More about #indefectibility – Wherein Fr. Z rants about Popes, Councils, Priests.

I’ve had a lot of notes from people about a post from yesterday.

I have, once again today, prayed the prayer I mentioned.  I am going to make this part of my routine for the foreseeable future.

Also, in regard to indefectibility, it may be that some of you have not thought about this since basic catechism.  It may be that some of you have never heard of this (including seminarians… HEY!  SEMINARIANS!  Get a copy of the mighty Baltimore Catechism [US HERE] or the mickle Penny Catechism [UK HERE] and memorize stuff!  If nothing else, you will gain a grasp on how people you meet used to learn their Catholic Faith.  And I’ll bet there are a whole lot of priests out there who don’t know what I’m about to write.  I’d be interested in feedback from seminarians and priests about this… which will be entirely confidential and anonymized. Click HERE)

Indefectibility is one of the three attributes of the Church.

The Church’s three attributes are authority, infallibility, and indefectibility.  The three attributes are not to be confused with her four marks (unity, holiness, catholicity, apostolicity).  An attribute is a quality or characteristic.  A mark is a sign that allows something to be distinguished from others.

The attribute of authority means that the Church can exact obedience from her subjects, just as parents can from their children.  The attribute of infallibility means that the Church cannot err when it teaches concerning faith or morals.

The attribute of indefectibility, on the other hand, is the quality of unfailingness in the Church, her constitution and ministration, promised by Jesus Christ in the words “Behold, I am with you all days, even to the consummation of the world” (Matthew 28:20).

The Church’s members may err or fail, but the Church cannot.

Holy Catholic Church’s indefectibility is proven through history by her nearly 2000 year endurance through the most terrible external trials and dangers, threats from without by states, and so forth, and through internal attacks and dangers from incompetence or wickedness of pontificates and heretics or from human indifference or carelessness.  The Church has endured through everything, negative external and internal influences, and has remained the privileged and dependable channel of supernatural life and of grace. God protects the Church through special assistance.

We know by faith and by reason that the Church is indefectible, but how this works is a matter of speculation.

Hence, I am able to repeat with confidence what I have written and said many times.

There have been really important Ecumenical Councils and other Councils that were not terribly important.  Frankly, I hold Vatican II not to be very important when compared to monumentally significant Councils such as Chalcedon or Trent. There have been really important Pontificates and some that were not.  Some were long and some were short.  Some were good and some were bad.  Most were tiny blips on the long arc of the Church’s history.  Some were bigger blips.  Popes come and go.  Romans, who have a special perspective on Popes, have a proverb: “Morto un papa, se ne fa un altro… When a Pope dies, ya make another.”  All these things and people come and go, but the Church remains, with her three attributes, including indefectibility.

Our Savior knew that – in our times – right NOW – we would need the Church just as much as the men and women in the age of martyrs needed her. Therefore, the same Church endures and cannot be turned to sand no matter what we human beings do.

If you are irritated about something going on right now, something manifestly stupid, wicked, or just ill-conceived but well-intentioned missteps in judgment, examine your own consciences and then …


That’s what I do.

And I must repeat, form groups – base communities – study your catechisms and don’t let your priests off the hook.  They are obliged by their vocations both to know the content of the Faith, the fides quae creditur, and also to believe, teach and defend the Faith.

If they don’t, they are culpable before man and God.

If priests or bishops neglect this aspect of their divinely given vocations – knowing, believing, teaching and defending the Catholic Faith – they are guilty of a terrible sin and they put themselves at risk of eternal damnation.

If an ophthalmologist somehow managed to act as an eye doctor without knowing much about the eye, he would be a bad ophthalmologist.  He would be guilty for inflicting bad treatments that harmed people.  If he once knew his art but he doesn’t keep his knowledge fresh and doesn’t keep up with new developments, he would similarly be a bad doctor.  Moreover, he may not claim innocence by virtue of his ignorance because he has the obligation by his profession to know certain things.

The same is true for the priest, and with even more serious consequences because he touches souls, not just eyes, which Our Lord Himself indicated are dispensable in regard to getting to Heaven.  If it is important that an ophthalmologist be diligent in tending and maintaining his professional abilities, it is even more important that the priest tend and maintain those things which pertain to his vocation, for which he is responsible before his Judge, the High Priest, the King of Fearful Majesty.

It is possible that the priest or the bishop simply isn’t very smart.  How they come to be ordained is another matter.  Nevertheless, they are still obliged to do their best and try to learn, teach and defend the Catholic Faith.  They are not off the hook.  We must be patient with them and helpful, while they must be earnest and humble.  This also means that those priests who are brighter have an even greater obligation, since more is expected from those who have more received.

Finally, I think we will all agree that everyone should be versed in the basics of our Catholic Faith and that resources such as the old school-age catechisms are gems.

Let’s find ways to encourage each other to make either new reviews or fresh discoveries.
And if you sense that you may have some weak spots, shore them up.  Don’t be that gal who hasn’t looked at the basics since her last day of Catholic school or CCD or RCIA.

Baltimore Catechism [US HERE]
Penny Catechism [UK HERE]

Here endeth the rant.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
This entry was posted in "How To..." - Practical Notes, Hard-Identity Catholicism, Seminarians and Seminaries, The Coming Storm, The Drill, The future and our choices, Wherein Fr. Z Rants and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.


  1. wmeyer says:

    I have read the CCC, and am reading the Catechism of Trent. But I also keep the Baltimore on my Kindle, as well as Canon Ripley’s This is the Faith. Can we have too many good references? Each has its strong and weak points. Each brings insights, and dare I say…. clarity!

    [When you go to the Met in NYC and see Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux’s incredible marble sculpture of Ugolino and His Sons, you don’t just stand 30 feet away, glance at it, turn, and walk off. You approach it. You circle it. With each changing view, you have more of clarity about the sculpture. If that is what we do with sculptures, how much more can we gain in studying our Faith with different views? GOOD views, of course.]

  2. ASPM Sem says:

    Seminarian here. I was homeschooled and was taught out of the Baltimore Catechism. The response to “Who made you”, “Why did God make you”, etc. is Pavlovian.

  3. JabbaPapa says:

    Thank you VERY MUCH Father Z … I’ve found that MANY Catholics have difficulty with the distinction between indefectability and infallibility.

  4. Traductora says:

    Thank you for the prayer to St Michael. I think that – and the things you have suggested – are all we can do right now. Clearly, nobody in authority, that is, no shepherd, is going to come to the rescue of the flock (which includes the clergy and religious as well).

    I read a very interesting article on a blog (Catholic Monitor) today about Francis’ “favorite theologian,” where Francis is quoted as saying “For me, de Certeau is still the greatest theologian for today.” This would be the French theologian Michel de Certeau…who is a nihilist. So one of the big problems in dealing with Francis is that he simply doesn’t accept objective reality – and I don’t mean this sarcastically – and thus the possibility of knowledge of either visible or invisible reality.

    It’s sort of jury-nullification on a grand scale, because if you don’t accept the premises of something in the first place, you certainly shouldn’t be participating in (much less in charge of) it. And the Church is all about reality, both in the visible and invisible worlds.

    So I guess knowing more about both of these worlds will help us to survive. But I so wish one of the shepherds would pick up his staff and drive off the wolf.

  5. supercooper says:

    I have been searching to no avail for an authoritative definition of the Church’s indefectibility.

    I always thought that indefectiblity meant that the Church would always exist with her integrity, meaning that the Church could not bind us to believe heresy, or promulgate invalid or evil rites. I also was under the impression this would cover Canon Law, that it would lead the faithful into sin. But this may not be an accurate understanding of indefectibility.

    If the apparent errors of Amoris laetitia are incorporated into Canon Law then my own understanding of the indefectibility of the Church will be seriously challenged.

  6. supercooper says:

    I meant to say that Canon Law would NOT lead the faithful into sin.

  7. Unwilling says:

    That post is sound, dignified, gentle, and encouraging. Not what I think of as a rant.

    I (Canadian subject of QE II) default to the Penny Catechism too. It was my secret stash when, as adult convert in the ’60s, I was burdened by the The Dutch Cat. But it makes me uneasy that I base my commitment to fundamental Catholicism on a pamphlet over 100 years old. Am I “keeping up”? Am I like the doctor who treats the flu with leaches? But what replaces the Penny Catechism? Hardon’s is good, but not a pamphlet. The Compendium of the CCC is diffuse, often (besides typos) imprecise, and somehow unsatisfying. Feeble ending…

  8. un-ionized says:

    I have had my faith in the indefectibility of the Church greatly shake because of my experiences over the last few years. But I am staying anyway. Things are supposed to turn out okay in the end and you don’t lose by staying except for having to avoid the bad people.

  9. un-ionized says:

    That should be “shaken” of course.

  10. servusfidelis says:

    My personal favorite catechism accented with woodblock art is My Catholic Faith by Bishop Morrow.

  11. It seems to me that our faith in not only the indefectibility of the Church but in all of her attributes has been sorely tested ever since the sudden and drastic changes to the Mass. If Holy Mass itself is up for grabs, then what isn’t?

  12. Jacques says:

    I had a trip in Holy Land for 10 days with my wife together with twelve other pilgrims. Our guide was a priest who once worked for the french NGO “CCFD-Terre Solidaire”, now incardinated in the Catholic Patriarcate of Jerusalem.
    It was an absolute disaster: Never did I hear so many nonsenses and heresies uttered everyday by a catholic priest. I was strongly shocked after we visited the Basilica of the Annunciation when he dared to sow doubts about our Lady’s virginity and by the way, about the divine conception of Jesus. I tried to confront him on the matter but decided never to do this again, so much our fellow pilgrims joyfully agreed with him each time. I underwent this ordeal silently and offered it to Jesus.
    We got an official mass on saturday evening celebrated in Jerusalem by the local bishop who gave us an homily in both arabic and french, mainly about the issue of Faith and Works, rightly saying that works without Faith are worthless. Non longer was the mass ended, this priest dared to openly criticize before us his bishop’s homily in shocking harsh terms.
    Useless to say, he is an adept of the Liberation Theology.
    I wonder how can so bad a priest could remain in good standing with the catholic Church. Now he certainly is the kind that pleases our Holy Father.

  13. Mike says:

    Our awakening base communities are going to have to be ready to do spur-of-the moment apologetics both to keep ourselves sharp and to carry out our mission. Toward those ends, the Q&A approach of Baltimore and the Compendium of the CCC would seem to be particularly useful. A “dollar-in-the-poor-box” apologetics challenge could enliven meetings considerably!

    There are resources specifically targeted to apologetics (as distinct from catechesis) in Q&A / Thomistic format. One I can think of—written, to be sure, to a post-Vatican-II audience—is Jimmy Akin’s A Daily Defense. Surely there are others, and we can probably build some resources of our own based on our encounters with the questioning and skeptical.

  14. eamonob says:

    Fr, in regards to the St. Michael prayer you had in your other post, is that a prayer that should be said only be a priest? I think I remember hearing that somewhere. What about a deacon or layman?

  15. Julia_Augusta says:

    The first catechism I read after returning to the Church a few months ago, was the Catechism of Saint Pius X (1908). It is presented in a Q&A format, similar to that of the Baltimore Catechism (which I have not yet read).

    The publisher noted on the intro page of the most recently published Pius X catechism that it may not conform to recent changes in canon law. I am trying to figure out what could be wrong in Saint Pius X’s catechism.

  16. Pingback: TVESDAY CATHOLICA EDITION | Big Pulpit

  17. Rich says:

    The Catholic Catechism and The Question-and-Answer Catechism, both by Fr. John Hardon, S.J.

  18. rhhenry says:


    The following should be filed under “anecdote, not the singular of data,” but I met a professor in graduate school who knew Michel de Certeau reasonably well. He told me that he believed that at the time of his death de Certeau was only nominally Catholic in his beliefs and possibly even non-Christian. But it’s a big step from there to nihilism.

    I imagine de Certeau appeals to Pope Francis because of de Certeau’s emphasis on how individuals can subvert or at least circumvent (even, or perhaps especially, unintentionally) top-down structures as part of their everyday life. De Certeau is perhaps best known for both his description of how pedestrians in cities ignore the road layouts and intentions of the city-planners to create their own routes from A to B and his description of how mystics bypass the institutional Church to receive knowledge of God directly, without mediation by priests or other authorities.

    If we accept the pedestrians’ travels and the mystics’ encounters as fully real and true, then this can sound awfully close to a common (mis)understanding of the sensus fidelium. Which can lead to a request for the laity to call upon their own experiences to hagan a bunch of lio to get the producers of strategies (city-planners with their grids, Church authorities with their rules) to listen to and bend to the users of tactics (the pedestrians and mystics, working simultaneously both within and against the structures established by the producers).

    I apologize if none of the above makes sense; it’s been a while sense I’ve looked at it in depth. I also apologize if this is a rabbit hole . . .

  19. adriennep says:

    Thank you for mentioning Fr. Hardon’s books. People don’t realize what a colossal man Fr. Hardon was. Pope JP2 encouraged him to write The Catholic Catechism years before the CCC came out, and to write a course for Marian Catechists for Mother Theresa’s nuns. That is powerful authority and wisdom. So you can take his words to the bank. His books are at the Marian Catechist Apostolate web site. Also his many writings and talks are published online at The Real Presence.

    And hear it!–everyone should read that Baltimore Catechism No. 2, since it is full of delightful illustrations that bring young and old into the message. My “RCIA” class was taught by a crusty old Irish priest who took perverse delight in the book, shocking potential Catholics all the while. I use it constantly with my catechism students because they love it and never forget it. Wear it like a devotional medal around your neck!

    I only wish the old BC was lovingly re-typeset and re-printed, maybe with a nice spiral binding.

  20. abdiesus says:

    If it is true that “If priests or bishops neglect this aspect of their divinely given vocations – knowing, believing, teaching and defending the Catholic Faith – they are guilty of a terrible sin and they put themselves at risk of eternal damnation.” then what about “If a pope neglects this aspect of his divinely given vocation – knowing, believing, teaching and defending the Catholic Faith?”. What about if a pope intentionally teaches falsehoods and heresy and attacks the true Catholic Faith and those who try to hold to the Catholic Faith, and promotes and encourages others within the Church who teach falsehoods and heresy and attack the Catholic Faith and those who hold to the Catholic Faith?

    I am pretty sure that just as many of our ideas about what sort of protections we can count on from God with respect to a pope teaching error may have needed to be revised, so also, our ideas about what Indefectibility means may well also have to be revised.

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