Our friends outside the Catholic Church question a lot of things about what we do. They question Mary; they question the mass, the sacraments, and much more. Out of all of these things, the topic of infallibility is the one most discussed. It is also the one most misunderstood by your average Catholic, and even a few of your professional Catholics. The propers for the Fourth Sunday after Easter, while preparing us for Pentecost, could also serve as a bit of a primer for how Catholics should understand infallibility.
In the Introit, we learn about why the Church is infallible, for “he hath revealed His justice in the sight of the Gentiles.” First and foremost, God’s word (the truth about salvation) has been revealed to the nations. God wants us to know His word. To make sure we know His word, so that the world could be saved, He established a Church, a Church founded by the Apostles on the confession of Christ being the Messiah, the ultimate example of God’s justice and His mercy. We need to always remember these things when we talk about infallibility with Non-Catholics. Otherwise, the Church is infallible just for the sake of being infallible, or as a guilt mechanism to force Catholics to accept certain beliefs. (The Immaculate Conception sounds crazy, but the Infallible Church has promulgated it, therefore it must be true!)
Once we’ve established the reason for infallibility (because God has revealed truth), we must establish the extent of said infallibility, and the Collect does precisely that. After praying that we may find God “amid the changes of the world”, the priest prays that we may be focused on “where true joys are to be found”, also known as heaven. The Church has one job and one job only. That job is to guide people on the path to heaven, the path opened by Jesus Christ. On matters pertaining to that journey, and those matters alone, we Catholics can be certain that the answer the Church gives us is from God. We know this not only because Christ promised it, but because we can verify it throughout history, via tradition.
As the Collect rightly notes, the world is constantly changing, and so is the message everyone else offers for a promised salvation. When it comes to secular culture, one needs to be updated almost daily on what the socially acceptable path to salvation is, or what the latest acceptable crusade for justice is and isn’t. Since we offer a message of redemption just like everyone else does in the world, what’s so different about it? While one could say “ours is true”, who is to say that will always, be the case?
On issues like contraception, secular and religious alike used to denounce it, and now it is accepted entirely by the former and an increasing number of the latter. While the message the Catholic Church preaches is indeed true, we have the promise of the Holy Spirit it will always be true. As St. Paul taught the Galatians, you didn’t need the latest and greatest teacher of Christianity to tell them what the truth was. All they had to do was compare that message to the Gospel St. Paul delivered. If it differed, it doesn’t matter even if it were an angel from heaven, it should be rejected. The Gospel of Jesus Christ is the perfect gift spoken of by James in the Epistle, and it comes from God. The Father of Lights is without “change or shadow of alteration”, therefore his message is also without change.
If God’s word is unchanging, does that mean that all important thinking about Christianity occurred 2,000 years ago? Certainly not, and the Gospel helps us to understand why. In the Gospel Christ promises that, once He has ascended to Heaven, he will send the Holy Spirit to the Church, to teach the truth of the Gospel to all Christians. While God’s word is unchanging, we are always changing. We come from different cultural backgrounds, and each age faces its own unique problems that have to be considered. The Spirit helps teach the world how to understand and apply that unchanging truth to their lives. It is why a religion founded in Jerusalem could spread to China, Rome, and Africa throughout its 2,000 year existence, and still provide all of those cultures the answer they need to get to heaven. While there will always be room to improve how we communicate that message, that message will always be the same, and the Spirit guarantees no sinful human, no matter how powerful, will be able to change it.
The final to consider is that the Holy Spirit not only teaches and guides the Church, but teaches and guides through the Church. When facing a Church comprised of sinful members, there will be a lot of sin and injustice perpetrated in the name of the Church. For many of us, we might even encounter that on a daily basis. This reality has been ever present throughout history, and there is always the temptation to start our own Church to bring about the changes that are needed. Christ makes clear that isn’t how the Spirit operates. He was given to the community of believers represented and governed by the Apostles.
While Christ did indeed give each Apostle the Holy Spirit elsewhere to forgive sins, the teaching aspect of the Spirit is promised to them as a body, not an individual. When you cut yourself off from the Church to found your own, you cut yourself off from the Spirit, no matter how noble your intentions are. When we look at all of our canonized saints, we see that trait stick out above all: they worked within the Church to renew it, not end it. Pentecost is soon upon us, and with it the chance to begin that renewal fresh. Let us take the lessons of today’s liturgy to heart in carrying out that renewal.