Papal Infallibility & How to Better Defend It
“You are Peter and upon this rock I will build my church and the gates of the netherworld will never prevail against it.” This passage of scripture from Matthew’s gospel is the bedrock of Catholic’s belief in the role of the papacy. For Catholics, this makes complete sense. For if we, as the Church, truly are the Body of Christ, then Jesus Christ would want his Body to be protected and invincible from defeat by the enemy. For this to be the case there must be some kind of divine protection, some kind of grace given to the Church to protect her from error, something not produced by us humans relying on our own intelligence, but rather something supernatural given by God that protects the church from error. But how does this work? What is protected from error and what is not? These things are the subject of much misunderstandings, not only between Catholics and non-Catholics, but even with Catholic circles. So hopefully this post will help clarify this issue a little bit.
What Protestants and Catholics Agree On
To begin with, lets look at areas in which Catholics and Protestants agree with: that God can protect humans from error in certain areas. We believe that the scriptures are protected from error by the Holy Spirit. While we do not believe that the Holy Spirit dictated the scriptures to the human authors, we all believe that the Holy Spirit was the inspiration for the scriptures and protected the authors from error during their writing. Catholics and Protestants also agree that the men who wrote the scriptures were sinners who were in need of a Savior. Imperfect, sinful men that, for a particular action, were protected by the Holy Spirit from error is not contested. So the concept that this is possible is not being contested, but rather what is being contested is whether or not this happens for the pope when he speaks, as Catholics claim, infallibly.
What Infallibility Is and Is Not
So, let’s look at times that the pope is NOT speaking infallibly. Times that the pope is not protected by the Holy Spirit from error. These times are actually the vast majority of what the popes do. Very little of what the pope says is considered infallible. Certainly times when he is speaking in private are not infallible. For example, Pope Francis is a big soccer fan and his home country, Argentina, is in this summer’s upcoming World Cup. If he were to say “I think Argentina will win the World Cup”, that would obviously not be infallible. So, after realizing that almost everything the pope says is not protected by the Holy Spirit as infallible, we should look at what must happen for the pope’s words to be taken infallible.
Firstly, the pope must be speaking on issues of faith or morals. This is what Catholics believe is covered by the Holy Spirit. But this does not mean that every time the Pope speaks on issues of faith or morals that he is protected. The pope must invoke his charism of his infallibility. The two that immediately come to mind when this happened are the two Marian dogmas proclaimed in the last 200 years: the dogmas of the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption of Mary into Heaven.
There are other ways in which the pope can speak infallibly. When the pope speaks in union with the bishops of the world, particularly through an ecumenical council, this is also protected by the charism of infallibility. So, for example- when the pope proclaimed the Creed from the Council of Nicea this was protected by infallibility. Other declarations from Councils, from the first seven ecumenical councils that looked at the nature of Jesus Christ, to the Council of Trent which looked at the church, to the First and Second Vatican Councils; these are protected by the charism of infallibility as well.
So, popes actually very rarely speak infallibly. In fact, there are popes who have never spoken with this protection of the Holy Spirit due to what was happening during their papacy. But, just because a pope is not speaking infallibly does not mean that his words should just be dismissed.
There is a level of religious assent that should be given to the pope by the nature of his office that does not depend on whether or not he is speaking infallibly. After deep study and prayer, if we come to the realization that we disagree with the pope on a particular issue, this is not us being given carte blanche to dismiss the teaching. We belong to an ordered church and part of that order is a pope to rule us here on earth and we owe some amount of religious assent to the pope. But the difference between the levels of assent we owe to various levels of religious authority is the subject of a different post and so I won’t go into it here. But I will end with the exhortation- just because a statement is not infallible does not mean that it can be dismissed if one disagrees with it!
Papal Infallibility is a key sticking point between Catholics and Protestants- but as we saw earlier, we do share the belief that the Holy Spirit can protect fallible human beings in certain actions to assist the faith. This needs to be the starting point for any discussion a Catholic wishes to have to defend this teaching. Then the move towards looking at what would happen to the Church if it were not protected in its’ teachings would be a natural progression from here…(hint, hint- it looks like 10,000 different Protestant denominations if it is not protected) and ending with Jesus’ desire for unity and how He might provide some security for this to happen. But remember, any discussion must be done with charity! And the goal not of winning the argument, but of coming mutually to the truth and thus winning the soul!