A friend asked me about an argument against Catholicism raised by Fr. Viktor Potapov, an Orthodox priest based here in D.C., in Chapter Ten of his Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy. The argument essentially says that the early Church believed in conciliar infallibility, but that the West replaced this idea with papal infallibility. Fr. Potapov first explains that, “since the opinion of the whole Church is made manifest at Ecumenical Councils, the Ecumenical Councils are the infallible custodians and interpreters of Divine Revelation.” Catholics agree with this, but Fr. Potapov claims that papal infallibility undermines this idea:
This view of the infallibility of the universal Church, which comes from Christ and His apostles, was common in Christianity during the course of the first centuries and remained unchanged in the Orthodox Church. But in the West, side by side with other deviations, this view of the infallibility of the Church also under-went distortion. The Roman bishop was always considered one of the members of the council, and he submitted to its decisions. But, in the course of time, the pope of Rome began to attribute the privilege of ecclesiastical infallibility to himself alone and, after long efforts, finally secured the recognition of his absurd pretension at the Vatican Council of 1870.
This distorts Catholic teaching badly: we don’t believe that only the pope is infallible. The reason that Orthodox apologists will be able to find innumerable instances of Ecumenical Councils acting infallibly is because Ecumenical Council can act infallible. Catholicism affirms this, and always has. So this argument doesn’t prove the case against the papacy at all.
|Peter Paul Rubens,
Christ Surrendering the Keys to St. Peter (1614)
In other words, it’s a false choice between papal infallibility and conciliar infallibility. We believe in both. And Scripture seems to support both, as well. Let me give you a couple examples from the Bible, where we see parallel Petrine and conciliar infallibility / authority:
- In Acts 15, the Apostles settle the dispute over the Judaizers by organizing the Council of Jerusalem. Did the Council have the capacity and authority to settle this dispute? Yes (see Acts 15:28).
- In Acts 10:1-11-18, St. Peter (on his own) settled a nearly-identical dispute involving the Judaizers. Did St. Peter individually have the capacity and authority to settle this dispute? Yes (see Acts 10:44).
So it’s not “God works through St. Peter” or “God works through the Council.” He works through both. Next:
- In Matthew 18:15-18, Jesus gives the Church collectively the power to bind and loosen.
- In Matthew 16:17-19, Jesus gives St. Peter individually the power to bind and loosen.
Even more than the first, this second example reflects the two distinct (but interconnected) ways that the Holy Spirit works: through the Petrine Office, and through the Ecumenical Council. That is, why is Matthew 16:17-19 in Scripture, if it’s not just redundant of Matthew 18:15-18?
But let me go ahead and turn this objection on its head. Three things to consider:
- The papacy is necessary for the existence of a valid Ecumenical Council. Without the papacy, there is no objective reason to accept the Council of Chalcedon (451 A.D.), while rejecting the Second Council of Ephesus (449 A.D.). More on this subject here, here, and here.
As further proof, how many Ecumenical Councils has the East have since they broke off from Rome? Nobody knows, including the Orthodox themselves: some say none, some say two. Without the pope, there’s no way of even determining if a Council is Ecumenical or not.
On the other hand, we can tell you how many Ecumenical Councils the Church has had since the schism: fourteen, for a total of twenty-one.
- The First Vatican Council is an Ecumenical Council. This is an obvious point, but one that gets overlooked. Not only do Ecumenical Councils not disprove papal infallibility, but they prove it. If you accept Vatican I as an Ecumenical Council, you have to accept papal infallibility as well, since Vatican I tells you to.
- The Orthodox, in rejecting the papacy, act contrary to the Ecumenical Councils. Obviously they reject the First Vatican Council. But that’s not what I mean. I mean that even the first Seven (pre-schism) Ecumenical Councils, lay out papal primacy unambiguously.
Canon 3 of the First Council of Constantinople in 381 says, “Let the Bishop of Constantinople, however, have the priorities of honor after the Bishop of Rome, because of its being New Rome.” Constantinople’s authority was (a) always secondary to Rome’s, and (b) always based off of its relationship to Rome.
Phillip Schaff, the Protestant historian, remarked: “Even the last clause, it would seem, could give no offence to the most sensitive on the papal claims, for it implies a wonderful power in the rank of Old Rome, if a see is to rank next to it because it happens to be ‘New Rome.’” More on that here.
That is, as of 381, the whole Church was ready to acknowledge Rome as the Primal See. How, then, can the Orthodox justify breaking away from this See in 1054? It seems to me that any answer would devolve into “you have to follow the primal see only if you happen to agree.” But that’s the exact logic that brings us to Evangelicalism’s theological anarchy.
|Peter Paul Rubens, Saint Peter (1612)|
So if you see the need for Ecumenical Councils, you should equally see the need for the papacy (the office that makes such Councils possible and enforceable).
|The Council of Trent|
So, where there is confusion about the validity of a certain papal claimant, the Church can clarify it at Council; likewise, where there is confusion about the validity of a certain Council, the pope can clarify it. This rightly mirrors the relationship God’s own Sovereignty works: the Father endorses the Son (John 5:31-32; Matthew 17:5), and the Son reveals the Father (John 14:7-9).
Each Person of the Trinity is wholly Sovereign, but there’s no risk of contradiction because they are in Divine harmony. Likewise, we don’t have to worry about papal infallibility and conciliar infallibility contradicting, since they’re similarly in harmony (governed, as each are, by the Holy Spirit). These objections are from mere man’s way of thinking, not Christ’s.