Why the Pope has to be Infallible, Part 1

In response to my post from last Sunday’s readings, Emil Anton has made some interesting interventions in the comments raising issues about papal infallibility.  So I though it might be pertinent to walk through the steps that lead to papal infallibility—at least, the ones I find convincing.

Let’s start with the question: who is the final arbiter of the interpretation of Scripture?  I start with this point, because (surprisingly) Catholic and non-Catholic expressions of Christianity are largely agreed that the interpretation of Scripture is the essence of Christian doctrine.  For example, Benedict XVI has stated that the dogmas of the Church are, in essence, nothing other than the authoritative interpretation of Scripture.  I paraphrase, but this is close to how he phrased the point.

So our concern is: How do we establish Christian doctrine?  Since Christian doctrine is, at least primarily, the true and authoritative interpretation of Scripture, that leads to the question above: who is the final arbiter of the interpretation of Scripture?

There are two possible answers: (A) The Church or (B) every individual Christian.  The Catholic Church opts for (A): the Church is the final arbiter of the interpretation of Scripture.  All Protestants end up with (B): every individual Christian is his own final arbiter of Scripture.  However, they tend not to arrive there immediately.  Shown a stark choice between (A) and (B), many Protestants would choose (A), recognizing that (B) is absurd, a form of religious relativism, subjectivism, and solipsism.  Furthermore, certain passages of Scripture, like 2 Peter 1:20, seem to assert directly that option (B) is incorrect: “no prophecy of scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation.”

Upon further reflection, however, we can see that the choice between (A) and (B) is inextricably bound up with another question, which in a way is just a rephrasing of our original question: Is the Church infallible?

If the Church is infallible (at least in matters of faith and morals), than the Church can be and must be the final arbiter of the interpretation of Scripture.  If the Church is not infallible, then the question arises, who can judge when the Church has made an error?  And since, if even the Church of Christ is not infallible, no other human body can claim infallibility either, the responsibility of judging the Church’s errors quickly degenerates to the default position: every individual believer must decide for themselves whether the Church has erred.  In other words, this amounts to the same thing as (B).

Therefore, if the Church is to serve as the final arbiter of the interpretation of Scripture, the Church must also have been gifted by God with the charism of infallibility in doctrine.

Many have seen the infallibility of the Church at least implicitly indicated in various passages of Scripture:

  • Matt 16:18 And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it.  19 I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”
  • Matt. 18:17 If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.
  • John 16:13  When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth.

In my view, the infallibility of the Pope develops out of the simpler and more basic doctrine of the infallibility of the Church.  I will show how in my next post.