I was talking to a friend about Church authority the other day. (I've been looking forward my whole life to opening a paragraph with that statement. Usually I talk to friends about baseball or where to find a really good lipstick.)
The authoritative aspect of the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church and the authority of the Pope (let alone the mysterious doctrine of infallibility) is a sticking point for many Protestants and a number of cradle Catholics. I tripped over it myself as I was considering my return to the Church. What if I re-upped, and then a pronouncement was made that I in good conscience couldn't agree with? What if the Church said something that was wrong? What if it was right but I was unable, for whatever reason, to join in with a resounding "hear, hear!"? What should I do about this dilemma?
Like so many truths, the teaching authority of the Church is descriptive rather than prescriptive. The emphasis is not on "You have to believe this, so get with the program." Instead, we are reassured that the Holy Spirit, who promised to be guardian and steward of Christ's body until the end, will reliably preserve that body from serious error that would send it off the rails into disaster. The teaching authority of the Church draws its nature from the promises of God, not the wisdom of men. If we want to know what God thinks, he has given us Scripture and has guided our understandings throughout salvation history. That's good news, not a source of foreboding.
The doctrine of Papal Infallibility (which is much more nuanced than popular summaries make it) was codified at the First Vatican Council. As blogger Hieromonk Maximos puts it: "The pope does not, of course, by this charism manufacture truth. He recognizes it."
The real miracle is that Christ keeps a bundle of miserable sinners (and a bureaucracy!) on track in spite of ourselves and the potholes we dig for ourselves along the way. Well, he turned gritty well-water into sumptuous wine at Cana, and he hasn't stopped his work of transformation yet. We are in good hands.
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