Certain Prerogatives Conferred by Jesus Christ Upon His Church: Part 3
Fr. W. Devivier, SJ
Edited by Bishop S.G. Messmer, DD, DCL
Bishop of Green Bay, Wisc.
Imprimatur, 1903



NATURE.----To be infallible, generally speaking, is to possess the privilege of never deceiving or being deceived; this privilege in regard to the Church means that she can neither alter the doctrine of Jesus Christ, nor misunderstand the true meaning of what our Divine Saviour taught, commanded, or prohibited. No doubt God only is infallible by nature; but He may by a special providence protect those from error whom He has charged to teach in His name, so that their teaching will never deviate in anything from the truth. Now God has granted this infallibility to His Church; and we shall even prove that He had needs grant her this privilege. In speaking thus we evidently have in view the ordinary course of things, for God could have employed another means, as He did in the Old Law, by sending prophets.

 First Thesis.----The Authority Divinely Established to Teach Men the Doctrine of Jesus Christ must be Infallible in its Teaching.


a. All men, to be saved, are obliged to believe the doctrine taught by Jesus Christ. Now Christ has given His Church the mission and power to teach His doctrine and transmit it from age to age pure and intact; therefore, unless Christ intervenes with continual miracles to insure the purity of this teaching, He must necessarily guard the teaching Church from all error; in other words, endow her with doctrinal infallibility.

b. The Church, in the name of God, rigorously commands us to believe, with a faith resting upon Divine authority and excluding all doubt, whatever she offers for our belief, even mysteries most impenetrable to reason. Now the Church has no right to require of men Divine faith in her teachings if she is not infallible. No one, in fact, can force reason to admit without reserve a proposition which is not certain. What is only probable evidently cannot command complete and absolute faith; hence as long as error is possible doubt is reasonable. Without the infallibility of the Church Divine faith, firm, unwavering faith, is therefore impossible; and without it the Christian religion itself must disappear.
c. Let us state this argument in more general terms. When there is question of religious truth necessary to salvation, human reason imperiously claims absolutely certain teaching. Not only do the unlettered feel the need of such teaching, but scholars as well, despite their profound researches and sincere efforts in search of truth. Now if there were no infallible teachers of religion, mankind would find itself abandoned to all the chances of error; it would fluctuate in uncertainty in regard to all that is most essential to its peace and happiness.

d. The same conclusion follows if we apply this reasoning to the preaching of the Gospel among infidel nations. Without infallibility the propagation of the Gospel would have been impossible, and consequently Catholicity would not have been a property or distinctive mark of the true Church. The Church sends missionaries everywhere with the mission to convert nations to the true faith. Now if such missionaries do not teach in the name of an infallible authority, these nations would have a right to say that their doctrine had probably been altered in its passage through the ages. How could they reasonably be required to accept with full and entire faith that which might prove to be only error? What difference would there be between such preaching and that of Protestant ministers who cannot command belief in their doctrine in the name of God? [2]

SECOND ARGUMENT, DRAWN FROM THE NECESSITY OF UNITY OF DOCTRINE OR BELIEF.----Controversy concerning questions of faith and morals will necessarily arise in the Church. The history of heresy shows us that such controversies have sprung up at every period. How could they be settled if there were no infallible authority to pronounce upon them? Without this infallibility the Church's decision could not end the controversy, and unity of doctrine or belief would be impossible.

Second Thesis.----Jesus Christ Established in His Church an Authority Infallible in its Dogmatic and Moral Teaching.

When Jesus Christ sent His Apostles into the whole world to call immortal souls to the truth and to salvation, He said to them: "All power is given to Me in Heaven and in earth; going therefore, teach ye all nations: Baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost; 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 " (Matth. xxviii. 18 ff.). "As the Father hath sent Me, I also send you" (John xx. 21). "Go ye into the whole world and preach the Gospel to every creature. He that believeth and is Baptized, shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be condemned." (Mark xvi. 15 f.) "And I will ask the Father, and He shall give you another Paraclete, that He may abide with you forever, the Spirit of truth:  . . . He shall abide with you, and shall be in you" (John xiv. 16 f.). "But when He, the Spirit of truth, is come, He will teach you all truth" (John xvi. 13). "But when the Paraclete cometh Whom I will send you from the Father, the Spirit of truth, Who proceedeth from the Father, He shall give testimony of Me: and you shall give testimony, because you are with Me from the beginning" (John xv. 26 f.). "You are the salt of the earth; . . . you are the light of the world" (Matth. v. 13,14). "He that heareth you, heareth Me; and he that despiseth you, despiseth Me" (Luke x. 16). "If he will not hear the Church, let him be to thee as the heathen and publican. Amen, I say to you, whatsoever you shall bind upon earth, shall be bound also in Heaven: and whatsoever you shall loose upon earth, shall be loosed also in Heaven." (Matth. xviii. 17 f.)

Evidently Jesus Christ has established a perfect solidarity between Himself and those whom He charged to teach the world the truths of salvation. In the most solemn manner He promises them His special assistance in the office of teaching imposed upon them, and He tells them that this assistance shall last to the end of time, assuring it thus in equal manner to their legitimate successors. For the preaching of religion, absolutely proof against all error, is as necessary for the coming generations as it has been for those of the past.

It seems unnecessary to appeal to tradition. Protestants, our adversaries in the present question, are forced to acknowledge that from the fifth to the sixteenth century the Fathers and theologians have constantly professed the Catholic dogma of infallibility. From which fact we may conclude that it was also the doctrine of the first four centuries; for so important a change could never have taken place without exciting formidable opposition from the bishops and the faithful, and particularly from heretics. [3] Moreover, what has always been the tradition of the Church on this subject is clearly seen from the whole history of the Church, especially from the great veneration in which the decisions of the Ecumenical Councils have always been held, a veneration that extends to the very text of the first four General Councils.


The doctrinal authority of the Church is not unlimited; it is, on the contrary, clearly limited to the domain of Divine revelation. It relates only to the deposit of revealed doctrine and that which is necessary for the preservation of this deposit. These same boundaries limit infallibility.

Its object includes, then: 1st. The teaching of dogma, or the truths of faith which are to be believed.
2d. Moral teaching, or truths to be practised.
3d. Matters relating to general discipline, in as far as they pertain to faith and morals.
4th. Dogmatic facts, that is to say, facts so intimately connected with dogma, that they cannot be questioned without weakening the dogma itself. Such, for example, are the declarations and verifications of errors contained in the writings judged by the Church, since otherwise she could not, as she is bound to do, preserve from the poison of error the flock confided to her care.

REMARKS.----1st. Infallibility comes neither from inspiration properly speaking, nor from a new revelation, but from a special, Divine assistance granted either to the bishops united with the Pope, or to the supreme pastor, to enable them to understand and proclaim the revelation made by Jesus Christ. [4] This assistance by no means dispenses with useful researches and discussions; in a word, with the labor of man. Only after taking every indispensable means to avoid acting precipitately, only after studying with extreme care the two sources of revelation, Scripture and Tradition, does the Church or the Pope declare as revealed a belief hitherto implicitly contained in the deposit of revelation.

2d. Infallibility differs essentially from impeccability, which consists in the inability to sin; this signal privilege, which was awarded to the Mother of God, has never been attributed to the sovereign Pontiff.


A. INFALLIBILITY OF THE TEACHING CHURCH.----To say that the teaching Church is infallible is to say that her body of pastors, united with the Pope, the supreme head of the Church, is infallible, whether assembled in solemn session of an Ecumenical Councilor dispersed throughout the world.
To be ecumenical or general, a Council must be convened or approved as such by the Pope, to whom belongs the right to preside over it either personally or by his delegates. Though convened by the Pope or with his approbation, if the head of the Church separate from it, the Council becomes a headless assembly and can do nothing; if it persists in its work, it is then only a conventicle or meeting of dissenters.

B. INFALLIBILITY OF THE POPE [5]----When he speaks as head of the Church with the fullness of his doctrinal authority the sovereign Pontiff possesses in himself alone the same infallibility as the whole teaching Church or the entire episcopal body. Such is the certain belief of the Church at all times, and which has become an article of Catholic faith since the definition of the Vatican Council. Here are the terms of this definition:

"We teach and define that it is a divinely revealed dogma: that the Roman Pontiff, when he speaks ex cathedra----that is, when in the discharge of his office as pastor and teacher of all Christians, by virtue of his supreme apostolic authority, he defines a doctrine concerning faith or morals to be held by the universal Church----is, by the Divine assistance promised to him in blessed Peter, possessed of that infallibility with which the Divine Redeemer willed that His Church should be endowed for defining a doctrine regarding faith or morals; and that therefore such definitions are irreformable of themselves and not from the consent of the Church.

"If anyone should have the rashness to contradict our definition, which God forbid, let him be anathema."

Thesis.----When He Speaks as Head of the Church, with Plenary Doctrinal Authority, the Sovereign Pontiff is invested with Infallibility.

FIRST ARGUMENT, DRAWN FROM THE HOLY SCRIPTURE.----a. "I say to thee that thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build My Church, and the gates of Hell shall not prevail against it " (Matth. xvi. 18). It results from these words that the Pope, one of whose essential functions is to teach the truths revealed by Jesus Christ, is necessarily infallible. On him, in fact, does the Church rest as upon her visible foundation; from him does she derive her stability. Now the stability of a religious society depends above all things on unity of faith. How could this constant and perpetual unity be possible if Peter, the foundation of the spiritual edifice, could be mistaken in the truths which he requires the faithful to believe? If the Pope by his teaching could lead the faithful into error, the Evil One, the father of lies and of error, would prevail against the Church and against its head.
b. "Simon, Simon, behold Satan hath desired to have you that he may sift you as wheat: but I have prayed for thee that thy faith shall not fail, and thou being once converted, confirm thy brethren " (Luke xxii. 31, 32). Through this prayer, offered for Peter, the future head of the Church and its perpetual foundation, and consequently for his successors, Jesus Christ promises that their faith shall remain invulnerable, and that through them the other members of the Church shall be preserved firm in the faith, despite the trials to which they may be subjected. Now this is not possible except on condition that the Pope be infallible in matters of faith. In fact, if Peter and his successors are not infallible, it must be said either that the prayer of Jesus Christ was not heard, which would be blasphemous, or that Christ, in charging Peter to confirm his brethren in the faith, did not give him the means of fulfilling this essential office, which would be equally insulting to the divine Wisdom.

c. "Feed My lambs, feed My sheep" (John xxi. 15). These words, addressed to Peter alone, confer upon him the mission of feeding the lambs and the sheep, that is, the faithful and those who are their spiritual fathers, hence all the members of the Church in general. Now the food of souls is truth; if Peter is not infallible, if he cannot discern with certainty between the true and the false in matters of faith, he would corrupt with the poison of error the flock confided to him, he would lead them to perdition.

Let us remark that if the decisions of the Pope could be reformed, as the Gallicans desired, it would be the flock who would lead and feed the pastor, who would confirm their guide in the faith, which is diametrically contrary to the will of the Divine Master.

SECOND ARGUMENT, DRAWN FROM TRADITION.----If Scripture is clear on the present question, Tradition is no less explicit. A great number of texts from the holy Fathers and from the Councils may be found in the books referred to above, p. 373, especially in Manning, Privil. Petri, pt. ii., Botalla, and Alnatt, Cathedra Petri.

Let us note only this fact, decisive in itself, that at all times the sovereign Pontiffs have used their prerogative in condemning heresies throughout the world by the authority proper to them, and without convoking General Councils, and that their decisions have been received as infallible by the entire Church. It is well known that the significant and oft-repeated "Roma locuta, causa finita"----Rome has spoken, the cause is decided----dates from St. Augustine. Before him St. Ambrose uttered these words, which have passed into an axiom: "Where Peter is, there is the Church"----Ubi Petrus, ibi Ecclesia.

REMARK.----This definition put a stop to the errors of Gallicanism. Let us say a word of the circumstances which gave rise to that system. Louis XIV, having quarrelled with Rome, and desiring to humble Pope Innocent XI, convoked an assembly of prelates and deputies of the French clergy, in which Bossuet drew up the famous "Declaration of the Gallican Clergy," together with the four Gallican Articles, the last of which was as follows: "Though the Pope has the principal part in questions of faith, and his decrees relate to all churches, and to each one in particular, his judgment is not irreformable, unless by the consent (express or tacit) of the Church." This article had never any doctrinal value. In fact only thirty-four of the one hundred and thirty-five prelates signed the declaration. The others either refused their assent or resisted it with vigorous and irresistible logic. That same year, 1682, it was solemnly disapproved by Pope Innocent XI, who abolished and annulled all the acts of that assembly. In 1690 it was again and more expressly condemned by Alexander VIII, and in 1794 by Pius VI. Moreover, the bishops who signed the declaration disavowed it, and Bossuet ceased to defend it. Louis XIV submitted in his turn by suspending the execution of the new ecclesiastical laws. This, however, did not stifle Gallican error; it rose again with a certain violence at the time of the Vatican Council, in which, however, it received its death-blow. [6] After the definition all, anti-infallibilists and inopportunists, with a few rare exceptions, accepted the decree with complete submission, giving to the world again, as often before, a grand sight of the wonderful strength and indestructible unity of the Catholic Church.

If it be asked how Gallicanism could avail against a truth so solidly founded and universally admitted, we answer, political motives may blind the finest minds; moreover, the Gallicans unconsciously adopted a false and absolutely impossible hypothesis. [7] They supposed the Pope speaking on his side, and the entire Church holding a contrary opinion; and they could not understand that the decision of the Pope alone should prevail against the opinion of all. But this was an untenable supposition, for the definition of the supreme head of the Church can be only the expression of the unbroken belief of the Church. We know, for example, that when there was question of defining the dogma of the Immaculate Conception, the universal Church, consulted in reference to its belief on this subject, answered by the voice of all its pastors that it believed the Mother of God to be immaculate. One bishop alone dissented, but as soon as the dogma was proclaimed he hastened to proclaim his acceptance of it.


We have seen, in speaking on the subject of infallibility, what is required to make a Council ecumenical and consequently infallible. It now remains for us to say under what circumstances the Pope is infallible, that is, when we can be certain that his teaching is free from error. To know this we have only to examine the terms of the decision of the Council of 1870.

According to the Council the Pope, to speak ex cathedra, must first act in virtue of his supreme authority and as head of the Church. Second, he must have the intention of defining a doctrine, an intention which must be evident either from the terms he employs (for example, if he uses the words we define, if he pronounces anathema against contrary doctrine) or from the circumstances under which he speaks.

In a word, the Pope speaks ex cathedra when he makes known his intention to oblige the faithful to believe interiorly and to profess exteriorly that which he teaches concerning faith and morals.
Hence it follows that this character of infallibility extends in no way to the writings and acts of the Pope as a private man. Such are, at least generally speaking, the sovereign Pontiff's allocutions and addresses to the deputations which he receives, as well as briefs which he addresses to individuals; though always worthy of profound respect, these documents do not constitute a definition.

Let us remark further that infallibility embraces only the definition, and not the considerations, or the biblical, philosophical, and historical arguments which usually precede doctrinal definitions.


1. See references p. 310; also Lyons; Knox; Rivington, Authority; Br. W. v. 280, 389, vi. 324, 429 ff., 453 ff.; and generally works written by converts in defence of their return.
2. Lacordaire, conf. 3 on the Church.
3. Such opposition and controversy would be undoubtedly recorded on the pages of the history of those times. Yet that history is absolutely silent.---EDITOR.
4. Br. W. vi. 465 f.
5. See references p. 373; also Knox; Fessler; Botalla; Manning, Petri Privilegium; Story of the Vatican Council; M. lxviii. 338; Br. W. xiii. 412, and, in general, works on the Vatican Council.
6. On Gallicanism see Hergenrother, Catholic Church and Christian State; Anti-Janus; Manning, Petri Privilegium, pt. i., p.40 if.; pt. ii., p. 107 if.; Chatard, Essay 1; Botalla, Supremacy, p. 159; Infallibility, p. 342; Parsons, IV., ch. 10; Br. W. x. 471, xi. 62, 252, xiii. 462; D. R. New Ser. xiii., xxii.
7. The same impossible hypothesis dictated the famous decrees of the Synod of Constance (1416-1418), placing the general council (representing the whole Church) above the Pope, as if the mystic body of Christ, the Church, could be whole while separated, divided, or standing apart from its divinely appointed head, the Pope.---EDITOR.