The Holy Catholic Church’s teaching on papal infallibility is one which is generally misunderstood by those outside the Church. In particular, the Protestants often confuse the charism of papal “infallibility” with “impeccability.” They imagine that the Catholics believe the Pope cannot sin. Infallibility is not about the absence of sin. Infallibility is a charism given by the Holy Spirit to St. Peter and his successors only on matters pertaining to faith and morals. However, what is papal infallibility?
The Papal infallibility is a dogma of the holy Catholic Church which states that, in virtue of the promise of our Lord Jesus to St. Peter, the Pope (or the council in union with the Pope) is preserved from the possibility of error “when, in the exercise of his office as shepherd and teacher of all Christians, in virtue of his supreme apostolic authority, he defines a doctrine concerning faith or morals to be held by the whole Church.” (Vatican I, First Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, chapter 4, 9)
This doctrine was defined dogmatically in the First Ecumenical Council of Vatican in 1869–1870, but had already existed and defended since the apostolic age. In order for the papal pronouncement becomes infallible, the following must be met:
- The pronouncement must be made by the lawful successor to St. Peter.
- The subject matter must be in the area of faith and morals.
- The pope must be speaking “ex cathedra”, that is from the very seat and office of Peter. In this way he must be specifically intending to proclaim a doctrine, binding the entire Church to its assent.
NOTE: If one or more of these elements is missing, there is no infallible pronouncement.
However, why does the Pope speak infallibly on matters relative to faith and morals? It is because the Pope is the successor of St. Peter, the apostle upon whom the church was built. But, what made St. Peter acquire the same charism?
In Matthew 16:19, the Lord said to St. Peter: “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.” Thus, the acts of binding and loosing (prohibiting and allowing) indicate infallible authority of St. Peter as leader of the Church; for whatever his decision (in matters pertaining to faith and morals) be on earth would also be the same in heaven. He has the keys of the kingdom of heaven — the divine authority. How can his authority be the same in heaven if it is not guided by the Holy Spirit?
As promised by the Lord, the Holy Spirit guides the apostles, including St. Peter, in all truth:
“But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all the truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come.” (John 16:13)
THEREFORE, would St. Peter err when he spoke of matters concerning faith and morals if he was guided by the Spirit of truth? Would he lose his faith in Christ if it was Christ Himself Who prayed for him?
“But I have prayed for you, Simon, that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned back, strengthen your brothers.” (Luke 22:32)
Below are some of the biblical instances im which St. Peter acted with infallibility:
At the local council of Jerusalem, St. Peter exercised infallibility in resolving Judaizers’ controversy, as he said: “God made a choice among you that the Gentiles might hear from my lips the message of the gospel and believe” (Acts 15:7). Here, St. Peter spoke with authority, he spoke under the inspiration of the Spirit of truth. St. Peter’s word was final and absolute. The debate ended. St. Peter had spoken. His pronouncement was the basis of the later judgment made by St. James the Just, bishop of Jerusalem.
Notice that after Christ ascended to heaven, St. Peter stood up with the eleven in the Upper Room, and He spoke about Judas’ death and He said, “It was known beforehand and had even been prophesied in the Old Testament and so what should we do now?” Here St. Peter was not just contributing an opinion; for it was binding and immediately followed. And what did he say? He quoted the Psalms, “Let his habitation become desolate and let there be no one to live in it.” He added, “His office, let another take.” And they draw lots and they chose Matthias. No debate, no novelty. The eleven understood St. Peter, but even more, they submitted to him. (cf. Acts 1:12-26)
Then in Acts 5, Ananias and Sapphira, two wealthy members of the Church, sold some land and then lied about how much money they gave to the Church. St. Peter said to Ananias, “What are you doing?” Ananias says, “Well I gave you all the money.” And Peter says, “You are lying to the Holy Spirit.” Ananias said, “No, I’m just lying to you, Peter.” But no. In lying to St. Peter, Ananias was lying to the Holy Spirit and to the Church. He was struck dead! A few hours later his wife Sapphira came along. St. Peter said, “What happened?” “Oh, we sold the land for this amount, and we gave you all the money.” And, “Hark, the footsteps of the men who just carried out your husband are coming for you.” She dropped dead! “And great fear came upon all those who heard of it,” in verse 5.
Protestants must also acknowledge that St. Peter wrote two infallible epistles of the New Testament while under protection against writing erroneously.
No wonder. Petrine promise was rather apparent here. St. Peter’s pre-eminence was on display for the whole Church and the whole world and all the Jews to see and to behold.
The infallible authority of St. Peter has been prefigured in the Old Testament when God has always provided authoritative leaders. From Abraham to Jacob to Moses to David to Solomon, et. al., throughout the thousands and thousands of years of Israel’s existence, God gave Israel earthly authority. But Protestants see this authority as having abruptly ended when the Old Testament Covenant was fulfilled and Israel’s King of Kings took on flesh. But that is not true, because the infallibilty of the Jewish elders continued to be exercised even during the time of our Lord.
“For the priest’s lips should keep knowledge, and they should seek the law at his mouth: for he is the messenger of the Lord of hosts.” (Malachi 2-7)
“The scribes and 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.” (Matthew 23:2-3)
Did that earthly authorty pass away? If not, where did that authority pass on to?
“And I will clothe him with thy robe, and strengthen him with thy girdle, and I will commit thy government into his hand: and he shall be a father to the inhabitants of Jerusalem, and to the house of Judah. And the key of the house of David will I lay upon his shoulder; so he shall open, and none shall shut; and he shall shut, and none shall open. And I will fasten him as a nail in a sure place; and he shall be for a glorious throne to his father’s house.” (Isaiah 22:21-23)
“And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” (Matthew 16:18-19)
See?! The authority was passed on to St. Peter and to the priests of the New Covenant.
Below are the testimonies of the early Christians on the infallibility of the Bishop of Rome:
St. Clement I, bishop of Rome
“Owing to the sudden and repeated calamities and misfortunes which have befallen us… Accept our counsel and you will have nothing to regret… If anyone disobeys the things which have been said by him [God] through us [that you must reinstate your leaders], let them know that they will involve themselves in transgression and in no small danger… You will afford us joy and gladness if being obedient to the things which we have written through the Holy Spirit, you will root out the wicked passion of jealousy…” (Letter to the Corinthians 1:1, 58:2-59:1,63:2[A.D.80]).
St. Ignatius, bishop of Antioch
“… to the Church also which holds the presidency, in the location of the country of the Romans, worthy of God, worthy of honor, worthy of blessing, worthy of praise, worthy of success, worthy of sanctification, and, because you hold the presidency in love, named after Christ and after the Father” (Letter to the Romans 1:1 [A.D. 110]).
St. Clement of Alexandria
“…the blessed Peter, the chosen, the pre-eminent, the first among the disciples, for whom alone with Himself the Savior paid the tribute…” (Primacy of Peter [200 AD])
St. Cyprian, bishop of Carthage
“Would the heretics dare to come to the very seat of Peter whence apostolic faith is derived and whither no errors can come?”
“The Lord says to Peter; ’I say to you,’ he says, ‘that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of hell will not overcome it. And to you I will give the keys of the kingdom of Heaven; and whatever things you bind on earth shall be bound also in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth, they shall be loosed also in heaven’ [Matt 16:18-19])…On him [Peter] he builds the Church, and to him he gives the command to feed the sheep [John 21:17], and although he assigns a like power to all the apostles, yet he founded a single chair [cathedra], and he established by his own authority a source and an intrinsic reason for that unity. Indeed, the others were also what Peter was [i.e. apostles], but a primacy is given to Peter, whereby it is made clear that there is but one Church and one chair. So too, all [the apostles] are shepherds, and the flock is shown to be one, fed by all the apostles in single-minded accord. If someone does not hold fast to this unity of Peter, can he imagine that he still holds the faith? If he [should] desert the chair of Peter upon whom the Church was built can he still be confident that he is in the Church?” (The Unity of the Catholic Church 4; 1st edition [A.D. 251]).
St. Julius I, bishop of Rome
“Or do you not know that it is the custom to write to us first, and that here what is just is decided?” (Letter to the Antiochenes [341 AD])
St. Siricius, bishop of Rome
“To your inquiry we do not deny a legal reply, because we, upon whom greater zeal for the Christian religion is incumbent than upon the whole body, out of consideration for our office do not have the liberty to dissimulate, nor to remain silent. We carry the weight of all who are burdened; nay rather the blessed apostle PETER bears these in us, who, as we trust, protects us in all matters of his administration, and guards his heirs” (Letter to Himerius [385 AD])
THE INFALLIBLE AUTHORITY OF JESUS CHRIST WAS HANDED ON TO PETER AND THEN WAS HANDED ON TO HIS SUCCESSORS, THE POPE.
“So then, should anyone, which God forbid, have the temerity to reject this definition of ours: let him be anathema.”
—Vatican I, 4:4:9—