As Catholics, we believe in the indefectibility of the Church—that the Holy Spirit will protect the pope, and the bishops under him, from teaching error. The biblical basis for this is Matt. 16:18, where Christ tells His disciples that “the gates of Hell will not prevail” against the Church; and John 16:13, where he says that He will send the Holy Spirit to “guide you into all truth.” Vatican I affirmed this in Pastor Aeternus, and Vatican II did so again in Lumen Gentium.
But how does that happen? you ask. We can begin an answer by striking off some of the ways the Holy Spirit could do it but probably does not.
- If the pope were about to teach error, the Holy Spirit could strike him down with lightning, or a heart attack, or paralysis of the tongue.
- The Holy Spirit could whisper every word into the pope’s ear, so that the pope becomes God’s amanuensis.
- The Holy Spirit could prevent any bad or heretical bishop from being appointed in the first place.
- Before a synod or council, the Holy Spirit could meet troublesome prelates in a back alley and rough them up a few times to knock orthodoxy into them.
- The Holy Spirit could zap all bishops, on ordination, with instantaneous truth and perfect ability to speak it.
Satisfying as some of these things might be, it is not how the Holy Spirit protects the Church. The Holy Spirit is not a magician. Or a scourge. Instead, God acts through human beings, while allowing them to retain their individuality and their free will. It can be messy.
God, for example, did not dictate every word of the Bible to its authors. He could have, but he did not. Instead, he used their personalities, their writing style, and many different literary genres (including fiction and poetry), to express infallible truth in a wide range of ways. But in spite of that (or because of it), St. Paul’s epistles are a big syntactical mess. (And people say Francis is confusing.)
Likewise, the pope emeritus, Benedict XVI, rejected the idea that the Holy Spirit hand-picks the pope. God does not whisper to the cardinals, “That one!” Instead the Spirit “leaves us much space and much freedom,” and its role is to be understood “in a much more elastic sense.” Perhaps the Holy Spirit looks upon a newly-elected pope and says, “Oh no, they did not.” But God does not abandon his Church.
As it is with conclaves, so it is with synods and councils. There will be fractiousness and disagreement and some people will suggest any number of stupid things. The Holy Spirit will not show up, not likely, in a flash of fire to consume the heretics into smoke and zap the rest with truth.
But what might the Holy Spirit do?
Recently a large number of Catholic converts, including Dr. Scott Hahn, signed an open letter to the synod fathers calling on them “to uphold Christ’s teaching on the indissolubility of marriage.”
But why is this letter needed? someone asked me. Doesn’t the Holy Spirit protect the Church?
Yes. And maybe the letter is the Holy Spirit protecting the Church. Maybe the Holy Spirit prompted the signers to sign. God acts through the Church, and through all its members.
God heals sickness, but he sends doctors. God forgives sin, but he sends priests. God protects the Church, but he sends Catholics. He uses our intercessions. That the Holy Spirit protects the Church from error does not mean we may put our feet up and wait for God to act.
And one of our most important intercessions is prayer. Prayer is the Holy Spirit at work in us, and through us. Do not fear for the Church, or for the synod. But always pray.