Infallibility: a user’s guide

I received the following piece via email from the Jesuit Institute of South Africa.

I didn’t write it, but I think that it is a useful discussion of what the Catholic concept of “papal infallibility” actually entails.



Raymond Perrier.

Infallible? by Raymond Perrier

Infallible must be one of the most misunderstood terms in Catholic vocabulary.  Reflecting on the Papacy of Benedict XVI we can remind ourselves what Papal infallibility is and most importantly what it is not.

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There’s no “I” in atheism

I recently posted Creed, a poem by Steve Turner which outlines the relativist worldview. Although satirical, the poem does present many commonly-held beliefs amongst atheists. But it also does something which goes beyond the typical atheist approach: it actually sets out those beliefs clearly.

Yes, I’m aware that atheism isn’t a uniform worldview. But neither is Christianity. The central core of Christianity is uniform – that’s how we recognise it. But there are plenty of differences in opinion and a great deal of (often heated) discussion about everything beyond what is covered in the ecumenical creeds. There are many denominations in Christianity, but within each denomination there is a clear articulation of their beliefs. In short, you know exactly what you’re dealing with if you want to debate what Catholics or Baptists believe.


Speaking of clear articulations, let’s have a couple of definitions so that we all know what we’re talking about:

Encyclopaedia Britannica (2010):

Instead of saying that an atheist is someone who believes that it is false or probably false that there is a God, a more adequate characterization of atheism consists in the more complex claim that to be an atheist is to be someone who rejects belief in God.

Encyclopedia of Philosophy (MacMillan, 2005):

On our definition, an ‘atheist’ is a person who rejects belief in God.


Within atheism there are also many different views on issues of secondary importance. The primary issue is denial of God (and usually the supernatural), but beyond that it’s an open field. And that’s great: discussions about why we hold different beliefs can be an excellent way of learning about alternative points of view, and also help us to understand our own beliefs better.

But we have to actually hold a coherent set of beliefs before we can have a useful discussion.



I recently had a lengthy exchange with an atheist about the origins of morality. In over 2500 words of discussion, my correspondent never offered a concrete statement of personal beliefs. All sorts of theories were suggested, mention was made of “fascinating new research about morality” in various quarters, books titles and authors were offered as solemn incantations.

But as to the beliefs held personally by the individual? Not a peep. My own personal beliefs were articulated and examined at length, but repeated requests for a clear statement of my correspondent’s beliefs were met only with deflection and evasion.

I mention this particular exchange as but one example of a much larger trend. I observe in conversations with atheists an almost pathological aversion to the personal pronoun.

“Look, all these people have been writing big books on the subject!”

Yes, and…? What do you personally believe?

“Research supports this particular belief!”

Great. Do you personally believe that?

“Recent advances in [genetics]/[cosmology]/[evolutionary biology] indicate that…”

Do you personally use those advances as the basis of your worldview, or are your beliefs based on something else? And if so, what?


Socrates famously declared that “An unexamined life is not worth living”. But an unexaminable life is no life at all. If personal beliefs cannot be articulated, they cannot be understood the individual, let alone by others.

The Nicene Creed is a towering pillar of the Christian faith. It is a clear and succinct articulation of the core beliefs of Christianity, a concise expression of primary doctrine. To affirm the creed is to draw a clear line in the sand and say, “these are my beliefs.” That is the starting point for a useful discussion.

The Creed does not start off with: “Christians in general maintain that…”, or “It has long been the opinion of great theologians…”, or “The official Church position is that…”

It starts much more simply:

“I believe …”



Related posts:

Lumpy atheism

Having the wrong conversation

The relativist creed


Strength in diversity

At my church we’re currently hosting a cricket tournament.

Basically, a few friends were bored in the wet and cold winter months, and decided to convert the church hall (which was already carpeted) into an indoor cricket facility. One thing led to another, and suddenly we were hosting a tournament with 10 teams from all over the city and had sparked a community of over 100 people (and probably a dozen nationalities) who get together up to three times a week to hang out and play some friendly (but very competitive) cricket.

Which got me thinking about denominations.

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The innocence of children…

The doctrine of Original Sin is very challenging to our sensibilities. The idea that every human is “born sinful” seems so judgmental and negative that we shy away from it. Sure, we can agree that “Everyone makes mistakes”, or perhaps that “We’ve all done things that we’re not proud of”. But this is not the same as Original Sin, for Christianity maintains that every human being is inherently sinful and separated from God.

Probably the most frequent point of departure from the doctrine of Original Sin is the supposed “innocence of children” – particularly babies. Surely someone who has spent their life crying, sleeping and occasionally soiling the odd nappy (ok, more than occasionally) cannot be considered sinful? What can they possibly have done to merit such a charge?

There are a few responses to this, including a line of thinking involving inherited sin from Adam and Eve. Adherence to this doctrine usually requires an acceptance of a literal Adam and Eve – not just as real people but also as parents of every subsequent generation of humans. Whether this is  reasonable and/or theologically sound is not the issue I’m addressing now: I’m more interested in whether such an interpretation is even required for us to accept that every human is inherently sinful.


Augustine of Hippo wrote his Confessions when he was in his 40s, and in it he reflected on the entirety of his life thus far – including his very earliest years. Of course, like any of us, he didn’t remember his time spent as a mewling babe, but he did use keen observation of other infants to draw some general assumptions about his own behaviour. He considers the actions of a baby through the understanding of an adult, and in doing so, he raises some profound challenges to the innocence of children.

Nor was it good, even in that time, to strive to get by crying what, if it had been given me, would have been hurtful; or to be bitterly indignant at those who, because they were older… and wiser than I, would not indulge my capricious desires. Was it a good thing for me to try, by struggling as hard as I could, to harm them for not obeying me, even when it would have done me harm to have been obeyed?

Augustine notes that it is not the actions of the child that are in themself sinful. But God is not concerned purely with our actions, but also with our intents, and the desires of our heart.

The desires of an infant’s heart are selfish and often self-destructive, and is this entirely absolved by its lack of power to act? Watching a baby flailing his arms petulantly – but ineffectually – against his mother, Augustine wryly notes:

…the infant’s innocence lies in the weakness of his body and not in the infant mind.

Of course, I’m not trying to suggest that infants are particularly selfish or are in any way “worse” than adults. But they are human, too. Satirist and social critic P. J. O’Rourke, reflecting on his own experiences as a father, wrote thus:

“When Saint Augustine was formulating his doctrine of Original Sin, all he had to do was look at people as they are originally. Originally, they’re children. Saint Augustine may have had a previous job – unmentioned in his Confessions – as a preschool day-dare provider. But it’s wrong to use infantile as a pejorative. It’s the other way around. What children display is adultishness. Children are, for example, perfectly adultish in their self-absorption. Tiny tots look so wise, staring at their stuffed animals. You wonder what they’re thinking. Then they learn to talk. What they’re thinking is, My Beanie Baby!”

Don’t get me wrong – of course we should treat children differently and make allowances for behaviour that we would find unbearable in an adult. Augustine makes exactly this point, in fact:

In what ways, in that time, did I sin? Was it that I cried for the breast? If I should now so cry – not indeed for the breast, but for food suitable to my condition – I should be most justly laughed at and rebuked. What I did then deserved rebuke but, since I could not understand those who rebuked me, neither custom nor common sense permitted me to be rebuked. As we grow we root out and cast away from us such childish habits.

…Yet we look leniently on such things, not because they are not faults, or even small faults, but because they will vanish as the years pass. For, although we allow for such things in an infant, the same things could not be tolerated patiently in an adult.

But children aren’t actually little angels – they’re human.



Related posts:

Asked and answered

Children of God?

Forgive us our sins


Note: A modified version of this post was published at Christian Diversity, as part of a broader discussion on Original Sin.