The last thing infallibility is is infallible.
On the face of it papal infallibility might well seem to be yet another of that long list of supposed Catholic superstitions so misunderstood and reviled by Dawkins and his cohorts, and, it must be said, all too often believed by Catholics themselves: that an innocent new born baby is intrinsically evil but the supposed stain on its supposed soul can be removed by the mumbo-jumbo of pouring water over its head; that priests through their powerful magic can turn bread and wine into human flesh and blood; that you can have three gods and one god at the same time; that God, much in the manner of our dog who is enraged by ironing boards, has really taken against condoms. Infallibility in English usually means ‘absolutely certain, intellectually indubitable’. Taken in that sense, as it all too often is, papal infallibility is indeed complete nonsense.
Even the Scriptures themselves are not infallible in that sense. If they were they would not be the subject of faith but a branch of mathematics. Infallibilitas in Latin, I would guess, carries a more moral and emotional connotation, as in reliable, unfailingly faithful. When I say I can certainly rely on my friend, I don’t mean that I do not doubt him because his reliability is as infallibly certain as a theorem of Euclid, but the very opposite. What I mean is that I trust him. It was because he could have deserted me but chose not to do so, that I value his friendship so much. When we say we believe that the Pope is infallible we do not mean that he is Euclid come again, but that we believe we can rely on him to guide us faithfully through the thickets of uncertainty that surround us in this life. O padre mio, mio maestro e’l mio autore’, said Dante to Virgil; Oh my father, my teacher and my guide.
For Protestants the Church is the product of Scripture, for Catholics Scripture is the product of the Church. For Protestants Scripture is divinely and directly inspired, the foundation of faith is the response of the individual to the call to salvation that Scripture makes, and the Church the congregation of those who have answered that call. For Catholics, belonging to the body that is in physical and inherited continuity with the community of the first Christians, as, through generation begetting generation we moderns are in inherited continuity with the first proto-humans who broke away from the ape-like creature that was the ancestor of both ourselves and the chimpanzees, this is the foundation of faith. For Catholics the books of the New Testament are the first, inadequate and – even by those who wrote them – not fully understood, attempts to express their experience of faith in words, yet uniquely and especially treasured because these are the words of people who either actually knew Christ or knew those who did know him. I am old enough to have met people who still had the slightly dazed look of those who had actually known Wittgenstein. What did he say that impressed you so much? Well er he said things like if a lion could speak we would not understand him. Oh er I see.
You sometimes meet Catholics who think that the great thing about the Church is that in all the storms of change and fashion it is an unchanging rock. What they have in mind is some such metaphor as the foundation rock on which the Eddystone lighthouse was built. I don’t think anything could be more misleading. The Church is not an inert unfeeling rock, but a living and developing and changing organism. The Scriptures are the DNA of the Church, handed down through all the generations of its physically changing bodies, and, as DNA does, from time to time mutating. When Christ called Peter Rock it was surely, at least in part, a joke for goodness sake. Could you imagine any less suitable a term for the volatile, headstrong and mercurial Peter? I am a Christian because, before all else, I can find no other character in literature whose humanity moves me so much as Jesus. So humane a person could hardly have been lacking in a sense of humour. But Peter, it turned out, was a rock. What a brick, as Billy Bunter might have said. I don’t know enough Hebrew, but I am sure you would find that the richly dense verb-nouns of the Semitic languages, so fertile in implication and so able to hold together seeming contradictions, would suggest both this meaning of rock – stability, reliability – but also other meanings that in English are only homonyms, quite opposite meanings that suggest constant, even violent movement, as in rock group or rocking the cradle. It is the constant movement of the mother’s rocking hand that makes the infant feel secure.
Most of the mutations that happen in the genome are either neutral or actually harmful to the organism in whose DNA they occur, hence the Church’s doctrinal authority that constantly scans the changing theological scene for harmful ideas proposed by people like me, like those copying-error enzymes that scan the genome for unwelcome mutations. In fact, the teaching authority, when it is not behaving like the Gestapo as it has all too often done, is of great comfort to theologians. The task of theologians is to push boundaries which always carries the danger that people might actually believe your unroad-tested ideas. An authority that can say Hey! Wait a minute, enables you to propose new ideas with more composure of mind and less anxiety that they might lead people astray, long after you have changed your own mind. Yet evolution works, life moves on, because not all the mutations get edited out. Some make it successfully into the working genome.
Catholics do not think that new books can be added to the New Testament, but we do believe that implications that were only latent in the original texts can be developed, as quite new aspects of genes develop from new combinations of the same nucleotides, and are as worthy of credence as the Scripture itself. As worthy of credence as the New Testament itself? That’s a mighty big claim if you are a believing Christian. Only an authority that is unfailingly reliable could authorize you to make so awesome a claim. Like the first holder of its office, it often is, alas, anything but reliable, indeed, like him, all too often has betrayed its founding inspiration in as serious a way as you could imagine. But when it came to it, Peter delivered. We believe that ex cathedra pronouncements are the Pope speaking ‘when it comes to it’. An infallible authority is the condition of dynamic credal change. O padre mio, mio maestro e’l mio autore.