Hey, Father! I’m confused on what Papal infallibility means

Hey, Father! I’m confused on what Papal infallibility means.

Since the charism of papal infallibility is one of the more controversial and often misunderstood teachings of the Church, it might be helpful to say first what is not.

Infallibility does not mean the Pope is omniscient or that he will never make practical mistakes in judgment. Nor does it denote that every word the Holy Father speaks is historically, scientifically, or factually true. It does not prevent reasonable criticism of what the Pope says and does and it certainly does not suggest he is sinless.

But it does mean he has a special gift of the Holy Spirit that prevents him from leading the Church into error in matters of faith and morals.

Notice, please, the narrow domain in which infallibility is at play: only in matters of faith and morals can the Holy Father speak without error and only when he invokes the authority of his office.

Paragraph 2035 of the Catechism explains further, stating that infallibility “extends to all those elements of doctrine, including morals, without which the saving truths of the faith cannot be preserved, explained, or observed.”

There it is: infallibility ultimately concerns saving truths. Infallibility is about salvation. God intends to save His people by forgiving their sins and restoring their friendship with Him through His Son Jesus Christ.

He must, then, provide a means by which the truth of and relationship with Christ be communicated across time and culture without corruption, for distortion of who Christ is, what he taught, and what he’s done for us would jeopardize the salvation of future generations.

Christ names this safeguard in Matthew’s Gospel. There, in response to Simon’s profession of faith in Jesus as the Messiah and the Son of God, Jesus says to him:

“And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” (Mt. 16:18-19)

Jesus renames Simon, calling him Peter, meaning “Rock.” Biblically, a new name signifies a new, singular vocation. Peter will now be the immovable foundation of Christ’s Church, employing the keys of the Kingdom, symbolizing the authority of the household of God, to teach the truth authoritatively and to forgive sins, the two things necessary to preserve the integrity of salvation and to spread the faith.

Confronted with confusing and even opposing viewpoints of who Jesus is, Christ gifts Papal infallibility to His Church in the person of Peter’s successor to keep it from disintegrating into irreconcilable squabbles and to ensure He can be known and loved by all people everywhere; and the gates of hell will not prevail against it.

Father Seth Brown is pastor of Mother of Dolors in Vandalia and St. Joseph in Ramsey. He is also chaplain of Our Sorrowful Mother’s Ministry, chaplain of the Vandalia Correctional Center, and research theologian for the Diocesan Curia