Fall 2011

The Infallibility of the Church: A Marian Mystery

Roch Kereszty

“The incorruptible permanence of the Church in the divine truth [is] a requirement of the Church’s virginal and, ultimately, Marian nature.”

The development of Christian doctrine does not take place in a historical vacuum, nor is it only the result of the Christian people’s piety or theological reflection. The challenges of the changing cultural environment and the errors deriving thereof are often the stimulant for seeking greater clarity and conceptual articulation of a truth of revelation. A milestone in the development and formulation of the dogma of the Church’s infallibility and, in particular, that of the pope’s participation in it took place in response to the Enlightenment, which attempted to enthrone human reason as the only authority. As a result, theologians, and finally the First Vatican Council, formulated the Church’s teaching on the role and limits of human reason in matters of divine revelation and asserted the final authority of Peter’s successors in defining with the assistance of the Holy Spirit what is and what is not revealed doctrine. In formulating the doctrine of infallibility Vatican I concentrated only on this disputed issue by proving it from the scriptural deposit of divine revelation and the immemorial tradition of the Church. In our age, however, theology and Church praxis alike have turned from investigating individual dogmas in themselves toward focusing on the whole of the Christian mystery, from further differentiation of doctrine toward re-discovering the original, comprehensive vision of Christian faith. This dialectic of contrary movements, from further differentiation back to the undifferentiated whole, and vice versa, provides an antidote to theological “forgetfulness” and enriches our understanding of the Christian faith.

Such re-rooting of the dogma of infallibility in the totality of revelation has achieved notable success in Karl Rahner’s theology. He has argued convincingly that infallibility is ultimately a necessary, a priori condition of effective divine revelation.1 Unless there is an infallible criterion for us to judge what is and what is not divine revelation, we cannot accept God’s word the way it ought to be accepted, with the absolute surrender of our intellect and will. Without such a final criterion, faith can only mean—as Tillich has logically deduced—a state of ultimate concern without any definite object. The traditional objection to an infallible Magisterium has been the claim that it divinizes the Church, and in particular, the papacy, since God alone is infallible. Rahner, however, has shown that the Catholic dogma does exactly the opposite: it safeguards the divine efficacy of God’s self-communication. Without an agency that can interpret with certainty what God has revealed and explain its meaning, God would have proved to be a woefully ineffective communicator. Thus, the Catholic dogma safeguards God’s transcendent power rather than idolizing human beings.

1Of course, under the condition that this divine revelation is addressed also to the human intellect that, for the sake of deeper and more precise understanding, must formulate revealed truths.