Infallibility can be a difficult and misunderstood issue both for Catholics and enquirers, so clarity about what is meant by infallibility is of great importance to anyone engaged in the ministry of teaching the Catholic faith. We need to be able to explain why, and to what extent, the Church has the power to teach without error.
Infallibility is a supernatural gift bestowed on the Church by God in order to preserve her from doctrinal error. The first question that confronts us is why God would make such a gift. To this question, Blessed John Henry Newman offers the following answer:
Supposing then it to be the Will of the Creator to interfere in human affairs, and to make provisions for retaining in the world a knowledge of Himself, so definite and distinct as to be proof against the energy of human skepticism, in such a case – I am far from saying that there was no other way – but there is nothing to surprise the mind, if He should think fit to introduce a power into the world, invested with the prerogative of infallibility in religious matters.[i]
Here, Newman goes straight to the heart of the matter. The gift of infallibility protects the work Christ came to accomplish. As well as dying for us, Jesus came both to reveal God and to show us the way to Him (John 17:26). It is inconceivable that having done this, and returned to heaven, Christ would not have left some mechanism by which this knowledge could be passed on, with certainty and undefiled, to all subsequent generations.
By way of analogy, Newman offers us the example of creation. God not only creates, He also takes care to preserve His creation so that it does not fall back into nothingness: which, having been made from nothing (ex nihilo) it is apt to do at every moment without His sustaining action. Likewise, when God teaches and communicates truths about Himself to mankind, He takes care to preserve it, and this is done through the establishment of the Church endowed with the gift of infallibility.[ii]