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Shortly after Our Lord miraculously fed over 4,000, He reminded His disciples of this miracle, rhetorically asking them, "Do you not remember?" Jesus then commissioned the chief Apostle: "Thou art Peter; and upon this rock, I will build my Church, and the gates of Hell shall not prevail against it" (Matthew 16:18). Catholics today, like the first disciples, not only need to remember Christ's works, but also his promise.
Today is the Feast of Pope St. Leo the Great, a Doctor of the Church. Leo, one of only three pontiffs given the title "Great," was a staunch defender of the One True Faith. "This Church," the holy theologian taught in the fifth century, "does not allow Herself to be violated by any error."
During Pope Leo's reign as supreme pontiff from 440–461, Rome was in spiritual distress. The heretical teachings of the Manicheans, Nestorians, Monophysites and Pelagians were leading souls astray. Despite the popularity and influence of these heresies, the Church did what She's always done and worked to destroy them. Pope Leo was able to do this at the Council of Chalcedon in 451, where the Church condemned the heresies of the day. While the roughly month-long council was going on, Pope Leo addressed the problem of a certain heretical priest to the archbishop of Constantinople, writing in a letter, "We trust that with God's help, he who has fallen into error might condemn the wickedness of his own mind and find salvation."
The Church always handles these problems. And although Pope Leo is a great example of a leader, the Church would have remained unstained with or without his personal virtue because the Catholic Faith has guaranteed protection from the Holy Spirit, who "makes his Church One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic" (Catechism of the Catholic Church, §811).
Saint John Chrysostom once noted that the Church is "immovable amidst the storms of so many persecutions and trials." In other words, the attacks against the Faith have not and will not harm the Church, for it is immovable; it is the spotless bride of Christ (§796).
On a more practical level, the Church can never formally teach error when it comes to matters of faith and morals. For example, it would be impossible for the Catholic Church to accept contraception as licit. Unlike the Protestants, who are "tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine" (Ephesians 4:14), Catholics have immutable and unshakable teachings to fall back on.
That being said, this does not mean every individual priest or bishop is infallible. Nor does it mean every little thing the pope utters is dogma. In fact, the First Vatican Council clarified this reality in Pastor Aeternus:
We teach and define as a divinely revealed dogma that when the roman pontiff speaks ex cathedra, that is, when, in the exercise of his office as shepherd and teacher of all Christians, in virtue of his supreme apostolic authority, he defines a doctrine concerning faith or morals to be held by the whole Church, he possesses, by the divine assistance promised to him in blessed Peter, that infallibility which the divine Redeemer willed His Church to enjoy in defining doctrine concerning faith or morals.
But just because the Church is immune from error, that does not mean it's immune from persecution and trial. Throughout history, attacks have often times come from outside, as seen in confrontations with Roman emperors, barbarians or Muslims. But attacks also come from within. Think of the many clergymen — past and present — who are wolves in sheep's clothing.
Napoleon Bonaparte, a political and military leader during the French Revolution, once assured Pope Pius VII he had the power to destroy the Catholic Church. Pius VII, who was actually imprisoned by Napoleon, wittily responded, "Oh my little man, you think you're going to succeed in accomplishing what centuries of priests and bishops have tried and failed to do!"
Simply put, this is what Catholics need to be reassured of today.
To get a full breakdown of this complex topic, go Premium and watch this week's Mic'd Up, where David Gordon interviews theology doctorial candidate and Catholic podcaster Michael Lofton.