Cleansing Fire

Defending Truth and Tradition in the Roman Catholic Church

Infallibility – Let’s Review

July 26th, 2010, Promulgated by Nerina

In Ben’s recent series of posts on Sr. Patricia Schoelles’  Theology on Tap presentation, Sr. Pat attempted to derail the conversation about sexual ethics by invoking the teaching of “infallibility.”  Not surprisingly, Sr. Pat presented an incomplete definition of the teaching and molded the term to fit her desired agenda.  To wit, we were treated to this all too predictable progressive statement:

“Only three doctrines have been proclaimed as infallible.  One has to do with the definition of infallibility, and two have to do with Marian doctrines.  In fact, the concept of infallibility only arose in 1870”

Sr. Pat went on to say, “No moral teachings have been proclaimed ‘infallible’.

Huh.  Who knew?  Only three infallible teachings.  Where to begin with our dissection?

Let’s start with a definition of infallibility.  As most of us know, the teaching of infallibility refers to, in general:

“the exemption or immunity from liability to error or failure; in particular in theological usage, the supernatural prerogative by which the Church of Christ is, by a special Divine assistance, preserved from liability to error in her definitive dogmatic teaching regarding matters of faith and morals.”

In other words, the Church is Divinely protected from teaching error regarding matters of faith and morals.  This means one pope can’t reverse the teaching of a previous pope nor can one pope teach against long-established and accepted doctrine (for proof of this protection, refer to Humanae Vitae – more on this later).  It also means that the bishops, in communion with the pope, are also protected from teaching error.  It does NOT mean that the pope or bishops are infallible human beings.

Sr. Pat, in her assertion that there are “only three infallible teachings,” was referring to one expression of infallibility, namely ex cathedra teaching.  Infallibility, however, is expressed in different ways.  As Catholic Encyclopedia tells us, other organs of infallibility include ecumenical councils, and the ordinary magisterium (a.k.a. ecclesiastical infallibility).  She correctly asserted that papal infallibility was defined formally at the first Vatican Council in 1870.  What she fails to mention is that the Church believed in, and acted in accordance with the belief that She has been and is now divinely protected from teaching error.  While a review of early councils and the writings of Church Fathers will yield no mention of the word, “infallible” or “infallibility” the concept was clearly understood.  From the beginning the Church acted under the assumption of infallibility.


1. Scripture – see Mt. 28:18-20; Mt. 16:18; John 14, 15, 16; 1 Tim 3:14-15; and Acts 15:28.

2. Proof from Tradition – e.g. the Early Church Fathers (see New Advent for indepth discussion)


Sr. Pat disingenuously sidetracked the discussion of sexual ethics by introducing the idea that only three doctrines have been declared “infallible.”  What she should have said, is that only three doctrines have been proclaimed as “ex cathedra” statements (literally, “from the chair”) and therefore she feels these are the only “infallible” doctrines.  I have heard this claim before, and I must admit in my early days of learning the faith, it threw me for a loop.  But then I started to think about it.  It’s true that only two teachings have been declared “ex cathedra” (the Assumption, and the Immaculate Conception).   But this reality does not mean what Sr. Pat leads us to believe – namely, that since only these teachings have been pronounced “ex cathedra” then ONLY these  teachings are  “infallible,” and therefore, binding.  As my thirteen year old daughter would say, “FAIL!”

We have many doctrines that have not been declared “ex cathedra,” yet we still hold them infallible.  The divinity of Christ, the nature of the Trinity, the necessity of baptism, the Eucharist, the grave sins of contraception and abortion are all examples of infallible truths taught by the Church.  But here is where Sr. Pat really has an agenda.  In her declaration “No moral teachings have been declared infallible,” she is playing a semantics game and sowing seeds of doubt.  She hopes that people will connect the dots as she has laid them out – i.e. since only two teachings are infallible (at least according to Sr. Pat), then everything else is “up for grabs.”  She should have been honest and said that no moral teaching has been pronounced “ex cathedra” and explained the distinction, but she didn’t.  Instead she hopes to confuse.  And yes, I’ve heard many, many progressives argue that Humane Vitae is NOT infallible teaching even though it simply reiterated the long-held prohibition against artificial contraception.  Why do the progressives reject it?  That’s right.  Because it wasn’t proclaimed “ex cathedra.”  Apparently, the closing words of Humanae Vitae are inadequate in establishing infallibility:

Venerable brothers, beloved sons, all men of good will, great indeed is the work of education, of progress and of charity to which We now summon all of you.  And this We do relying on the unshakable teaching of the Church, which teaching Peter’s successor together with his brothers in the Catholic episcopate faithfully guards and interprets.

They’re right.  No “ex cathedra” found here, but we do see “relying on the unshakable teaching of the Church.”  What happened after the promulgation of Humanae Vitae is a post in itself.  Suffice it to say that Pandora’s box of dissent was opened and hasn’t been shut since.

So, don’t be fooled.  And don’t let others be fooled.  I believe the Sr. Pat and those with similar thinking are a dwindling bunch.  But they can still do spiritual damage.  We should be prepared to correct false teaching when we encounter it and defend our Faith.

In His Peace,


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7 Responses to “Infallibility – Let’s Review”

  1. Bernie says:

    YOU should be presenting at TOT!!! Nice job.

  2. Mike says:

    Great job deconstructing the deconstructors!

  3. Anonymous says:

    Now, if you could only have better access to those progressive parishes and those individuals who have been duped by her teaching.

  4. Andy says:

    Unfortunately, nearly every deacon and pastoral administrator/assistant in the Diocese has been educated at St. Bernards, many by Sister Pat herself, the resident moral theology “expert.” The next Bishop will have a major re-education effort on his hands.

    What I just don’t understand is why folks like Sister Pat bother to stay in the Church. The Episcopal Church has bought into the agenda she advances, hook, line and sinker. Wouldn’t she feel much more at home there?

  5. Anonymous says:

    At least the next time this “road show” comes a calling there will be more ammunition in our guns. Fire away!

  6. Nerina says:

    @Andy – I think they stay so they can have someone or something to rail against. I suspect they would be quite bored in a church that already practices in ways for which they agitate.

    To all – thanks for reading and the kind words.

  7. Anonymous says:

    The late Carol Portonova, a big wig in the diocese was overheard to tell parishoners that they(Leaders in the DOR and liberals in the church in general) wanted to change the church. That’s why they stayed. It was all on the hush hush. They were going behind the back of JP2 to do this.

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