Swimming the Tiber 5: The Infallible Man

For all of us stumble with respect to many [things]. If someone does not stumble in word, this perfect man [is] powerful to bridle the whole body also.

– James 3:2 (my translation)

This verse long stood as my singular objection to the infallibility of the papacy. No man could be infallible, said I, or else he would be sinless, and if history has taught us anything, it’s that the popes were mere men–many of them, perhaps, good men, but none of them sinless.

But my understanding of the infallibility of the papacy was limited to that phrase alone: “the infallibility of the papacy.” It was sufficient for me to destroy that argument, because there was no argument. Ignorance makes the best straw men. When I finally understood what the Catholic Church genuinely teaches on papal infallibility, I found that my responses targeted a foe that never really existed.

Let’s examine the reality.

There are two passages in the Catechism of the Catholic Church that deal with papal infallibility. (Why accept hearsay when we can get information straight from the horse’s mouth, so to speak?) The first is paragraphs 888-892:

Bishops, with priests as co-workers, have as their first task “to preach the Gospel of God to all men,” in keeping with the Lord’s command.1 They are “heralds of faith, who draw new disciples to Christ; they are authentic teachers” of the apostolic faith “endowed with the authority of Christ.”2

In order to preserve the Church in the purity of the faith handed on by the apostles, Christ who is the Truth willed to confer on her a share in his own infallibility. By a “supernatural sense of faith” the People of God, under the guidance of the Church’s living Magisterium, “unfailingly adheres to this faith.”3

The mission of the Magisterium is linked to the definitive nature of the covenant established by God with his people in Christ. It is this Magisterium’s task to preserve God’s people from deviations and defections and to guarantee them the objective possibility of professing the true faith without error. Thus, the pastoral duty of the Magisterium is aimed at seeing to it that the People of God abides in the truth that liberates. To fulfill this service, Christ endowed the Church’s shepherds with the charism of infallibility in matters of faith and morals. The exercise of this charism takes several forms:

“The Roman Pontiff, head of the college of bishops, enjoys this infallibility in virtue of his office, when, as supreme pastor and teacher of all the faithful – who confirms his brethren in the faith he proclaims by a definitive act a doctrine pertaining to faith or morals. . . . The infallibility promised to the Church is also present in the body of bishops when, together with Peter’s successor, they exercise the supreme Magisterium,” above all in an Ecumenical Council.4 When the Church through its supreme Magisterium proposes a doctrine “for belief as being divinely revealed,”5 and as the teaching of Christ, the definitions “must be adhered to with the obedience of faith.”6 This infallibility extends as far as the deposit of divine Revelation itself.7

Divine assistance is also given to the successors of the apostles, teaching in communion with the successor of Peter, and, in a particular way, to the bishop of Rome, pastor of the whole Church, when, without arriving at an infallible definition and without pronouncing in a “definitive manner,” they propose in the exercise of the ordinary Magisterium a teaching that leads to better understanding of Revelation in matters of faith and morals. To this ordinary teaching the faithful “are to adhere to it with religious assent”8 which, though distinct from the assent of faith, is nonetheless an extension of it.


Footnotes:
1 Presbyterorum Ordinis (Of the Order of Priests), paragraph 4; cf. Mark 16:15
2 Lumen Gentium (The Light of Nations), paragraph 25
3 Lumen Gentium, paragraph 12; cf. Dei Verbum (The Word of God), paragraph 10
4 Lumen Gentium, paragraph 25; cf. Vatican Council I: recorded in Denzinger-Schönmetzer, Enchiridion Symbolorum, paragraph 3074Original Latin
In English:
That the Roman pontiff, when he speaks from the chair [of Peter], that is, when (engaged in the service of a shepherd and teacher of all Christians) he defines, on behalf of his own highest Apostolic authority, a doctrine about faith or morals [which] ought to be held by the universal Church, through the divine assistance promised to himself in blessed Peter, is strong with infallibility, where the divine Redeemer wishes that his Church be instructed in a doctrine [which] ought to be defined about faith or morals; therefore, that definitions of this sort of the Roman pontiff, out of himself, but not out of the consensus of the Church, are unalterable.

5 Dei Verbum, paragraph 10, section 2
6 Lumen Gentium, paragraph 25, section 2
7 Cf. Lumen Gentium, paragraph 25
8 Lumen Gentium, paragraph 25

The second passage (paragraph 2035) reinforces that infallibility is accessible to the Church via the Magisterium, which is charged with keeping the doctrines of faith and morals intact.

The first thing we learn from a careful reading here is that the infallibility of the Pope is entirely dependent on the infallibility of the Church. Without an infallible Church, we cannot have an infallible Pope.

“But wait!” you exclaim, “The Church isn’t infallible! What about the Inquisition and the Crusades and the Borgia popes and the Avignon popes and Galileo and that stuff I read in a Dan Brown novel and…” Well, first of all, I’m going to address (some) scandals of the Church in later posts. For now, consider this: the Church did not commit heinous acts, only her members did. The Church, for example, has never taught that killing a bunch of Eastern Orthodox Christians in Constantinople was a good way to stick it to the Muslims, even if that’s how the Fourth Crusade played out. The Church has never taught, as a matter of faith and morals, that torture to extract a confession is worth anything at all (but rather the contrary), even if the politics-based Spanish Inquisition did that.

In short, remember what I translated from Matthew last time about how the gates of Hell could never overcome the Church? This is what that means. The Church has never fallen under the sway of the devil or his minions. The Church has never taught, in faith and morals, anything contrary to the will of God. There have been scandals. There have been (very) bad popes. But the Assembly (ἐκκλησία) is an assembly of sinners; is it really a surprise that the people in the Church have been sinning since before it began? Of course not.

But if we hold to Scripture, we know that the Church has never been overthrown. And so the Church shares in the infallibility of Christ, given to her by Christ, so that she can lead people to Him. This is her sole purpose; if she could fail in it, then the whole faith would break down.

Her chief priest, then, shepherd of the faithful (cf. John 21), is endowed with some small measure of this same infallibility. But we see in the quotation above that there are restrictions on this capacity. First, a statement can only be infallible when made “from the chair” of Peter. This means that only official statements promulgated by the Holy See of Rome can meet this criterion. Personal interviews, off-the-cuff statements, private conversations–none can meet this criterion. Already the counter-argument of James 3:2 is fracturing; the Pope is not bridling his tongue infallibly, but only when he acts in his capacity as God’s representative (that is, in his apostolic authority, passed on to him by the Twelve and by Peter in particular) is he capable of being infallible.

But that is not the only restriction. There is also this: the statement must be on an issue of faith or morals. Not all official papal documents meet this criterion. Most, in fact, are described as “pastoral” documents. Pastoral documents are designed to guide the faithful, but are not infallible. They should be treated with respect (since they were issued by the Pope, after all, in his capacity as earthly head of the Church), but finding an error in one (or perceiving an error in one) does not mean that papal infallibility is disproved–because those documents are not intended to be infallible.

There is another restriction, too: in addition to being ex cathedra (from the chair) and on an issue of faith or morals, the doctrine must apply to the entire Church–to all the faithful equally. Many papal statements are not so broad.

But even with these restrictions, surely Popes are putting out all kinds of infallible information, right? They write a lot of letters and stuff. I bet it would be really easy to come up with a list of errors in infallible documents.

Except that they haven’t. Since the formal recognition of the doctrine of papal infallibility in 1870 (at the first Vatican Council), an infallible doctrine has only been officially declared once (in 1950). It has been applied to other documents retroactively (the most notable being in 1854), and others still which continue in traditions of infallible teaching throughout Church history (e.g., that the priesthood is restricted to men only). Not even every Pope declares an infallible doctrine; there are not, surprisingly enough, that many new things in the Catholic Church.

So what am I saying? That we should accept Papal Infallibility because it isn’t used very often? That’s not a particularly compelling argument, I admit. But papal infallibility follows from the infallibility of the Church, which is established by Christ’s own words. And in spite of all the scandals and all the bad popes and all the anti-popes from all the eras of history, God has seen to it that not one has ever attempted to declare as an infallible doctrine some error.

Well, I shouldn’t say “has never attempted,” but rather, “has never succeeded” in declaring such. Pope Sixtus V is widely credited as a proof of papal infallibility, because he had produced an erroneous translation of the Bible, but before promulgating it as the official translation of the Church, he died of natural causes. The Church very quickly retracted all copies and reissued a correct translation. There have been 266 popes; 264 of them have died. Given human nature, how many more do you think were timely deaths? The gates of Hell shall indeed never overcome the Church.

With all this talk of the papacy, no doubt you’ve started asking, “What about I Peter 2:9 and the whole Book of Hebrews? Don’t you understand that priesthood is bad?” Tune in next time for a discussion of the priesthood of believers in relation to the priesthood of the Church.

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Swimming the Tiber 4: Papists and Popery

I swear the first time I heard someone say “popery,” I thought they said “potpourri.” That was a confusing conversation, let me tell you.

I have discussed at some small length the authority of the Church and of Tradition, both in determining the canon of Scripture and in their influence on the faith, handed down to us by the apostles. But there yet remains one great white whale of Catholic and Protestant disagreement–indeed, the very source of the latter name: the Papacy.

The Scriptural authority of the Papacy frequently depends on an oft-disputed passage of the Gospel of Matthew. This passage is so disputed that Zondervan’s NASB goes out of its way to provide a suggestion that Peter ought to be divorced from the foundation of the Church, in a place where that information would otherwise be irrelevant. Here’s the passage, first in the original Greek (or as close as we can get) for Matthew, chapter 16, verses 13 through 20:

Ἐλθὼν δὲ ὁ Ἰησοῦς εἰς τὰ μέρη Καισαρείας τῆς Φιλίππου ἠρώτα τοὺς μαθητὰς αὐτοῦ λέγων, Τίνα λέγουσιν οἱ ἄνθρωποι εἶναι τὸν υἱὸν τοῦ ἀνθρώπου; οἱ δὲ εἶπαν, Οἱ μὲν Ἰωάννην τὸν βαπτιστήν, ἄλλοι δὲ Ἠλίαν, ἕτεροι δὲ Ἰερεμίαν ἢ ἕνα τῶν προφητῶν. λέγει αὐτοῖς, Ὑμεῖς δὲ τίνα με λέγετε εἶναι; ἀποκριθεὶς δὲ Σίμων Πέτρος εἶπεν, Σὺ εἶ ὁ Χριστὸς ὁ υἱὸς τοῦ θεοῦ τοῦ ζῶντος. ἀποκριθεὶς δὲ ὁ Ἰησοῦς εἶπεν αὐτῷ, Μακάριος εἶ, Σίμων Βαριωνᾶ, ὅτι σὰρξ καὶ αἷμα οὐκ ἀπεκάλυψέν σοι ἀλλ’ ὁ πατήρ μου ὁ ἐν τοῖς οὐρανοῖς. κἀγὼ δέ σοι λέγω ὅτι σὺ εἶ Πέτρος, καὶ ἐπὶ ταύτῃ τῇ πέτρᾳ οἰκοδομήσω μου τὴν ἐκκλησίαν, καὶ πύλαι ᾄδου οὐ κατισχύσουσιν αὐτῆς. δώσω σοι τὰς κλεῖδας τῆς βασιλείας τῶν οὐρανῶν, καὶ ὃ ἐὰν δήσῃς ἐπὶ τῆς γῆς ἔσται δεδεμένον ἐν τοῖς οὐρανοῖς, καὶ ὃ ἐὰν λύσῃς ἐπὶ τῆς γῆς ἔσται λελυμένον ἐν τοῖς οὐρανοῖς. τότε διεστείλατο τοῖς μαθηταῖς ἵνα μηδενὶ εἴπωσιν ὅτι αὐτός ἐστιν ὁ Χριστός.

Now my English translation (interesting footnotes not relevant to the issue at hand are linked):

But on the other hand, Jesus, coming into the portions of Caesarea, the [Caesarea] of Philippos, was asking his disciples, saying, “Who do men say that the son of man1 is?” And they said, “On the one hand, the [ones] [say] John the Baptist, but on the other hand, others [say] Elijah, but different [ones] [say] Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” [He] says to them, “But you, who do you say that I am?” And then Simon Peter, having answered, said, “Thou2 are the Christ, the son of God, the living [God].” And then Jesus, having answered, said to him, “Thou are blessed, Simon Bar-Jonah, because flesh and blood did not reveal this to thee, but my father who [is] in the skies. And I, on the other hand, say to thee that thou are Peter, and upon this stone I will build3 my assembly, and [the] gates of Hades will not overpower it.4 I will give to thee the keys of the kingdom of the skies, and whatever [thou] fetter [on a particular occasion] upon the earth will have been fettered in the skies, and whatever [thou] unbind [on a particular occasion] upon the earth will have been unbound in the skies.” Then [he] gave express orders to the disciples, in order that no one might say that he was the Christ.

Obviously, verse 18 is the crux of it: “And I, on the other hand, say to thee that thou are Peter,” etc., etc., etc. But there are some important things to note here.

The first is word choice. The NASB and every Protestant Bible scholar on the planet will tell you that God named Peter Πέτρος, but called the foundation of the church πέτρα, precisely because they were different words that meant different things. I’ve heard that argument plenty of times. Made it myself once or twice, ignorant as I was. So when I was studying this, I finally looked it up in the preeminent Liddell & Scott lexicon. And lo and behold! The dictionary says that the two words are distinguished from each other. That settles it, right?

Well, let’s look closer, just to be safe. Let’s see, πέτρος, a stone, an individuated stone. A single stone. A masculine noun, too. Neat. Okay, πέτρα, that’s supposed to mean a really big rock, right, some kind of boulder or foundation, like Peter’s declaration of faith, right?

Whoops.

Looks like πέτρα means “rock.” As in the material. “Stone” as a material. Or maybe the geography (the “rock” of cliffs, for example). It can also mean “rocks” (individuated!), but it is distinguished from πέτρος because the latter almost always means “a stone,” whereas πέτρα means “rock” or “stone,” in general. But Xenophon, in multiple works, uses πέτρα to mean “stone” and “stones” interchangeably. All the time. To add to the difficulty, so does Scripture in Matthew 27:51; Romans 9:33; 1 Peter 2:8; and Revelation 6:15-16. And looking back, it looks like πέτρος has even been used to mean a boulder… so it’s not always tiny.

So it’s not as clear-cut as “Peter’s name means a pebble and the rock is a huge slab of faith!” Rather, it’s not that at all. Consider Jesus’ style: he has been playing on words since his opening question in this passage; indeed, throughout his ministry, he plays on words (cf. Matthew 23:24, comparing Aramaic galma (gnat) and gamla (camel); John 3; 12:32; 18:5-6). And you’re telling me that he would suddenly subvert that pattern, specifically to exclude a man he just named “blessed”?

So no, from a linguistic perspective, the word-choice argument against the Papacy doesn’t hold water.

Let’s look at a few other support beams in my favor. Throughout this passage, Jesus (and, more specifically, Matthew) is using the terms μέν and δέ. These are the usual terms for differentiating one thing from another in a list, or distinguishing multiple things when they are parallel. It’s also great for saying, “This thing, and then this other thing, and then this other thing, and then this other thing.” Those words are very versatile. That’s where most instances of “on the one hand…on the other hand” come from in Scripture translations (as you see in mine above). So when Jesus is saying, “Simon, thou are the rock, [and]…” is he using δέ, to signify a change? Nope–he’s using καί, signifying a continuation. There is no reversal. There is no change. Linguistically, Jesus is linking Peter to the stone, not separating them.

Speaking of links and parallels, what’s the deal with this sentence, anyway? “And I, on the other hand, say”? What’s going on there? Well, the structure of the sentence is nearly identical to the structure of Peter’s response to Christ in verse 16. He says, “Thou are the Christ, the son of God, the living [God].” Christ turns around and says, “And I, on the other hand, say that–” note the identical words here, “–thou are [the] stone, and on this stone, I will build my assembly, and [the] gates of Hades will not overpower it.”

Note my dubious use of the definite article there. The issue is this: ancient Greek has no indefinite article. It has some words that can approximate it, when something’s indefinite status needs to be called out very explicitly. But otherwise, if you want something indefinite, you just leave off the definite article. Oh, unless it’s a name. Then you can include the article or not, but you’re only talking about that one guy (or God, or any proper noun). Or when it’s the Law. It’s okay to leave off the article then and not mean any old law, but the Law. And a few other, itty-bitty, irrelevant, don’t-even-worry-about-them exceptions. So whether Peter is “a rock” or “the rock” depends pretty heavily on whether Jesus really is giving him the name Peter in this moment. If he is, all bets are off; if he’s making a simple statement about reality, he could just mean “a rock”… but not necessarily. I think “the” rock is appropriate, because I think this is the moment of the naming of Peter.

But whether he says, “Thou are a rock,” or, “Thou are the rock,” the rest of the sentence follows along all the same, marking him as the foundation of the Church.

Frankly, Matthew 16 is firmly on the side of the papists. Even before you throw in the obvious parallel with Isaiah 22.

But there are still three major obstacles between saying, “Okay, sure, maybe Peter was the foundation,” and the modern understanding of the authority of the Papacy.

  1. When is the primacy of Peter ever shown in the Scriptures? I only remember him denying Christ and getting yelled at by Paul.
  2. What qualifies the primacy of Peter to transfer from him to anyone else on down the chain?
  3. I’m betting there’s no way you can explain away that doctrine of infallibility.

I’ll tackle the questions of primacy and heredity now; I’m putting infallibility off until next time.

The primacy of the apostles, and Peter in particular, is exhibited in Acts 15. Luke first introduces us to the problem at hand: the Judaizers, who insist on circumcision even for the Gentiles, have great dissension with Paul and Barnabas. (We see Paul write against forcing circumcision on the Gentiles in Romans 2-4; I Corinthians 7; Galatians 5-6; Ephesians 2; Philippians 3; and Titus 1.) The two groups determine that they need a superior authority to their own reason: the authority of the apostles is sought out in Jerusalem.

When they arrive, the apostles and elders (literally the “presbyters,” often translated “bishops”) convene and debate the matter. This is the first Ecumenical Council, under the auspices of St. Peter himself. Eventually, Peter (!) stands and delivers the final say on the matter. The other positions do not hold water. No one pipes up to continue the fight. Peter’s word on circumcision (and salvation) is taken as-is. The only follow-up conversation is what should be demanded of Gentile converts: in short, don’t worship pagan gods. The apostles (!) approve the message, compose the letter, and send it. Here endeth the first Ecumenical Council, under the purview and authority of the Papacy.

And if that is not enough, recall that it is Peter alone who is charged with tending the sheep in John 21. His is the ultimate duty among all the apostles.

There is also the question of passing this authority on to Peter’s successors. There are a few points to consider here.

First, go back to Matthew. Jesus tells Peter that this rock, this assembly, will last forever. The gates of Hades, the very hands of death, cannot prevail against the Church. Christ, the Good Shepherd, wants Peter to tend his sheep until he returns; he has not yet returned, has he? How could the Church stand against the gates of hell, and how could the sheep be tended by loving shepherds, if the apostolic authority given to Peter (and to all the apostles) does not succeed into the next generation?

Some will argue that only the Twelve Apostles have the authority to ordain their immediate successors and fill them with the Holy Spirit–that those successors do not acquire this ability. Acts 9 flies directly in the face of this: though Christ himself has chosen Saul, the man cannot become an apostle until Ananias (not one of the Twelve, obviously) ordains him and fills him with the Holy Spirit. 2 Timothy 2 shows us Paul (a second-generation apostle) exhorting Timothy (third-generation) to pass along the faith (fourth-generation). All this works together to reinforce the continuation of apostolic authority within the Church.

This post grows quite long, and as I said, I will tackle the doctrine of infallibility in my next post. Let it suffice for now that the doctrine is not so unrestrained as you probably believe.

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The Infallible Man >

Back to the passage
Footnotes:
1 There is a great play on words here using ἄνθρωποι and ἀνθρώπου that is difficult to render in English. The word can mean “man,” and in the singular, it often means “man” collectively (as in “Son of Man”), but in the plural (and sometimes in the singular), it means individuals, and specifically human individuals. It isn’t directly associated with the male sex any more than “mankind” is.

2 As with my translation posts (and as you’ll find in the King James), I’m using “you” for second person plural and “thou/thee” for second person singular throughout. This seems more dignified than using “you” for second person singular and “y’all” for second person plural.

3 From a purely textual perspective, it’s possible this could be a first-person jussive, i.e., “Let me build!” The future (as rendered above) is more likely, though.

4 The antecedent of this pronoun is unclear. It could be assembly (ἐκκλησίαν) or stone (πέτρᾳ). As often happens in Greek, it’s probably both, but if only one, then the closer (“assembly”) is more likely.