The Infallible Authority of Bishops (Teaching Authority in the Catholic Church Episode 5)

Reading Time: 9 minutes

“Remember that Jesus promised indefectibility to the Church as a community; it doesn’t reside in one individual person, though there is one very notable exception I’ll touch on soon. However, when all bishops, in line with Apostolic succession, do agree on a teaching, their teaching is considered infallible. And there are two instances when such teaching occurs.”

By Will Deatherage, Executive Director


“Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, bishops and bisons, welcome to another episode of Clarifying Catholicism! You’re watching part five of a series on the teaching authority of the Catholic Church. Most of this information is from Francis Sullivan’s Magisterium: Teaching Authority in the Catholic Church. So, if you’d like an in-depth dive into these topics, make sure to pick up a copy of his book. To see the rest of the videos in this series, click the playlist in the description. Without further ado, onto the show!”

Let’s recap. Episode one explored the origins of the Church’s teaching authority from Christ’s promise to never leave the Church’s side, which makes the Church indefectible as a community of believers. It also explored His assurance that the gates of Hell will not prevail against the Church, guided by the Apostles, making the Church indefectible in its Apostolic nature. In episode two, we discussed how it is, indeed, possible, for us lowly humans to talk about God through propositions that, though they are true, do not exhaust the Word of God. In episode three, we discussed what the magisterium is, and in episode four we defended the authority of bishops, the successors of the Apostles from a variety of attacks. But there is still a pretty uge unanswered question: how exactly do bishops teach things?

Let’s begin from the most rudimentary way an individual bishop teaches. Lumen Gentium, a document from the Second Vatican Council, describes bishops as having a three-fold office of teaching, sanctifying, and governing. It is already significant that the role of teacher comes first in this list. And what better way to start this exploration of the authority of bishops than the most obvious place they use it: in their own dioceses or territories.

Sullivan describes the qualities of the authority of individual bishops as pastoral, authoritative, and fallible. First, it is pastoral because the bishop is concerned with teaching and guiding his flock according to the authentic Gospel message. Remember how in past episodes I’ve drawn the analogy of bishops as scientists who are experts on revelation? Well, consider your local bishop to be your local doctor, diagnosing problems and prescribing medicine where he sees fit. The bishop is authoritative because he has been ordained as an authentic successor of the Apostles; through his studies and ordination, he has received that which the Apostles and the bishops passed down through the ages and has been anointed with the Holy Spirit for His task, so he must be respected. Still, the bishop, as an individual, is fallible, since he is one guy in a sea of other bishops. Remember that Jesus promised indefectibility to the Church as a community; it doesn’t reside in one individual person, though there is one very notable exception I’ll touch on soon.

However, when all bishops, who dual wield the awesome indefectibility of the Church as a community and as an Apostolic institution, do agree on a teaching, their teaching is considered infallible. And there are two instances when such teaching occurs.

The first mechanism by which bishops teach infallibly is at an ecumenical council. If you want to learn a lot about what an ecumenical council is, feel free to check out my series on ecumenical councils, but I’ll try and condense the basics into a quick summary. An ecumenical council is a gathering of bishops from around the world who meet to settle questions about and clarify Christ’s teachings. For example, when a bunch of early Christians began to doubt the full divinity of Jesus Christ, bishops from around the world gathered in Nicaea to clarify the Church’s position that Christ is, indeed, fully divine. Now, precisely how councils are run has fluctuated throughout history. In fact, the bishop of Rome, the pope, wasn’t even present at the first seven ecumenical councils, though he did put his stamp of approval on them. That said, the acceptance, or reception, of an ecumenical council by the pope is considered by Catholics as essential for whether or not it is truly valid, granted sometimes this acceptance took decades.

Anyways, remember how earlier in this series we arrived at the conclusion that since Jesus promised an indefectible community led by an indefectible Apostolic lineage, it logically implies that said lineage will have an ability to teach indefectibly true things. Well, the purpose of ecumenical councils is precisely to settle disputed questions of faith or to Clarify Catholicism. Councils did this by drawing up and reading out definitions of doctrines. Now, remember that the word “define” doesn’t mean to perfectly state, rather it means to limit. The definition doesn’t perfectly state a theological fact, since that would contradict the whole “God is infinitely mysterious and beyond our comprehension” thing. Instead, defining a doctrine means that debate over a certain topic has been effectively limited. When Chalcedon says that Jesus is both fully human and fully divine, it means that theologians, bishops, and lay people are no longer allowed to hold the belief that Jesus is not fully human or divine.

Is everything a council teaches infallible? No. The Code of Canon Law even mentions that “No doctrine is understood to be infallibly defined unless this is manifestly demonstrated.” This means that when a council is called to settle a question about Jesus’s divinity and just so happens to casually mention something about the Virgin Mary or that bacon was Jesus’s favorite food, you can have pretty high confidence that only the parts about Jesus’s divinity were infallibly taught. Let me give an example: the council of Florence was tasked with re-establishing unity between Eastern and Western Churches. It did so by having Eastern and Western representatives sign agreements that listed all sorts of teachings, both infallibly defined and non-infallibly opined. It included the statement that all who are circumcised will burn in the fires of Hell, even though it was not intending on solemnly defining the matter. At least I sure hope not!

Well, how can you tell if a council is making an infallible definition, or as we call it a solemn definition, on a teaching? It depends on the council, but it most commonly, though not always, uses the language of anathemas, meaning if you don’t believe this, you are out of the Church!

So, ecumenical councils only teach infallibly when they are explicitly doing so. Is that it? Well, there’s actually another important caveat. Now, remember that councils are only allowed to define things that have already been revealed by God or are logical consequences of said revelation. Like, if I told, or revealed, to someone that I am holding a cube behind my back, they would logically infer that this object has six sides, even though I didn’t say anything about the number of sides it has. Sometimes, though, councils will try and define things that aren’t explicitly revealed in an attempt to defend a teaching that IS revealed. But remember our exploration of sentences and propositions. Sentences always serve the purpose of expressing a proposition, and the propositions in Church councils must always connect to revealed teachings from Christ. It’s okay if that seems a little complex. Let’s look at a couple of examples.

The council of Trent, held in the 1500s, intended on defending the validity of the sacrament of Reconciliation, specifically the practice of private confession with a priest against Protestants who questioned it. Canon six of the fourteenth session reads “If any one denieth, either that sacramental confession was instituted, or is necessary to salvation, of divine right; or saith, that the manner of confessing secretly to a priest alone, which the Church hath ever observed from the beginning, and doth observe, is alien from the institution and command of Christ, and is a human invention; let him be anathema [which means outside of the Church].” Now, at surface level, it kinda sounds like the council is defining that Catholics must believe that the practice of private confession with a priest existed since the earliest days of the Church. This, however, is just flat out wrong. The earliest records of the sacrament of confession involve bishops, not priests, publicly, not privately, reconciling those who committed major offences usually in groups. But was the Church intending on solemnly defining a revisionist history? No, it was using revisionist history, which was probably just accepted as fact at the time, to defend the legitimacy of the practice of private confession to a priest. So, no, the private practice of confession to a priest did not exist in the early Church, regardless of what the Council of Trent says. But, yes, the practice of private confession to a priest is legitimate, and anyone who disagrees is committing a heresy, or disagreeing with Church teaching. Remember, move beyond the superficial sentence and understand what the bishops were actually proposing.

Here’s another example. Another statement from the council of Trent reads: “If anyone asserts that the transgression of Adam injured him alone and not his posterity,[7] and that the holiness and justice which he received from God, which he lost, he lost for himself alone and not for us also; or that he, being defiled by the sin of disobedience, has transfused only death and the pains of the body into the whole human race, but not sin also, which is the death of the soul, let him be anathema, since he contradicts the Apostle who says: By one man sin entered into the world and by sin death; and so death passed upon all men, in whom all have sinned.[8].”

Now, to the untrained theological eye, this statement might appear to be the Church defining that one has to be believe in a historical Adam or you are anathema’d! However, if you look at the context in which this document was written, you can see that this clearly isn’t the case. To Catholic creationists, I must remind you that this passage was written hundreds of years before Darwinian evolution was proposed, so it is impossible that the Church intended to definitively comment on the legitimacy of Darwin’s theory. So, if this wasn’t trying to anathemize proponents of evolution, then who exactly was it aimed at? Well, remember that the whole council of Trent was aimed at defending Catholic doctrine that had been viciously attacked by Protestants. One of these doctrines was original sin, the idea that because of Adam and Eve’s disobedience of God, we are born into sin by inheritance. Many Protestant groups denied the necessity to baptize infants and children, a practice the Catholic Church saw as risking their souls! The Church needed to dogmatically reaffirm its commitment to this doctrine, and what better way to do so than use the commonly accepted argument that the Adam and Eve story logically concludes in original sin?

Basically, Trent used the Adam and Eve story as an argument, a means to an end, to defend the doctrine of original sin. Therefore, it was not the intention of the bishops to define that Catholics must believe in Adam and Eve as historical people, rather it was the intention of the bishops to define that Catholics must believe in the doctrine of original sin and accept the practice of infant baptism.

Okay, that was a rather long tangent, but it is a very necessary one. The moral of the story is that only doctrines that are clearly connected to revelation and explicitly taught infallibly are, well, infallibly taught, and we must analyze what revealed truth the council is trying to restate or clarify, not the arguments it’s using to justify them.

Anywho, if a doctrine is, indeed, clearly being defined by a council, the Faithful must believe it, since, remember, it’s something that Jesus taught that the council is merely clarifying. That said, even when a council teaches something without explicitly defining it, you still ought to listen to it. Like, it’s not as bad as committing a heresy, but you really should listen to the theological opinions of our chief theological authorities, the bishops, unless you have a very very good reason not to. In another series, I plan on going through the precise levels of theological assent we owe different levels of doctrine, but for now, understand that doctrines explicitly taught infallibly that are, indeed, connected to revelation must be obeyed by Catholics no matter what, NOT because the council perfectly stated its teaching but because it limited discussion and debate about the doctrine by excluding false things.

Remember, it may be impossible to say precisely what God is, since He is infinitely beyond comprehension, but it is very possible to say what God is not, which is precisely what most of these infallibly taught anathemas almost always do; they mostly tell you what you are NOT allowed to believe.

Now, aren’t I forgetting something? Ah, yes! That’s right. The other, arguably more mysterious way bishops teach; in unison, or when they all agree on a teaching even though they are not assembled in a council. This is called the universal ordinary magisterium. It is universal because it involves all the bishops, and it is ordinary because these teachings weren’t explicitly taught at one extraordinary event like a council. They are basically all of the teachings the bishops teach but have never solemnly defined, though they could be at some point. In a sense, many extraordinarily defined doctrines were, at some point, taught by the universal ordinary magisterium until someone challenged them and forced the Church to make a formal definition at an ecumenical council. This happened a lot when Protestants challenged beliefs that Catholics had held universally as true since the dawn of Christianity.

That actually makes it a tricky question for theologians regarding what constitutes teachings from the universal ordinary magisterium. It’s easy to look at councils and point at exact propositions as having been infallibly taught. It’s much more difficult to argue that certain doctrines are infallibly taught without ever having been formally articulated. Some teachings are easier to categorize than others I mean, a council has never formally defined that Jesus Christ is the Lord or that God was the one who raised Jesus from the dead, since it’s pretty obvious that’s what the Church teaches, and no one calling themselves a Christian has challenged those claims enough to warrant an extraordinary, solemn definition at a council.

Anyhow, the conditions for saying that something is taught by the universal ordinary magisterium include being taught by the bishops in unity who are in agreement with the pope, who we will talk about in another episode. They must, of course, pertain to faith and morals. Well, that’s enough about bishops for right now. Next episode we will talk about another, more elusive exercise of the authority of bishops, or should I say the authority of one very special bishop: the pope. Until then, have a great day, and God bless you!

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