|"Hi, there! See this chair I'm sitting in? That means I'm infallible right now!"|
Ex cathedra is Latin for "from the chair," and it refers to the special chair on which a bishop would sit. (This is where we get the word cathedral from, i.e. a church in which the bishop had his chair.) It's a shorthand way of referring to the idea that a Roman Catholic pope is considered infallible when teaching a doctrine of faith or morals in his capacity as the shepherd of the Church. Incidentally, I also have a cathedra in my church, right up front behind the pulpit. However, since I'm not a bishop, I never sit in it, and therefore have no clue as to whether or not it confers powers of infallibility. (The smaller chair at its left hand, which I do sit in, evidently does not.)
I've been poking fun at this idea, but the fact of the matter is that I have tremendous respect for the Roman Catholic tradition. What we evangelicals may not realize is that almost all Christians (including us) hold to the idea that there is indeed an infallible office held by some human at some particular time. For instance, I rather suspect that my older brother Josh may be infallible, which is not the most endearing trait to have in an older brother. No, in all seriousness, it's not too hard to pick out the characters for who stands in the "infallible" office for us. For Roman Catholics, it's the pope (under certain conditions). For the Orthodox, it's the conference of bishops (under certain conditions). For Protestants, it's the authors of Scripture, at least in their office of writing the books of the Bible. When we say that Scripture is "infallible" (or, as some would have it, "inerrant"), that necessarily includes the belief in a human actor functioning in an infallible office through the work of the Holy Spirit. Not that far off from a pope, in a way.
The bottom line is this: we all believe that the teaching ministry of the Holy Spirit to the Church is infallible. It is infallible because it comes from God himself. The only place we differ is on the primary medium of that infallible message. We evangelicals claim it is the Bible; Orthodox and Roman Catholics would add to that the traditions of doctrine which issued from ecumenical councils and the teaching office of the Roman pope, respectively. We can certainly debate on the reasons for why we might disagree regarding these mediums, but one thing we cannot do as evangelicals is think Roman Catholics are being silly for believing that a fallible human person could ever fulfill an infallible office, because most evangelicals believe the exact same thing.
Speaking for myself, though, I think the quest for infallibility might be a trifle overrated. When I see the scope of Christian history, the beauty of its many forms and the stories of its long debates, it seems to me that the work of the Holy Spirit is a work that enters into the very center of our fallibility. It accepts our humanity. Even in the Bible itself, there is such a broad range of personality and perspective in the writings that an "infallible" teaching on any particular doctrine (at least outside of the main core of Christian belief) is usually a matter of disputable interpretation. But that's what strikes me as part of the beauty of the whole arrangement--the Holy Spirit is an infallible guide, but the Spirit works through fallible human people. So in order to make sure I'm getting the guidance I need, rather than shooting off into my own self-absorbed delusions about proper doctrine, I need to be in conversation with the whole Body of Christ throughout its entire history. I need to be listening, patiently and attentively, to what the Spirit seemed to be saying to the early church fathers, to the monks of the Dark Ages, to the Reformers and Counter-Reformers, to the unchanging Orthodox and the hyper-changing "emerging church," to liberal Christians and conservatives. Because by myself, I am fallible. But the Holy Spirit speaks to the Body of Christ, made up of many millions of fallible parts; and somehow, through all the noise and commotion of its disjointed parts, we find in the center of that story a sweet stream of God's unchanging truth.
(Painting, above: Pope Alexander VII sitting beside his papal tiara; image is part of the Vatican City papal artifacts collection.)