Saturday, August 10, 2013
Why all the Fuss Over the Pope? Is the Pope Infallible?
The Catholic Church teaches that the Pope is infallible. Many people wonder why this is so and where this teaching originates. Doesn't it give too much power to one person? How can an ordinary 'human being' be infallible? Does it mean that the Catholic Church believes that the pope is not an ordinary human being?
What Does Infallibility Mean?
Part of the problem stems from the fact that the meaning of the words 'infallible' and 'infallibility' are often misunderstood. Infallibility does not mean 'without sin'. That is impeccability. The Pope is not impeccable as all human beings have inherited original sin (the Virgin Mary is a special case which deserves an article of its own). The Pope goes to confession just like any other Catholic.
Infallibility does not mean 'all knowing'; that is omniscience. The Pope does not know what the weather will be like tomorrow (unless he listens to the weather report which may be wrong) nor does he know who will win the World Cup, although he may cheer for his favourite team.
What is Infallibility and When Does It Apply?
Infallibility is defined in the dictionary as 'the inability to err'. Does this mean that the Pope is never wrong? Of course, the Pope can be wrong about some things but not when certain conditions are applied. So when does infallibility apply?
• Infallibility applies only in matters of faith and morals
• Infallibility applies only when the Pope is speaking 'ex cathedra', that is, from the 'chair of Peter', in other words, as the Bishop of the Church over all Bishops.
• The Pope cannot change established doctrine. For example, the Pope cannot change the Doctrine of the Virgin Birth.
• The Pope cannot deny a truth revealed in Scripture. For example, the Pope cannot say that Jesus did not die on the cross.
Why is the Pope Infallible?
As Jesus and His disciples were at Caesarea Philipi Jesus asked His disciples, "Who do you say that I am?" Peter answered, "You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God." Jesus replied, "Simon, son of Jonah, you are a happy man because it was not flesh and blood that revealed this to you but my Father in heaven. So now I say unto you: You are Peter and on this Rock I will build my Church. And the gates of the underworld can never hold out against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven: whatsoever you bind on earth shall be considered bound in heaven, whatever you loose on earth shall be considered loosed in heaven." Matthew 16:18-19 In giving Peter (which means 'rock') the keys to the kingdom of heaven, Jesus was recalling the office of the Prime Minister which had existed in Israel during the time of King David and his words echo those of Isaiah 22:22.
Jesus promised "But when the Spirit of truth comes, he will lead you into complete truth." (John 16:13) It stands to reason that if Jesus established his Church on earth, he would also provide a way to keep that Church true to his teachings.
The Pope is only 'infallible' because Jesus promised to keep the Church true to him by sending the Holy Spirit. Although it is true that the Holy Spirit can guide Christians individually, we see in the world today many different interpretations of Scripture and many different denominations have arisen because of these interpretations. They all claim to have the guidance of the Holy Spirit. They cannot all be true. For example, some denominations say that baptism is for adults who have ‘accepted Jesus as their Saviour’ only, others say that baptism is for babies as well as adults and is a sign of their entrance into the family of God. Which is true? And how do we know which is true? Both groups would claim that their doctrine is found in Scripture.
When Has Infallibility Been Claimed?
It may be surprising to many that ex cathedra statements by the Popes have been very rare. In the past one hundred and thirty –four years there have been only three infallible proclamations made (not counting canonization of saints):
1854 – Doctrine of Infallibility by Pius IX
1870 – Doctrine of the Immaculate Conception by Pius IX
1950 – Doctrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin by Pius XII
These dogmas were universally held by the Church centuries before and can be found in the writing of the Church Fathers. In these most recent times and because there was a questioning of the doctrine they were ‘defined’ by these proclamations and not 'invented' by them. For example, on the infallibility of the Pope, Cyprian of Carthage (256 AD) wrote: "Would heretics dare to come to the very seat of Peter whence apostolic faith is derived and whither no errors can come?" (quoted in Keating, page 217)
Some point out that there have been bad popes - those who were openly sinful. It is true that there have been 'bad' Popes who often were appointed by kings or wealthy and powerful people. However, the Holy Spirit kept these Popes from writing error in the same way he has kept 'good' Popes from writing error. No bad pope ever changed doctrine - although, except for the restraint of the Holy Spirit, they could have. Perhaps they were too busy sinning to have time to write any papal bulls or encylclicals!
To summarize, infallibility means that the Holy Spirit prevents the Pope from officially teaching error in his official capacity as the Bishop of Rome ie Pope.
Catechism of the Catholic Church. New York: Doubleday. 1995
The Jerusalem Bible. New York: Doubleday and Company. 1968
Houghton –Mifflin Canadian Dictionary Markham, Toronto, ON: Houghton-Mifflin Canada Ltd. 1982
Keating, Karl. Catholicism and Fundamentalism. San Francisco: Ignatius Press. 1988