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Thursday, February 22, 2007

Papal Infallibility

Today is the Feast of the Chair of Saint Peter. Therefore, when I noticed that papal infallibility had caught up to Marian doctrines in the poll I thought that it would be appropriate to explore the topic of papal infallibility today. Today’s Gospel reading is from Matthew 16: 13 - 191. It reads,

And Jesus came into the quarters of Cesarea Philippi: and he asked his disciples, saying: Whom do men say that the Son of man is? But they said: Some John the Baptist, and other some Elias, and others Jeremias, or one of the prophets. Jesus saith to them: But whom do you say that I am?

Simon Peter answered and said: Thou art Christ, the Son of the living God. And Jesus answering, said to him: Blessed art thou, Simon Bar-Jona: because flesh and blood hath not revealed it to thee, but my Father who is in heaven. And I say to thee: That thou art Peter; and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. And I will give to thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven. And whatsoever thou shalt bind upon earth, it shall be bound also in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose upon earth, it shall be loosed also in heaven.

Here we find the scriptural basis for the Church’s dogma of Papal Infallibility. When Jesus asks the disciples who men say that He is there is a multitude of answers, none of which are correct. It is Peter who proclaims, “Thou are Christ, the Son of the living God.” Jesus tells Peter that he is blessed because this truth has not been revealed to him by flesh and blood but by the Father in heaven. Jesus goes on to say “upon this rock I will build my church.” I have heard it preached in a Protestant church that Christ was not referring to Peter because he would never build His church upon a mere man. What I believe is misunderstood is that Christ was revealing his plan to build His church on Peter’s statement of faith which he received from the Father, “Thou are Christ, the Son of the living God.” Christ goes on to promise the keys to the kingdom of heaven to Peter and tells him that whatever he binds and loosens on Earth shall be bound and loose in heaven.

We are given an example of Peter exercising his primacy in Acts 15: 7 – 102 concerning the question of circumcision of the Gentiles.

And when there had been much disputing, Peter, rising up, said to them: Men, brethren, you know, that in former days God made choice among us, that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel, and believe. And God, who knoweth the hearts, gave testimony, giving unto them the Holy Ghost, as well as to us; And put no difference between us and them, purifying their hearts by faith. Now therefore, why tempt you God to put a yoke upon the necks of the disciples, which neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear?

There had been much discussion and argument about whether or not Gentiles who where received into the Christian Faith must follow the law of Moses and be circumcised. When Peter declared circumcision for the Gentiles unnecessary it was considered by all present to be the final word on the matter. Peter’s primacy and infallibility was not questioned.

In 1870 the First Vatican Council3 decreed the dogma of Papal Infallibility saying, “That apostolic primacy which the Roman pontiff possesses as successor of Peter, the prince of the apostles, includes also the supreme power of teaching. This holy see has always maintained this, the constant custom of the church demonstrates it, and the ecumenical councils, particularly those in which East and West met in the union of faith and charity, have declared it.” The First Vatican Council cited the Fourth Council of Constantinople, the Second Council of Lyons, and the Council of Florence in its declaration.

The Council said,

We teach and define as a divinely revealed dogma that when the Roman pontiff speaks EX CATHEDRA, that is, when, in the exercise of his office as shepherd and teacher of all Christians, in virtue of his supreme apostolic authority, he defines a doctrine concerning faith or morals to be held by the whole church, he possesses, by the divine assistance promised to him in blessed Peter, that infallibility which the divine Redeemer willed his church to enjoy in defining doctrine concerning faith or morals. Therefore, such definitions of the Roman pontiff are of themselves, and not by the consent of the church, irreformable.

So then, should anyone, which God forbid, have the temerity to reject this definition of ours: let him be anathema.

It is important to understand that Papal Infallibility refers to the pope’s ability to speak without error when doing so on matters of faith and morals in the exercise of his office. It must not be confused with impeccability which would imply that the pope is exempt from committing sin or saying things that are in error. For example the pope could say that the Earth is flat, however that statement would obviously be in error and we would not be bound to accept it as truth. In fact infallible statements made by the pope are quite the exception rather than the norm. It is also important to note that infallible teachings may not be later contradicted. For example, since the doctrine of the Holy Trinity has been infallibly declared, no future pope or council of the Church may contradict it.

The First Vatican Council also spoke about the permanency of Peter’s primacy. Christ promised that the gates of hell would not prevail against the Church. This means that the Church is destined to remain until the end of time. It is helpful here to quote the First Vatican Council’s entire statement on permanence of Peter’s primacy3.

That which our lord Jesus Christ, the prince of shepherds and great shepherd of the sheep, established in the blessed apostle Peter, for the continual salvation and permanent benefit of the church, must of necessity remain for ever, by Christ's authority, in the church which, founded as it is upon a rock, will stand firm until the end of time.

For no one can be in doubt, indeed it was known in every age that the holy and most blessed Peter, prince and head of the apostles, the pillar of faith and the foundation of the catholic church, received the keys of the kingdom from our lord Jesus Christ, the saviour and redeemer of the human race, and that to this day and for ever he lives and presides and exercises judgment in his successors the bishops of the holy Roman see, which he founded and consecrated with his blood.

Therefore whoever succeeds to the chair of Peter obtains by the institution of Christ himself, the primacy of Peter over the whole church. So what the truth has ordained stands firm, and blessed Peter perseveres in the rock-like strength he was granted, and does not abandon that guidance of the church which he once received.

For this reason it has always been necessary for every church--that is to say the faithful throughout the world--to be in agreement with the Roman church because of its more effective leadership. In consequence of being joined, as members to head, with that see, from which the rights of sacred communion flow to all, they will grow together into the structure of a single body.

Therefore, if anyone says that it is not by the institution of Christ the lord himself (that is to say, by divine law) that blessed Peter should have perpetual successors in the primacy over the whole church; or that the Roman pontiff is not the successor of blessed Peter in this primacy: let him be anathema.

Peter’s infallible statement that Christ was the son of God was revealed to him by God. Christ said that it was upon this that He would build the Church and gave Peter primacy in teaching. In order that the Church may remain throughout the ages, free from error in Her teachings, Peter’s primacy and infallibility have passed down through the ages through the apostolic succession of the Bishops of Rome.


1. Matthew 16: 13 - 19
2. Acts 15: 7 – 10
2. First Vatican Council

Related Article: Apostolic Succession


DanBuck said...


Thanks for your article. I am not a catholic and know very little about the details of catholic theology other than those that have been badly described to me by evangelicals.

So I am anxious for accurate descriptions of catholic doctrines.

Here's a question: Your article nicely articulates the importance of Peter and even his primacy. However, it's the successor part that seems largely contrived. there seems to be no Biblical backing for Peter passing on the role he played in the infancy of Christ's Church.

And this seems a rather important aspect.

Before I decide a single man can accurate determine how millions of Christians should believe, I would need a bit more evidence that this is how God intended his Church to operate in the days beyond Peter.

Any further light you can shed on this part of the infallibity claim would be helpful.

Thank you and God Bless.

Chris said...


Thank you for you interest. I promise a response to your question in a few days. I say a few days because (1) the next few days are going to be busy for me and (2) I'm no theologian. Even thought I understand Apostolic Succession myself, I'll have to spend some time gathering sources and reading to formulate a proper response to your question. Please check back.