Newsies are now saying the Pope is going to deliver an encyclical on the environment that will (a) denounce fracking, (b) embrace global warming and (c) give Greens throughout the world warm fuzzies because these statements will be infallibly stated in an infallible encyclical infallible. I threw that extra "infallible" in, because you're going to see that word a lot whenever the Pope says something the MSM thinks turns to their advantage. Might as well get used to it. We're going to see it a lot in the coming days. Sigh.
Anyway, we will ignore the fact that they are not similarly thrilled about the infallible teaching contained within Humanae Vitae, and get down to brass tacks. What is an infallible teaching?
This is almost always very badly explained.
We could yammer a bit about how an infallible teaching must be on a matter of (1) faith and morals, (2) to the whole Church, (3) pronounced with Peter's own teaching authority, and that it's very rare, yada, yada, yada.
But that all misses the point.
To begin with, infallible statements are not at all rare - they are extremely common. Second, anyone can pronounce an infallible statement - it isn't just restricted to the Pope. When I say, "God is Three Divine Persons in One Divine Nature", I have made an infallibly true statement. I have spoken infallibly.
To make an infallibly true statement, you need only teach what the Church has always taught. That's all. Period. Done. Infallible statements are made in every child's catechism class every day. They are made in every book that correctly enunciates Catholic doctrine, even books written by raging atheists. Teach what the Church has always taught and, boom!, you have spoken infallibly! You can do it, too! Try it!
Now, fracking is not a subject upon which the Church has always taught, therefore not subject to the charism. Same with global warming. Perhaps there is an underlying principle of preserving the environment - which arguably is a point upon which the Church has always taught. After all, Scripture, which is infallible Church teaching, talks about Adam (and therefore the rest of us, too), being set to steward the earth and the things within it.
All well and good. We must steward the earth, that is an infallibly true statement. But how we do it - that's a prudential judgement. The Pope is not infallible in matters of prudence. He is also not infallible on matters of technology or applied experimental science. Is fracking good or bad when it comes to stewardship? You have to know a whole lot, not only about the fracking process, but also about what would happen to people if we didn't do that and tried doing something else to get energy instead. Even if the Pope were to specifically denounce fracking in an encyclical (it won't happen, but let's say he did), good Catholics could look at the argument he brought forward and disagree.
Why? Well, because the Church doesn't have an eternal teaching on energy development and use. She has eternal teachings on the sanctity of human life, from its beginning to its natural end. How we use energy and the environment certainly impacts human life. But it isn't at the core of human life or the life of heaven. Energy use and environmental use are areas where we are to apply the principles of caring for each other as God cares for us, and figure out the best road given the tools we have developed.
IVF, contraception, euthanasia - these are at the core of human life. Doesn't matter what technology is being employed, people have a right to be conceived by two parents, spouses have a duty to be open to life, everyone has a right to food, water, and shelter and a right to not being murdered. Now, how we feed them - are GMOs good or bad? That's a prudential judgement. How we get the energy necessary to get them food, water and shelter. That's a prudential judgement. But having a lab tech conceive a kid in a Petri dish and then freeze him solid in liquid nitrogen? Yeah, that's not how God treats us, so that's not how we are supposed to treat each other.
So, what's the story with the three-point test and rarity and all that?
Well, there have been times in Church history when nearly the whole Church got themselves so confused on a doctrine that essentially no one was correctly enunciating the doctrine. Everyone was mis-teaching on it. In those situations, the Popes have stood up and clearly stated exactly what the doctrine is - those were infallible statements. But we, as a Church, were so crazy on the point that we had to go through that three-point list above to make sure we had heard it correctly and understood that he was authoritatively telling us to get our heads screwed on straight. That is the charism of infallibility - the ability to keep one's head and correctly teach what is necessary for salvation when everyone else is running around yelling nonsense like a lunatic.