Each time the secular media picks up a quote from Pope Francis regarding the changing of some teaching of the Church, confusion quickly follows. The foundation of much of this confusion stems from the fact that very few Catholics understand how the Church exercises her authority. Many Catholics have the attitude that “the Pope may be infallible, but unless a Pope speaks ex cathedra on a particular moral issue, we are all free to follow our own opinions and do what we want to do.” Very often what further muddies the waters is the fact that there are a small, though extremely vocal group of revisionist theologians that claim that the Church has never taught infallibly on moral issues.
To help clear up some of this confusion, it is necessary to understand what infallibility is and who has been given this charism. Infallibility is essentially a negative charism; it is a gift that makes it impossible to fall into error. It does not mean that those who exercise it are somehow impeccable, but that when and if they speak, they cannot speak in error. It is as if, in taking a test, the student may not answer all the questions, but those that he does, he gets right.
Why it is given is also important. It is not meant in any way to add to Revelation but instead protect and preserve it. The First Vatican Council said
This gift of truth and never-failing faith was therefore divinely conferred on Peter and his successors in this See so that they might discharge their exalted office for the salvation of all, and so that the whole flock of Christ might be kept away by them from the poisonous food of error and be nourished with the sustenance of heavenly doctrine.
This gift is given to the Church by Christ Himself. First He gives it to Peter and His successors, when at Caesarea Philippi He tells Peter that “Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Mt 16:19). Later on, He grants the gift to the united Apostolic College (and their successors) (Mt 18:18). This power to bind and loose means not that Peter and the Apostles with Him can say whatever they want, only that there is Divine protection in what they do bind and loose will be true. In this way, “binding and loosing” is synonymous with infallibility.
Therefore, the gift of infallibility can be traced to the New Testament days. However, only gradually (as circumstances required) did it come to be understood more fully what its actual exercise looks like. This is why the Second Vatican Council sought to explain infallibility in the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium.
First, the Council Fathers sought to address Papal infallibility, declaring that “the Roman Pontiff enjoys in virtue of his office the gift of infallibility…when… by a definitive act he proclaims a doctrine of faith or morals.” Papal infallibility refers not only to the Papal prerogative to proclaim a dogma to be divinely revealed, it can extend to solemn teachings on morals as well (more on this in a moment). Its scope includes not just strict Revelation, but also to those things connected to it.
As Chapter 18 of Matthew suggests, this is not the only way in which the Church can exercise infallibility. It may also do so in a collegial manner. “The infallibility promised to the Church resides also in the body of Bishops, when that body exercises the supreme magisterium with the successor of Peter.” There is a distinction between the two types of activity in which the body of the episcopate in union with the Pope enjoys infallibility. The first is the extraordinary form when gathered at a general or ecumenical council. The second is when they exercise their infallible power in an ordinary manner when in a moral unity with the Pope they “are in agreement that a particular teaching is to be held definitively and absolutely.” This is what is referred to as the “Ordinary Magisterium. In other words, the ordinary magisterium does not mean the bishops act in a strictly collegial matter but that they “agree in one judgment” on a certain issue. Cardinal Ratzinger, in the audience of John Paul II, sought to clarify this point when he said
It should be noted that the infallible teaching of the ordinary and universal Magisterium is not only set forth with an explicit declaration of a doctrine to be believed or held definitively, but is also expressed by a doctrine implicitly contained in a practice of the Church’s faith, derived from revelation or, in any case, necessary for eternal salvation, and attested to by the uninterrupted Tradition: such an infallible teaching is thus objectively set forth by the whole episcopal body, understood in a diachronic and not necessarily merely synchronic sense. Furthermore, the intention of the ordinary and universal Magisterium to set forth a doctrine as definitive is not generally linked to technical formulations of particular solemnity; it is enough that this be clear from the tenor of the words used and from their context.
Unlike the Extraordinary Magisterium, when the Ordinary Magisterium is exercised it does not depends on particular formulations. It is enough that it is part of the consensus and is said to be definitively held.
It is most often the case then that it is the exercise of the Ordinary Magisterium that is overlooked. To say that the Pope has never taught ex cathedra on a moral issue does not mean that the Church has never taught infallibly on a moral issue. As an example, we see John Paul II refer to the ordinary magisterium in his 1995 encyclical Evangelium Vitae. In particular, he mentions three specific moral norms related to the killing of innocent life, abortion and euthanasia that are to be held as irreformable and definitive.
This also extends to issues directly related to the natural law as well, since the Church is the “authentic guardians and interpreters of the whole moral law, not only, that is, of the law of the Gospel but also of the natural law” (Humanae Vitae, 4). This means that the moral teachings that are directly connected to the natural law that the Church has always taught are also included within the scope of infallibility of the Ordinary Magisterium. The Natural Law is based on unchanging human nature and therefore cannot itself change even if its application to different historical circumstances might change.
There has been much debate within the Church regarding the infallibility of the Church’s teaching regarding contraception. Some of the issue pertains to a statement made during a press conference when Humanae Vitae was released. However, if we apply the criteria given by John Paul II through Cardinal Ratzinger above, there is no other way to interpret Paul VI’s statement that “The Church, nevertheless, in urging men to the observance of the precepts of the natural law, which it interprets by its constant doctrine, teaches that each and every marital act must of necessity retain its intrinsic relationship to the procreation of human life” (HV, 11) is an exercise of infallibility based on the Ordinary Magisterium. Footnotes in Papal documents are very important because they show the continuity of a given papal teaching. The footnote attached to this paragraph refers to two papal documents of Pius XI and Pius XII, who in turn refer to Leo XIII and so on.
No discussion of infallibility would be complete unless it also mentioned that the Second Vatican Council also teaches that “The entire body of the faithful, anointed as they are by the Holy One, cannot err in matters of belief. They manifest this special property by means of the whole peoples’ supernatural discernment in matters of faith when from the Bishops down to the last of the lay faithful they show universal agreement in matters of faith and morals… It is exercised under the guidance of the sacred teaching authority, in faithful and respectful obedience to which the people of God accepts that which is not just the word of men but truly the word of God” (LG, 12).
The term sensus fidelium has been attached to the concept that the entire body of the faithful also enjoys infallibility. This infallibility is, as Pope Benedict reminds us, “not a kind of public ecclesial opinion, and invoking it in order to contest the teachings of the Magisterium would be unthinkable” but depends upon “the guidance of the sacred teaching authority.” In other words, it not the consensus on some truth that makes it true, but the truth of the doctrine that forms the consensus of the faithful. We are infallible insofar as we rely on the infallible teaching of the Church. That is why in a culture where personal freedom is paramount without any connection with truth, there is always the danger of seeing the Church’s exercise of infallibility as mere authority. But properly understood, the authority is given to the Church precisely to protect us from falling into error regarding who God is and who we are. In other words, infallibility, rather than somehow limiting our freedom, actually enhances it. The spirit of the world tells me that divorce is permitted and maybe even a good thing. The Church infallibly tells me it is not, not to hold me in a bad marriage, but to free me up for authentic love. When divorce is off the table as an option I am more likely to love my spouse as my own flesh than if I look upon my spouse as a growth that may need to be excised. We should rely on the Church as the steady guide in forming our consciences because of the presence of her divine Founder. As Christ told the Apostles in Luke’s Gospel, “he who hears you, hears me.”