"The Catholic Church has never erred." At least, that's what I've had thrown at me a number of times in informal debates with Catholic friends. Who am I to argue? I've erred quite a lot, so I'm really not qualified to say otherwise. And arguing as a peccable entity against an impeccable agent of God would bring about the irony that I might just be erring to be contrarian in the face of such a grand claim.
So what am I dealing with when I have a zinger like "the Catholic Church has never erred" tossed out at me? Apparently, I'm dealing with the doctrine of impeccability. Not to be confused with the doctrine of infallibility. You see, impeccability is understood quite easily as the 'absence of sin' -- something only God, Jesus and Mary could appreciate. The rest of us are out of the runnings: we don't qualify for the sinless status. Not unless we become Pelagians, of course, at which point we become heretics because we believe that while we are yet alive we can be rarified in the grace of God to the point of sinlessness. That is, we can become impeccable by sheer force of performative logic and a willingness to carouse with Pelagian beliefs.
But, since the self-defining, and self-declaring Catholic Church has monopolized the market on truth and declared herself the "one true church" that "never errs", and further, has declared Pelagianism a heresy, I would be in error to take on such a view.
But I am left with a question: if Mary was given special status to be sinless while she was alive, why can't any God-fearing Pelagian work that angle? It would seem like a worthwhile occupation to make yourself sinless, wouldn't it? And if so, that would mean that there's something a little dodgy going on with the Catholic doctrine of Mary's sinlessness. I'm just saying.
Nevertheless, it would be insincere of me to leave out the Catholic Church's self-understanding on the notion of impeccability. That is, the Catholic Church believes she has never erred in matters pertaining to faith and morals; it has nothing to do with historical opinions. To quote the Wikipedia entry, "in Catholic thought, the exemption of the Roman Church from error extends only to its definitive teachings on faith and morals: not its historical judgments." In other words, those teachings that are not held to be divine revelations but are free from error and essential to proper belief.
A moment's reflection, however, piques my curiosity: if there are 'essential' teachings that are free from error, might there also be non-essential teachings that could have errors? In fact, yes, there are. Dr. Ludwig Ott puts it thusly:
"A Teaching proximate to Faith (sententia fidei proxima) is a doctrine, which is regarded by theologians generally as a truth of Revelation, but which has not yet been finally promulgated as such by the Church."
Ott's list of Catholic Certainties places teachings proximate to faith (i.e., teachings that are closest to true faith, but not causes of faith) at the bronze-medal level. These kinds of non-essential teachings are kind of like teachings-in-waiting, or tertiary certainties. In other words, the Catholic Church may or may not have some reservations about them, but do what you want with them until you're told otherwise (e.g., natural selection/evolution).
On this point then, we can be part of a church that never errs, but that leaves enough wiggle-room to let individuals err, as long as the Magisterium hasn't made any official statements of a higher degree of certainty; e.g., a de fide proclamation. Given this hierarchy of truths in an impeccable church, a necessary question arises: why the degrees of certainty? Doesn't that tacitly admit to possible errors in an error-free church? Even given the scalpel-line between 'faith and morals' and 'historical judgments', if the official teaching of the church is that it is officially free of error in faith and morals, wasn't that an historical judgment at some point in time? So how can we be certain of the official certainty of Catholic dogma?
The answer is that we can't. Which is why we can happily discard the nonsense that the Catholic Church has never erred. We can also jettison the corollary that the Catholic Church will never err. The Catholic Church is diseased with errors. For example, the Catholic Church recently rejected the long-held traditional teaching of limbo. Mind you, they don't see that as a mistake; they see it as an evolution, or progress in understanding. Logic dictates, however, that if the Catholic Church once believed the doctrine of limbo as true, and then turns around and says it's not, that there has been an error somewhere along the line. An error that, much like turning water into wine, turns truth into falsity. Whoops!
Here's another one. I'll let you be the judge of how insidiously stupid the Catholic Church has been on this issue. You tell me if you think the Catholic Church cannot err in matters of, oh, say, morals. One more, just for emphasis.