by Jeffrey Mirus, PhD
(This is the response of Jeffrey Mirus to a question about papal infallibility
addressed to him in the "Ask the Experts" section of EWTN Online Services.)
While the the First Vatican Council defined papal infallibility in 1870, you must
understand that the date on which a doctrine is officially defined is not the date on
which it becomes true. Rather, it was always true. It's just that different aspects of the
Faith are challenged at different periods of history, and when a challenge occurs or a
serious concern or question arises, then the Church will settle the difficulty by formally
stating what the truth of the matter is -- to end the confusion. So papal infallibility
has always been true, and, moreover, was accepted and practiced from the earliest times.
The evidence that papal infallibility is part of the Christian Faith comes from three
First, Scripture. Such passages as: "Thou art Peter and upon this rock I will
build my Church; to you I give the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven. Whatever you bind on
earth is bound in heaven; whatever you loose on earth is loosed in heaven", and
"Do you love me, Peter. Feed my sheep", and "I have prayed for you, Peter,
that your faith may not fail. You in turn must confirm your brethren", have always
been taken to refer to a special role for Peter in the establishment of the Church, and
special divine protection for Peter in the exercise of his authority.
Second, History. From the earliest times we see the bishops of Rome acting as if they
had special authority in succession from St. Peter, and we also see the rest of the Church
accepting their authority as if they knew it was genuine. Thus Pope Clement wrote to
settle a problem in the Church of Corinth before the end of the 1st century. During the
first few hundred years of Church history, moreover, many who were accused of heresy
appealed from every corner of the known world to Rome for vindication or condemnation. The
Fathers too repeatedly attest to the authority of the Roman See. And the Popes always had
the decisive word at general councils, as when the Fathers of the Council of Chalcedon
said in response to the Papal definition of the two natures of Christ, "Peter has
spoken through Leo" -- and accepted it unhesitatingly.
Third, Logic. There are only two covenants, the old and the new. But the first
Christians under the New Covenant had a living and infallible guide to the truth in Christ
himself. Surely the lack of such a guide in future times would constitute yet another
covenant -- the difference would be so radical. The argument runs as follows:
It is clear even from Scripture that Peter had a special commission and special powers
from Christ to care for the flock of Christ, to bind and loose, and to confirm his
brothers in faith -- indeed he had the very powers of the keys to the Kingdom. Obviously,
these powers were essential to the Church as constituted by Christ. And Christ promised to
be with the Church always to the end of time, and said that the powers of hell would not
prevail against it.
Now, clearly Christ knew that Peter would not live until the end of time, so he must
have intended that the power he gave to Peter would be carried on until His return. After
all, Peter was to feed "my" (Christ's) sheep, and so was serving as the vicar of
Christ in Christ's absence. When Peter died, a new vicar would take his place, and so on,
until Christ returned to claim his own. The parable of the steward awaiting his Master's
return is very much to the point.
Just as clearly, Peter's authority also enabled himself (and his successors) to set
forth the manner in which their successors would be selected, either by choosing the
successor personally before death, or by setting forth some other means -- eventually,
election by the college of cardinals.
Moroever, if these special and essential powers were to pass out of existence, it would
be proof that Christ was no longer with his Church and that the powers of Hell had indeed
prevailed. Therefore, again, Christ must have intended successors to Peter.
For this reason, we are not at all surprised that subsequent popes claimed to have the
Petrine power and that the early Christian community accepted it without question. As I
indicated above, this authority was excercised by the fourth Pope, Clement, while St. John
the Evangelist was still alive. The earliest Christians were in a position to know
Christ's will from other sources than Scripture (just as we today, under the guidance of
the Church, are able to learn from Tradition).
Now we come to the specific question of infallibility, by which the successors of Peter
continue to confirm the brethren. Since the successors of Peter have the same Petrine
authority, which comes ultimately from Christ, to bind and loose, they have the authority
to bind the faithful in matters pertaining to salvation -- that is, in faith or morals.
Now, if a Pope could bind the faithful to error, it would be a clear triumph of the powers
of Hell, because the entire Church would be bound to follow the error under Christ's own
authority. Obviously, this cannot happen.
Therefore, the logic of the situation demands that the Petrine power of confirming the
brethren must be an infallible power. When the Pope intends by virtue of his supreme
authority to teach on a matter of faith and morals to the entire Church, he MUST be
protected by the Holy Spirit from error -- else the powers of hell would prevail.
This is the logic behind infallibility. But, of course, it is not based solely on
logic, since it is attested in Scripture and was held by the earliest Christians and the
Fathers and, indeed, by the vast majority of Christians from the beginning.
Further, it is not a new thing. It was precisely defined at Vatican I in order to
clarify what was at that time a confusing issue, but this was by way of stating clearly
what Christ's teaching was, not by way of adding anything new. Vatican I therefore
carefully enumerated the conditions under which the Pope was in fact infallible -- the
same conditions which logic demands, which Scripture suggests, and which tradition shows
us in action down through the centuries.
When the Pope (1) intends to teach (2) by virtue of his supreme authority (3) on a
matter of faith and morals (4) to the whole Church, he is preserved by the Holy Spirit
from error. His teaching act is therefore called "infallible" and the teaching
which he articulates is termed "irreformable".