Papal Infallibility

Wednesday, September 03, 2003



In a debate forum where I was mostly arguing for progressive Catholic positions, I was challenged by an Evangelical Protestant who wanted to know why I believed in the papacy and what the role of Peter in the Bible means to me personally.

My own personal sentiments would echo those expressed by many conservatives. I find it amazingly good news that God continues to work through weak - even sinful human persons to reveal truth.

The Protestant completed an exposition of the use of the image "rock" in the Old Testament. He correctly pointed out that the image typically was used to refer to God. In his mind, the imagery shifts so much in the New testament by becoming a mere man's name in in Matthew 16, that we must assume that the image was applied to Peter's confession rather than his personhood.

On the other hand, I see a different point being made. It seems to me that God is revealing that he wishes to share his truth, power and grace with us by permitting divine attributes to be assigned to a human person. It is as though the mystery of the incarnation is being extended to the Church in the person of Simon Son of John.

The actual person whom God chose to name "Petros" was a fallible person overall. Yet, he was the one chosen to tend and feed the sheep, to strengthen the brethren, and to bind and loose. He clearly is the leader of the post resurrection church - and even Paul seeks Peter's approval before preaching to the Gentiles. He is the authority behind some texts of Scripture, and in his final days, he was the authority behind the church at Rome.

(See Mt 16:17-19, Lk 21:31-32, and Jn 21:15-17 for some of the many Scriptural supports for Petrine primacy).

Accepting the existence of a God given authority is nothing more than humbly acknowledging that I am not personally infallible - that even my private interpretation of Scripture just might be at least partially mistaken. This keeps us from producing cult like followings of charismatic individuals who actually teach bizarre and harmful doctrines - such as David Koresh.

This authority of the pope has been passed down through the laying on of hands in the Roman church, creating a sort of blood-line, if you will. We can know with certainty that each pope knew the pope before him, and though none of them were perfect, they each knew what their predecessor taught. This ensures a level of continuity when disputes arise that can not be found in all Christian communities.

The office of the Pope is a sure symbol of unity and continuity with the past, and adds a clarity to Biblical interpretation that prevents us from splintering in thousands of different directions.

Since such an office seems indicated in the Scriptures sited above, and the very idea is reasonable, we see no reason to deny the validity of the office.

Yet, I suppose that for an outsider looking in, there is a great deal of apprehension about putting this much trust in a man.

I grew up Catholic, so the idea is not frightening to me. However, for the benefit of outsiders, I would be the first Catholic to point out that this office we call the papacy has developed rules for itself that are designed to prevent any holder of the office from abusing power.

The conservatives and I may have slightly different interpretations of the meaning and extent of these rules, but I think we can both agree that the rules are in place. Conservatives tend to want to maximize the role of the pope in creating unity - which is good and understandable. I tend to want to minimize his authority to allow the development of tradition some breathing room and permit what might be legitimate diversity within Catholicism.

Anyway, here are some of the rules:

1) The charism of infallibly is a "negative charism". The word, "charism" means gift from God. Calling this a "negative charism" means that when the gift is invoked, the statement made by the Pope is WITHOUT error. It does not mean that the infallible truth is the whole truth or that the infallible teaching cannot be further developed and explored. It simply means that whatever was defined was free of theological error. For example, if I had the power of infallibility, and I say infallibly that "the earth orbits the sun", we can continue to ask questions such as "How many days does it take?" or "Does this imply the sun is the center of the universe."

2) The charism of infallibility can only be invoked on a matter of faith and morals. Thus, my last example could probably not actually be defined infallibility, because it is a matter of scientific inquiry, rather than a matter of faith and morals. The Pope must be speaking about an issue such as the divinity of Christ or the morality of abortion and so forth.

3) The charism of infallibility cannot be used to introduce a new doctrine. The charism is intended to develop, clarify, or define a position already held in the Church. For example, many Catholics are debating whether women have ever been priests or could be ordained today. The Pope could settle this issue infallibly by offering an interpretation of the Scriptures used on either side of a debate under the charism of infallibility. However, it is not the pope's job to introduce novel theories and speculation, or to seek out the latest scholarly findings in other fields to define an issue infallibly. Thus, even if the pope were to ordain women, he would need to show they were ordained in the past, or something Jesus said or did implied they could be ordained, and the principle was preserved in the tradition, even if not developed to its fullest. Typically, when infallibility is invoked, the Pope is expected to demonstrate that the teaching being defined has been present through the ages, even if in a seminal form.

4) Once an infallible definition is made, its truth cannot be contradicted or denied. This may sound rigid, but what this does is bind future popes to the tradition so that no pope can come along and do something stupid like deny the divinity of Christ, which has already been infallibly defined. Thus, Catholicism is ensured continuity with the past, and consistency in the future that few other denominations can claim.

5) Not everything the pope says on faith and morals is to be considered infallible. The pope, realizing he is human, actually should avoid invoking the charism of infallibility unless he is sure that he has reached a conclusion free of error. The Church requires under canon law that if a pope is invoking infallibility, he must make it clear that his intent is to speak infallibly. He does so by using the full authority of his office to address the entire church on a matter of faith and morals with language that clearly expresses that he is defining a truth infallibly for the purpose of strengthening us.

6) The Church has already infallibly defined that the pope cannot consider his authority above Scripture. The pope, and all bishops are to view their authority as that of serving Scripture. Thus, whatever matter of faith and morals is being defined, the definition must be consistent with Scriptural principles, even if not found explicitly in the Bible. For example, when a pope defined the Immaculate Conception, it was only implied loosely in Luke 1: 28, but the ancient theory also does not directly and clearly contradict the Scripture (there is no passage that explicitly says Mary sinned, and even Paul's "all have sinned" has the obvious implied exception of Christ that we believe also covers Mary).

7) The gift of infallibility comes from Christ, and not from the Church. Thus, if all laypeople world-wide suddenly slipped into an error such as denying the divinity of Christ, the Pope would be right to invoke infallibility to try to correct us. However, for most issues where infallibly would be invoked for the first time on an issue, the pope is advised that he has a moral obligation to consult what we call "the sense of the faithful". The reason for this is that since Christ promised to be with the Church through all time, and the entire Church is filled with his Spirit, it would be highly unlikely that the entire Church were led into error simultaneously. If the Pope is considering a particular interpretation of Scripture that he believes might be infallible, and there is wide-spread support for this, he can be more sure of himself in invoking infallibility than if there is widespread doubt. If there is not wide-spread support for his own interpretation, even though he has a "right" as Pope to invoke infallibility, he would have a moral obligation to consider his position more carefully.

8) The Pope is not the only entity that has the charism of infallibility in the Church. The college of bishops who acknowledge the pope and are in union with him also acts infallibility when they come to a deliberate consensus on matters of faith and morals. It MUST be a matter of faith and morals! This consensus also must be demonstrated to exist, which is usually done through an Ecumenical (world-wide) Council. A counciliar consensus must not be simply a majority vote. It must be an actual consensus, with two thirds or more in agreement. Almost all teachings Catholics consider truly infallible were defined through Councils, rather than by a Pope acting alone. Indeed, even when the popes have defined a doctrine alone, in all cases that I am aware of, he consulted the college of bishops prior to making his definition and found near universal agreement. As with the papacy, an Ecumenical Council and an individual bishop are NEVER to consider themselves above the Scripture, but are to act as its servants. There is not a single Counciliar decree of infallible import that contradicts Scripture, even if in places the Scriptural principle used was more implied than explicitly stated.

9) Not only are the Pope and the Ecumenical Councils considered infallible, but as I alluded to already, when the whole Church reaches a universal consensus on a matter of faith and morals, we can be certain that the whole Church was not led into error.

What I am trying to point out is that despite the fact that the Pope has this gift called infallibility, the Catholic Church actually relies more often on consensus building. This means that prior to an infallible definition, there is usually debate about the issue across the whole Body of Christ with Scripture playing a key role in the debate.

It is possible that two people who accept papal infallibility can disagree passionately on some subjects (as I disagree with many conservative Catholics). Despite being the largest single religion on earth, Catholicism has greater unity than any other Christian denomination, and greater continuity with the past than most others (we accept that the Eastern Orthodox have preserved the essentials).

Yet, being Catholic does not mean that you become an automaton that turns off her or his mind. Nor does it mean that the Spirit is only acting in the Pope and not the rest of us to reveal truth or make the gospel come alive in the modern world. Within the bounds of our tradition, there is such a thing as legitimate speculation and legitimate debate. There is a role for what might be called "loyal opposition" and "prophetic critique".

The key is to ground your opinions in Scripture and the prior infallible statements denying none of these. Likewise, you should be humble enough to allow yourself to be informed by the non-infallible guidance (which can be questioned) provided by the Popes and the bishops.

If you were to submit to these notions, I believe that there is still incredible room and freedom for the Holy Spirit to breath and work in the individual person, and yet that person can feel safer in that freedom than the chaos of some other Christian groups!

For further consideration of the topic of infallibility, the following blogs may be of interest:

Is the Church a Divine Monarchy?
What is Infallibility?
Did the Church Support Slavery?
How Does Doctrine Develop?
The Primacy of Conscience
Is the Church Like a Political Party?

Peace and Blessings!

Readers may contact me at


posted by Jcecil3 1:51 PM

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