The pope is given the charism of infallibility by Almighty God, as the Bible tells us, because he is also given, as the Bishop of Rome, supreme authority over the body of Christ on earth, the Holy Catholic Church. This has been understood ever since the dawn of Christianity, and is contained in the Word of God. It took many centuries, however, before this dogma was definitively laid out by Pope Pius IX at the Vatican Council. Nevertheless, Catholics have always understood that when Rome has spoken, the discussion is over.
But there are many people who believe, these days, that a dogmatic decree, even though it may be infallible, is just too hard to understand, and so for this reason we need theologians, saints and doctors to interpret them for us. They basically say that due to imperfections in language, changes in the meaning of words, or other such causes, we would be absolutely lost without this array of men to expound doctrine to us. They argue that the words on the page may not convey the actual meaning of the dogmatic truth, and that it is just too difficult for average people to know what the truth really is.
No, it is not all that difficult. You see, the dogmas say it all. The dogmas are crystal clear and perfect.
What you have to do is read what the dogmatic definitions say very carefully, and FULLY assent to what the dogmatic definitions say. People who argue that "these dogmas do not actually mean what they say", or that "due to changes in the use of language we may suddenly re-interpret the dogma" are in fact uttering another condemned proposition that, ironically, they bring up themselves from time to time, as though it supports them in their various heretical views, such as baptism of desire, baptism of blood, or limbo of infants (without fire). The condemned proposition is as follows:
Pope Pius VI, Auctorem Fidei, #1, AD 1794: "The proposition, which asserts "that in these later times there has been spread a general obscuring of the more important truths pertaining to religion, which are the basis of faith and of the moral teachings of Jesus Christ,"—heretical.
The first question is this: Spread by whom? Is it heretical to say that the truths are being obscured by heretics? Of course not, that's what heretics do! Is it heretical to say that well meaning people may make mistakes about dogmas? No, because men are fallible and are prone to such mistakes. This proposition can only be heretical, if it denies a Divinely revealed truth. It has never been part of the Deposit of Faith that the truth could not be obscured by false teachers, so for this to be heretical it can only be condemning the statement if it is an assertion about one person: The pope exercising his infallible capacity, through whom the words of God infallibly come to us as clear and perfect Truths fallen from heaven. Not every decree of the pope is considered infallible mind you, but only those which are "ex cathedra". To learn the exact scope and definition of infallibility and to to learn more about the various levels of the Magisterium; read "What is Sound Catholic Theology?".
The opposite of this statement condemned as heretical by Pope Pius VI, then, must be a Divinely revealed truth, since heresy is the denial of a Divinely revealed dogma. What, then, is the opposite of this statement? What is the dogma?
How about something like this: "in these later times there has been preserved a perfect clarity of the more important truths pertaining to religion, which are the basis of faith and of the moral teachings of Jesus Christ,"
What important truths are the basis of faith and morals? Dogmas. And the dogmatic Tradition shows that we are indeed to hold the meaning of dogmas EXACTLY as they have been declared, and that we are never to deviate from this meaning:
Pope Pius IX, Vatican Council, Session 3, Chapter 4, #14, ex cathedra: "Hence, too, that meaning of the sacred dogmas is ever to be maintained which has once been declared by Holy mother Church, and there must never be any abandonment of this sense under the pretext or in the name of a more profound understanding."
Pope Pius IX, Vatican Council, Session 4, Chapter 4, #9, ex cathedra: "Therefore, such definitions of the Roman Pontiff are of themselves, and not by the consent of the Church, irreformable."
Who makes the definitive declaration? The pope, and the pope alone, and ONLY when he is exercising the full authority of his teaching office. Yet people argue that the definitions and decrees that he makes in this capacity are sometimes too obscure to be readily understood by simple laymen, that the dogmas have been obscured, or are so obscure that we must rely on individual fallible men to tell us what the infallible statements mean. No! This destroys any tangible benefit of infallibility. How can a person say that a statement is infallible, if the statement is meant to be understood in a way other than how it is declared, other than the words that are plain as day?
The problem that many people have in fully accepting infallibility, however, is that theologians and clergy in the Church, saints and doctors even, have at times taught errors in doctrine that would later be condemned, or even that had already been condemned. This does not necessarily mean that these men were evil, but they may simply not have been aware of the variance between their opinions and the truths proposed by the Church - or that would later be proposed by the Church. Pope Benedict XIV, in 1749, made a very insightful remark that we can apply to such situations:
Pope Benedict XIV, Apostolica Constitutio, #6, June 26, 1749: "The Church’s judgment is preferable to that of a Doctor renowned for his holiness and teaching."
It is fortunate for us that Pope Benedict has said this, for it gives us breathing room, and reminds us again that it is the pope, when he speaks ex cathedra, who has the gift of infallibility; no other individual on earth does. Not even the greatest of the Church Doctors.
When all is said and done, it is to be firmly held that the dogmas are absolute truths which have come from above, and which need no "interpretation", since they are clear and perfect, and to be understood exactly as they have been declare. If a person were to argue that they need interpretation, then they are suggesting that the Magisterium is somehow incapable of providing a clear understanding of the truths of the Catholic faith, or of providing a genuine and understandable interpretation of Scripture:
Pope Pius IX, Vatican Council, Session 3, Chapter 2, #8, ex cathedra: "Now since the decree on the interpretation of Holy Scripture, profitably made by the Council of Trent, with the intention of constraining rash speculation, has been wrongly interpreted by some, we renew that decree and declare its meaning to be as follows: that in matters of faith and morals, belonging as they do to the establishing of Christian doctrine, that meaning of Holy Scripture must be held to be the true one, which Holy mother Church held and holds, since it is her right to judge of the true meaning and interpretation of Holy Scripture."
So it is a dogma that "private interpretation" of Scripture, when it deviates from how the Magisterium has already interpreted it, is absolutely wrong and heretical, yet so many people ignore the dogmatic definitions and run to the Scriptures to find support for all kinds of perversions. These same people would run to the doctors, saints and theologians, who while reliable, can never overrule the judgment of the Church, the solemn decrees of the Holy See.
The point of infallibility is this: We know what God spoke and that His words are perfect, and therefore we must make sound epistemological judgments about the world based on these words. A person who does this will know, for example, that he cannot worship in communion with heretics or schismatics, he cannot be part of the Novus Ordo false religion.
What Must You Do To Get to Heaven?