Faith of Our Fathers, Chapter 07 – Infallible Authority Of The Church

photograph of Cardinal James Gibbons taken no later than 1915, location and photographer unknown; swiped from Wikimedia CommonsThe Church has authority from God to teach regarding faith and morals, and in her teaching she is preserved from error by the special guidance of the Holy Ghost.

The prerogative of infallibility is clearly deduced from the attributes of the Church already mentioned. The Church is One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic. Preaching the same creed everywhere and at all times; teaching holiness and truth, she is, of course, essentially unerring in her doctrine; for what is one, holy or unchangeable must be infallibly true.

That the Church was infallible in the Apostolic age is denied by no Christian. We never question the truth of the Apostles’ declarations; they were, in fact, the only authority in the Church for the first century. The New Testament was not completed till the close of the first century. There is no just ground for denying to the Apostolic teachers of the nineteenth century in which we live a prerogative clearly possessed by those of the first, especially as the Divine Word nowhere intimates that this unerring guidance was to die with the Apostles. On the contrary, as the Apostles transmitted to their successors their power to preach, to baptize, to ordain, to confirm, etc., they must also have handed down to them the no less essential gift of infallibility.

God loves us as much as He loved the primitive Christians; Christ died for us as well as for them and we have as much need of unerring teachers as they had.

It will not suffice to tell me: “We have an infallible Scripture as a substitute for an infallible apostolate of the first century,” for an infallible book is of no use to me without an infallible interpreter, as the history of Protestantism too clearly demonstrates.

But besides these presumptive arguments, we have positive evidence from Scripture that the Church cannot err in her teachings. Our blessed Lord, in constituting Saint Peter Prince of His Apostles, says to him: “Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build My Church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” Christ makes here a solemn prediction that no error shall ever invade His Church, and if she fell into error the gates of hell have certainly prevailed against her.

The Reformers of the sixteenth century affirm that the Church did fall into error; that the gates of hell did prevail against her; that from the sixth to the sixteenth century she was a sink of iniquity. The Book of Homilies of the Church of England says that the Church “lay buried in damnable idolatry for eight hundred years or more.” The personal veracity of our Savior and of the Reformers is here at issue, for our Lord makes a statement which they contradict. Who is to be believed, Jesus or the Reformers?

If the prediction of our Savior about the preservation of His Church from error be false, then Jesus Christ is not God, since God cannot lie. He is not even a prophet, since He predicted falsehood. Nay, He is an impostor, and all Christianity is a miserable failure and a huge deception, since it rests on a false Prophet.

But if Jesus predicted the truth when He declared that the gates of hell should not prevail against His Church – and who dare deny it? – then the Church never has and never could have fallen from the truth; then the Catholic Church is infallible, for she alone claims that prerogative, and she is the only Church that is acknowledged to have existed from the beginning. Truly is Jesus that wise Architect mentioned in the Gospel, “who built his house upon a rock; and the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and they beat upon that house, and it fell not, for it was founded upon a rock.”

Jesus sends forth the Apostles with plenipotentiary powers to preach the Gospel. “As the Father,” He says, “hath sent Me, I also send you.” “Going therefore, teach all nations, teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you.” “Preach the Gospel to every creature.” “Ye shall be witnesses unto Me in Jerusalem, and in all Judea, and Samaria, and even to the uttermost part of the earth.”

This commission evidently applies not to the Apostles only, but also to their successors, to the end of time, since it was utterly impossible for the Apostles personally to preach to the whole world.

Not only does our Lord empower His Apostles to preach the Gospel, but He commands, and under the most severe penalties, those to whom they preach to listen and obey. “Whosoever will not receive you, nor hear your words, going forth from that house or city, shake the dust from your feet. Amen, I say to you, it shall be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrha in the day of judgment than for that city.” “If he will not hear the Church, let him be to thee as the heathen and the publican.” “He that believeth shall be saved; he that believeth not shall be condemned.” “He that heareth you heareth Me; he that despiseth you despiseth Me; and he that despiseth Me despiseth Him that sent Me.”

From these passages we see, on the one hand, that the Apostles and their successors have received full powers to announce the Gospel; and on the other, that their hearers are obliged to listen with docility and to obey not merely by an external compliance, but also by an internal assent of the intellect. If, therefore, the Catholic Church could preach error, would not God Himself be responsible for the error? And could not the faithful soul say to God with all reverence and truth: Thou hast commanded me, O Lord, to hear Thy Church; if I am deceived by obeying her, Thou art the cause of my error?

But we may rest assured that an all-wise Providence who commands His Church to speak in His name will so guide her in the path of truth that she shall never lead into error those that follow her teachings.

But as this privilege of Infallibility was a very extraordinary favor, our Savior confers it on the rulers of His Church in language which removes all doubt from the sincere inquirer, and under circumstances which add to the majesty of His word. Shortly before His death Jesus consoles His disciples by this promise: “I will ask the Father, and He shall give you another Paraclete, that He may abide with you forever…. But when He, the Spirit of truth, shall come, He will teach you all truth.”

The following text of the same import forms the concluding words recorded of our Savior in Saint Matthew’s Gospel: “All power is given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go ye, therefore, and teach all nations, … teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you. And behold I am with you all days, even to the consummation of the world.”

He begins by asserting His own Divine authority and mission. “All power is given,” etc. That power He then delegates to His Apostles and to their successors: “Go ye, therefore, and teach all nations,” etc. He does not instruct them to scatter Bibles broadcast over the earth, but to teach by word of mouth. “And behold!” Our Savior never arrests the attention of His hearers by using the interjection, behold, unless when He has something unusually solemn and extraordinary to communicate. An important announcement is sure to follow this word. “Behold, I am with you.” These words, “I am with you,” are frequently addressed in Sacred Scripture by the Almighty to His Prophets and Patriarchs, and they always imply a special presence and a particular supervision of the Deity. They convey the same meaning in the present instance. Christ says equivalently I who “am the way, the truth and the life,” will protect you from error and will guide you in your speech. I will be with you, not merely during your natural lives, not for a century only, but all days, at all times, without intermission, even to the end of the world.

These words of Jesus Christ establish two important facts: First – A promise to guard His Church from error. Second – A promise that His presence with the Church will be continuous, without any interval of absence, to the consummation of the world.

And this is also the sentiment of the Apostle of the Gentiles writing to the Ephesians: God “gave some indeed Apostles, and some Prophets, and some Evangelists, and others Pastors and Teachers, for the perfecting of the Saints, for the work of the ministry, for the building up of the body of Christ, until we all meet in the unity of faith, … that we may no more be children, tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the wickedness of men, in craft, by which they lie in wait to deceive.”

Notwithstanding these plain declarations of Scripture, some persons think it an unwarrantable assumption for the Church to claim infallibility. But mark the consequences that follow from denying it.

If your church is not infallible it is liable to err, for there is no medium between infallibility and liability to error. If your church and her ministers are fallible in their doctrinal teachings, as they admit, they may be preaching falsehood to you, instead of truth. If so, you are in doubt whether you are listening to truth or falsehood. If you are in doubt you can have no faith, for faith excludes doubt, and in that state you displease God, for “without faith it is impossible to please God.” Faith and infallibility must go hand in hand. The one cannot exist without the other. There can be no faith in the hearer unless there is unerring authority in the speaker – an authority founded upon such certain knowledge as precludes the possibility of falling into error on his part, and including such unquestioned veracity as to prevent his deceiving him who accepts his word.

You admit infallible certainty in the physical sciences; why should you deny it in the science of salvation? The astronomer can predict with accuracy a hundred years beforehand an eclipse of the sun or moon. He can tell what point in the heavens a planet will reach on a given day. The mariner, guided by his compass, knows, amid the raging storm and the darkness of the night, that he is steering his course directly to the city of his destination; and is not an infallible guide as necessary to conduct you to the city of God in heaven? Is it not, moreover, a blessing and a consolation that, amid the ever-changing views of men, amid the conflict of human opinion and the tumultuous waves of human passion, there is one voice heard above the din and uproar, crying in clear, unerring tones: “Thus saith the Lord?”

It is very strange that the Catholic Church must apologize to the world for simply declaring that she speaks the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

The Roman Pantheon was dedicated to all the gods of the Empire, and their name was legion. Formidable also in numbers are the Founders of the religious sects existing in our country. A Pantheon as vast as Westminster Abbey would hardly be spacious enough to contain life-sized statues for their accommodation.

If you were to confront those figures, and to ask them, one by one, to give an account of the faith they had professed, and if they were endowed with the gift of speech, you would find that no two of them were in entire accord, but that they all differed among themselves on some fundamental principle of revelation.

Would you not be acting very unwisely and be hazarding your soul’s salvation in submitting to the teachings of so many discordant and conflicting oracles.

Children of the Catholic Church, give thanks to God that you are members of that Communion, which proclaims year after year the one same and unalterable message of truth, peace and love, and that you are preserved from all errors in faith, and from all illusion in the practice of virtue. You are happily strangers to those interior conflicts, to those perplexing doubts and to that frightful uncertainty which distracts the souls of those whose private judgment is their only guide, who are “ever learning and never attaining to the knowledge of the truth.” You are not, like others, drifting helplessly over the ocean of uncertainty and “carried about by every wind of doctrine.” You are not as “blind men led by blind guides.” You are not like those who are in the midst of a spiritual desert intersected by various by-paths, not knowing which to pursue; but you are on that high road spoken of by the prophet Isaiah, which is so “straight a way that fools shall not err therein.” You are a part of that universal Communion which has no “High Church” and “Low Church;” no “New School” and “Old School,” for you all belong to that School which is “ever ancient and ever new.” You enjoy that profound peace and tranquillity which springs from the conscious possession of the whole truth. Well may you exclaim: “Behold how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity.”

Give thanks, moreover, to God that you belong to a Church which has also a keen sense to detect and expose those moral shams, those pious frauds, those socialistic schemes which are so often undertaken in this country ostensibly in the name of religion and morality, but which, in reality, are subversive of morality and order, which are the offspring of fanaticism, and serve as a mask to hide the most debasing passions. Neither Mormons nor Millerites, nor the advocates of free love or of women’s rights, so called, find any recruits in the Catholic Church. She will never suffer her children to be ensnared by these impostures, how specious soever they may be.

From what has been said in the preceding pages, it follows that the Catholic Church cannot be reformed. I do not mean, of course, that the Pastors of the Church are personally impeccable or not subject to sin. Every teacher in the Church, from the Pope down to the humblest Priest, is liable at any moment, like any of the faithful, to fall from grace and to stand in need of moral reformation. We all carry “this treasure (of innocence) in earthen vessels.”

My meaning is that the Church is not susceptible of being reformed in her doctrines. The Church is the work of an Incarnate God. Like all God’s works, it is perfect. It is, therefore, incapable of reform. Is it not the height of presumption for men to attempt to improve upon the work of God? Is it not ridiculous for the Luthers, the Calvins, the Knoxes and the Henries and a thousand lesser lights to be offering their amendments to the Constitution of the Church, as if it were a human Institution?

Our Lord Himself has never ceased to rule personally over His Church. It is time enough for little men to take charge of the Ship when the great Captain abandons the helm.

A Protestant gentleman of very liberal education remarked to me, before the opening of the late Ecumenical Council: “I am assured, sir, by a friend, in confidence, that, at a secret Conclave of Bishops recently held in Rome it was resolved that the Dogma of the Immaculate Conception would be reconsidered and abolished at the approaching General Council; in fact, that the definition was a mistake, and that the blunder of 1854 would be repaired in 1869.” I told him, of course, that no such question could be entertained in the Council; that the doctrinal decrees of the Church were irrevocable, and that the dogma of the Immaculate Conception was defined once and forever.

If only one instance could be given in which the Church ceased to teach a doctrine of faith which had been previously held, that single instance would be the death blow of her claim to infallibility. But it is a marvelous fact worthy of record that in the whole history of the Church, from the nineteenth century to the first, no solitary example can be adduced to show that any Pope or General Council ever revoked a decree of faith or morals enacted by any preceding Pontiff or Council. Her record in the past ought to be a sufficient warrant that she will tolerate no doctrinal variations in the future.

If, as we have seen, the Church has authority from God to teach, and if she teaches nothing but the truth, is it not the duty of all Christians to hear her voice and obey her commands? She is the organ of the Holy Ghost. She is the Representative of Jesus Christ, who has said to her: “He that heareth you heareth Me; he that despiseth you despiseth Me.” She is the Mistress of truth. It is the property of the human mind to embrace truth wherever it finds it. It would, therefore, be not only an act of irreverence, but of sheer folly, to disobey the voice of this ever-truthful Mother.

If a citizen is bound to obey the laws of his country, though these laws may not in all respects be conformable to strict justice; if a child is bound by natural and divine law to obey his mother, though she may sometimes err in her judgments, how much more strictly are not we obliged to be docile to the teachings of the Catholic Church, our Mother, whose admonitions are always just, whose precepts are immutable!

“For twenty years,” observed a recently converted Minister of the Protestant Church, “I fought and struggled against the Church with all the energy of my will. But when I became a Catholic all my doubts ended, my inquiries ceased. I became as a little child, and rushed like a lisping babe into the arms of my mother.” By Baptism Christians become children of the Church, no matter who pours upon them the regenerating waters. If she is our Mother, where is our love and obedience? When the infant seeks nourishment at its mother’s breast it does not analyze its food. When it receives instructions from its mother’s lips it never doubts, but instinctively believes. When the mother stretches forth her hand the child follows unhesitatingly. The Christian should have for his spiritual Mother all the simplicity, all the credulity, I might say, of a child, guided by the instincts of faith. “Unless ye become,” says our Lord, “as little children, ye shall not enter into the Kingdom of Heaven.” “As new-born babes, desire the rational milk without guile; that thereby you may grow unto salvation.” In her nourishment there is no poison; in her doctrines there is no guile.

– text taken from The Faith of Our Fathers, Being a Plain Exposition and Vindication of the Church Founded by Our Lord Jesus Christ, by Cardinal James Gibbons, Archbishop of Baltimore, 1917