Catholic teaching holds that the Church is indefectible.  She can never fall away into error, but will forever hold fast to the true faith.

The teaching authority of the Catholic Church resides in the “Magisterium,” which is simply the body of bishops who govern the Church in communion with the Bishop of Rome, the Pope.  God has given what I’ll call the “gift of reliability” to the teachers of the Church, so that what they teach in terms of the doctrine of the church (whether of “faith” or “morals”) is accurate and does not lead into error.  This gift is not given to individual bishops acting alone, but only to the body of bishops as a whole–so it is possible that individual bishops, or even bishops in groups smaller than the whole of the body of bishops, might teach error, but the body of bishops as a whole can never do so.  Also, the Pope, as the head of the Church, has the gift of reliability given to him in his own unique office as well, so that he can never teach error when he is exercising his teaching office.

Sometimes the Church teaches a doctrine definitively–that is, she teaches a doctrine as certainly and irrevocably the correct opinion.  This might happen when the bishops come together in an ecumenical council and make definitive decrees or statements, or it might happen as all the bishops in the ordinary exercise of their office agree in teaching a doctrine definitively throughout the world.  The Pope might teach a doctrine definitively either by formally defining a doctrine (this is the famed ex cathedra declaration) or simply by affirming that a doctrine is the definitive teaching of the Church.  When the Church teaches something definitively, since she has the gift of reliability, Catholics are obligated to receive and accept it definitively.  Sometimes, however, the Church might teach a doctrine non-definitively–that is, she might teach a doctrine in such a way that it is claimed to be true, or accurate, or good to believe or hold or practice, etc., but not in such a way that it is claimed that the final, unchangeable word on the subject has been given.  The doctrine is not claimed as definitely certain or true or unchangeable in its current form.  For example, the bishops or the Pope might say, “X is the best way to think about this right now,” or “We should think X right now,” or “So far as we can see at this point, X appears to be true,” or “We should do things in this way right now,” etc.  There could be lots of ways such a non-definitive teaching could be given and a variety of degrees of certainty in such pronouncements–context would determine how to interpret any particular statement or teaching.  A non-definitive teaching must be accepted and adhered to by Catholics as well.  It must be accepted in the way and to the degree it was intended by the Church–again, interpreted by context.

A little more on the distinction between definitive and non-definitive teaching:

The teaching of the Catholic Church is that the Pope, and the bishops as a whole, can teach with various levels of definitiveness, but that Catholics are bound to submit with mind and will to all magisterial teaching according to the intention of the magisterial teacher.  So if the Pope teaches something and intends it to be a definitive pronouncement, Catholics are to submit to it as the final word on the subject and irreformably and forever true.  If the Pope teaches something which he intends the people to believe, but it is not intended as necessarily the final word on the subject, then Catholics are bound to accept that teaching, but not necessarily as the final word on the subject.  All magisterial teaching is to be regarded as inherently reliable, for it all comes with the authority of Christ and the guidance of the Holy Spirit.  We can never be led astray by following magisterial teaching, although non-definitive teaching can lead us to provisional conclusions that may later turn out to be augmented or even corrected.  The fact that non-definitive teaching is not necessarily irreformable is not contrary to its reliability, for the reformable nature of such teaching does not come from any unreliability in the teaching but in the non-definitiveness of the magisterial intention.  If the Pope teaches us that X is the best position to hold right now and that we ought to hold position X, but that this is not necessarily the final word on the subject, if later on we find that X is false we cannot be said to have been led astray by the Pope’s teaching, for that teaching did not teach us that X would never be overturned.  But the reliability of the Pope’s ordinary teaching obviously precludes that teaching from including ideas that contradict what the Church has previously affirmed definitively–so, for example, heresy cannot occur in papal teaching (or any magisterial teaching), since “heresy” involves the denial of previously definitively taught dogmas–for we already know that such teachings cannot be true and that we should not hold them.  It would be contrary to the justice and truth of God for legitimate authority appointed by him to legitimately bind us to teaching that it would be wrong to hold.

With regard to definitively infallible teaching, the Code of Canon Law tells us that we are not to assume that any teaching of the Magisterium has been defined infallibly “unless this is manifestly evident” (Code of Canon Law #749.3).

To see the foundations of the above summary in the Church’s own testimony, see here (the shorter version) and here (the longer version).

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Mark Hausam lives in Columbia, MO, with his wife Desiree and his nine children, where they are members at Our Lady of Lourdes parish. Mark teaches Theology at Fr. Tolton Catholic High School as well as Philosophy at State Fair Community College in Boonville, MO. He runs a blog at and is the author of Why Christianity is True and No Grounds for Divorce: Why Protestants (and Everyone Else) Should Return to the Unity of the Catholic Church.

How the Infallibility of the Church Works

5 Responses

  1. jong says:

    Dear Mark Hausam,
    Thanks for the timely article as it is connected with the article written by Pedro Gabriel.
    I just have one important question, how come Cardinal Burke a Doctor of Canon Law is continuously ignoring Canon752 openly.
    As I read Canon752, I wonder if Cardinal Burke and other Dissenting Cardinals and Bishops are fully aware that they are not only violating the simple evangelical guidelines of Donum Veritatis more importantly they have no excuse that they do not know Canon752 in relations to their expressed contradictory views to an approved Magisterial Teaching;
    To cite Canon752;
    Can. 752 Although not an assent of faith, a religious submission of the intellect and will must be given to a doctrine which the Supreme Pontiff or the college of bishops declares concerning faith or morals when they exercise the authentic magisterium, even if they do not intend to proclaim it by definitive act; therefore, the Christian faithful are to take care to avoid those things which do not agree with it.”

    Are the Cardinals & Bishops who obstinately opposing an approved Magisterial Teaching and expressing continuously contradictory view thru media channels be convicted of “delict of heresy”?
    Can you enlighten me on this issue? Thanks in advance.Godbless

  2. Mark Morin says:

    Just a small footnote about the college of Bishops acting as a whole (canon 330). In case that is not obvious, “as a whole” includes the Bishop of Rome. Canon 331 extends that just a little bit by adding that the Pope enjoys “supreme, full, immediate, and universal ordinary power in the Church, which he can always freely exercise.” Canon 330 has been used by some to argue that a synod of bishops could potentially oust or veto the Pope. Canon 331 makes it clear that that is impossible.

  3. Marie says:

    Thank you Mark. Why are we where we are today then? It seems implausible that this could be the case, particularly with those who are so knowledgeable on the ins and outs of the faith. Yet this is where we are. Some gifted scholars with so much knowledge, yet lacking the wisdom to recognize their errors. On the one hand, I understand completely, for I think it’s easier for people like me to understand, as I like to keep things simple sometimes. Those who know all the cannon laws, etc, etc, have that much more to delve into, and perhaps get carried away with, I don’t know. I so admire those of you who know so much and continue to be so faithful. I see the challenge, but on the other hand, with any gift, we must remain humble, and grateful or we fall off course. Intellect and knowledge are such gifts regardless of one’s participation in it’s development.

    The parables of the Lost Sheep, the Good Samaritan, the Prodigal Son and of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector all seem so very relevant today. Pope Francis is showing us this, time and time again. The gift of being promised that the Church will be protected from error though the Vicar of Christ is one gift we should never reject.

  4. Manuel Dauvin says:

    In the modern experience of the church who seems to be in charge? No pope said whitewash the frescoes! No pope ordered the beautiful old church to become the parish hall next to an architectural monstrosity! No pope sat in the confessional telling a wife that she could get her tubes tied!
    So in one sense i understand the dissenters. A mental assent to magisterial teaching and a resentful realization that the liberals can wreak so much havoc has seemingly led to a fearfull conclusion:”whose practically in control of the church?”

    So if a pope is giving apparent wiggle room to the wreckovators who care for nothing but to unmake the church the “fearful faithful” panic and they justify their disregard for the present magisterium by a hyper-fidelity to the previous formulas of the faith.

    • jong says:

      Manuel Dauvin
      Since you embraced this confusions it will forever darkened your soul. The battle in this Age of Confusions are light vs.darkness (John1:5) and obedience vs.disobedience.(1Samuel15:22)
      There is no such thing as “fearful faithful” in panic because the word “faithful” recognizes the virtue of humility & obedience to Church Authority esp. to the Pope and simply put his trust that the Church founded by Jesus Christ is built on a rock.(Matthew16:18)
      Did Jesus promised the Dubia Cardinals and Dissenting Bishops that their faith will not fail? No, only to Peter ( Luke22:32)
      Did Jesus gave the Dubia Cardinals and Dissenting Bishops a “Duplicate Keys” to bind & loose their oppose interpretation? Again No is the answer.(Matthew16:19)
      Lastly, please remind Cardinal Burke et, al that St.Paul had sent them a letter, kindly read Romans13:1-2.
      Pope Francis is living a life of humility,simplicity and transparency and preaching the Mercy of God not only in words but most especially thru deeds.
      Can we say the same against Cardinal Burke esp. Ab.Vigano plus other Cardinals & Bishop who are openly opposing the Pope authentic magisteial teachings?
      If one uses the gift of prudence and wisdom, one can discern carefully who inspires Cardinal Burke et,al, why?
      There are only two opposing spirit at war in this end times, the Spirit of Truth and the spirit of lies & error but since satan is a cunning serpent he will offer a truth mix with lies to sow Dubia or confusions. This the evil weapon employ by Rad Trads channel now all over media by spreading Fake News to poison the mind of their readers or viewers.
      Do not be deceive. My Jesus mercy.

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