Father Kenneth Doyle

Q. What is the church’s foundation for declaring itself to be infallible when the pope speaks “ex cathedra” and with the entire magisterium supporting him? I understand that the church made this declaration around 1870 A.D., and it seems a little curious to arrive at that conclusion nearly 2,000 years after the life of Christ.

How many teachings on faith and morals have been declared infallible, and what are some of them? And if something has not been defined as infallible, are we free to question and discuss? (Hudson, Wis.)

A. The doctrine of infallibility, while sometimes misunderstood by Catholics and others, is clearly defined by the church’s Code of Canon Law. Canon 749, Section 1, explains that the pope may teach infallibly when he proclaims by definitive act that a certain doctrine of faith or morals is to be believed by the faithful. He must clearly state that he intends to teach that doctrine as infallible and irreformable.

The consensus among theologians is that only twice in the church’s history has the Holy Father by himself exercised this prerogative: in 1854 with the dogma of the Immaculate Conception and in 1950 with the Assumption.

But there is a second manner of infallible pronouncements (Canon 749, 2), and this happens when the college of bishops, joined in an ecumenical council, proclaim that a certain truth is to be held by all the faithful. An example would be at Nicaea in 325 A.D., when it was declared that Jesus is “of the same substance” (nature) as God the Father.

The doctrine of infallibility did not suddenly appear in 1870. Rather, it is founded on Christ’s promise to the apostles that he would send the Holy Spirit, who “will guide you to all truth” (Jn 16:13). That secure sense of protection from error on fundamental teachings was part of the early history of the church and is reflected in St. Augustine’s fifth-century statement, “Rome has spoken; the case is concluded.”

Infallible declarations have been issued only sparsely during the church’s two-millennium history and have usually been formulated in response to particular issues that had been disputed.

But, as the Catechism of the Catholic Church explains (No. 892), even the ordinary teaching of the bishops, as successors of the apostles and joined with the pope, are to be followed “with religious assent.” So where does that leave Catholics as to their freedom “to question and discuss” noninfallible teachings?

The answer seems to depend on the particular teaching — how fundamental it is and how solidly embedded in the history and tradition of the church.

For example, in 1994, when Pope John Paul II said in “Ordinatio Sacerdotalis” that the church lacks the authority to ordain women, the word infallible did not appear. But the pontiff did say that this teaching should be “definitively held” and suggested that further debate was pointless. But on the issue of mandatory celibacy for clergy, Archbishop Pietro Parolin, the new papal secretary of state, noted recently that this is a matter of church discipline and not dogma, that the early church had married priests and that the matter is therefore open to discussion.

Q. Is there anything wrong with a woman writing a reflection on the readings for the Mass each day on her own personal blog? I am the volunteer coordinator for Catholic ministry at a local women’s prison and teach an RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults) class for those inquiring into the faith.

I believe that I know the basics of our faith very well, and I am loyal to the magisterium of the church. I know that only ordained clergy can give a homily in the context of a Mass, but does what I am doing violate any rules? (Indianapolis)

A. I applaud what you are doing and encourage you to continue it. True, Canon 767 of the church’s Code of Canon Law says that “among the forms of preaching, the homily, which is part of the liturgy itself and is reserved to a priest or deacon, is pre-eminent.”

But what you are doing is apart from the context of the Mass and is clearly not a homily. You are simply reflecting on the daily readings — and you have every right to do that; I would think that many might benefit from a feminine perspective.


Questions may be sent to Father Kenneth Doyle at askfatherdoyle@gmail.com and 40 Hopewell St., Albany, N.Y. 12208.