Today is exciting because we get to discuss what is possibly the biggest area of contention non-Catholics have regarding the Catholic Church. That is, of what and who the Pope truly is. Many outside the Church would say the Catholic Church has declared him perfect and infallible while others would say he is an authoritarian tyrant who magically creates revelations at will, and yet others even go so far as to say that he is the anti-christ who rules over the synagogue of Satan. The truth of who the Pope is, in actuality, is quite different and we are grateful to be able to explain the legitimacy of the one who is called the Holy Father.
First, the idea that the Pope is completely infallible is nonsense. The Pope himself goes to confession. For the Sacrament of Confession to work, a person must be both be guilty and repentant of an actual sin. So by this very fact, we see a very public evidence that points against this supposed infallibility. He is very much a person as you and I. He is not immune to saying the wrong thing, he is not a sinless individual, so the idea of him being always infallible is a misconception that at times has gotten pretty far out of hand.
Second, the idea that the Pope can create new Church doctrine outside of the Deposit of Faith is also preposterous. The Deposit of Faith, and the teachings that lie within, ended with the death of the last Apostle. The Pope defines, builds upon, and clarifies already existing beliefs and teachings of the Church that are grounded in this Deposit of Faith. He does not create new teachings, or new beliefs. He is a Shepherd to his people, just as Christ told him to be, guiding the Church (the sheep) in the way they ought to go.
What does the Catholic Church teach about Papal Infallibility?
So what does the Church actually teach? We have all heard of the Pope being infallible, yet we have just stated that he is not. So where does the infallibility come into the equation? The Church teaches this: – That the Pope, The Holy Father, Bishop of Rome, Successor of Peter, Servant of the servants of Christ, Prince of the Apostles, and Vicar of Christ, at the time he speaks as the universal teacher from the Chair of St. Peter in defining faith and morals, does so through an infallible gift given by and through the Holy Spirit. This is so that we can give him the full assent of our will and intellect, knowing fully that the one speaking as Pope is speaking as Christ to us all.
So if you’re non-Catholic, that last paragraph probably just threw your mind for a few loops. While it may not be what you thought regarding his infallibility, it is still much farther than many are willing to accept. What audacity right? Well…..that depends on if it can be proven. So what would we need to be able to prove here in order to make this statement from the Church legitimate? Well first we would need to prove Papal Primacy. That Christ conferred this position to Peter, that he is not just simply the first among equals, but that he has a sort of supremacy over all the bishops. It is a wonderfully contemporary thought to picture leadership in the church as something akin to the round table of Camelot. However for the Pope to be who the Church says he is, this table could never be round, and can only have one head. The second thing we would need to prove is the act of Papal Succession. This being the literal passing on of the office that was given to Peter by Jesus. Without this proof, how could we ever hold the Pope of today in such an authority. Lastly we would need to prove evidence for Papal Infallibility. This is the gift God granted to Peter and his successors so that when they would explain and enforce the Church’s teachings, it would be performed with a special charism.
First, of course, we must establish whether there is any legitimacy regarding Papal Authority. Did Christ truly establish with Peter, as head of the Church (his bride) here on earth? To begin, we must look first at an important piece of Scripture regarding such a claim. That is Matthew 16:13-20:
Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.
Does the Bible say that Peter is the foundation of the Church established on earth?
Here is a passage of great debate between Catholic and non-Catholic scholars. The debate is on what exactly Christ is saying here in this passage. One of the biggest supporting arguments to the Catholic understanding of this passage comes from the word “rock.” Now before we begin with what this argument is, we should first understand why the word “rock” would create such controversy. This is because it is a word which has HUGE implications as it pertains to Peter and Christ’s Church. In the Old Testament, rock is used as the image of strength and foundational authority. It was a word which denoted God’s support and care that He gave his people. It was the image of trust, security, and solidness. To the Israelites it was seen as a source of miraculous life and refreshment. God is the rock from which His people came. It is also the term Paul gives us in the New Testament, to give us, as an image, when discussing the foundation that is Jesus, the incarnate Christ. This was no ordinary word which Jesus bestowed upon Simon as a new name and title. Therefore when concerning this portion of Scripture, it should not be surprising that it has become something of a dispute.
The Catholic Church claims this passage is where Christ gives the explicit statement that Peter is the foundation of the Church in which Christ established here on earth. However, Protestants commonly argue that the definition of “rock” means something different when you read it in the Greek language. You see in Greek there are two words for rock. There is petros and there is petra. Peter’s name does mean stone or rock, but petra is generally used to mean “large rock” such as a cliff or a similar foundational stone. So when you look at this passage in Greek it would read:
“And I tell you, you are petros, and on this petra I will build my church.”
So the common non-Catholic interpretation of this passage on a theological level is that Peter is referred to as a rock or little pebble who is built on the large foundational rock that is Christ. (that is the church) This may sound legitimate, because of course Jesus is the foundation, but the problem here is that the main spoken language of Jesus and his disciples was not Greek, but rather Aramaic. In Aramaic this portion of Scripture would have looked like this.
“And I tell you, you are Cephas, and on this Cephas I will build my church.”
When we move beyond the Greek to the language that would have been spoken when Jesus made this statement, there is no conflict with the Catholic understanding. In the Aramaic language, there is no differentiation between the type of rock as there is in the Greek language. The debate from the non-Catholic may continue on from here, claiming that since the Bible is the inspired word of God, and since the book of Matthew is written in Greek, the Holy Spirit which inspired its writing, separated these two meanings for a reason.
Again, this argument sounds extremely legitimate until one digs deeper into this subject matter. The word petra does mean “large rock”, however it is the feminine form of the word. In the Greek language you would not apply a feminine form of a word in order to name a male. You would use the masculine form of the word. The stone on which the church was built on could easily take on the feminine form of the word, however, it would not be acceptable to use this feminine form when naming a male individual, such as Peter. This would be a new issue for the Greek language as there is no archeological evidence from antiquity that anyone had ever been named Peter before Simon. This means that Jesus took a word to name Peter, which according to all available records, had never been used before this point in time, to designate a living person. Therefore while these two words have different meanings, their separate inclusion into the Greek writing was necessary for literary reasonings. This is why we must go further when confronted with this difference, into the Aramaic form, which has no separation in meaning. Since this is how Jesus would have spoken this passage to Peter, it is the only understanding which holds legitimate authority as to its proper interpretation.
Did Peter have supremacy over the other Apostles?
So now that we have come to an understanding that Peter is the Rock, and that Jesus said he would build his Church upon that Rock, and that not even Hades would overcome it, how does this play into Peter’s supremacy over the other Apostles? Well, to start, we see that Peter was the head of the group. This is expressed clearly throughout the writings of Matthew. Peter was the natural leader and spokesman for the Apostles, just as he was here in this passage, for it was Peter who proclaimed who Jesus truly was. Peter is named the Rock. This name, “Rock” or “Peter”, pointed to his function as the foundation stone for the Church Christ was establishing on earth. This teaching of Christ establishing his Church on the Rock of Peter is crystal clear. Jesus is personally speaking here, and he is very literal. It is with this exact wording of Christ that the first issue finds its proof within the Scriptures. Peter is given supremacy, he is placed as a head over the other Apostles, and becomes the leader of Christ’s Church which was soon to be established by Jesus himself. Just as in the Old Testament God was the ultimate “rock,” but Abraham was his earthly representative, so also in the New Testament we see Jesus as the ultimate “rock.” But he gives Simon a new name “Rock” to indicate his foundational status as Jesus’ earthly representative in the New Covenant.
Was Peter’s leadership handed down through Apostolic succession?
So this brings up our second issue. Even though Jesus named Peter, and placed him as leader over the Church, this does not necessarily mean that this leadership would be handed down through succession. Only Christ could establish a succession of this sort. Unless Jesus clearly gave this command regarding Apostolic succession, this idea of a supreme head of the Church would have ended with Peter. So the real question is did Jesus explicitly establish an Apostolic succession? To answer this question we must first go back into the Old Testament. Let us look at Isaiah 22:15-25:
Thus says the Lord God of hosts: Come, go to this steward, to Shebna, who is master of the household, and say to him: What right do you have here? Who are your relatives here, that you have cut out a tomb here for yourself, cutting a tomb on the height, and carving a habitation for yourself in the rock? The Lord is about to hurl you away violently, my fellow. He will seize firm hold on you, whirl you round and round, and throw you like a ball into a wide land; there you shall die, and there your splendid chariots shall lie, O you disgrace to your master’s house! I will thrust you from your office, and you will be pulled down from your post. On that day I will call my servant Eliakim son of Hilkiah, and will clothe him with your robe and bind your sash on him. I will commit your authority to his hand, and he shall be a father to the inhabitants of Jerusalem and to the house of Judah. I will place on his shoulder the key of the house of David; he shall open and no one shall shut; he shall shut, and no one shall open. I will fasten him like a peg in a secure place, and he will become a throne of honor to his ancestral house. And they will hang on him the whole weight of his ancestral house, the offspring and issue, every small vessel, from the cups to all the flagons. On that day, says the Lord of hosts, the peg that was fastened in a secure place will give way; it will be cut down and fall, and the load that was on it will perish, for the Lord has spoken.
Now before we unpack this Old Testament passage, we should make clear why we are looking at it. Back when we looked at Matthew 16:13-20, we saw how Jesus gives Simon the name Peter (Rock) and places him at the head of the others. Later, we notice something else Jesus says, specifically in verse 19. Right after he says that Hades will not prevail against the Church, Christ continues:
“I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth, will be loosed in heaven.”
So what is so significant about this verse? Well if you look at the passage we just read in Isaiah you will that Jesus is referencing this Old Testament passage when he says to Peter “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth, will be loosed in heaven.” This passage he was would have been known quite well by the Jewish Apostles. It would not have gone unnoticed. In fact, this reference is at the heart of what Christ is saying to Peter in this verse.
In this Old Testament passage we read of a royal household. The royal House of David. This is the Davidic kingdom and Dynasty that is spoken of in which Hezekiah, heir of David, was king over Israel. Like all kingdoms from the ancient world continuing through until today, a dynastic kingdom will have a cabinet of officers/ministers. One of these cabinet roles is second only to the King, that is the role of Steward/Prime Minister. Today, we would see this with Mark Rutte in the Netherlands, Marian Rajoy of Spain, and David Cameron in the United Kingdom. In the same way we see this in today’s royal kingdoms, we also see this with Shebna in the Davidic kingdom that is ruled by Hezekiah. However, from this passage we learn that Shebna had proven to be an unworthy Prime Minister and therefore is expelled from office. When this expulsion took place, it created a vacancy. The passage emphasizes this explosion as an important event, and indeed it is, because not only did the king rule by dynastic succession, but so did the office of the Prime Minister. Just as the king was a royal position, so was the position of the Prime Minister. We see this in the passage when it refers to several royal attributes which come with this appointment of Eliakim. These attributes include the royal post/office, the robe and sash that he will wear, the authority given to him as a father over the people, and the mention of a throne and the royal keys of the house of David. All of these point to a royal position that is not the king, but the representative of the king.
The Keys are a Symbol of the House of David
What stands out from these attributes are the royal keys, which were the symbol of the House of David. These keys were the symbol of Shebna’s office that was being passed on to Eliakim. They were worn on a sash (remember the robe and sash) that was a ceremonial badge of their office. These keys would be handed down to the next Prime Minister as a sign of the continuing delegated authority of the king himself. So when Jesus tells Peter that He is giving him the keys to the kingdom of heaven, he is naming Peter as his Royal Prime Minister, literally his royal representative. He is placing him into a role of authority which is like a father over the people of the New Covenant, the people who will be known as followers of Christ.
We would like to point out that this passage not only provides additional evidence for the authority given to Peter over the Church, but it also proves that Peter was placed by Jesus into a very specific role. The role of Royal Prime Minister to Christ himself, an actual office, that due to its royal position was also one that held Dynastic succession. This succession is evident because of the keys in which Jesus says he will give to Peter, the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven.
This very specific royal position as Prime Minister given to Peter is further verified in Chapter 18 of Matthew. In Matthew 16 Jesus told Peter that whatever he binds on earth is bound in heaven, and whatever he looses on earth is loosed in heaven. However, in Matthew 18 Jesus tells the other Apostles that whatever they bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever they loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. There is no mention of the keys though when Jesus is addressing the others. This is because just like any royal cabinet, there are several ministers. Each of those ministers have the ability to bind or to loose. However, the Prime Minister has the ability to loose what they have bound, and bind what they have loosed. The person who is the Prime Minister has the last and final word on the matter, since they are the representative of the King himself, the authority of the court of final appeal. So it is with Peter, who was specifically put into this role by Jesus. This royal role that would be passed on through succession by the passing on of the keys.
We now have dived into the Scriptures and can clearly see where Jesus instituted Papal Authority to Peter. We can also see where this position as Steward, or Prime Minister if you will, denotes a dynastic succession to Peter’s position due to the very nature of the meaning behind the symbol of the keys. We have one area still to prove though. We need to show that there is a such thing as Papal infallibility, granted by God, to Peter and his successors, for the purpose of explaining and enforcing the Church’s teachings.
Why is Papal authority even necessary?
Let us talk about the United States of America. Our nation, the one founded as a government of the people, by the people, and for the people, has survived and flourished because of the set of rules established by those who created it. We refer to these rules as the Constitution of the United States. With this in mind, here is something to consider. If we were to hypothetically, (even for a short time) tell U.S. Citizens they were now able to interpret the Constitution for themselves, how would this turn out? It would be utter anarchy to say the least. America would tear itself apart in a relatively short amount of time. So why has this hypothetical situation not occurred? This has not occurred for the reason that our founding fathers did not just create a Constitution, they also created a judicial system which contains a court of final appeal. The Supreme Court is the final say in all areas regarding constitutional interpretation.
Protestantism is a good example of why authority is needed
This hypothetical situation becomes much less hypothetical when examining five hundred years of Protestantism. We see just this type of self-interpretation in Protestantism. When there is no final authority, things tend to splinter. In just 500 years, we have seen the rise of tens of thousand of Protestant denominations. They all claim to be teaching the truth, as it was given to their founders, or adjusted by those after them. We don’t intend to deny the Holy Spirit’s work within Protestantism, rather we want to show the need an authoritative head of the Church. We also want to show a final court of appeals for the interpretation of the Bible is needed. There is a need for someone who is able to make these final decisions, as a final authority, as Christ’s representative, with assured infallibility, to keep the universal Church of Christ free from error when interpreting the Church’s teachings.
Once upon a time, we would have fought tooth and nail against anyone who tried to tell us that the Pope was the authoritative answer that we needed. Then we stepped back, and looked at issues like this from an unbiased point of view. Since we did not have loyalty to any church, we were free to research both sides of the argument. We were able to look at things objectively and try to determine how such a thing as Papal Infallibility could exist. Then something presented itself to us. What about the Holy Bible? The Bible for most Protestants is the only infallible source of Truth. While many Protestants have gotten so far from original beliefs, they will claim the Scriptures are not completely infallible, many still hold to the believe that the Bible is the inerrant, inspired Word of God. They believe it is literally the Word of Truth, and is sufficient for the understanding of all matters of faith and salvation.
God granted the writers of the Holy Scriptures the ability to write infallible truth
To our surprise, this Protestant understanding strongly supports the dogma that the Pope can teach the Church infallibly. It is through the very idea of the Holy Scriptures being inspired by the Holy Spirit that we see there are times God has given mere man the ability to act infallibly. If God was not only capable but willing to give the writers of the Holy Scriptures the infallible ability to write infallible truth, then why would He not establish a way for this truth to continue through the ages? This brings us back to the example of the Constitution of the United States. If the founding fathers could think far enough ahead to establish an authority for generations to come, would not God, who is so much more capable than those mere men, also establish a way for his Church to have the final authority on matters of the faith?
What is the Chair of Saint Peter?
We have already mentioned that Papal Infallibility is only present when the Pope is explaining or instructing from the Chair of St. Peter. So what does this actually mean? What is this chair that gives the Pope this ability?
This chair is in reference to another Chair which Christ talks about. He references this other chair in Matthew 23:1-2:
“Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, the scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach.”
Jesus tells us using an imperative tense, that we must practice and observe “whatever they teach you and follow it.” Now remember what Jesus truly thinks of these scribes and Pharisees. He tells us later in the chapter that they are hypocrites and fools, vipers, blind guides and whitewashed tombs! However he still said for us to do as they teach, why? Because they sit in Moses’ seat. The Greek word here for seat is cathedra. It is where we get the word cathedral. We use the word cathedral because this is where the bishop’s cathedra is located. Thus, the Catholic Church’s teaching of Papal Infallibility comes from Christ’s own teaching.
This seat of Moses that Christ teaches about is transmitted to Peter’s Chair. This oral tradition of the Jews and their understanding of the authority that was to be given to the seat of Moses, is transmitted into the New Testament Church as Peter’s chair, along with his authoritative position. What once was held as a seat of authority by the Pharisees because of Moses, is now held in authority by Peter because of Jesus. So do we follow him who sits in St. Peter’s Chair because he is such an inspiring or great leader? No, we do it because Jesus established a seat of Moses which is replaced in the New Testament by the seat of Peter. Jesus promises He will guide us into all truth. Through this established seat and position of Peter and his successors, we can confidently trust that the Gates of Hell will not prevail against the Church which Christ established.
Does this mean all of the popes in history have been shining examples of Christ? No, it absolutely does not mean this. However, no matter how sinful their deeds, Christ has never allowed a Pope to corrupt Church teaching. Remember that Papal Infallibility only applies only to solemn official teachings on faith and morals. Papal Infallibility does not include disciplinary decisions, unofficial comments on faith or morals, or even the individual theological opinions of the Pope. While at times the Church may be guilty of poor choices, those choices have never changed or altered the teachings of the Church itself.
The Gates of Hell will not prevail
We have Christ’s assurance that the Gates of Hell will not prevail against the Church. This gives God’s people a confidence that the family of God will always have a father figure to teach us. Even if this figure is a sinful figure, God’s grace will preserve his Church and its teachings. No matter who is in the Apostolic seat of St Peter, it is Jesus’ omnipotent love for his family which will see us through until that glorious day when we are glorified and stand before our Father in heaven.