Many people miss the point of infallibility because they miss the point of the Church. Brought up in one of the denominations, they are used to thinking of the churches as mere organizations of believers. The concept of the Church as the Mystical Body of Christ, as a living organism, as the union of men with God in Christ, is foreign to them. Yet that is the key to the right understanding of infallibility.
Christ redeemed our race and cancelled out the effects of Adam's sin. But he did more. He set up among us a living society, one Church. He gave his Holy Spirit to that society. He commissioned her to preach his truth to every creature.
The Holy Spirit is the Church's life-breath. He transforms it from being only an organization (linked together by the force of authority) into an organism (welded into one by the inner principle of life). Christ's Church is his presence in the world, carrying on his work, saving the souls of men, and teaching them God's truth.
He often spoke of his Church as a "kingdom." In every kingdom there is authority. Indeed, find the authority and you find the kingdom. In the Church the purpose of authority is God's glory and men's salvation. Through it men are united with God, they worship God, they obey God, and they hear God.
So the Church bears witness to the truth just as Christ did: "For this was I born, and for this came I into the world, that I should give testimony to the truth" (John 18:37). She must pass on the truth--always God's truth, revealed in Christ. The Spirit of truth enables her to do this: "When the Paraclete comes, whom I shall send you from the Father, the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, he shall give testimony of me. And you shall give testimony because you are with me from the beginning" (John 15:26.)
The continuous presence of Christ keeps his Church from all error: "Going, therefore, 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" (Matt. 19:20).
"To err is human," wrote Alexander Pope. And we might add, with Thomas Dryden, "Nor is the people's judgment always true: The most may err as grossly as the few." Even the most brilliant human mind cannot know for certain (unless he is told) what the man next to him is thinking. Groups of brilliant men have again and again come to conclusions which have later been proved to be false. All history is witness to the fallibility of human reason.
Suppose, then, that God made a revelation to men and merely left it to us to discuss and interpret and teach. His revelation would become so entangled in the course of time that no one would know for certain what the original revelation had been or whether there had even been one.
Certainly, God could not command, under pain of eternal damnation, the acceptance of truth on fallible human authority. He could not say of truth taught by man unaided, "He that believes and is baptized shall be saved, but he that believes not shall be condemned" (Mark 16:16) Yet that is what he said about his Church's teaching.
If you believe that there is a God who is absolute truth and that God has revealed certain things to men, you must reasonably expect those revealed matters to contain truths you would not otherwise be able to know. You must suppose that those truths are important, even vital, for you--otherwise God would not have revealed them.
You must suppose, therefore, that God wants you to know them truly. He wants you to know them as they left him--unaltered, undiminished, undefiled by the treatment of fallible human reason. But how could that be accomplished?
God has devised a way. It is his Church. He has made it that channel by which his truth passes to men. That is why the Church is infallible. Christ meant it to be so. He sent his Holy Spirit to guide the Church to witness to the truth as he did.
Infallibility is not sinlessness. It is not divine inspiration. It is not a special message from God. It is not an illumination of the mind. It is not a special source of information. It does not mean that individual bishops or groups of bishops or one pope or all popes can never make mistakes or teach error. It does not give divine power to the pope. It does not even mean that the pope cannot be condemned as a heretic.
The infallibility of the Church is seen best in the infallibility of the bishops. They are, in the fullest sense, the successors of the apostles. When they teach a truth so widely that it can be called the teaching of the episcopate of the Catholic Church, that teaching is true. God's power keeps it from being wrong.
Sometimes a definite statement of the truth is demanded. The world may, for example, want to know authoritatively what the bishops teach on a certain matter. Or a new problem might arise for which a solution is urgently demanded. Or it might be that men need a certain truth to be emphasized for them by being declared part of God's revelation. In cases like these the pope may make a solemn definition.
If you really want to know what the infallibility of the pope means you should go to the source, the definition by the ecumenical council of the Church at the Vatican on July 18, 1870. Here it is: "It is a divinely revealed dogma that the Roman Pontiff, when he speaks ex cathedra--that is, when, acting in the office of shepherd and teacher of all Christians, he defines by virtue of his supreme apostolic authority, doctrine, concerning faith or morals, to be held by the universal Church--possesses through the divine assistance promised to him in the person of St. Peter the infallibility with which the divine Redeemer willed his Church to be endowed in defining doctrines concerning faith or morals, and that definitions of the Roman Pontiff are therefore irreformable because of their nature, and not because of the agreement of the Church."
Note what a limited gift this is. Infallibility simply guarantees that the teachings of the united Catholic episcopate and the definitions of the pope are free from error. God's revelation is safeguarded. Human minds can work on it, discuss it, study it, explain it, draw conclusions from it, and still not destroy it. That is what matters most. God's truth must be preserved. In studying that truth the human mind has abounding scope for its activity. But infallibility is there all the time to keep the truth untarnished. It is God's wonderful device for reconciling the fallible activity of our minds and the infallible truth of the revelation he has made.
It is important to understand the conditions which must be fulfilled before the pope speaks infallibly. They should be studied carefully in the definition of the Vatican I. Once they are realized it is easy enough to see that if a pope, in his private teaching, for example, or in a letter to a bishop or group of bishops, or under any circumstances when not all the conditions for infallibility are fulfilled, teaches error, he may even be condemned as a heretic.
A case in point is that of Pope Honorius (625-638), who was condemned as a heretic by the sixth ecumenical council in 680 for having, in a letter to Sergius, Patriarch of Constantinople, smoothed over heretical teaching and failed to give a dogmatic decision.
Much money has been spent by various Protestant bodies in the attempt to find even one formal papal definition which has been proved wrong or to find where one pope, attempting to teach infallibly, contradicted another or an ecumenical council. The records have been diligently searched by brilliant minds. Nothing has been overlooked; not one minor detail has been ignored. The result has been the complete vindication of the Church and the pope.
From what has been written it will be evident that the personal character of the pope is quite irrelevant to his infallibility. God uses his preventive power over him, whether he be a saint like Pius X or a sinner like Alexander VI.
It should be evident, too, that infallibility is in no way opposed to legitimate human freedom. Quite the opposite. The purpose of infallibility is to safeguard the truth and thus to safeguard freedom. After all, said Christ, "The truth shall make you free." (John 8: 32).