The Magisterium, Infallibility, and Reliability


By most accounts, a major reason for affirming Roman Catholicism is that we would expect God to have established a church with a clear voice of authority, one capable of settling doctrinal disputes. According to Roman Catholicism, the magisterium of the church is not only capable of settling doctrinal disputes, but it is capable of infallibly declaring truths of the faith so that they may be held by all believers with unshaken faith. The infallibility of the magisterium is intended to secure unity and doctrinal certainty amongst believers, and if the magisterium of the church were not capable of ever infallibly declaring doctrine, then, arguably, there would be immense division and doctrinal uncertainty.

In this post, I hope to cast doubt on the view that God could only accomplish his aims for the church with an infallible magisterium by drawing parallels between the church and other investigative bodies.

Firstly, by ‘the magisterium of the church’ I mean to refer to the teaching office and authority of the church. Secondly, we can distinguish between contingent and necessary infallibility. According to contingent infallibility, the magisterium is certainly—in fact—correct. According to necessary infallibility, on the other hand, the magisterium is necessarily correct. I will be using ‘infallibility’ to refer to contingent infallibility.

Thirdly, the Roman Catholic Church teaches that its magisterium engages in its task infallibly under certain specific conditions:

  1. when the bishops throughout the world in communion with the bishop of Rome all independently agree on some matter as being essential to the faith
  2. when these gather in an ecumenical council to make a definitive statement on some point of faith or morals
  3. when the bishop of Rome specially exercises his unique authority as the one pastor of the church to define some matter of faith or morals

So why think God could only accomplish his aims for the church with an infallible magisterium? More specifically, an infallible magisterium with freestanding authority? For starters, all Christians believe in a magisterium with an infallible head and all Christians recognize the practical need for magisterial authority, but why believe in an infallible magisterium with freestanding authority?

What I am told is that if God wants us to know him, know how to live the Christian life, know what to believe in regard to various doctrines, and if God wants us to have unity, then it seems that He would provide an efficient means. However, a structure without an infallible magisterium would not provide what God desires.

This is not persuasive, to say the least. The question of why we ought to trust those churches seems to me to only push the problem back towards an irresolvable skeptical impasse. If I claim that we ought to trust those churches, say, because they are infallible, then that doesn’t help us at all. You can still have irresolvable doubts about infallible sources of knowledge, just as much as you can have doubts about merely fallible sources of knowledge.

For example, the scientific community isn’t infallible and it doesn’t have freestanding authority, but I’ll take the scientific community’s epistemic credentials any day. So if we grant that the church is fallible, we can still grant that people who learn church doctrine can have knowledge, just like people can derive knowledge from fallible scientific authorities; and if those people have doubts, then they have doubts which are no better than the doubts of someone who doesn’t trust scientific experts on stuff. If the magisterium of the church is not infallible, then that means that it has recourse to self-correction (and, of course, to divine correction), just like the scientific community. There is a practical need for magisterial authority, just not infallibility.

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