What "Infallibility" Means
Here is the text of a whimsical email conversation I had with a friend once (italicized passages are the words of my correspondent):
Q: "Mark, is a dog's mouth cleaner than a human's? What the official infallible Catholic position on this question?"
A: In his 16th Century encyclical Bene Canus (Good Doggie), Pope St. Gregory XXIV declared, pronounced and defined that "oggie'sday avehay eanerclay outhmays". This, being translated from the original Latin, means that the Church does definitively hold as Dogma that dogs have cleaner mouths, but the good Pope chose to leave undefined precisely what dogs' mouths are cleaner than. The dogma caused considerable consternation upon its promulgation. A delegation of Orthodox bishops attempted to make a pilgrimage from Constantinople to St. Peter's to protest the newly defined doctrine, but repeatedly missed the boats because the disagreement between the Latin and eastern calendars threw off the ferry schedules. They ended by holding the famed "Synod of the Pier" in which a copy of Bene Canus was ritually shredded into teensy weensy bits by a specially anointed Jack Russell Terrier and then sprinkled on the Adriatic while the famous "Hellfire and Dalmatians" sermon was preached by the venerable Balkan Archmandrite St. Blklzt the Vowel-less. Meanwhile, outraged Reformers north of the Alps vented their frustration at "the whorish, great, fat, well-swilled papistical beast of infamy and his bestial denial of the Holy Scriptures." Much controversy ensued as Scriptural arguments raged back and forth over whether dogs' mouths were cleaner than men's but dirtier than pigs and what patristic writers (especially Augustine) had to say. At length it was resolved that everyone beat up Anabaptists in order to defuse the conflict.
Since that time long ago, very little doctrinal development in the Catholic communion has taken place on this question. The Church has firmly ruled that all human mouths, though varying in cleanliness, are of "equal dignity" and she urges that care be taken to brush regularly (see 1983 Revised Code of Canon Law, Section 173559-33567844.091). But beyond that, no further doctrines have been formulated.
Okay, it was silly. But very often I run into people who don't seem to know what they want the Church to be doing. (That was not the case with my friend; she was just kidding around.) However, many people complain the Church is obsessed with micromanaging our lives and "telling us what to think", yet simultaneously complain when the Church doesn't issue edicts on every triviality. I have actually heard people 1) complain about Catholic claims of infallibility as "tyrannical", then 2) ask what the "infallible Catholic teaching" was on some wacky question such as (I am not making this up) "how much body mass you can lose before you lose your soul", then 3) be told the Church had no "infallible teaching" on that curious subject, then 4) complain, "How can the Church be infallible when it can't even answer a little question like mine?"
What we must realize is that the Church (like her Lord) is interested in freedom, not tyranny. She has a few things she insists her children agree on so that they may be free to argue their heads off about nearly everything else. Nor does infallibility mean never having to say you're sorry (which is why all Catholics do so in every penitential rite at every mass in the world). The Church is not infallible because everybody in the Church from the Pope to the dog catcher is perfect, but because nobody in the Church, Pope to dog catcher, is perfect. God holds the Church's hand every step of the way and makes sure she doesn't spill the wine of revelation, not because we are dexterous and holy, but because we are all such sinful klutzes that, without him, we'd have lost track of the gospel an hour after Pentecost. That's all "infallibility" means.
Copyright 2001 - Mark P. Shea