Is it true that whenever the majority of bishops, the pope included, teach, they teach infallibly?
John Young thinks so (July AD2000). He holds this is the case with the teachings of Vatican II specifying that the Council's teaching on religious liberty is an instance. Take the pronouncement of Vatican II about the civil right to religious liberty. It was passed by an overwhelming majority of the Council Fathers, and confirmed by the Pope. If that is not an instance of an infallible teaching (of the ordinary universal Magisterium), what is?
Fortunately this is not the case, for were it not, the reputation of the Church would be severely damaged, seeing that other past Ecumenical Councils have taught that the State has a duty to suppress and even execute those who deny Church teachings.
One example will suffice.
The Fourth Council of the Lateran in 1215, consisting of over 400 bishops and some 800 abbots and priors, decreed punishments for Jews and Saracens who failed to wear distinctive clothing. Heretics were to be handed over to rulers to be punished. Rulers were to take an oath on assuming office that they would banish heretics. Catholics who took up arms against heretics were to be given the privileges granted to Crusaders. There is more in this vein.
One might argue that these are matters of law or discipline, not teachings. Such an argument is defeated by the fact that the pope and other prelates assumed to be true that the Church had a mandate to punish those opposing Catholic doctrine and practices. They could scarcely have believed they lacked such authority and, at the same time, have called on rulers to punish heretics with deprivation and death.
This teaching was the basis for the provisions of the concordat of 1953 between Spain and the Holy See which denied legal status to non-Catholic groups and rights to own property and publish books, and forbade the advertisement of their church services.
We know councils or popes are teaching infallibly when they define a doctrine as one to be held by all the faithful, as James Bogle says.
Catholics can find relief from history on realising that the ordinary universal magisterium never defined as a doctrine that deniers of the Catholic Faith have no rights to hold or propagate their beliefs and act in accordance with them.
DR FRANK MOBBS