Posts Tagged ‘authority’

Authority in the Church: The Biblical Evidence

Dear Reader,

I thought I was done with this topic but I guess I am not. I have been going back and forth with a Catholic friend on authority in the church, how it works, where it comes from, etc. I tend to think through issues as I write. To catch up and see how my thinking on this issue has developed, you can read these earlier posts:

Rocks and Popes

Sources of Authority in the Catholic Church

Sacred Tradition in Roman Catholicism, Protestantism and Orthodoxy

Apostolic Authority in Eastern Orthodoxy, Roman Catholicism and Protestantism

Scripture and Tradition– Sorting through All the Issues

Book Review: The Shape of Sola Scriptura

Object and Method

Perhaps, being a good Protestant, I should have come to this first, but I am getting to it last. I’d like to look now at all the biblical evidence I can find on the issue of authority in the church. A few caveats before I begin: I am here acting like a Protestant. I understand that if you are Catholic or Orthodox or other that you will not approach the Bible as I do so you may not accept my conclusions. But this is my method, and it is simply this: When someone says something about God or the Bible or a theological issue that strikes me as funny or wrong, then I find every verse I can on the topic, look it up in context, and try to discern what the text actually has to say. I have done this, for example, on dinosaurs and on the glory of God.  Today’s topic is authority in the church. Second caveat: I am not actually looking at the whole Bible, but only the New Testament. It is an interesting question what we might learn of the church from the Old Testament but since the church as such did not exist in OT times it is a bit of a trickier issue. I do think there are conclusions that could be drawn about God and His people and how He deals with them but anything we would say is going to be more debatable so I am not touching that aspect of the issue at this time. I chose to use a Catholic translation, the New Revised Standard Version Catholic Edition (NRSVCE), for this study to make sure that I am being fair and not biasing my argument with an anti-Catholic translation.

The Issues

Based on my previous studies (see all those links above), here are some of the issues that need to be addressed:

  • Who were the apostles? What makes one an apostle?
  • Is there a continuing apostolic authority or apostolic succession?
  • What is Peter’s role relative to the other apostles? Does he have greater authority?
  • If Peter does have any greater role, does he pass this on to his successors?
  • How are leaders in the church chosen?
  • What gives leaders authority?
  • Are there circumstances in which a leader’s authority can be abrogated?
  • Who has authority to interpret the Scriptures?
  • How can we know true from false teachers?

What does the New Testament have to say about Apostles?

There is not much we all agree on when it comes to authority in the church, but one point that the Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox and Protestants all concede is that there were men the Bible calls apostles who had authority in New Testament times.

Who were the apostles? The simplest and most common answer is that the first apostles were Jesus’ closest 12 disciples (Matt. 10:2; Mk. 3:14; 6:30; Lk. 6:13; 9:10; 22:14; 24:10). Of course, this list includes Judas Iscariot who later betrayed Jesus and died. He was then replaced by Matthias (Acts 1:26) making a nice even 12 again.

But then Paul (aka Saul) was also added to the number, bringing it up to 13 again. Paul makes very clear that he is an apostle, beginning most of his letters by self-identifying as an apostle (Rom. 1:1; I Cor. 1:1; 2 Cor. 1:1; Eph. 1:1; Col. 1:1; I Tim. 1:1; 2 Tim 1:1; Tit. 1:1) and also giving an extended defense of his apostleship in Galatians (Gal. 1:11-19). These 13, then, make the generally accepted list of apostles and no one seems to doubt their position.

However, there a few places in which others are called as apostles. In Acts 14 and I Corinthians 9, Barnabas seems to be called an apostle as well as Paul.  Acts tells us that:

“. . . where Paul and Barnabas went into the Jewish synagogue and spoke in such a way that a great number of both Jews and Greeks became believers . . . But the residents of the city were divided; some sided with the Jews, and some with the apostles.” (Acts: 14:1, 4)

And again later it says “when the apostles Paul and Barnabas heard . . .” (Acts 14:14; cf. I Cor. 9:6).

At the end of Romans Paul concludes his letter by saying:

“Greet Mary, who has worked very hard among you. 7 Greet Andronicus and Junia, my relatives who were in prison with me; they are prominent among the apostles, and they were in Christ before I was.” (Rom. 16:6-7)

This passage may be calling Andronicus and Junia apostles or it may be saying that they are well-known to or esteemed by the apostles. The NRSVCE, NIV and KJV prefer the former interpretation, the ASV and ESV the latter.

It should be noted, however, that Paul also seems to call himself the last of the apostles:

“Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. 8 Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. 9 For I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God.” (I Cor. 15:7-9)

This brings us to our next question: What makes one an apostle? When Matthias is chosen, we are told that the qualifications are:

 So one of the men who have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, 22 beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us—one of these must become a witness with us to his resurrection.” (Acts 1:21-22)

Which is to say, an apostle is one who has literally and physically seen Jesus. This may then make some sense of Paul’s (possible) designation of Andronicus and Junia as apostles if they too had seen Jesus firsthand — we are told at least that they came to faith before Paul himself did — though he counts himself as the last of the apostles since he saw Jesus in a vision after His death. Since, as he says, he was the last that Christ appeared to in the flesh (and that in a vision), he becomes the final apostle.

So then we may say that an apostle is one that has seen Jesus in the flesh. To this we may add one further qualification: an apostle gets his authority directly from Christ. In his defense of his own apostleship, Paul says,

“11 For I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel that was proclaimed by me is not of human origin; 12 for I did not receive it from a human source, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.” (Gal. 1:11-12)

Though Paul appears before Peter and the other apostles, he does not do so till 3 years after his conversion and he makes very clear that his authority comes not from them but from Christ. And again he says that:

” . . .he who worked through Peter making him an apostle to the circumcised also worked through me in sending me to the Gentiles.” (Gal. 2:8)

Thus the other apostles did not give Paul authority but only recognized the grace which had been given him (Gal. 2:9). Matthias also was chosen by God. Though the 11 remaining apostles (at the time) cam up with a list of candidates, they cast lots to decide who would get the position and so left the decision up to the Lord (cf. Prov. 16:33).

Before moving on, we can say a few words about the works of an apostle. The apostles, we are told, teach (Acts 2:42), do signs and wonders (Acts 2:43; 5:12; 2 Cor. 12:12), make major decisions affecting the church (Acts 9:27ff; Acts 15:2ff), accept money given to the church (Acts 4:37), lay on hands for the purpose of conferring authority (Acts 6:6; 8:18), and send people (including Peter and John) on missions (Acts 8:14).

Apostolic Succession?

Having looked at who they apostles were and what defines an apostle, we may then ask if there continue to be apostles. Based on the above criteria — that an apostle has seen Jesus in the flesh and has been appointed directly by God– I think we would have to say that, no, there are no more apostles after Paul (who, as I said above, speaks of himself as the last).

This is not to say that the authority of the apostles does not continue, however. We have also seen that the apostles lay hands on others as a means of conferring authority. We can add to this that they appointed leaders in the churches:

“And after they had appointed elders for them in each church, with prayer and fasting they entrusted them to the Lord in whom they had come to believe.” (Acts 14:23)

So too Paul tells Titus to “appoint elders in every town, as I directed you” (Tit. 1:5; cf. 2 Tim. 2:2). He also gives both Timothy and Titus extensive lists of qualifications for elders  (1 Tim.3:1ff; Tit. 1:7ff). It should be noted that the word for “elder” in these passages may be translated as “bishop,” “presbyter, or “overseer” depending on one’s inclination. I am not worried here about which word we use but about the role of these men, whatever one calls them.

The role of an elder is to teach and argue for the faith (1 Tim. 3:2; Tit. 1:9; 1 Tim. 5:17; 2 Tim. 2:2) and to care for the church (1 Tim. 3:5; James 5:14). There is evidence as well that they, as the apostles did, can practice the laying on of hands for the purpose of conferring authority (1 Tim. 4:14). Even while the apostles are still around they are involved in the big decisions of the church as we are told that the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15 consisted of the apostles and the elders. It is notable that signs and wonders, the mark of an apostle, are not mentioned in connection with the elders.

Is there then an apostolic succession? If we mean by that term that there continue to be apostles through all generations, I would have to say no. But there is a passing on of authority from the apostles to the elders who would then appoint more elders and so on. Inherent in the idea of apostolic succession is the notion that those who stand in such a line have exclusive authority over the church, particularly in matters of scriptural interpretation. So I think this issue needs more study before a firm conclusion can be reached. For now I would like to set it aside and look instead at the primacy of Peter.

Peter among the Apostles

What really sets the Roman Catholic Church apart from all others is the doctrine of the primacy of Peter and his successors. So we must now look at what the Bible has to say about Peter’s role specifically.

I’d like to think about the passages relating to this issue in two groups: those that seem to confer authority in Peter and those that show Peter’s role in the early church. When asked to defend the primacy of Peter, Catholics go immediately to the former group and particularly to Matthew 16. I’d like to begin instead with the latter.

There is no doubt that Peter takes a prominent role in the early church and particularly in the events recounted in the first half of the book of Acts. When Christ has ascended, we are told that “Peter stood up among the believers” (Acts 1:15). He speaks first and he takes charge. Early in the book of Acts, Luke often speaks of “Peter and the apostles” (Acts 2:14, 37; 5:29). Peter takes a prominent role at the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15:7) and  is given a significant vision (Acts 10). He heals Aeneas and raises Dorcas from the dead (Acts 9). His fame seems to precede him and to be widely known since the people believe that even his shadow will heal them (Acts 5:16).

Though there us no doubt that Peter is singled out most often in the early chapter of Acts, John, we are told, is often with him (Acts 3-4). James also takes a prominent role at the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15:13ff). The three of them — Peter, James and John — are called by Paul “pillars of the church” (Gal. 2:9). Paul and John are sent by the apostles, implying that that body has authority over them (Acts 8:14).  In defense of his own apostleship, Paul equates himself with Peter (whom he calls Cephas; Gal. 2:8) and he urges Christians not to consider themselves followers of one apostle or leader, naming specifically himself, Peter (Cephas) and Apollos, but of Christ alone (1 Cor. 1:12-13). He even tells of a time in which he opposed Peter publicly, accusing him of hypocrisy (Gal. 2:11-14).

From this collection of passages, I conclude that while Peter took a leadership role in the early church and was clearly the most prominent apostle up until Acts 13, when Paul’s ministry become the focus, that there is no evidence that he had any authority over the other apostles or any greater authority than they did.

We turn then to those passages from the gospels in which Jesus is believed to have conferred special authority upon Peter. Twice Christ seems to give Peter special instructions to care for others. In Luke 22, when He is predicting Peter’s betrayal, Jesus tells him, “‘You, when you have once turned back, strengthen your brothers'” (Luke 22:32). And after his resurrection, Jesus asks Peter three times if he loves Him and three times tells him (in various ways) “feed my sheep” (John 21:15-19). The three-fold repetition of this scene has been connected to Peter’s three-fold denial of Christ. That is, having to say he loves Jesus three times undoes the three times he denied his Lord.

The primary passage used to defend the primacy of Peter is Matthew 16:17-19. I have blogged on this passage once before (here), but I will go over it once again. The passage reads as follows:

“17 And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. 18 And I tell you, you are Peter and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. 19 I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”

There are really two key bits to this passage: “upon this rock I will build my church” and “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” As you hopefully know, Peter’s name was originally not Peter but Simon. John’s gospel tells us that Jesus changed his name to Peter which means Rock when He first called him to follow Him (John 1:42). Here He makes a play on that name. Catholics understand the rock of Matthew 16 upon which the church is to be built to be Peter himself; others take it to be Peter’s declaration about Christ.

There is an interesting contrast here with the passage which comes right after it, Matthew 16:21-23. (I am indebted to my 15yo for this observation:) In vv.17-19 Jesus tells Peter that what he has said has come from God (v.17) and makes a play on his name, speaking of the rock as a foundation stone upon which the church is built (v. 18). In vv. 21-23, Jesus tells Peter that what he has said comes from Satan and again plays on his name, this time calling him a stumbling block (v. 23). The contrast between these two passages, juxtaposed as they are, is so marked that I do not see how we can take the one literally without taking the other in the same manner.

There is an interesting connection here to Revelation as well in which we are told that the foundations of the New Jerusalem are written with the names of the apostles:

 And the wall of the city has twelve foundations, and on them are the twelve names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb.” (Rev. 21:14)

It is hard to know just how literally to take this since, with Paul, there are not 12 but 13 apostles, but to me it would seem to argue that all the apostles might be considered foundational, not just Peter.

We turn then to the second half of the passage in which Jesus tells Peter, “‘I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven’” (Matt. 16:19). I take this to be one idea — that Peter is being given authority, symbolized by keys, and that that authority is to bind and loose. Though Jesus is addressing Peter here, he uses the same wording regarding binding and loosing in Matthew 18:15-20. It is worth looking at that passage as well:

“’If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. 16 But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 17 If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. 18 Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. 19 Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. 20 For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.’”

As you can see, the same language of binding and loosing is used here, but the audience seems to be all the apostles (or perhaps even a larger group of Jesus’ followers). The context is discipline within the church and the instructions seem to be for the church (“two or three”) rather than the individual.

These are the main passages which are used to support the primacy of Peter. There are  a few others of lesser impact. For example, when Peter is listed first in the list of apostles this is taken to indicate his primacy. However, tis alone does not seem to be terribly significant.

My opinion would be that while Jesus may well be calling Peter himself the rock in Matthew 16:18 that he is making a play on words which is of no more lasting import than the similar (but negative) pun he makes in Matthew 16:23. The authority he seems to give Peter in Matthew 16:19 does not seem to be exclusively for him but for the church in Matthew 18. I think if all we had were these passages, one could make  a reasonable (but not conclusive) argument for Peter’s primacy, but when we include also the evidence from the rest of the New Testament which seems to show that Peter, while a leader, had no greater authority than the other apostles, that there is not a very strong case for the doctrine of the primacy of Peter.

The authority of the popes (and through them also of the Catholic Church itself) rests not just on the primacy of Peter but also on the primacy of his successors, the bishops of Rome. For this I find no biblical evidence. We are told that the apostles appointed elders (or bishops) and it seems clear that these also appointed successors and that they carried on the work of the church. But nowhere does there seem to be a one-to-one correspondence between an apostle and his successor. Instead, multiple successors are appointed as the church grows. In fact, Peter is not even associated with Rome in the New Testament; only later traditions place him there.


I’ve gotten through 4 of the 9 questions I began this post with, and those four the most fundamental I think for all that follows. As frequently happens, one post leads to another, so I will call this “part 1” and continue the topic in my next post.

To sum up what I have found thus far:

  • There are people termed apostles in the NT who have special authority. The two qualifications seem to be that they have seen Crist in the flesh and are appointed directly by God. There are probably 13 of them (including Matthias who replaced Judas and Paul) with Paul being the last to become an apostle though occasionally others, notably Barnabas are referred to as apostles.
  • The apostle appoint elders who succeed them. They take on most of the tasks of an apostle though they are not associated with signs and wonders. They are not themselves apostles but whether they constitute and “apostolic succession” is not (yet?) clear.
  • Peter appears to be a leader among the apostles after Jesus ascension though his prominence wanes after Paul comes on the scene. There is no indication that he had authority over and beyond that of the other apostles, however. Nor is there evidence that he appointed specific successors who would inherit his primacy (if he had any).

Until next time






Sources of Authority in the Catholic Church

Dear Reader,

Recently, in dialogue with a friend, I have been revisiting the claims made by the Roman Catholic Church. I say “revisiting” because I was raised Catholic. I left the RC Church in college when I came to faith. I do not consider that I was saved before this time though to my recollection I always accepted the Church’s teaching on who God is and on the death and resurrection of Christ. I did not understand until that point what was necessary for salvation nor did I have saving faith. As I said in my earlier post on the (alleged) primacy of Peter, I found in the Catholic Church Law but not Grace. This may not be everyone’s experience but it was mine.

While I considered myself a fairly educated (ex-) Catholic, I am discovering that there is much I did not know or at least did not fully understand. While there was no Catholic school in my area, I attended Sunday School consistently all through my childhood. In fact, my mother was in charge of the program so I was at church a lot both on Sundays and other days. We knew every priest that came through town, had them over to dinner, etc. I even had a stuffed walrus named after the bishop (Walter). Nonetheless I have found in my study that there are things that I was never clearly taught, particularly about today’s topic: Authority in the Catholic Church.

I am focusing on this topic specifically because it has been central to my talks with my friend. And I think that for any of us trying to converse with Catholics or those considering Catholicism it is helpful to understand what common ground we have and what we don’t have. Plus I think there are a lot of misconceptions among Protestants about this topic.

Whereas Protestants adhere to the principle of sola Scripturataking the Bible alone as their supreme source of authority*, Roman Catholics rely on three strands: Scripture, Tradition and the authority of the church hierarchy known as the Magisterium.

Tradition (big “T”) stands alongside Scripture in the Catholic Church:

“Therefore Christ the Lord in whom the full revelation of the supreme God is brought to completion (see Cor. 1:20; 3:13; 4:6), commissioned the Apostles to preach to all men that Gospel which is the source of all saving truth and moral teaching, and to impart to them heavenly gifts. . . This commission was faithfully fulfilled by the Apostles who, by their oral preaching, by example, and by observances handed on what they had received from the lips of Christ, from living with Him, and from what He did, or what they had learned through the prompting of the Holy Spirit. The commission was fulfilled, too, by those Apostles and apostolic men who under the inspiration of the same Holy Spirit committed the message of salvation to writing.

But in order to keep the Gospel forever whole and alive within the Church, the Apostles left bishops as their successors, “handing over” to them “the authority to teach in their own place.” This sacred tradition, therefore, and Sacred Scripture of both the Old and New Testaments are like a mirror in which the pilgrim Church on earth looks at God . . .” [From Pope Paul VI in Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation: Dei Verbum chapter 2 (November 18, 1965)]

This Tradition seems to be a finite body of knowledge since we are told in the same document that there will be no more public revelations (which I assume means the door is still open for private revelations along the lines of “You, John, should go to India”):

The Christian dispensation, therefore, as the new and definitive covenant, will never pass away and we now await no further new public revelation before the glorious manifestation of our Lord Jesus Christ .” (Dei Verbum, chapter 1)

But, while there is no new revelation, there is more for the Apostles and their successors to communicate as their understanding of revelation grows:

This tradition which comes from the Apostles develop (sic) in the Church with the help of the Holy Spirit. For there is a growth in the understanding of the realities and the words which have been handed down. This happens through the contemplation and study made by believers, who treasure these things in their hearts (see Luke, 2:19, 51) through a penetrating understanding of the spiritual realities which they experience, and through the preaching of those who have received through Episcopal succession the sure gift of truth. For as the centuries succeed one another, the Church constantly moves forward toward the fullness of divine truth until the words of God reach their complete fulfillment in her.” (Dei Verbum, chapter 2)

Thus the Catholic church holds Scripture and Tradition side by side and the two cannot contradict each other:

Hence there exists a close connection and communication between sacred tradition and Sacred Scripture. For both of them, flowing from the same divine wellspring, in a certain way merge into a unity and tend toward the same end.” (Dei Verbum, chapter 2)

Nonetheless, there is still a preeminence given to the written revelation:

[The Church] has always maintained [the Scriptures], and continues to do so, together with sacred tradition, as the supreme rule of faith, since, as inspired by God and committed once and for all to writing, they impart the word of God Himself without change, and make the voice of the Holy Spirit resound in the words of the prophets and Apostles. Therefore, like the Christian religion itself, all the preaching of the Church must be nourished and regulated by Sacred Scripture.” (Dei Verbum chapter 6)

It is interesting to me that the reason given for the Scriptures’ preeminence here is that, being written, they are “without change.” Does that mean that Tradition is changeable? It doesn’t sound to me like it should be so, given that Tradition, like the Scriptures, where handed down to the first generation of Apostles by Christ himself and that revelation is said to be complete. Nonetheless, this quote seems to imply that the unchangeableness of the written Wotd is what makes it unique.

There is one sense in which Scripture is subject to Tradition; it is Tradition which tells us what Scripture is:

“120 It was by the apostolic Tradition that the Church discerned which writings are to be included in the list of the sacred books.”(Catechism of the Catholic Church 120)

But to these two, the Roman Catholic Church also adds a third strand of authority – that of its human teachers through the ages, known as the Magisterium. For it is only those who stand in the Apostolic succession, we are told, who are able to interpret either Scripture or Tradition:

But the task of authentically interpreting the word of God, whether written or handed on, has been entrusted exclusively to the living teaching office of the Church, whose authority is exercised in the name of Jesus Christ. This teaching office is not above the word of God, but serves it, teaching only what has been handed on, listening to it devoutly, guarding it scrupulously and explaining it faithfully in accord with a divine commission and with the help of the Holy Spirit, it draws from this one deposit of faith everything which it presents for belief as divinely revealed.” (Dei Verbum, chapter 2)

And again from The Catechism of the Catholic Church:

85 “The task of giving an authentic interpretation of the Word of God, whether in its written form or in the form of Tradition, has been entrusted to the living teaching office of the Church alone. Its authority in this matter is exercised in the name of Jesus Christ.” This means that the task of interpretation has been entrusted to the bishops in communion with the successor of Peter, the Bishop of Rome.

86 “Yet this Magisterium is not superior to the Word of God, but is its servant. It teaches only what has been handed on to it. At the divine command and with the help of the Holy Spirit, it listens to this devotedly, guards it with dedication and expounds it faithfully. All that it proposes for belief as being divinely revealed is drawn from this single deposit of faith.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church 85-86)

These then are the three sources of authority in the Roman Catholic Church: the content transmitted from Jesus to his Apostles, some of which has been since written down and, with the Old Testament, become the Bible, and some of which has remained oral and been handed down through the centuries from generation to generation of church leaders and which is still their exclusive possession except as they choose to reveal it to the Church and the authority to rightly  interpret both of these which again was given by Christ to the Apostles and handed down through the generations.

How then do we talk to our Catholic friends? Do we have any common ground on which to operate? Well, yes and no. In theory we do have the Bible, the written Word of God. We both hold it to be true and unchangeable. Though Catholics also hold to Tradition (big “T” again), the two cannot contradict one another and Scripture is on some level preeminent. On the other hand, the Catholic Church says that Scripture cannot rightly be interpreted except by the leaders of the church, that is, its bishops (local priests do not have this authority). So you may come to your friend with some text you think supports your position only to have them say, “Well, but the Church says that’s not what it means.”  This makes dialogue difficult since the person in front of you is likely not a bishop and therefore does not have, according to their Church, the ability to rightly interpret what is before them. On the other other hand, most Catholics are not very clear on what their Church teaches and may not be aware that they are not allowed to do any of their own interpreting.

Before I close, I want to do a little myth-busting of some common misconceptions Protestants have about the Catholic Church:

Myth: Catholics are discouraged from reading the Bible for themselves.

Truth: In this day and age, the Catholic Church encourages all its members to read the Bible in their own languages:

Hence “access to Sacred Scripture ought to be open wide to the Christian faithful . . . The Church “forcefully and specifically exhorts all the Christian faithful… to learn the surpassing knowledge of Jesus Christ, by frequent reading of the divine Scriptures. Ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church 131, 133)

Myth: Catholics consider the Pope infallible.

Truth: Papal infallibility applies in only certain circumstances. On one hand, not everything a pope says is infallible. On the other, infallibility also applies in a few other circumstances. I’ve tried for this post to rely as much as possible on documents released by the Catholic Church itself so as to let it speak in its own words. However, the most helpful thing I’ve found for my own understanding of infallibility is the Wikipedia article  “Magisterium” and particularly the chart which is included about midway through it under the heading “Levels” (I can’t seem to add a link right now). What this chart shows, and the article explains, is that there are three scenarios in which infallibility applies, some other scenarios in which infallibility does not apply but authority is still present, and lastly some in which authority is not present and the ordinary Catholic is free to disagree.

Infallibility applies when:

  • The Pope speaks ex cathedra — that is, when he speaks with the full authority of his office — on matter of matters of faith and morals. I think of this ex cathedra bit as like a mantle he puts on; when he assumes it, he puts on the maximum authority of his office. Popes do this very rarely, and I believe it was John Paul II who said he would never do so.
  • When bishops define doctrine at general councils. This cannot be done without the consent of the Pope. This is when there is a big gathering of bishops in one place and they all agree on some matter of doctrine. Some of the earliest church councils come to mind — like Nicaea in 325 AD –as well as relatively recent ones like the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s. You may have heard news stories of the current Pope meeting with world bishops (again, my linking feature is failing me; sorry about that). I am honestly not sure if they had made decisions at these meetings if they would qualify or not.
  • When bishops, though not gathered together, all teach something. Again the Pope must also be in union with them on this. In other words, anything that is universally taught by bishops (of which the Pope is one) is considered infallible.

If something is infallible, then Catholics must accept it as such. There are lesser matters which are not considered infallible but which Catholics are expected to freely submit to as they submit to the authority of their leaders. In this category we have anything else the Pope says and anything that the bishops say “in communion with the Pope.” I suppose that means that the bishops must say it first and the Pope then goes along with it since everything the Pope says is authoritative anyway. If your local priest says something which does not fall into one of these categories or some Catholic theologian who you might be listening to or reading the works of, you are free to dissent.

Last burning question because I know you will ask: What sorts of things qualify as infallible? There is no definitive list. The canonization of saints qualifies (i.e. when they are made saints) and there are some other things which are agreed upon as infallible like the Immaculate conception of Mary (that she was conceived without original sin; that’s a whole nother post). But, as I said, there is no definitive list, part of the problem being that the whole doctrine of infallibility was not conclusively defined and widely accepted within the Catholic Church until the 19th century.

This post has been in many ways preparatory to another one I’d like to write comparing the sources of authority in the three big branches of Christianity: Roman Catholicism, Protestantism and the Orthodox Churches. So if you like this sort of thing, you are in luck — more to come soon.


*God also reveals Himself through His creation but this revelation is non-specific and not sufficient unto salvation. In addition, it should be noted that Protestants rely on tradition (little “t”) in many ways but hold to the Bible as the “only infallible rule for faith and life” (as the vows of church membership in my denomination, the RPCNA, phrase it). “Only” here modifies “infallible” meaning that there may be other good guides in faith and life but that the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are the only guides which are infallible and therefore are the standard by which all others must be judged.