Skip to main contentAccessibility feedback

Dear catholic.com visitors: This website from Catholic Answers, with all its many resources, is the world's largest source of explanations for Catholic beliefs and practices. A fully independent, lay-run, 501(c)(3) ministry that receives no funding from the institutional Church, we rely entirely on the generosity of everyday people like you to keep this website going with trustworthy , fresh, and relevant content. If everyone visiting this month gave just $1, catholic.com would be fully funded for an entire year. Do you find catholic.com helpful? Please make a gift today. SPECIAL PROMOTION FOR NEW MONTHLY DONATIONS! Thank you and God bless.

Dear catholic.com visitors: This website from Catholic Answers, with all its many resources, is the world's largest source of explanations for Catholic beliefs and practices. A fully independent, lay-run, 501(c)(3) ministry that receives no funding from the institutional Church, we rely entirely on the generosity of everyday people like you to keep this website going with trustworthy , fresh, and relevant content. If everyone visiting this month gave just $1, catholic.com would be fully funded for an entire year. Do you find catholic.com helpful? Please make a gift today. SPECIAL PROMOTION FOR NEW MONTHLY DONATIONS! Thank you and God bless.

Background Image

The Limits of Infallibility

Jimmy Akin

DAY 315

CHALLENGE

“The Catholic Church claims a dangerous and sweeping power for itself when it says that it can teach infallibly. That means it can bind Catholics to believe anything.”

DEFENSE

There are limits to the Church’s ability to teach infallibly, and it is used far less frequently than many suppose.

First, it is limited by topic. Christ didn’t give the Church the charism of infallibility so it could pronounce on just any subject. He gave it so the faithful could profess the Christian faith correctly (CCC 890). As a result, the Magisterium can infallibly teach truths that God has given by divine revelation, as well as certain truths of doctrine and morals closely connected with them (CCC 2035).

However, it can’t infallibly teach on just any subject. It could not, for example, infallibly teach on matters of medicine, chemistry, botany, archaeology, or a host of other subjects, as long as they are not connected with faith and morals.

To give a relevant illustration: The theory of evolution is a scientific theory. The Church has examined the sources of faith to determine whether they preclude this theory, and it has concluded they do not (see Day 90). The sources of faith can be understood in a way consistent with evolution. However, because it is a matter of science rather than faith, evolution must stand or fall on its scientific merits. It is not, itself, a subject of Church teaching.

Second, the Magisterium only teaches infallibly under very specific circumstances—when it attempts to use the fullest measure of its teaching authority. This occurs when it completely ends legitimate dispute on a subject by teaching on that subject definitively (Latin, de-, “completely” and finire, “to end”).

Third, this does not happen very often, and it has happened even less often in recent times. Thus in the twentieth century Vatican II chose not to make any new infallible definitions, and only one pope in the century chose to define a doctrine (i.e., Pius XII, who defined the Assumption of Mary in 1950). So far in the twenty-first century, no doctrines have been infallibly defined.

Fourth, the Church has established that non-infallible teaching is the norm: “No doctrine is understood as defined infallibly unless this is manifestly evident” (Code of Canon Law, 749 §3).

Did you like this content? Please help keep us ad-free
Enjoying this content?  Please support our mission!Donatewww.catholic.com/support-us