Catholics believe that the pope is indeed infallible, but only on matters of faith, only when four very specific conditions are met, and only because he is guided by the Holy Spirit.
The pope is a man, and like any other man, the pope is a fallen sinner. And yet, as the direct successor of Saint Peter, he is guided by the Holy Spirit to avoid errors on matters of Church doctrine. To some, the pope may seem to set up a barrier for Catholics understanding Scripture, or he may even seem like a kind of spiritual tyrant, dictating to Catholics what they must believe. Understood properly, though, the papacy is a tremendous gift that Jesus gave to His Church in order to keep her from straying into false interpretations of Scripture, and to help her grow into a deeper relationship with Him.
There is strong empirical evidence to support what Catholics believe about the pope. Let’s have a look …
Bind and Loose
Probably the most important Scripture passage for understanding the primacy of Peter and Papal Infallibility is the Gospel of Matthew 16:17-19. In this passage, as we will see, Peter receives a special teaching authority from Jesus. To set the stage, Jesus has asked the Twelve Apostles who people believe He is. They give back a series of incorrect answers. Our Lord then asks them, “Who do you say that I am?” At this point, the Apostle Simon steps forward to speak on behalf of the Twelve, giving the correct answer: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” To this, Jesus responds:
17 “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jona! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven.
18 And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the powers of hell shall not prevail against it.
19 I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”
First, in verse 17, the Lord blesses Peter, affirming his knowledge is a matter not of human intuition, but of divine revelation.
Second, in verse 18, He gives Simon his new name, Peter, fulfilling His words to him from the Gospel of John 1:42. And Jesus promises to build His Church upon him.
Third, in verse 19, Jesus gives Peter the gift of the keys of the kingdom of heaven and the authority to bind and loose (in rabbinical language this meant to forbid and permit), assuring him that his earthly decisions would be upheld in heaven. Here is the crux of the matter! The things which Peter teaches on earth will be upheld as truths by God in heaven. Clearly, because he is imperfect and a sinner, Peter must be given a special grace to prevent him from issuing commands that are contrary to the will of God. This special grace is what Catholics call Papal Infallibility. Without it, God would be in the position of having to confirm false doctrines as true—which, of course, would be an impossibility as He is Truth Itself (see John 14:6). To put it another way, if it is possible for the earthly leader of the Church to make an erroneous teaching binding upon the faithful, then the Church lacks the divine stability that Jesus assured her when He promised the gates of hell would not prevail against her (Matt. 16:18).1
Keys to the Kingdom of Heaven
The symbolism of the keys comes from the ancient custom by which the king appointed his royal steward overseer of the kingdom in his absence and entrusted him with the keys to its gates.
In the Book of the Prophet Isaiah, the Lord sternly addresses the king’s steward, Shebna, saying, “I will thrust you from your office, and you will be cast down from your station. … And I will place on [your successor’s] shoulder the key of the house of David; he shall open, and none shall shut; and he shall shut, and none shall open” (22:19, 22; emphasis added).2
Jesus is the King of kings, “the holy one, the true one, who has the key of David, who opens and no one shall shut, who shuts and no one opens” (Revelation 3:7; see also 1:18 and Job 12:14). In Matthew 16:19, Christ the King appoints Peter to be His steward to oversee the Church, His kingdom on earth, in His absence. In so doing, the Lord does not relinquish His supreme authority, any more than the ancient monarchs relinquished theirs to their stewards.
The teaching infallibility of Peter, which one glimpses in his confession at Caesarea Philippi (Matt. 16), is evident at the famous Council of Jerusalem, at which the Apostles meet to decide whether or not adherence to the Mosaic Law is required for salvation.
Saint Luke’s account, in the Acts of the Apostles, shows the Holy Spirit speaking through the Church’s Magisterium (or “teaching office”)—that is, through the assembly of the Apostles (or bishops) in union with Peter (the pope)—to conclusively settle this doctrinal dispute (15:28). Specifically, it is Peter who settles the dispute; it is his speech which brings the debate to a close (15:7). Although Saint James, as the Bishop of Jerusalem, is given the honor of moderating the council, it is Peter who addresses the assembly on doctrine with James’ closing remarks confirming his instruction.
When Does Infallibility Hold?
Catholic teaching on the infallibility of the Pope is frequently misconstrued. In order for a statement to qualify as infallible, certain criteria must be met. The Pope must:
- Intend to speak as the Pastor of the Universal Church. By contrast, he speaks quite often as a private theologian or an ordinary bishop, such as when he addresses pilgrims gathered in Saint Peter’s Square. In these instances, the Pope’s infallibility does not come into play.
- Pronounce on matters of faith and morals. Statements on any other subject (such as politics or science) do not qualify.
- Intend to render an irrevocable decision that will be binding upon all the faithful. The establishment of a fast, the banning of a book, or the censure of a particular group or individual, are all examples of mere disciplinary actions, which are reversible and, therefore, not infallible.
- Must speak with full consent of the will. Words uttered under duress would not count. His intention to speak infallibly must be made clear, either by the Pope directly or by the circumstances surrounding the pronouncement.
While a papal statement may meet one or more of these requirements, it is necessary that all of the requirements be met in order for it to be considered infallible.
It’s Teaching, not Conduct!
It is often wrongly assumed that the Pope’s personal failings disprove his infallibility, but infallibility has to do with teaching, not conduct. Furthermore, Jesus’ command to obey His intermediaries (see Luke 10:16 and Matthew 18:17) was not made contingent upon their moral integrity (see Matthew 23:2-3).
In the Old Testament, David remained the legitimate King of Israel despite his sins (see the Second Book of Samuel, 11:1). His son, King Solomon, had seven hundred wives and three hundred concubines, and even engaged in idolatry, yet he too remained the ordained leader of God’s chosen people for forty years (see the First Book of Kings, 11:3, 5, 7, 33, 42). Moreover, consider the Twelve Apostles, who were the first leaders of the New Testament Church, and were handpicked by the Lord Himself!
- One betrayed Him for thirty pieces of silver;
- All but one abandoned Him in His hour of greatest need;
- Peter denied he even knew Him (see Matthew, 26:20, et al.);
- Even after the Resurrection, Thomas had a crisis of faith (see John 20:24-25);
- Peter displayed bigotry (see Galatians 2:11-14); and
- Paul conceded, “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I that I do not want to do” (Romans 7:15).
AND YET, the sinfulness of the Church’s leaders does not nullify their authority, nor in the case of the popes does it affect their ability to infallibly define dogma. We see in the Gospels, in fact, that the high priest, Caiaphas, retained the gift of prophecy in spite of his sinfulness (see John 11:49-52, below “Ex Cathedra and Moses”).
The Church does not stand because of her leaders’ personal sanctity, but because of Christ’s promise to send the Holy Spirit to guide her “into all the truth” (John 16:13).
What Are the Arguments Against Papal Infallibility?
In their efforts to disprove Papal Infallibility, detractors often refer to Matthew 16:23 in which Jesus rebukes Peter, saying “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me; for you are not on the side of God, but of men.” The Lord reproached Peter in this way because the Apostle, pleading for Jesus to avoid the Passion, in effect resembled Satan who had tempted Jesus to abandon His mission (see Matthew 4:1, et al.). The Lord’s rebuke does not injure Peter’s infallibility, however, since the Apostle’s words constitute an erroneous private judgment and not a dogmatic teaching.
Another passage, which some believe disproves Peter’s infallibility, is found in the second chapter of Saint Paul’s Letter to the Galatians, in which he recounts his confrontation with Peter over the latter’s refusal to sit and eat with Gentile converts (2:11). However, because Paul’s rebuke had to do with a fault “of procedure and not of doctrine,” Peter’s infallibility was never at issue (Tertullian, The Demurrer Against the Heretics 23:10).
Some misinterpret this passage as proof of Peter’s inferiority to Paul. The very fact that Paul makes such an issue of his standing up to Peter, however, indicates he believed he had addressed a superior. As Saint Augustine observed, “Peter left to those that came after him an example, that, if at any time they deviated from the right path, they should not think it beneath them to accept correction from those who were their juniors” (Letter to Jerome 82:22; see also Saint Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica 2:33:4).
While the fallacy persists in some circles that the majority of popes have been great sinners, the truth is most of Peter’s successors have been men of outstanding virtue. Critics have found it advantageous, nevertheless, to highlight the immorality of a few popes over the sanctity of the many.
Catholics have never denied the popes are fallen human beings in need of salvation like everyone else. What Catholics insist upon, however,—and what history bears out—is that no pope has ever officially taught error on faith and morals, nor contradicted the dogmatic decision of a predecessor or council.
The doctrinal integrity of the Papacy has stood against any and all charges adversaries have raised against it. Each case, when freed from anti-Catholic distortions and taken in the proper historical and theological context, demonstrates the miraculous integrity of Catholic dogma, in spite of the all-too-human nature of the Church’s leaders.3
Ex Cathedra and Moses
When the Pope speaks infallibly, he is said to be speaking ex cathedra, which is Latin for “from the chair.” The concept of a primary seat of authority comes from the Old Testament, in which Moses sat in judgment of the people (see Exodus 18:13).
Moses’ authority, too, was perpetuated through a line of successors (see Deuteronomy, 17:8-9; 34:9). In fact, the Seat of Moses remained active till the time of Christ, as Jesus Himself revealed, saying, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; so practice and observe whatever they tell you, but not what they do; for they preach, but do not practice” (see Matthew 23:1-3).
In the Gospel of Saint John we see a council of the chief priests and Pharisees convening under the authority of the high priest Caiaphas (11:49). At the council, Caiaphas utters the prophecy, “It is expedient for you that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation should not perish” (11:50). As John notes, Caiaphas “did not say this of his own accord, but (on account of his) being high priest that year” (11:51).
Thus, God continued to speak through the successors of Moses (regardless of their piety or wickedness). Peter fulfilled a similar role in the New Covenant, serving as Christ’s earthly representative or vicar through whom God speaks to the people.
Accordingly, many early writings on the Papacy refer to the Mosaic tradition of the singular, authoritative chair. For example, the Muratorian Fragment, written in Rome around A.D. 170, states, “Quite recently in our time, … Bishop Pius, sat in the chair of the church of the city of Rome.”
Likewise, Saint Cyprian, the Bishop of Carthage, writing in 251, made reference to this seat of authority (see Letter to Antonianus 55:8), and sometime before the year 325, an anonymous poet of Gaul declared, “In this chair in which he himself had sat, Peter, In mighty Rome, commanded Linus, the first elected, to sit down” (Pseudo-Tertullian, Poem Against the Marcionites 3:276-277).
Saint Macarius of Egypt (d. ca. 390) wrote: “For of old Moses and Aaron, when this priesthood was theirs, suffered much; and Caiaphas, when he had their chair, persecuted and condemned the Lord. … Afterwards Moses was succeeded by Peter, who had committed to his hands the new Church of Christ, and the true priesthood” (Homily 26).
The charism of infallibly in defining doctrine is instrumental to the Pope’s mission to be the visible sign and source of Christian unity.
The Pope’s role of providing doctrinal unity for all believers was indicated by Jesus at the Last Supper when He said to Peter, “Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail; and when you have turned again, strengthen your brethren” (Luke 22:31-32).
Peter was given the duty of confirming the faith of the others. To enable him to do this, Jesus promised to bestow upon him a faith that would not fail, that is, the gift of infallibility. So it is that those who remain obedient to the Petrine authority have the certainty of knowing they are united in doctrine with the whole Church and ultimately with Christ, the Head of the Church. Conversely, those who have detached themselves from this authority—such as lapsed Catholics, the Eastern Orthodox Churches, and the Protestant communities—have suffered ongoing division and strife.4
Tend My Sheep
Jesus renewed His commission of Peter as His vicarious shepherd on the shores of the Sea of Galilee in the days following the Resurrection. There, Jesus asked him to confirm his love for Him three times, corresponding to Peter’s previous denials (see Matthew 26:34, et al.).
After each affirmation of love, Jesus commanded him to teach and care for His sheep, saying, “Feed my lambs. … Tend my sheep. … Feed my sheep” (John 21:15, 16, 17). The Lord did not relinquish ownership of the sheep, for He continued to call them His own while entrusting them to Peter.5 In order for the Pope to fulfill the office of vicarious shepherd, to ensure Jesus’ sheep are fed the fullness of revealed truth, it is necessary for him to be safeguarded from teaching error. And so he has been for nearly two millennia; and so he shall be till the Lord’s return.
- It is true that the authority to bind and loose was also given to the Apostles as a group in Matthew 18:18, but the power of the keys was reserved for Peter alone. As the successors to the Apostles, Catholic bishops have the collective power to take dogmatically binding decisions, so long as they are gathered in an ecumenical council (a council representing the whole, universal Church) and acting in communion with the Bishop of Rome, Peter’s successor. ↩
- For an in-depth study of Peter’s office in light of Isaiah 22, see Stephen K. Ray, Upon This Rock (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1999), p. 265. ↩
- For a thorough and responsible handling of various controversial episodes in the history of the Papacy see Warren Carroll, A History of Christendom, vols. 1-5 (Front Royal, Virginia: Christendom Press, 1985); also Patrick Madrid, Pope Fiction (San Diego: Basilica Press, 1999). ↩
- The division among the Eastern Orthodox Churches tends to be cultural in nature, whereas the division among lapsed Catholics and within Protestantism typically occurs along doctrinal lines. It might also be noted that for the Eastern Churches, who have maintained a more or less imperfect union with Rome since the eleventh-century schism, division has been moderate by comparison and sound doctrine has, for the most part, been retained. For Protestantism, on the other hand, for which complete detachment from Rome’s authority has been a basic tenet, division has been rampant, resulting in tens-of-thousands of competing denominations. ↩
- See Scott Butler, Norman Dahlgren, and Rev. Mr. David Hess, Jesus, Peter and the Keys (Santa Barbara, California: Queenship Publishing Company, 1996), p. 59; cf. Matt. 9:36-38. ↩