One of the biggest stumbling blocks to non-Catholic Christians in our time, and throughout the centuries, is the Church’s claim of papal primacy and infallibility. For whatever reason, infallibility is a topic even many Catholics avoid. It is such a huge claim. Yet it is so vital to our faith. Today, I would like to demonstrate a way to answer questions about infallibility. To do this, we will look at three of the objections mounted by our non-Catholic brothers and sisters of other Christian communities.
Objection #1: The Church is made of humans and all humans are fallible, including the pope
This is a really good objection to papal infallibility. Because of how good it is, it has taken the #1 spot on my list! The counter argument to Christians who deny infallibility begins like this: The Bible is infallible, and it was written down by humans. If you believe that the men who wrote the Bible were not completely and utterly infallible in their lives, you believe that God can still work through them in an infallible manner at times. When it came to the passing on and expounding of the revelation of God, they were inspired and guarded by God to write down and pass on inerrant truths.
The Apostles and their followers who wrote the Bible, were humans that infallibly passed down truths. This is due to nothing less than the power and inspiration of the Holy Spirit. It is not because of the learning, knowledge, or talent of a specific human person. It is because of God himself. So, if we believe the Bible is inerrant, we then believe that God can guide certain humans infallibly in matters that are important to the salvation of the human race.
Objection #2: The Bible is the only infallible guide that is necessary
This too is a very strong objection. The Bible is the inspired and inerrant Word of God, the revelation of God’s saving work to redeem humanity. The writing of the Scriptures and the teaching of the Apostles certainly needed to be guided by the Holy Spirit. But what about when my interpretation of a certain passage or theological concept found in the Bible differs from that of yours? In many ways, the problem of private interpretation is why we continue to see the splintering of Protestantism. In 2006 there were 217 Protestant groups willing to acknowledge themselves as denominations in America and Canada, and there were even more Protestant groups that do not acknowledge the term “denomination” (see for yourself here). Today, I bet there are even a few more. So, did God only grant us infallible instruction on how to be saved, but then leave us with no way to infallibly understand those instructions except private interpretation?
St. Paul writes to Timothy reminding him where truth is found. He says in 1 Tim. 3:15, “The church is the pillar and foundation of the truth.” The truth is found in the Church. St. Paul doesn’t say the Bible is the pillar and foundation of truth, though it is inerrant when properly understood. Under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, the Church actually compiled the Bible. Jesus didn’t leave us the Bible. He left us the Church and the Church put together and approved the books of the Bible. The first book of the New Testament was not written until the late 40s AD, while the Church existed starting at Pentecost in approximately 30 AD. By the Holy Spirit, the Church–in Her infallibility–produced the Bible. In this, the apostles did a much greater work than what we claim for the Church and the papacy today. Today we claim that, through infallibility, God protects and expounds the truths that were first put forth by the Apostles in both Scripture and the Tradition they passed down (2 Thess. 2:15). It is a kind of passive infallibility, whereas the Bible was written by an active infallibility. With that, we can see that it is most reasonable of God to put in place some way to infallibly understand the infallible teachings that were put forth by the Apostles.
Objection #3: The pope does not have primacy or infallibility on matters of faith and morals
It would probably take me a series of posts to adequately answer this question. On another level, the answer is simple: Catholics are united because we can have the guidance of the Holy Spirit in a concrete, visible person. Generally matters of the faith are discussed and decided upon by the college of bishops in union with the pope. When there is disagreement among the bishops, all good Catholics know where to look. When confusion arises, it is not the quarreling cacophony of opinions that has authority. It is the clear, direct, and visible voice of one. The pope can speak this way because of his special task to be shepherd of the whole Church. Jesus said to Peter, “Feed my lambs.” The lambs that Peter (and his successors) feeds are not his own, but they are Christ’s. Anyone belonging to Christ, then, is fed by Peter. The earliest Church saw Rome as the primary station of Peter and his successors. The likes of early writers, such as Irenaeus, kept close track of the men who followed Peter in his role as Bishop of Rome from the very beginning.
It should be noted, infallibility does not mean the pope is perfect in holiness, though hopefully he’s closer to it than I am! It does not mean the pope is all-knowing. Again, it is not because of his intelligence, learning, or skill that he is considered infallible. He is not infallible in private matters. He is not infallible in everything he says publicly. The claim is that he is infallible when declaring a matter of faith or morals that must be accepted by the whole Church. In other words, if necessary, the pope has the ability to speak infallibly to clarify a matter confusion to protect something that is necessary for salvation. This does not happen very often, but to say it cannot happen is to discredit God’s desire that we know the truth and the truth will make us free. God wants us to know the truth. There are many claims on truth out there. Only God knows them perfectly. God has given us the Church and, in particular, the papacy so that we may have a concrete and visible place to look with certainty. This is because of God, not because of man.
In the end, the reason for infallibility is nothing other than love. More than keeping us safe in the playground of ideas, infallibility secures the truth. Once you have the truth, you then have a rich soil into which love may be planted. Truth precedes love; love perfects truth and makes it beautiful. It is only in truth that we can truly and authentically learn love. Falsehoods leave us standing on a vanishing foundation. God wants the whole Church to know his truth so that we can become more perfect in love. Infallibility is not about “the Church is right and everyone else is wrong.” Infallibility is about God giving us what is needed to secure a life of love in every age. To make it applicable to this entire project: Infallibility is about giving the insights to keep love in sight in every new generation of earthly existence. So, if you take nothing else away from this article, next time you hear the word infallibility do not think first of power or simply being right, think of love. Think first of the love God has for us–that he would not abandon us to our own devices. Next, think of the ways God wants you to bring that love to those around you.