This is the last in a four-part series I wrote, upon request, about the papacy and papal infallibility. Part 1 examined what papal infallibility, and is not; Part 2 briefly explains how papal infallibility flows from the idea of a papacy, before examining Matthew 16:17-19, the foundational text for the papacy, in depth; Part 3 looked at a different way at understanding Petrine primacy, the basis of the papacy, through John 10:1-21. Today, I hope to provide a few final Biblical supports for the papacy, and then answer some common objections. If I forget any, please include them in the comments section, and I’ll update this post.
Q: Why was the papacy established? How does having a papacy help the Christian faithful?
A: I suppose I should begin with a caveat, that in some ways, this question is almost irrelevant.
The most important question is merely, “is this what Christ ordained?” If yes, we’re bound to follow it, even if we would have done things differently ourselves; if no, this becomes just a discussion of personal taste. By way of analogy, when the Supreme Court considers a question, their job is to determine, “does the Constitution say x,” or “does this statute say y,” but it’s not their job to say, “if I were Congress, or the Framers, what would I have said?” Christians are used to doing this in areas of faith and morals. We’re used to saying, “premarital sex is bad,” without getting to weigh the pros and cons, and we say, “Hell exists,” without getting to decide if we want Hell to exist.
That said, Christ does things for a reason, and that reason is often knowable, at least to an extent. This is no exception. The Church exists for two reasons: to serve as “God’s household,” and to serve as “the pillar and foundation of the truth” (1 Timothy 3:15). The Church is the final authority on issues of faith and morals, which we see clearly from the Bible. Look, for example, to Matthew 18:15-20, where Jesus gives the Church the power to excommunicate those who refuse to abide by Her judgments. That’s the Church’s authority on moral issues. Or look at Acts 15, where She decides an issue of faith. There is a question about whether or not circumcision is necessary for converts (Acts 15:1-2), and so the “Apostles and elders met to consider this question” (Acts 15:6). At the end of the discussion, they conclude that Paul and Barnabas’ side is right, and send them on the way with a letter from the centralized Church. Beginning, “The apostles and elders, your brothers, To the Gentile believers in Antioch, Syria and Cilicia” (v. 23), the letter says that it “seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us” to not create unnecessary dietary burdens (v. 28). So the Church hierarchy, the Apostles and presbyters, are able to conclude things authoritatively, and speak on behalf of the Holy Spirit.
The question then becomes, did this power continue after the first generation? We have every reason to believe that it did. Of course, there is no Biblical evidence documenting it as a historical issue, because this is after the death of the first generation. But we do know that Jesus said He would be with His Church always (Matthew 28:20), and we do know that a lot of major theological issues arose afterwards, such as:
- The Trinity
- The Divinity and Humanity of Christ
- Which Books Should Go Into the Bible
- Whether Mary was the “Mother of God,” or just the “Mother of Christ”
- If Matter was Evil
- If Christ had one Nature or Two, etc.
If the Church couldn’t decide these issues after the first generation of Christians, we would have no way of knowing whether these issues were correct. Your Bible is only as trustworthy as the ability of its compilers to do the job right. And those compilers came long after the 1st generation. Certainly, the orthodox position on each of these issues can cite to early Church support, but in many cases, so can the heterodox position, or at least, the heterodox can argue that the orthodox arguments are not persuasive enough. Without a Church which can say, “this is the correct issue, period,” these disputes would never have gone away, and the Church would have immediately fractured into denominations.
Q: What are other Biblical supports for the Papacy and papal infallibility, besides the ones we’ve examined?
A: I think that these supports can be found in a number of places. Explicitly praying for future generations (John 17:20), Jesus prays “that they may all be One,” just as He is one with His Father (John 17:21-22). He then calls Christians to “complete unity” in v. 23. To have complete unity, there needs to be a locus of power, to provide even a modicum of organization. Religious anarchy, with everyone appealing only to Christ (without Him physically present to correct them), leads to a steady stream of denominations. We need only look at the history of non-Catholic Christianity to see the damage caused by this. At times, even those in authority squabble amongst themselves, or are subject to petty jealousies (Mark 10:37), meaning that some earthly authority has to sort out those grievances as well.
Another Biblical support, mentioned in fleeting in part I, was Luke 22:31-32, but it deserves a more extensive mention. Christ says to Simon Peter,
- “Simon, Simon, behold Satan has demanded to sift all of you like wheat,
- but I have prayed that your own faith may not fail; and once you have turned back, you must strengthen your brothers.”
I choose this interpretation on purpose (it’s the NAB), because it says “sift all of you,” rather than “sift you.” It’s pretty important, actually. The first time that Christ says “you,” it’s in the plural, like “y’all.” English doesn’t have a you-plural distinct from you-single. Whether you mean “you, just you,” or “you and your friends,” you use the term “you.” So most Protestant interpretations translate it as “you” in both places. Strictly speaking, this is accurate, but it obscures what’s going on in this verse . The NAB does a good job of interpreting this text faithfully while leaving the meaning clear. Jesus is prophesying that all of His Disciples, including St. Peter, but then He tells him that He’s prayed for his faith (and as far as we know, only Peter’s faith) so that he when he repents, he can strengthen the other Disciples. Jesus obviously had the power to supernaturally preserve or restore the faith of the other Disciples, but He elected instead to preserve and restore Peter singularly, commissioning him to safeguard his brethren.
The New Testament writers were aware of this. The three Synoptic Gospels, plus Acts, provide lists of Apostles (Matthew 10:2-4; Mark 3:16-19; Luke 6:14-16; Acts 1:13). The Synoptic Gospel accounts share two characteristics: Peter is listed first, and Judas is listed last (Acts doesn’t list Judas, because he’s dead by this point, but it also lists Peter first). Other names move around from list to list, suggesting that this wasn’t one author writing up a list the others copied verbatim. Judas is listed last for a reason, and it’s the converse reason that compels five authors inspired by the Holy Spirit to put Peter in the place of prominence.
Peter speaks on behalf of the Disciples throughout Jesus’ earthly ministry. Two of the most important instances of this are in John 6, at what Catholics believe to be Jesus’ first clear explanation of the Eucharist, and in the aforementioned Matthew 16. In John 6, many of Jesus’ disciples were revolted by His Eucharistic teaching (Judaism prohibits the consumption of blood, and, well, it sounded a lot like cannibalism), and Jesus lets them go (John 6:66). He then asks the Twelve, “Do you also want to leave?” It is Peter who decides for the group, saying, “Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life” (John 6:68). It is also Peter who first declares, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God,” in Matthew 16:16, setting off the passage we discussed in Pt. 2.
After Christ’s death and resurrection, the angel at the Resurrection Tomb tells the women to “go tell His disciples and Peter” (Mark 16:7). Later, Peter speaks on behalf of the entire Christian community at Pentecost, after which the people ask spiritual direction from “Peter and the other apostles” (Acts 2:37). Pretty much the first half of Acts follows Peter.
Q: What about James and John? St. Paul speaks of them as the other reputed “pillars” of the early Church in Galatians 2:9. James even seems to be presiding at the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15:13)! Why isn’t he considered the leader of the early Church?
I think that this argument cuts the other way. First, to believe it, you have to concede that there was hierarchy in the early Church, and even amongst the Twelve. And in fact, James and John seem to be, if you will, a tier below Peter in the functional makeup of the early Church. For example, Jesus brings only Peter, James, and John to see the Transfiguration, one of the most important events of His earthly ministry (Luke 9:28). Yet later in that passage, Luke refers to the three of them as “Peter and his companions” (Luke 9:32), clearly suggesting that Peter is the ranking disciple there.
Q: Doesn’t the idea of a pope put a mediator between us and Jesus? 1 Timothy 2:5 says that we can go directly to God the Father, through Christ. Why do we need a pope at all?
A: The mediation talked about in 1 Timothy 2:5 is in a specific context. Reading the second half of that sentence (particularly in the context of the passage as a whole, starting with 1 Timothy 2:1), makes it clear that what Paul is saying is that Jesus serves as a bridge that the elect cross to get to God. Without you or me, God could use someone to deliver His message to try and bring people to salvation. Without Jesus, the rest of the pieces in the salvation puzzle are worthless, because there’s no salvation to bring them to. The Pope only matters because Jesus matters more.
Q: If the Pope contradicts the Bible in an ex cathedra statement, who are Catholics obliged to believe?
A: This is a question I’ve heard a lot of Protestants ask, but it seems to me like an impossibility, like asking someone, “if St. Paul and St. John indisputably contradict each other, who is right?” If there seems to be a contradiction, it’s almost certainly because you either don’t understand the Biblical passage or the papal stance. Other than that, I think it would have to be based upon context. I don’t have a better answer than that.
Q: Isn’t the idea of papal infallibility a really recent invention – like 1870?
A: Papal infallibility wasn’t formally defined until 1870, at the First Vatican Council. But lots of things aren’t defined for ages – to even be a candidate for definition, the thing being defined must have always been believed in the Church. There’s plenty of evidence that pre-1870, Catholics believed in infallibility. Take, for example, this painting:
It’s of the Holy Spirit descending upon Pope Gregory the Great, representing the Spirit’s role in protecting the pope from error. The painting is from 1611, and reflects the fact that people were just as aware then as at any other point in the Church’s history that the pope makes the final determinations in a lot of tough issues, and the Spirit keeps him from leading the Church astray (on issues of faith and morals).
Q: If all of this is true, why doesn’t the early Church look like the modern papacy?
A: My dad runs a family-owned pool cleaning business. It’s grown slightly over the years, but I still remember enough growing up to say that on a small enough level, those titles are of relatively little use. You may be the CEO of a company of four people, but you’re still getting down in the brambles with everyone else. It’s only when things start to grow that there starts to be a lot more paperwork – churches to be built, social programs to be run, and so forth, that those with the titles spend less time in the field, and more time behind the desk.
Certainly, this growth allowed for the greedy to grow wealthier, but it also enabled the Church to genuinely do more good. The Catholic Church was the single largest force preserving the sciences, arts, literature, and generally European culture during the Dark Ages. More importantly, she lead millions of people who may never have left their plot of land to Christ.
If you’re troubled by the transition from the more relaxed to the more rigid structures as the Church grew, I might suggest John Henry Cardinal Newman’s Development of Christian Doctrine. His focus is actually upon the development of doctrine (as the name suggests) rather than structures, but I think his points about organic development are applicable. Consider also that when the Church was still very small, She already had bishops and elders and presbyters. That’s an awful lot of organization for the size of the Church. It suggests that even then, the Holy Spirit was planning long-term for some serious growth.
Q: Weren’t a lot of the popes really bad guys?
A: Some of them did some pretty ridiculous stuff, definitely. But if you consider that one of Jesus’ disciples sold Him out (quite literally), and was responsible for His death, while another Apostle denied Him while He was being tried, and the rest just ran away like cowards, it puts the scandal of bad bishops and bad popes into its proper context. Christ chooses men to run His Church, and He’s infallible. He knew this was going to happen long before there were even any humans alive to second-guess Him. I might also mention that there were some pretty bad kings in Israel’s history, and we still believe them to be divinely appointed, as well. Sometimes, the people get what they deserve based on their sin. Let’s just pray that never happen to us.
A really important point that Karl Keating raised in his book Catholicism and Fundamentalism was that with popes this bad, we’ve never had to repeal or reverse anything they’ve said ex cathedra. There are no embarassing papal pronouncements to try and work around. Even when the popes had mistresses, they never said, “having mistresses is ok,” just as when St. Peter was being unfair to Gentiles (Galatians 2:11-12), he never said it was ok to treat them as less-than-Christians (in fact, he basically said the opposite – Acts 11:7, Acts 15:7). When you look at the history of the Church, and it’s incredibly complex-yet-coherent moral and philosophical system, it’s deep understanding of Christ, and then look at the people who make up this Church, you realize the whole is too far greater than the sum of the visible parts not to include the Holy Spirit.
Q: Are there any other proofs for the Papacy and papal infallibility?
A: History is a great place to start. We know the names and at least a little information about every pope from St. Peter on down to Pope Benedict XVI.
The early Church, the same Church which overcame the Roman Empire without violence, just with the power of love, the same Church which defined God as Trinity and Jesus as divine, also said believed firmly in the authority vested in Peter as primary over the other Apostles. See here and here for great links on this: for more on the Early Church Fathers, and what they thought on Catholic doctrines, this is a good starting place. If you want something more in-depth, those books are easy to find, just let me know). I pose the following question to those still on the fence: if the Papacy, and the claim to papal infallibility didn’t start with St. Peter, who did it start with? And why did these fanatically, fantastically devout Christians not oppose it?
There are dozens more arguments on this issue which could be made, but it’s unbearably long already, so if you have any other questions, just post them in the comments section, and I’ll them on a one-at-a-time basis from there.