thinking he’s a better model of society than the other commoner who doesn’t know a stranger but just want’s belong somewhere because unbeknown to Steve Martin, John Candy’s wife had died a year before and he was a homeless traveling salesman. In the end their lives had qualities that fulfilled the other’s and they ended up making it to Steve Martin’s home to spend Thanksgiving together with Steve’s family under one roof. I hope I haven’t given away the automobile scenario for tomorrow’s blog. The characters in this story are not intended to represent anyone in particular and if they should it is purely coincidental.

  5. Msgr. Pope, I get what you are saying, but I think your analogy might suffer from being a eerily close to Kierkegaard’s critique of a kind of institution-induced complacency about salvation:

    “Why certainly. And if with regard to this matter you encounter in the end some obstacle, can you not be contented like all the others, when your last hour has come, to go well baled and crated in one of the large shipments which the established order sends straight through to heaven under its own seal and plainly addressed to ‘The Eternal Blessedness,’ with the assurance that you will be exactly as well received and just as blessed as ‘all the others’? In short, can you not be content with such reassuring security and guaranty as this, that the established order vouches for your blessedness in the hereafter? Very well then. Only keep this to yourself. The established order has no objection. If you keep as still as a mouse about it, you will nevertheless be just as well off as the others.”

    SK was concerned (I think rightly) that it is easy to take institutional assurances of form and praxis as “good enough” rather than the narrow and difficult road of the all-consuming (like a fire) existential task of serving Christ with purity of heart.

  6. This is just a curiosity question, but why is it that “gates” is always phrased by Catholics as if they were an offensive weapon being wielded against the Church? I’ve never heard them used except how one might equally well use “armies” or “arrows”.

    But in the normal usage of the word “gates” wouldn’t it be that the Church is doing the attacking against [the domain of] Hell, but that Hell’s gates will not be able to hold out (ie, prevail) against the Church’s onslaught [in Christ]? Gates don’t normally go around attacking things on their own…

    1. To be clear, Msgr Pope does use the latter form when he says, eg, “incursion of the Church into the territory of the Devil.” I am just more generally curious.

    2. I imagine that you are an English speaker and it is in that context that your perplexity arises. but the Catholic Church is ancient and speaks all languanges and it is in that context that the interpretation you question arises. The Greek term translated into English as gates is πύλη. And gates is a good translation for pule but in ancient Greek (which the Church both spoke and wrote her Scriptures in by Gods inspiration) pule (gates) also means power. Further pule is more specifically according to most Greek lexicons more typically typically refers to the exit people go out, i.e. focusing on what proceeds out of it. For an English speaker these subtlties are often lost. And thus here too the word suggests not so much gates that keep people out, they are not gates for the church to storm (for why would the Church want to try an enter hell?) but gates out of which pour people, in this case demons, coming out to do harm. And it is those exit gates that will not prevail, it is that power that will not prevail

      Perhaps I will blog more on this.

      1. That makes some sense. The other uses of pule in the NT tend to be more literal (eg, “And they knew that it was he which sat for alms at the Beautiful gate of the temple…”), while this use is obviously figurative, like the “gates of Zion” in Ps87.

        What about the ‘hell’ in this verse, which is ᾅδης (hades) not γέεννα (geenna)?

        1. Much is often made of the distinction but I have never been all that convinced that the terms are not in some sense interchangeable. At time they may well have distinct meanings too. For example when Jesus tells of the rich man and Lazarus he speaks of the rich man as being in Hades. But the parable doesn’t make a lot of sense if Hades only means the temporary abode of the dead, or as some Catholic scholars propose, purgatory. The point of the parable seems to be a permanent separation of dives and lazarus, wherein a great abyss exists that cannot be crossed. Thus I am not so sure we should insist that Hades never means the hell of the damned. I think context is important in determining the likely meaning.

      2. Wondering if this anology will help.
        A weir is a sort of trap that is used by fishers to the disadvantage of, and destruction of, the fish. The “gate” is an opening into the fish; as they are carelessy move about; will tend to swim into but cannot find their way out of by themselves. A more intelligent someone could help (perhaps a benevolent fisher) the fish out of the trap, if that someone cared about the welfare of the fish.
        The weir was an early development of technology but, in more modern times, the dragnet was invented. It is towed along and it’s “gate” engulfs the fish and draws the fish into the trap.
        Two brothers, who used a net device to catch fish, became fishers of men for a benevolent purpose and one became the foundation rock of the Church which prevails against the gates of a trap set by haters of mankind.
        Another thing, which struck me was the in flight move. One can choose to ignore a movie on an aeroplane but, in such an enclosed environment, the movie will catch the passengers’ attention from time to time and, sometimes, it will be insert uncomfortable truths about loving enemies, helping the less fortunate, etc. which do this catching of attention which, thereby, contribute to the (possibly) less pleasant and bumpier ride. However, well worth it

  7. Some airlines overbook…we’ve read…many are called, few are chosen…

  8. A potential problem with the argument is that we really don’t know who is or is not in heaven.

    1. Ah the classic retort to Pascal’s wager. And I suppose that if I were somehow worshiping the wrong God that whoever the true God was would know my sincerity and reckon it to me. I also presume whoever that God is, that he would be just, for where does mans sense of justice come from otherwise. And if he is just then there will be some reckoning he will do based on what I could have reasonably known. At least these are my premises, and even those who step out of the world of revealed and infused faith need to have some premises. I suppose you, or someone else might retort that perhaps God is not just. And to that I can only say, my hunch is as good as yours and my hunch has the advantage of moving me forward with some confidence that I am dealing with a reasonable God. But if he is a mere despot, then I guess Ill see you in Hell and there is no need to seek his will or justice or anything, might as well please myself now for tomorrow we die and go to face an unreasonable God who will exclude me for there merest infraction.

      1. That’s not really the intent of my reply.

        Your argument is that the church is 100% reliable, but other options are less reliable. The problem is that your only real data is what the church says. There’s no independent evidence we can appeal to.

        The Catholic says “100% of the people who follow our program will get to heaven,” and somebody else says “100% of the people who follow our program will get to heaven.” What set of data will we use to judge between them?

        It quickly becomes a circular argument.

        1. Yes, correct. And thus faith must supply. To an unbeliever the argument is circular, but to a Catholic believer, the church is an object of faith as so stated in the Creed. For a non Catholic believer to demonstrate some of the argument from Scriptures but ultimately faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things unseen. And this here I set my goal to appeal to fellow Catholics to see the reasonableness of what God has done in establishing the Church, and the unreasonableness of indifferentism.

    2. I am not following your concern. Why do we need to know who is or is not in Heaven? If we have knowledge of Christ and the teachings of His Church then we have enough to know what we should be doing for ourselves and for others. We trust in God’s Mercy and hope for all those who do not knwo the faith. We pray for them to receive His Mercy. As I said I am not following your point but it sounds to my ear that you require proof that God has done what He has said He would do.

      If we know the difference in the performance of the airlines, then we know which airline we should fly to insure we reach Heaven even if we don’t like the carry on luggage rules. We pray for those people who take the other flights whether they are riding out of ignorance or they were so concerned about the carry-on rule that they were willing to take the risk and hope they make it. If Msgr. Pope needed any input on his analogy which is obvisou he does not, then I would have added that the we also know that the ticket price on Church Airlines are usually higher than Alsoran but you do get what you pay for.

      1. Steve — please see my response above at 12:37 and see if that answers your question.

        1. It does. This is what I believe you had intended. I may not have the correct wording but your objection that the reasoning is circular to me misstates the situation. We have absolutely zero objective information about what exists outside of this current existence. You may chose to accept evidence from “near death experiences” but this also lacks objectivity and proof. Therefore it is impossible to prove. We can arrive through reason at a conclusion but of course it requires some compelling force to accept anything we cannot prove. Faith is a compelling force. there are probably others. I became a Catholic because I believe at my core that there is one ultimate truth and there is a purpose for our existence beyond a couple of fancy chemical accidents. I am completely unable to prove this with objective evidence that can be tested. My engineering brain does not have the gift of simple acceptance so I have had to research and investigate these feelings and beliefs and arrived at the most sound, reasonable answer exists in the teaching of the Church. Can I tell you every other religion or non-religion is wrong? Yes, but I can’t prove it.

          You are trying to take the debate back to square one and asking for objective, testable proof that what the Church teaches is true. This post assumes the Truth of the Churches teachings so your objection is true but lacking in value. The Church is internally consistent in its teaching but may not meet the bar of someone outside the Faith to prove something. Seems kind a spurious. If you reject the Church then you reject the Church. if you do not then read the post and understand that the Church teaches that you risk your soul if you do not truly follow the teaching.

    3. We don’t know the names of those in Hell. We do, however, know the names of some of those who are in heaven. Fortunately, the Church informs us how to get our names on the list of our choice.

  9. The correct formulation is: “If the Church could formally teach error about faith and morals, and if the Church could mislead people about what was necessary for their eternal salvation, then Satan and the fallen angels would find a way – in a few hours and minutes at most – to make her do so.”

  10. The Church has defined infallibly on three seperate occasions that there is no salvation outside of her, therefore anyone who ends up in Heaven must be Catholic when they get there. Also, prior to modern times no one in the Church was of the opinion that those who did not explicitly believe in Jesus Christ could be saved. Of course an angel or God Himself could give someone on their deathbed the opportunity (even if we the living can not see what is happening) to make explicit acts of faith hope and charity before they die. There are no Buddhists, Hindus, Jews, Muslims or athiests in Heaven, as none of them believe explicitly in Jesus Christ. Anyone who gets to Heaven somehow makes explicit acts of faith hope and charity before they die. There is nothing unorthodox about this at all. Of course since we don’t know how many people are given this opportunity we should do all we can to bring people into the ordinary means of salvation while they are alive, namely, water baptism and an explicit profession of the Roman Catholic Faith. To say that salvation can be based on sincerity regardless of what someone believes or doesn’t is nonsense and unorthodox to put it mildly. It makes a mockery of the Holy Scriptures and the traditions of the Church and gives false hope to those who are not on the path of salvation.

  11. “The Bible also tells us, in Ephesians 1:23, that this Church founded by Jesus Christ is the Body of Christ and is the “fullness of Him Who fills all in all.” The Church is the fullness of Jesus Christ – the Bible is very clear on that. And Jesus Christ says in John 14:6 that He is the truth. So, if the Church is the ful lness of Jesus Christ, as the Bible says, and Jesus Christ is the truth, as the Bible says, then the Church founded by Jesus Christ contains the fullness of the truth that has been given to us by Jesus Christ. Furthermore, the Bible tells us, in John 16:13, that Jesus Christ sent the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Truth, to guide His Church into all truth.”–John Martignoni, Apologetics for the Masses – Issue #208

  12. Thank you for the post, Father. I have a question. What does it mean to say that the Pope ¨proclaims by a definitve act?¨ And what within Vatican II is infallible other than the teachings that were already established before Vatican II as infallible? I have read that Vatican II was a unique council in that it was presented to the world as a merely ¨pastoral¨council. The Popes said before, in the middle, and at the end of the council that the council was not speaking infallibly except on matters that were already proclaimed infallibly. Is this correct?

    1. For my part, I think what you say has to be correct. Where the Council concurred with previous infallible teaching it is infallible (not on its own, as it were, but by participation).

      But since it made no extraordinary decrees, and the Popes were pretty clear on that, it cannot be infallibly defining anything new. And I don’t mean “new” merely as unheard of, but I mean “newly defined”.

      Why not? Well, one of the basics for defining something infallibly is that the Pope that is doing the defining (either singly or in concert with the bishops) knows that he is defining something. That is, they have to be consciously exercising their authority in this way. Neither John XXIII nor Paul XVI seemed to know they were doing that. It seems a bit much to claim that the were in fact defining infallible doctrines, they just didn’t know that they were at the time.

      And Council documents on their own, without that special charism, are definitely fallible; think only of the Council at Constance (I believe, anyway, one of them after the Great Schism) that instituted and ratified (with the Pope’s consent) the necessity for the Pope to call councils regularly. Not only is that no longer practiced, it is a condemned heresy!

      So, short version, I don’t see how it can have obtained a higher authority than the Pope’s themselves intended without it being a veiled argument against papal authority and for conciliarism.

  13. The Church is Infallible. True. But sadly no one knows of a list of infallible papal declarations. I have asked many theologians the following question but have never received a conclusive answer:
    Are these the last three infallible papal declarations:
    1 Auctorem fidei, Pope Pius VI, 1794, condemning seven Jansenist propositions of the Synod of Pistoia as heretical;
    2 Ineffabilis Deus, Pope Pius IX, 1854, defining the immaculate conception;
    3 Munificentissimus Deus, Pope Pius XII, 1950, defining the assumption of Mary?
    If not then which are the last three?

  14. Some conduct on the part of passengers (on the airline) to qualify may also be necessary. Consider two gospel readings – Matt: 25, 31-46; and Luke 17, 19-31, aka “Dives and Lazarus”. Part of the moral teaching of Jesus includes the idea that we must love our brothers and sisters. And the point of the parable of Dives and Lazarus is that we need to recognize brothers and sisters in need, and not just consider them part of the scenery.

  15. It is hard to understand why a disciplinary issue like the sexual abuse of children by clergy must be handled by the CDF. The resulting conflation of doctrine and discipline is a pastoral disgrace.

    Shouldn’t it be made clear that this is a matter of discipline and not a matter of doctrine? Or could this be another nefarious side effect of elevating to “doctrine” other matters which are also merely disciplinary, such as the exclusively male clergy of the church?

    Like the fire that persisted without burning the bush, the pedophilia crisis is cleansing the church from the inside out, darkening dead wood and opening new space for (1) the ordination of celibate and married women to the diaconate, and (2) the ordination of celibate women to the priesthood and the episcopate, as part of the church’s inner cleansing from patriarchy.

    This fire will not burn the church, but it will not be extinguished either. It may take centuries; but then it will bear much fruit because the Lord is cultivating and fertilizing the ground!


  16. I am sorry, but Justin is giving a Feenyite doctrine. Here is a paragraph from an encyclical that non-Catholics with invisible ignorance can be saved. Blessed John Paul the Great and the Catechism of the Catholic Church also concur.
    Salvation Outside Church
    AUGUST 10, 1863
    There are, of course, those who are struggling with invincible ignorance about our most holy religion. Sincerely observing the natural law and its precepts inscribed by God on all hearts and ready to obey God, they live honest lives and are able to attain eternal life by the efficacious virtue of divine light and grace. Because God knows, searches and clearly understands the minds, hearts, thoughts, and nature of all, his supreme kindness and clemency do not permit anyone at all who is not guilty of deliberate sin to suffer eternal punishments.

  17. The dogma of the First Vatican Council is that the teaching of the Pope on faith and morals is only infallible when all conditions (stated by Vatican I and reiterated by Vatican II) for infallibility are met. In all other cases, when the Pope is teaching alone, his teaching is non-infallible and non-irreformable. Why must we give religious assent to teachings that are not necessarily entirely error-free? It is because the errors possible cannot reach to the extent of leading us away from the path of salvation. So the Magisterium teaches either infallibly (Papal Infallibility, Conciliar Infallibility, the ordinary and universal Magisterium) or non-infallibly (all other teachings).

    “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.” — Pope John Paul II (15 Oct 1988, Speeches)

    1. Ron,
      Liked your post but Pope John Paul II who had the oath for teachers etc. include the “religious submission of mind and will” of LG 25 (Vat.II)…was being historically naive. Google both Romanus Pontifex by Pope Nicholas V ( 1453-4) and Exsurge Domine by Pope Leo X (1520).
      The first in the mid 4th paragraph repeats the Pope’s permission to Portugal to enslave ” all other enemies of Christ” and take their goods….ie their countries in effect. Three succeeding Popes affirmed Romanus Pontifex for Portugal and the anti slavery bull you read about in 1537 ( Sublimis Deus) was an attempt by Pope Paul III to undo their damage. Since Paul III withdrew his original excommunication for slavery…he weakened his own document. Slavery is now held by section 80 of Veritatis Splendor to be intrinsic evil ( that’s not true either since God gave it in Leviticus 25:44-46 to the Jews…chattel at that). Slavery is wrong in modern times when prisons solve criminal and enemy custody and bankruptcy solves debt problems.
      The second bull…Exsurge Domine…defended burning heretics ( art.33 condemned) under pain of excommunication. Pope Leo X’s position then is now also condemned in section 80 of Veritatis Splendor.
      So several Popes led Catholics into moral error that had awful consequences for centuries because they were not using infallibility. LG 25’s ” religious submission of mind and will” is incomplete and is completed only when one realizes that Catholic moral theology tomes allow for sincere, struggled dissent from the non infallible in for example conservative Germain Grisez’s ” Way of the Lord Jesus” vol.1, page 854 imprimatured for
      seminaries. Portugal was the last European country out of the slave trade partly because Romanus Pontifex by Pope Nicholas V had a not to be voided clause..vis a vis future Popes.

    2. With your background on church dogma Ron, can you identify the last three infallible papal declarations?

  18. I think the post is rather shallow.

    If we are to think of churches/denominations/sects/faith communities/religions as airplanes, it is not that Catholic Air should be the airline of our choice because it brings us to Christ, . If anything, the Church (the sacraments, Scripture, grace, common worship) brings Christ to us. Father Pope, at a minimum, you get the direction of travel wrong.

    1. Well, lighten up a little Kurt and allow the author a little levity. As for directions, no need to live in a univocal world, you never know, maybe there’s a little movement on both sides. To say “A” does not necessarily exclude “B” as you seem to presume in your all-or-nothing presumption. Again, lighten up a little Kurt (whose name in English means “terse” or “sharp” or “overly precise”) 😉

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