I recently discussed the Immaculate Conception with a Roman Catholic friend. I started with the obvious argument that the idea that Mary was sinless contradicts Paul’s teaching that all have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory. He responded ‘Mary is an exception’, but his reasoning was based on official catholic teachings, not on the context of Romans 3. I needed to get past the official teachings of the Catholic Church since authority is somewhat of a discussion stopper. Perhaps Papal infallibility doesn’t hit the same impasse.
I understand that not all Catholic doctrine is suspended on the Pope’s decisions. Certainly some Catholics held to the Assumption of Mary and the Immaculate Conception before the Vatican Council of 1870 officially declared the Pope infallible. I am not trying to use the Pope as a scapegoat or red herring or the sort. Rather, my purpose is to get at a baseline difference between Catholics and Protestants; epistemologically one that cannot be referred to the authority of the Pope.
It would be completely irrational and circular for anyone to accept Papal Infallibility because the Pope said so. Thus in asking the question ‘why believe in Papal infallibility?’, we move past the official church teachings and get to somewhat of a level playing field between Catholics and Protestants. No longer is it a matter of church authority vs. private judgment – we all have an individual responsility to make up our own minds. The scriptures must be allowed to speak for themselves rather than being defined and interpreted by Rome.
First off, it makes sense to get a clear view of what is meant by Papal infallibility. Popes have erred. Take for example the problems of Pope Sixtus in publishing the Vulgate and related coverup1. Then we have the heresies taught by Popes, such as Honorius teaching the Monothelite heresy and being condemned by the 6th ecumenical council2 and Liberius subscribing to an Arian creed.3 There’s also Pope Marcellinus who made sacrifices to idols. (link)
But Catholics claim Papal infallibility only for ex cathedra statements. Examples of ex cathedra statements look and feel like the Pope’s proclamations on the Immaculate Conception4 and Assumption of Mary5. Thus for papal statements to be ex cathedra they must be given by the pope in an official capacity with the intent to bind the whole church in a matter of faith and morals with an anathema affixed. This is a special gift unique to the Pope. Further, Papal infallibity is to be understood as preservation from error only; not as God inspiring Popes like He did scripture's authors.
On the one hand, I am glad Roman Catholics are defining their own terms with regard to what they believe, but on the other, I think this highly technical definition requires some justification beyond the fact that it’s official catholic teaching. This specific definition, in opposition to other ways of understanding infallibility, must be justified and it cannot be justified on the grounds that the Pope said so.
When Moses or the Prophets or Apostles spoke, they spoke with the authority of ‘thus saith the Lord’, not with this highly qualified technical understanding of infallible teaching. Consider the following passages:
Jeremiah 1:4 “Then the word of the LORD came to me, saying...”
Acts 1:16 "Holy Spirit through mouth of David..."
Acts 15:28 “For it seemed good to the Holy Spirit, and to us...”
II Peter 1:21 - "no prophecy was ever made by an act of human will, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God"
Unlike the catholic teaching on papal infallibility, the subject matter of the biblical concept of infallibility is not limited to just matters of faith and morals, and does not have to be something binding to the whole church and does not have to be something taught from an official office and is not unique to Peter. So this catholic definition is distinct from the scriptural understanding of infallibility.
Just imagine Peter about to send a heretical letter he has already written and firmly believes in and has taught to those within earshot, but James, John and Andrew steal his stamps so he can't send it. This little scenario seems completely in harmony with Rome's definition of Papal Infallibility and the past actions of Popes, but shocking and obviously not within the biblical understanding of infallibility. Christ forbid the apostles from teaching before they recieved the Spirit. After Pentecost, He so transformed them that they were able to say "when you received the word of God which you heard from us, you welcomed it not as the word of men, but as it is in truth, the word of God". 1 Thessalonians 2:13
Now let's look at some of the reasons given to hold to Papal infallibility. Some point to Matthew 16 and say Peter’s confession was the first infallible statement by a Pope. But the form of Peter’s confession looks nothing like the Pope’s statements regarding the Assumption of Mary or Immaculate Conception, so Peter’s confession do not meet the specialized Catholic definition of infallibility. The rest of the passage in Matthew 16 may or may not have anything to do with Peter’s primacy, but does not teach papal infallibility.
Others point to tradition. Thus they say Christ and the Apostles taught many things not recorded in scripture and they are now embodied in the teachings of the Church Fathers and Ecumenical Councils. Thus the doctrine of papal infallibly was handed down to us via tradition and the church has always believed it.
But Jerome said all bishops were of equal dignity and leaders were chosen for practical reasons (not based on an office)6. Gregory said it was prideful to be called universal bishop and denotes that the times of anti-Christ is at hand. 7 Keenan’s Catholic Catechism itself denied the doctrine just 20 years before it was pronounced official. 8
Others point to Church Councils. But no council until 1870 teaches Papal infallibilty and it says Popes are higher than councils. Further, when there were three papal claimants, the Council of Constance that deposed the ‘fake popes’ did so on the basis that the councils are higher than popes. But the popes rejected the council and the council said the very opposite of Vatican Council of 1870, which defined Papal infallibility.9
In addition to the lack of evidence in favor of papal infallibility (and the burden of proof is on Catholics who assert such infallibility), there’s good reasons not to hold to it.
First, there’s no scriptural promise for Papal infallibility. Regeneration and the work of the Holy Spirit is simply incomplete in this life. We all sin and we all hold to a certain amount of bad theology.
Second, the Old Testament is replete with the errors of the leaders of Israel. The Prophets judged the Priests for their sins and errors. Christ warned the Israelites of the leven of the Pharisees (Mt 16:6,12), and the Sanhedrin with the High Priest (basically a the OT equivalent of a Church council) errored in condemning Christ. Further, we are warned of future apostasy of church leadership in the end times 2 Thess 2.
Third, we are given the duty to examine doctrines presented to us: Is 8:20, John 5:39, Galatians 1:8, 1 Jn 4:1, 1 Thess 5:21
Fourth, apparently there was some dirty pool involved in the council related to the official pronouncement. 10
So I remain baffled as to what reasons might be given to believe in Papal infallibility and I fear the real reason Catholics believe in the Pope is because the Pope says to.
1The Council of Trent had declared the translation of Jerome to be the authentic text of the Bible for the Western Church, but there was as yet no authentic edition of the Latin Bible; i. e. none accredited by the Church. Sixtus V. undertook to give one; and it appeared, provided with the anathemas and penal enactments which had now so long been stereotyped. His Bull declared, that this edition, corrected by his own hands, must be adopted and used by all and each as the only true and genuine edition, under pain of excommunication; any change, even of a word, was forbidden under the like penalty.
"Now, then, it appeared that it was full of faults; some 2000 incorrect passages were found, for which the Pope himself was responsible. It was said that the Six-tine Bible must be openly forbidden. But Bellarmine advised to hush up, as far as possible, the great peril into which Sixtus V. had by his act brought the Church; all copies were to be withdrawn; the corrected Bible was to be reprinted, but under the name of Sixtus V., and it was to be given out in the Preface that the errors had been introduced through the fault of the compositors and the carelessness of others. Bellarmine himself received the commission to write the preface, and thereby to put in circulation this lie, to which the new Pope gave his name. In his Autobiography, the Jesuit and Cardinal boasted that he had thus requited Sixtus with good for evil, since the Pope had had Bellarmine's chief work, the Contro-versies, put on the Index, because in it he did not maintain the direct supremacy of the Pope over the whole world, but only the indirect. (Annals of Raynaldus, Ad. 1439. P 65)
2 He [Honorius]specifically taught the Monothelite heresy in two letters to the pa-triarch of Constantinople [that is, that Christ had only one will, which by implication meant that he denied either His deity or His humanity]. The opinion was condemned by the sixth ecumenical council (68o) which condemned and excommunicated Honorius by name (Honorio haeretico anathema, Session XVI). The Roman breviary contained this anathema until the sixteenth century (until the time of Luther, when apparently the Reformers made so much of it that it was quietly dropped)…..Honorius was a heretic according to Roman Catholic standards and was condemned by church councils and popes for 800 years. (Harris. Fundamental Protestant Doctrines, 11 p. 13).
3Alphonsus de Castro saith : De Liberio papa constat fuisse Ari-anum2: "Touehsabeu" ln pope Liberius, it is well known he was an Arian." Sabellicus saith: Ariani Eimead. TU. precibus suis apud Constantium.... Liberio reditum ad urbem confecere. Quo iUe beneficio commotus, ex confesso Arianus, ut quidam scribunt, est actus: "The Arian heretics, by their entreaty unto the emperor Constantius, obtained of him that pope Liberius might be restored again unto the city. With which good turn Liberius being moved, as some have written, became an Arian heretic (ex confesso) in good earnest, and with his heart." Platina saith: Liberius imperatoris beneficio motus, ut quidam volunt, in rebus omnibus sensit cum hareticis, fyc. Pontifex.... to met si cum Arianis sentiebat, [tamen] eccksias Dei.... diligenter exornabat: " Pope Liberius, moved with the emperor's gentleness, as some think, agreed in all things with the heretics." The works of John Jewel University Press, 1848 p 342 )
444. For which reason, after we have poured forth prayers of supplication again and again to God, and have invoked the light of the Spirit of Truth, for the glory of Almighty God who has lavished his special affection upon the Virgin Mary, for the honor of her Son, the immortal King of the Ages and the Victor over sin and death, for the increase of the glory of that same august Mother, and for the joy and exultation of the entire Church; by the authority of our Lord Jesus Christ, of the Blessed Apostles Peter and Paul, and by our own authority, we pronounce, declare, and define it to be a divinely revealed dogma: that the Immaculate Mother of God, the ever Virgin Mary, having completed the course of her earthly life, was assumed body and soul into heavenly glory.
45. Hence if anyone, which God forbid, should dare willfully to deny or to call into doubt that which we have defined, let him know that he has fallen away completely from the divine and Catholic Faith. (link)
5Wherefore, in humility and fasting, we unceasingly offered our private prayers as well as the public prayers of the Church to God the Father through his Son, that he would deign to direct and strengthen our mind by the power of the Holy Spirit. In like manner did we implore the help of the entire heavenly host as we ardently invoked the Paraclete. Accordingly, by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, for the honor of the Holy and undivided Trinity, for the glory and adorn-ment of the Virgin Mother of God, for the exaltation of the Catholic Faith, and for the furtherance of the Catholic religion, by the authority of Jesus Christ our Lord, of the Blessed Apostles Peter and Paul, and by our own: "We declare, pronounce, and define that the doctrine which holds that the most Blessed Virgin Mary, in the first instance of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege granted by Almighty God, in view of the merits of therefore to be believed firmly and constantly by all the faithful." therefore to be believed firmly and constantly by all the faithful." Hence, if anyone shall dare -- which God forbid! -- to think otherwise than as has been defined by us, let him know and understand that he is condemned by his own judgment; that he has suffered shipwreck in the faith; that he has separated from the unity of the Church; and that, furthermore, by his own action he incurs the penalties established by law if he should are to express in words or writing or by any other outward means the errors he think in his heart. (link)
6When subsequently one presbyter was chosen to preside over the rest, this was done to remedy schism and to prevent each individual from rending the church of Christ by drawing it to himself. For even at Alexandria from the time of Mark the Evangelist until the episcopates of Heraclas and Dionysius the presbyters always named as bishop one of their own number chosen by themselves and set in a more exalted position, just as an army elects a general, or as deacons appoint one of themselves whom they know to be diligent and call him archdeacon. For what function, excepting ordination, belongs to a bishop that does not also belong to a presbyter? It is not the case that there is one church at Rome and another in all the world beside. Gaul and Britain, Africa and Persia, India and the East worship one Christ and observe one rule of truth. If you ask for authority, the world outweighs its capital. Wherever there is a bishop, whether it be at Rome or at Engubium, whether it be at Constantinople or at Rhegium, whether it be at Alexandria or at Zoan, his dignity is one and his priesthood is one. Neither the command of wealth nor the lowliness of poverty makes him more a bishop or less a bishop. All alike are successors of the apostles. (link)
7Still it is very distressing, and hard to be borne with patience, that my aforesaid brother and fellow bishop, despising all others, should attempt to be called sole bishop. But in this pride of his what else is denoted than that the times of Antichrist are already near at hand? For in truth he is imitating him who, scorning social joy with the legions of angels, attempted to start up to a summit of singular eminence, saying, I will exalt my throne above the stars of heaven, I will sit upon the mount of the testament, in the sides of the North, and will ascend above the heights of the clouds, and I will be like the most High (link)
8Question: Must not Catholics believe the Pope in himself to be infallible?
Answer: This is a Protestant invention; it is no article of the Catholic faith; no decision of his can oblige, under pain of heresy, unless it be received and enforced by the teaching body; that is, by the bishops of the Church. (Keenan's Controversial Catechism, on Protestantism Refuted and Catholicism Establish, by the Rev. Stephen Keenan, Second Edition revised and enlarged, published in 1851 by C. Dolman, 13 South Hanover Street, Edinburgh; and 61, New Bond Street, Lon-don).
9,‘In the 1300’s, the popes moved to Avignon, France, and for seventy years were manifestly subservient to the French kings. This has been called the “Babylonian Captivity” of the papacy. Following this time, Gregory XI went back to Rome. His successor, Urban VI (1378—1389) made an election promise to return to France, but election promises are not always kept and he later refused. The French then called his election illegal and elected a new rival pope, Clement VII (1378-1394). This schism continued until a council was called at Pisa in 1409, which deposed both rival popes and elected a new one, Alexander V (1409—1410). The rival popes refused to accept the council and so three popes were on the scene. After the death of Alexander V, he was succeeded by John XXIII whom Roman Catholics do not acknowledge and whose name the present pope has taken to show the illegality of the first John XXIII. Roman Catholics do not accept the Council of Pisa as an ecumenical council (that is, one representative of the whole church). But most of them accept Alexander V whom it elected! (Hefele, History of the Church Councils, Vol. 1, p. 58). The Council of Pisa declared that a council is superior to a pope.
‘The schism continued and the Council of Constance (1414-1418) was called. This council deposed all three popes and elected a new one, Martin V (1417—1431) . . . The Council of Constance also declared that a council is superior to a pope, and thus it acted to depose three popes at once. Hefele, one of the best known Roman authorities, takes the odd position that the first forty sessions of the council were not ecumenical but that sessions 41-45, presided over by Martin V whom they elected, were ecumenical. Martin proceeded to confirm all the decrees of the first forty sessions except those that minimized the papacy. Here, of course, was the pope’s dilemma. If the earlier sessions were valid, the Council was supreme over the pope. If not, the other popes were not deposed and Martin V was not rightly elected! The Vatican Council of 1870 declared: “They err from the right course who assert that it is lawful to appeal from the judgment of the Roman Pontiff to an ecumenical council, as to an authority higher than that of the Roman Pontiff.” This is wonderful. The pope is higher than a council. The Vatican Council made him so! But a previous council, just as regular, had denied him to be so’ (Article, The Bible Presbyterian Reporter, Dec., 1958).
10 ‘Out of the 541 prelates from Europe, the Italian peninsula, with a population of 27 million, was represented by 276, or 11 more than the whole of the rest of the continent in-cluding Britain and Ireland. . . . Even more horrifying is the fact that those of the Papal States that had not at that time been seized, and which had a population of less than three-quarters of a million, were represented by sixty-two bishops, while five million Roman Catholics elsewhere were represented by only three bishops—those of Paris, Cambrai and Cologne—all three critical of the standpoint of the papalist party. . . . It was calculated in an anonymous pamphlet circulated in Rome after the Council had been in operation for five months and attributed to Mgr. Darboy, Archbishop of Paris, that one hundred and ninety-one members of the Council had no constitu-tional right to be there at all’ (MacGregor. The Vatican Revolution, pp. 28, 29).