Now that we’ve established what papal infallibility is, and more importantly, isn’t, let’s look at the merits of infallibility.
Papal infallibility is the protection of Church teachings by the Holy Spirit. This infallibility isn’t really a power of the pope’s, at all: it’s a power of the Holy Spirit, used to prevent the pope from doing too much damage to the Church. Since we believe that the pope is the ordained head of the Church (I’ll address that below), there is one earthly shepherd guiding all the sheep. While today, that just means all the sheep within the Catholic Church (and even then, a growing number just ignore him), for most of Christian history, virtually every Christian on Earth was subject to the Roman Pontiff. If the pope were to say, “there is no Trinity, just one God in three different forms,” the souls of millions, or billions, throughout the ages would be in jeopardy. If the pope is validly the head of the earthly Church, papal infallibility is virtually necessary. So if you believe that the Church should be one, and should have one head, and that the Holy Spirit will protect and guide the Church, the logical conclusion is to believe in papal infallibility. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints recognizes this, and has a view of authority pretty similar to the Catholic one (Here’s an interesting blog post on that subject from a Mormon perspective. Actually, the LDS view seems to be much broader than the Catholic view: Catholics don’t believe that the pope can add anything to the faith, and this his job is to help ensure the faith delivered “once for all” is preserved; in LDS, the Prophet is understood to be able to add to the faith via divine revelation). But besides just being a logical conclusion to this view of “Church,” there’s also a strong basis for it in the Bible as well as Church history.
Of course, a lot of Protestants are going to read what I just wrote, and say, “Exactly. This is just what’s wrong with papal infallibility: it centers the locus of the earthly Church around one man.” This, it is often contended, is unbiblical. I disagree, and here are some of the major reasons why:
Upon this rock: Jesus establishes a Church. The most important passage in understanding the papacy is Matthew 16:17b-19. After Peter acknowledges Christ as “the Messiah, the Son of the Living God,” Jesus responds:
“Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by man, but my Father in Heaven. And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not overcome it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”
Here’s how this passage breaks down, step-by-step. First, Peter acknowledges Christ. This is important, because of its covenantal implications: God bases his covenants upon faithful obedience (Genesis 17:1-2, for example). Second, God blesses Simon Peter individually. He specifies, “Simon, son of Jonah.” He’s emphasizing that what comes next is applicable to St. Peter individually. Just as the covenant God made with Abraham was individualized, so is the covenant made with Peter. There have been lots of people who followed God faithfully, yet (for reasons known to God alone) certain ones, like Abraham and St. Peter, are singled out and blessed in a specific way. Third, Jesus emphasizes that Peter’s knowledge “was not revealed to you by man, but my Father in Heaven,” which Catholics seem as the first expression of papal infallibility (Peter is able to make an authentic declaration because of the grace of God, not because of his own merits). Fourth, Jesus changes Simon’s name to Peter. As a covenant, this is vital. Names are considered of the utmost importance of God (see, for example, Revelation 2:17; Exodus 3:13-14). When God made a covenant with Abram, He renamed him Abraham. In fact, it was part of the covenant:
Genesis 17:3-5 Abram fell face-down, and God said to him, “As for me, this is my covenant with you: You will be the father of many nations. No longer will you be called Abram; your name will be Abraham, for I have made you a father of many nations.
The same thing is happening here. Jesus is establishing a New Covenant, and it parallels pretty closely the establishment of the Old Covenant. Fifth, Jesus renames Simon to “Peter,” a name which means “Rock.” So the verse says, “You are Rock, and on this Rock I will build My Church.” [Some Protestants have argued that there is a difference in gender between the two uses of Rock here, which is true, sort of; in Aramaic, the language Jesus spoke, there was no difference: the term in both cases was “כפא” (cepha); however, when St. Matthew translated the verse into Greek, he used the male form of “rock,” since Peter is a dude: there’s no theological significance further than that, and any attempt to make the second “Rock” mean anything other than Peter runs into immediate exegetical problems]. This term “Rock” has huge religious significance. In Isaiah 44:8, God says, “You are my witnesses: is there a God besides me, or another Rock? I know of none.” Yet He is renaming Peter “Rock” (John 1:42 confirms that the term means “Rock,” and not “pebble,” by using the Aramaic original). It’s huge. The term also has covenantal significance: the only other non-Deity ever called “Rock” in the Bible is Abraham, Isaiah 51:1-2, and the term is rich in covenantal implications. The Jews are told to “look to the rock from which [they] were hewn.” Abraham the Rock is the earthly covenantal head of the Jewish people. So Peter the Rock is for the New Covenant.
is also a really important one.
Sixth, Christ is going to establish the Church. This is critical, and often overlooked. A lot of people today say that “church” means nothing more than “body of believers.” But God already had a body of believers, both in the Old Testament faithful, and in His New Testament followers. He had disciples who, for all their faults, believed in Him. And we’ve already seen from the passage that Peter clearly believes. Yet Christ says He doesn’t have a Church yet. He’s going to have one, and He’s building it upon Peter. Seventh, the Church is to be the One True Church: how do we know this? It’s established by Christ as His Church. Elsewhere, He refers to the Church interchangeably with Himself. In Acts 9:1-2, we learn that ” Saul was still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples,” and was going to hunt them down in Damascus. I think you know how this story ends. Christ identifies Himself to Paul on the road there: “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting” (Acts 9:5). This is Jesus, glorified in Heaven, still identifying Himself as persecuted, because the Church is persecuted. Eighth, the Church that is going to be established will last until the end of time: “the gates of hell shall not overcome it.” This is important for those who concede Peter’s authority, yet claims it ended with the death of Peter. It also dispels any myth of a total apostasy. This passage, along with Matthew 28:20, refutes any claim that Jesus established His Church, but that it became so corrupt that it disappeared and needs re-establishing.
So now that we’ve addressed the unique role of Peter in the creation of the new covenant, and the nature of the Church being created, it’s on to the special gifts granted to St. Peter. The ninth important point from this passage is that Jesus gives Peter “the keys of the kingdom of heaven.” This gift harkens back to Isaiah 22:19-22, where God set Eliakim in place as palace administrator. Speaking to Shebna, the soon-to-be outgoing palace administrator, God says:
I will remove you from your office; you will be thrown down from your position. At that time I will summon my servant Eliakim, son of Hilkiah. I will put your robe on him, tie your belt around him, and transfer your authority to him. He will become a protector of the residents of Jerusalem and of the people of Judah. I will place the key to the house of David on his shoulder. When he opens the door, no one can close it; when he closes the door, no one can open it.
Giving Eliakim the “key to the house of David,” the seat of the Old Covenant, was something like giving the babysitter the keys to the house. He or she doesn’t own the house, but you’re putting them in charge while you’re gone. We know that Eliakim exercised this role as well: 2 Kings 18:17-37, and its parallel in Isaiah 36, tell of Eliakim being sent (along with Shebna, who I bet was thrilled to be playing second fiddle, and a court reporter) by king Hezekiah to meet with the Assyrian delegation, although he was not permitted to speak. So the holder of the keys of the kingdom acted on behalf of the king, to the extent that the king permitted him. Catholics view the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven as the New Covenant analogue: Peter was the “vicar of Christ,” that is, His representative (a vicar is someone who acts as a representative for a higher-up, see definition #2).
Tenth and finally, Jesus gives Peter a huge, sweeping authority: “whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” This power is later given to the other Apostles (Matthew 18:18), but still given in a special and unique way to Peter. After all, he is promised this before the other Apostles, in the form of a blessing by Christ: we have to suppose it was done for a reason [other factors, such as the history of the Papacy, including the first twelve chapters of Acts, suggest that this is how the verse has long been understood]. Catholics view in these parallel verses the two aspects of the Magisterium (the “teaching office of the Church”): it has been entrusted to the Pope and the bishops in union with him. The nature of this power is definitely one of authority. Note the way that Jesus seems to suggest a similar power resided with the Jewish authorities under the Old Covenant (Matthew 23:1-4). While Jesus had more than a few harsh things to say about the Pharisees (as I’m sure He did about a number of the popes throughout history), He acknowledges them as having a binding authority (Matthew 23:2).
Well, it turns out that this explanation of the Papacy is going to take at least two days. Tomorrow, I’ll look at other evidence from the Bible that the Papacy was legitimately established, because I think that’s an important predicate to papal primacy (obviously).