Irrationality and Infallibility

St. Peter's Basilica at Night (and Ponte Sant Angelo over the Tiber)

St. Peter’s Basilica at Night (and Ponte Sant Angelo over the Tiber)

Not too long ago I spoke with yet another Protestant minister who is about to leave his ministry and join the Catholic Church. He said he ended up in this situation because he had a seminary professor who kept challenging his students to, “Think it through.”

He tried to think through his opposition to Catholicism because he had a parishioner who was asking troublesome questions in his own journey to the Catholic Church, and as the pastor tried to think things through he ended up becoming a Catholic himself.

The key issue, he said, was the authority of the Catholic Church — and therefore the infallibility of the Pope.

When confronted with the Catholic belief in papal infallibility most non-Catholics have no idea what it really means. They have a vague idea that Catholic think the Pope is some kind of oracle of God — that whatever he says is always completely right and he can never make a mistake about anything. They also confuse infallibility with human perfection. When we say the Pope is infallible they think we mean he is a perfect human being and has never done anything wrong.

The definition of papal infallibility has been discussed on my blog in various places (go here and here). Unfortunately, when the matter is discussed with Protestants, a Catholic soon comes up against the brick wall of anti-Catholic prejudice. The prejudice is understandable. Anti-Catholicism is part of the air the Protestant breathes. The basic assumption of the Protestant is that the Catholic Church simply can’t be right. That’s one of the ground rules.

Therefore, when a sensible and acceptable explanation of a Catholic doctrine is given, when Scriptural support is offered and evidence from the Fathers of the Church is presented, the apologist is still met with, “Yes, but I could never believe THAT!”

A good example of this irrational block is a discussion of transubstantiation. A Protestant who is ignorant of the teaching might think Catholics believe that the bread and wine are transformed physically into human flesh and blood. When the true explanation is given and Scriptural support is offered and a reasonable belief is given, the response is often simply to change the subject. Either that or the Protestant thinks the Catholic is being tricky and “Jesuitical” and offering a version of Catholic belief which is not really what Catholics believe. It’s hard to let go the misunderstanding conceived within an atmosphere of prejudice.

The same applies to the Catholic doctrine of papal infallibility. In this one however, the subject can be approached from a new angle. Instead of simply defending and defining papal infallibility, it is not a bad idea to ask the Protestant if he can find any example of the Catholic Church being in error.

This has to be framed carefully within the definition of papal infallibility. The infallibility of the pope is really the infallibility of Christ’s Church — the simple belief that in matters of faith and morals — where there is a formally defined teaching — the Church does not err. Therefore, within those restrictions ask the Protestant for an example where the church has erred. Can he find one?

Of course he may feel that the Catholic Church has erred in any number of doctrinal ways, but he must take the time to find out what the church really teaches about that doctrine — and not assume he knows what the Catholic Church teaches. Part of the challenge is that he has to take the time to do his homework and refer to Church documents — not just hearsay or misunderstandings of other non Catholics.

There is one other point to be made. One should ask the Protestant if there is any Christian doctrine that he believes is necessary to be held for a soul’s salvation. If there is even one such doctrine, then (whether he admits it or not) he believes in an infallible authority; that is, an authority that can be trusted to define a particular belief as mandatory dogma and to do so without error.

If he ascribes to even one such dogma, then we must ask what authority defined that dogma, where it came from and why he believes it to be without error. If he says that the authority for that belief is the Sacred Scripture he has only moved the goalpost for he must then answer why he believes Sacred Scripture to be infallible, and who defined the canon of Sacred Scripture and when, and who taught him that the belief in Scripture alone was itself an infallible doctrine.

If he can show who taught him that doctrine and why, then he is showing that he believes in an infallible authority. You can then go on and discuss which authority might be the one which is more likely to be infallible than others.

That’s when the real fun begins.


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About the Author

Fr. Dwight Longenecker is the parish priest of Our Lady of the Rosary Church in Greenville, South Carolina. He conducts parish missions, retreats and speaks at conferences across the USA.

His latest book is The Romance of Religion - Fighting for Truth, Goodness and Beauty. Visit his blog, listen to his radio show, and browse his books at dwightlongenecker.com.

Catechesis teaches us what to believe and how to behave, but Catholics also need down to earth advice for putting their faith into action. For help in your practice of the Catholic faith sign up for FaithWorks! -- Fr Longenecker's free, weekly newsletter on the practical practice of the Catholic faith.

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Fr. Dwight Longenecker is an American who has spent most of his life living and working in England. Fr Dwight was brought up in an Evangelical home in Pennsylvania. After graduating from the fundamentalist Bob Jones University with a degree in Speech and English, he went to study theology at Oxford University. He was eventually ordained as an Anglican priest and served as a curate, a school chaplain in Cambridge and a country parson.

Realizing that he and the Anglican Church were on divergent paths, in 1995 Fr. Dwight and his family were received into the Catholic Church. He spent the next ten years working as a freelance Catholic writer, contributing to over twenty-five magazines, papers and journals in Britain, Ireland and the USA.

Fr. Dwight is the editor of a best-selling book of English conversion stories called The Path to Rome - Modern Journeys to the Catholic Faith. He has written Listen My Son - a daily Benedictine devotional book which applies the Rule of St Benedict to the task of modern parenting. St Benedict and St Thérèse is a study of the lives and thought of two of the most popular saints.

In the field of Catholic apologetics, Fr. Dwight wrote Challenging Catholics with John Martin, the former editor of the Church of England Newspaper. More Christianity is a straightforward and popular explanation of the Catholic faith for Evangelical Christians. Friendly and non-confrontational, it invites the reader to move from 'Mere Christianity' to 'More Christianity'. Mary-A Catholic Evangelical Debate is a debate with an old Bob Jones friend David Gustafson who is now an Evangelical Episcopalian.

Fr. Dwight’s Adventures in Orthodoxy is described as ‘a Chestertonian romp through the Apostles’ Creed.’ He wrote Christianity Pure&Simple which was published by the Catholic Truth Society in England and Sophia Institute Press in the USA. He has also published How to Be an Ordinary Hero and his book Praying the Rosary for Inner Healing was published by Our Sunday Visitor in May 2008. His latest books are The Gargoyle Code - a book in the tradition of Screwtape Letters and a book of poems called A Sudden Certainty, Adventures in Orthodoxy and The Romance of Religion.

Fr. Dwight has contributed a chapter to the third volume of the best selling Surprised by Truth series and is a regular contributor to Crisis Magazine, St Austin Review, This Rock, Our Sunday Visitor and National Catholic Register. Fr. Dwight has also written a couple of children’s books, had three of his screenplays produced, and is finishing his first novel. He’s working on a book on angels and his autobiography: There and Back Again.

In 2006 Fr. Dwight accepted a post as Chaplain to St Joseph’s Catholic School in Greenville, South Carolina. This brought him and his family back, not only to his hometown, but also to the American Bible belt, and hometown of Bob Jones University. In December 2006 he was ordained as a Catholic priest under the special pastoral provision for married former Anglican clergy. He is the Administrator of Our Lady of the Rosary Church in Greenville, South Carolina, and an oblate of Belmont Abbey.

Fr. Dwight enjoys movies, blogging, books, and visiting Benedictine monasteries. He’s married to Alison. They have four children, named Benedict, Madeleine, Theodore and Elias. They live in Greenville, South Carolina with a black Labrador named Anna, a chocolate lab called Felicity, cat named James and various other pets.

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