|(Chapters of 9 and 12 of Catholicism and Reason by Rev.
Edward J. Hayes, Rev. Msgr. Paul J. Hayes and James J. Drummey.)
THE CHURCH AND THE ROCK
Our Lord made Simon Peter alone the rock and key-bearer of the Church,
and appointed him shepherd of the whole flock. — Vatican II,
Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, No. 22.
Jesus was here with revolutionary ideas. Love your enemies . .Blessed
are the meek . . . Fast in secret . . . Jesus meant these teachings for
everyone, not merely for those who listened to Him. Yet, He himself
wrote nothing. How was He to accomplish his purpose? He established a
society, an organization to carry on his work.
Henry Ford and Thomas Edison knew that they were going to die. Before
that time came, each had a well-organized corporation to carry on the
work that he had started. The telephone company was not to be disbanded
after Alexander Graham Bell died. No. A head and a vice-president, and
other officers stepped into place. The function and authority of each
department was determined.
Christ did a somewhat similar thing. He knew that He was going to
die. Before that time He made plans for an organization to carry on his
work in the world after his death. Without even going further, this
seems to be the natural course of action.
Christ, when speaking of his society, referred to it as "the
kingdom of God" or "the kingdom of heaven" because of its
In establishing a society there are several points which require
First of all, members would have to be recruited. Whether you are
establishing a recreational group, or a charitable society to help the
poor, or a literary group, you would begin by speaking of it and
promoting it among those with whom you came in contact. Christ did the
same thing for his society, the Church which He founded. He proclaimed
it in towns, with friends, in the temple.
The next step would be to tell your associates of the object of your
society. If it did not have a specific purpose, it would be a society in
name only. Christ made clear to his little group what the purpose of his
society, his Church, was. Just as Henry Ford and Thomas Edison organized
corporations to carry on their work after them, Christ's society was to
have a specific purpose. It was to carry on the work He had been doing:
"As the Father has sent Me, so I send you" (Jn. 20:21).
The next logical step would be to choose a small group who would be
reliable enough to form the backbone of the society: a committee, or, in
the case of a corporation, a board of directors. Christ gathered such a
group (Mt. 10:1-4), and trained them for over two years. They became the
backbone of his society. Instead of calling them a board of directors,
He called them his "flock." They were to have authority in the
group: "If anyone does not receive you or listen to what you have
to say, leave that house or town, and once outside it shake its dust
from your feet. I assure you, it will go easier for the region of Sodom
and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than it will for that town"
Just as a society has a president to make decisions and to see that
things run smoothly, Christ appointed Peter as head of his Church:
"I will entrust to you the keys of the kingdom of heaven" (Mt.
Christ established a religious society, a Church, and only one
Church. He always spoke of his Church, not churches — "I will build
my Church" (Mt. 16:18); He compared it to a sheepfold, a kingdom, a
city — words which imply unity of rule or administration.
Since we know that Christ founded a Church, and Christ was sent as a
messenger from God, then the one Church which He founded is the one with
which we ought to become associated. The question is to find which
church is the one founded by Christ, since many today claim this
distinction. The thing to do is look at some of the essential qualities
of Christ's Church and to see if today some church still has those
qualities. If so, that is the same Church which was founded by Christ.
The book called the New Testament is a reliable history book and it
is as such that we shall use it in discussing the subject at hand.
We know from the New Testament that Christ established an
organization, a Church. This, He said, was going to continue after He
was gone. If we want to find out which is his organization in the world
today, among all those that claim to be such, we will have to see first
what the characteristics of the Church were as Christ established it. We
will have to look for the Church with those characteristics today. When
this Church is found, we will have an unmistakable indication of the
Church of Christ.
First we are going to look at one main feature of the Church which
Christ established, namely, the fact that Christ determined that there
was to be one supreme head in his organization.
Every properly operating organization has a head. The United States,
for instance, has a president. If there were no such head to govern with
authority, the nation would become an unwieldy mob, and confusion would
be inevitable. Such a simple thing as a family, if it is to be well
ordered, requires that someone preside. Children may not all do as they
please. There must be someone to keep things in order.
Christ's Church is a society composed of human beings. It has a
spiritual purpose, to be sure, but, being composed of men, it must have
some leader, just as any well-ordered society. Can we attribute any less
common sense to Christ than to human leaders, saying that He left his
society, his Church, to be governed without a head?
"But," some may say, "I do not deny that the Church
has a head. God himself is its ruler." This is merely side-stepping
the true issue. Is not God the ruler of all governments? "By me
kings reign, and lawgivers establish justice; by me princes govern, and
nobles; all the rulers of earth" (Pry. 8:15-16).
God is the head of each country, and of every Christian family in it;
but, nevertheless, there must always be in the country a visible head
who represents God in the civil sphere. So also the Church, besides
having an invisible head in heaven, must have a visible head on earth.
The members of the Church are visible; why not also the head? The Church
without a supreme ruler would be like an army without a general, a
corporation without a president, a sheepfold without a shepherd, or like
a human body without a head.
From the fact that a supreme head is necessary in any government, in
any family, in any corporation, in any society composed of human beings
we might expect likewise to find a head in the society which Christ
founded. This would be true even if other evidence were lacking. But
such evidence is not lacking. There is hardly a truth clearer in the New
Testament than that Peter was made the supreme head of Christ's
organization, the Church, and that Christ willed to have a supreme
headship continue in the successors of Peter.
Christ was with his followers one day in northern Palestine, near the
city of Caesarea Philippi. The distinguishing feature of the area was
the temple of Augustus, which sat on a majestic rock and towered over
the city. They were in sight of this rock when Jesus, aware that there
had been much discussion about who He was among the people of the
countryside, said to the Apostles: "And you, who do you say that I
am?" Peter spoke up: "You are the Messiah, the Son of the
living God!" Christ turned to Peter and addressed himself to him
"Blest are you, Simon, son of John! No mere man has revealed
this to you, but my heavenly Father. I for my part declare to you, you
are 'Rock,' and on this rock I will build my Church, and the jaws of
death shall not prevail against it. I will entrust to you the keys of
the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you declare bound on earth shall be
bound in heaven; whatever you declare loosed on earth shall be loosed in
heaven" (Mt. 16:15-20).
In this address of Christ to Peter there is no doubt that Peter was
made supreme head of Christ's Church. There is, first of all, no doubt
that it was Peter who was addressed. The account (by a very reliable
eyewitness) says that it was. Christ leaves no doubt when He calls him
Simon, son of John. Christ gives Peter's full name.
In the sentence "you are 'Rock,' and on this rock I will build
my Church," strange as it may seem to us, there is a pun involved.
In Aramaic, which was the language used, the word "peter"
means "rock." This, incidentally, marked a change of name for
Peter. Up to now he had been called Simon. In Biblical usage a change of
name usually indicates a significant event; and so we might expect
something of significance here. Actually that is the case.
"You are 'Rock' (Peter), and on this rock I will build my
Church." Christ, standing before the foundation rock of the temple,
promised to build his Church on Peter. Peter will be the foundation of
Look at the next sentence: "I will entrust to you the keys of
the kingdom of heaven." These words mean in our language: "I
will give you supreme authority over my Church." "Kingdom of
heaven" simply means Church here. We know this because often Christ
referred to his Church as the "kingdom of heaven." It may seem
to us like a roundabout way of saying things, but to the oriental mind
there is no difficulty; it was easily understood. To give one "the
keys" to a house or a city has always symbolized the granting of
authority. Thus, a man is presented with the keys of a city. If a
proprietor of a house, when leaving for the summer, says to a friend,
"Here are the keys of my house," this would really mean,
"You have full charge of my house. You may invite or exclude whom
you wish. Until I come back, you take my place." In the time of
Christ, particularly among the Hebrew people with whom we are dealing,
keys were definitely an emblem of jurisdiction. To say that a man had
received the keys of a city was equivalent to saying that he was placed
in charge of the city. In the Bible, whenever the expression is used, it
means just that. Therefore the meaning is: "I will give you
complete authority over my Church."
What about the sentence "Whatever you declare bound on earth
shall be bound in heaven . . ."? Peter is promised the supreme
power to bind his subjects by laws and precepts, and to free their souls
from spiritual ties such as sins or censures. True, the power of binding
and loosing was given to the other Apostles, but it is here promised to
Peter individually to show that Peter possesses it in a special way.
Peter's precepts and prohibitions (for that is the meaning in common
language of binding and loosing) are to be laws divinely sanctioned. In
view of the previous two sentences we have seen, there is no doubt that
Peter alone was to have the supreme authority in Christ's Church.
In light of all we have said, the address to Peter in our modern
everyday language would run something like this:
"You are a rock, a foundation stone, Peter, and upon this
foundation I will build my Church . . . I will give you supreme
authority over my Church, and your precepts and prohibitions I myself
will back up."
In reading the passage slowly and thoughtfully, there is no doubt
that the supreme authority of Christ's Church is in Peter's hands. It is
noteworthy that many modern Protestant theologians frankly admit the
same interpretation, as do Catholic theologians.
There is another event in which we can see also that Peter is given
the supreme authority in Christ's organization. To understand this
incident, it will be well to glance for a moment at the background of
the setting and at the kind of people involved. The event has to do with
Christ, Peter, and some of the other followers of Christ. All lived in
Palestine, most of which was rural territory, and sheep-raising was one
of the main occupations. Much of the Middle East is the same to a great
extent even today. In that land sheep can often be seen scattered over
the bare hills, and at night the shepherd gathers them into enclosures,
opening the door in the morning to let them out. At night he even sleeps
with them in a hut or cave in the mountain. If one strays, he brings it
back. Day and night the shepherd takes care of all the needs of the
sheep; he feeds them and knows them all; he alone is their master. It is
his duty to govern his flock, watch over it and protect it, and punish
the obstinate sheep.
With all this in mind we can better appreciate this incident of
Christ and Peter. It is by the Sea of Tiberias; there are seven of
Christ's friends on the shore, and He comes to them, picks out Peter and
asks him: "Simon, son of John, do you love Me more than
these?" Peter answers that he does, and Christ says to him,
"Feed my lambs." To the question again: "Simon . . . do
you love Me?" Peter again replies in the affirmative, and Christ
repeats, "Tend my sheep." Christ a third time asks the
question of Peter (perhaps because Peter had denied Him three times):
"Do you love Me?" and, after being answered by Peter, says to
him: "Feed my sheep" (Jn. 21 :15-17).
To us the incident seems to be hidden in strange language, but we
must remember that it was a pastoral country; the shepherd and his sheep
were a common sight. Remember, too, that Christ frequently made use of
his surroundings in his conversation. He used this language before when
He said He was the shepherd and his followers were his flock, his sheep.
He was understood, for the image was from the people's everyday lives.
Today in America we should rather understand a man telling his friend,
"You are to be the head of this corporation." Put yourself in
the country and time of Christ, and there the most natural thing would
be to speak not of a "head of my concern" but a "shepherd
of my flock."
The meaning, then, is that Peter is to do everything with reference
to Christ's flock that a shepherd did for his sheep. In other words, he
is a complete master, watches over it, protects it, rules it.
This picturesque way of expressing the meaning "to direct,"
"to rule," "to govern," by the expression "to
be a shepherd over" is not strange, for it is often found not only
in the New Testament but in secular literature of the time.
Peter was to be all this to Christ's lambs and sheep, Christ's flock.
And we know that by Christ's "flock" is meant his followers,
the members of his Church, for He often refers to his Church in this
Christ has before called himself the Good Shepherd, and He also
referred to his followers, his Church, as his sheep or his flock. Now He
says to Peter: "Feed my lambs, feed my sheep."
Peter is to do all for Christ's flock that a shepherd was known to do
for his sheep. Peter is to take the place of Christ with reference to
his flock. He is to be the head of Christ's spiritual flock, in a word,
to be the Vicar of Christ. The figurative language was understood well:
"You, Peter, are to be the supreme head of my organization."
The fact that Peter was to be head of Christ's Church is borne out
when we read of his place in the early Church after he was given the
position. The Acts of the Apostles is a book of the New Testament
relating events of the early days of the Church. As we have seen, it is
thoroughly reliable history. Here we see a picture of Peter acting as
supreme head of the Church. In the question of choosing a successor to
Judas, Peter alone speaks (Acts 1:15-26); Peter pronounces judgment on
Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:1-10); and Peter presides over the Council
of Jerusalem. The latter incident is significant because great
dissension and controversy had arisen over whether Gentile Christians
should be compelled to undergo the Mosaic practice of circumcision.
After much debate, Peter took the floor and said: "Brothers, you
know well enough that from the early days God selected me from your
number to be the one from whose lips the Gentiles would hear the message
of the gospel and believe." Having reminded his fellow Christians
of his supreme authority, Peter said that it was not necessary for the
Gentiles to undergo circumcision, and "at that the whole assembly
fell silent" (Acts 15:1-12). Thus was Peter recognized as the
supreme head of the early Church by his contemporaries.
The Church which Christ organized was to last to the end of time, as
He himself said, and so certainly whatever is essential to it in
teaching or organization must likewise last for all time.
The supreme headship of Peter was clearly an essential part of
Christ's plan. This we see from the fact that Peter alone was the
"foundation" of the Church, the "key-bearer," the
supreme teacher, the one shepherd of the flock. Certainly the foundation
is to last as long as the building; the key-bearer must last while there
is a kingdom; a supreme teacher as long as there are people to be
taught; a supreme shepherd as long as there is a flock. The mission
which Christ gave to Peter and his fellow Apostles was concerned with
all nations and all mankind. But Peter and his associates were to die;
they were destined to pass away with their generation, while their
mission was to continue. The only conclusion is that this office of
supreme headship was to last as long as Christ's Church.
Christ promised and actually appointed a supreme head over his
Church, and that position was to last to the end of time, that is, there
were to be successors to this position.
What church today fulfills this requirement? Only one —
Down through the ages no person ever claimed to be the successor in
Peter's office, nor was anyone ever acknowledged as the successor in
Peter's office, except the Bishop of Rome, the head of the Catholic
Church. As a matter of fact, today there is only one Church in the whole
world which claims to have a successor in the function of Peter. That is
the Catholic Church. The Pope alone claims this position. No other
religions claim it, nor did their founders. Men have claimed themselves
prophets; some have claimed to be God. But no one claims the function of
Peter's successor except the Pope. If the Pope is not in fact the
successor to Peter's office, our only conclusion must be that there is
no successor in the office of Peter. No one else even claims it. But
this is impossible for, as we have seen, Christ determined that there
should always be one supreme head in his Church, Peter and his
To a sincere inquirer one conclusion presents itself: only the
Catholic Church satisfies the requirements with respect to this
essential characteristic of Christ's Church.
1 Pope Paul VI stated this position very clearly when he told a
meeting of the World Council of Churches in Geneva on June 10, 1969,
that "our name is Peter." See the full text of the Pope's
address in the 1970 Catholic Almanac, p. 114.
THE AUTHORITY OF THE CHURCH
This infallibility with which the divine Redeemer willed his Church
to be endowed in defining a doctrine of faith and morals extends as far
as extends the deposit of divine revelation, which must be religiously
guarded and faithfully expounded. This is the infallibility which the
Roman Pontiff, the head of the college of bishops, enjoys in virtue of
his office, when, as the supreme shepherd and teacher of all the
faithful, who confirms his brethren in their faith, he proclaims by a
definitive act some doctrine of faith or morals. —
Vatican II, Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, No. 25.
Perhaps the one thing which is most misunderstood, and which is the
occasion for the most opposition is the authority of the Church. The
idea that there should be an infallible teaching body is rarely accepted
by those outside the Catholic Church. However, it is usually the case
that what they really are opposed to is not the teaching of
infallibility as held by the Church but a distorted caricature of this
In presenting our arguments for the truthfulness of infallibility and
its reasonableness we shall appeal to the words of the founder of the
true religion, Jesus Christ, and to our own common sense.
It might be well to begin by giving a few notions of what the
Catholic teaching of infallibility does not mean:
It does not mean that the Pope is impeccable, that is, in any way
incapable of moral wrong. There is often heard a line of argument such
as this: "There was one Pope who was guilty of a serious sin. That
proves that he was not infallible." The argument does not hold. We
are speaking in two different spheres; infallibility does not mean
freedom from moral guilt. As a matter of fact, we might point out that
the Popes have been, with few exceptions, men of amazingly virtuous
lives. The first thirty-two pontiffs died martyrs for the Faith. Over
260 men have sat in the throne of Peter, and yet only four or five have
even been charged by enemies with serious moral lapses. Even if we admit
the truth of all accusations, the proportion is strikingly small,
especially when we recall that one out of the twelve chosen by Christ
himself was a Judas Iscariot.
A judge is given certain legal authority in court. If, in his private
life, he were guilty of sin, this would in no way affect the validity of
his decisions. His authority in court is not dependent upon the
character of his private life; it is conferred on him by virtue of his
office. So it is with the Pope; his infallibility exists, not for his
own sake, but for ours. It does not, therefore, make the salvation of
his soul any easier. It is simply a way in which God uses him for the
preservation of truth. And, as it does not affect his character, so it
does not arise from it. If by chance, a questionable man should become
Pope, it is just as necessary for us that he should be prevented from
teaching error, and just as easy for God to prevent him!
Remember, the Holy Father confesses his sins. At the beginning of
Mass he says, "I confess to Almighty God . . . that I have sinned
through my own fault in my thoughts and in my words, in what I have
done, and in what I have failed to do." At the washing of the hands
he prays, "Lord, wash away my iniquity; cleanse me from my
sin." In the light of this, then, it is clear that infallibility by
no means implies freedom from sin.
Nor does infallibility mean that the Pope is infallible in discussing
matters not involving revealed truths, such as science; nor in political
matters, as some would have us believe. Infallibility does not mean that
a pontiff is free from error in any field at all when speaking as a
What, then, does infallibility mean?
When the Pope, in his official capacity, with the fullness of his
authority as successor of Saint Peter and Head of the Church on earth
proclaims a doctrine on faith or morals binding on the whole Church he
is preserved from error.
There are four conditions that the Pope must fulfill in order to
teach infallibly: (1) He must speak on a matter involving faith and
morals. (2) He must speak in his official capacity as Peter's successor
and the Supreme Shepherd of the Church on earth. (3) He must clearly
indicate that he is making a solemn, definitive, and final pronouncement
on the doctrine at issue. (4) He must declare his intention to bind all
members of the Catholic Church to accept the new teaching.
Let us examine one of the Church's rare infallible pronouncements and
see if all of these conditions are fulfilled. On November 1, 1950, Pope
Pius XII proclaimed the dogma of the Assumption:
Wherefore, having offered to God constant prayers of supplication and
invoked the light of the Spirit of truth, to the glory of Almighty God
who has lavished on the Virgin Mary his especial favor, to the honor of
his Son, the immortal king of the ages and the victor over sin and
death; to the increased glory of the same august Mother; and to the joy
and exultation of the universal Church, by the authority of our Lord
Jesus Christ, of the Blessed Apostles Peter and Paul, and by our own
authority, we pronounce, declare, and define it to be a dogma divinely
revealed: that the immaculate Mother of God, Mary ever virgin on the
completion of her earthly life, was taken up to heavenly glory both in
body and soul. Wherefore if anyone presume (which God forbid) willfully
to deny or call into doubt what has been defined by us, let him know
that he has fallen away entirely from the divine and Catholic faith.
Note: (1) The Holy Father is speaking on a matter of faith: the
bodily assumption of the Blessed Mother into heaven. (2) He is speaking
in his official capacity: "by the authority of our Lord Jesus
Christ, of the Blessed Apostles Peter and Paul, and by our own
authority." (3) He is indicating by the use of such words as
"pronounce, declare, and define" that he is handing down an
irrevocable decision. settling the question of the Assumption for all
time. You will not find such authoritative language in any other papal
pronouncements. (4) He is binding all Catholics to accept his decision
or fall away "entirely from the divine and Catholic faith."
Considering the solemn, unchanging, and permanent nature of an
infallible decree, and the fact that a Catholic who denies or questions
it jeopardizes his eternal salvation, it is obvious that the Pope must
be preserved from delivering an erroneous judgment.
In a word, the Pope is to the Church, though in a more eminent
degree, what the Supreme Court is to the United States. The people of
the United States have an instrument called the Constitution which is
the charter of their civil rights and liberties. If a controversy arises
regarding a constitutional clause, the question is referred to the
Supreme Court in Washington The Chief Justice of the United States, with
his associate judges, examines the case and then pronounces judgment
If there were no such court to settle constitutional questions, the
Constitution itself would soon become a dead letter. Every litigant
would conscientiously decide the dispute in his own favor. Anarchy and
civil war would soon follow. But, by means of the Supreme Court,
constitutional questions can be resolved and domestic tranquillity
The revealed Word of God is the constitution of the Church. It is the
Magna Charta of our Christian liberties. The Pope is the official
guardian of our religious constitution, just as the Supreme Court is the
guardian of the United States Constitution.
One may protest, "In the case of the Supreme Court it is not
infallible. It may be wrong. But Catholics hold that the decision of the
Pope is not only binding but infallible."
The decisions of the Supreme Court are final. Why is it not
infallible? Simply because the founding fathers who conferred its powers
could not give it actual inerrancy. Suppose the founding fathers
had it in their power to keep the Supreme Court from errors in its
decisions. We would say that they were poor Americans if they had the
power and yet did not confer it on the Court. And therein lies the
difference. God has the power to protect his Church from error.
Should we not expect that He would grant it to his Church just as the
founding fathers would have granted it to the Supreme Court if they
Americans have set up the Supreme Court of the United States to tell
them finally what is the law. If an American had the power to prevent
the Court from making mistakes, would he not use that power? He would,
indeed. Not to use it would be a grave wrong to every one of his fellow
citizens. So with the Church. Christ set up an organization, which we
know as the Church, to carry on his teaching. Has he the power to
prevent the Church from misleading us? He has of course. Does He use
that power? Most certainly He does.
Indeed, we must say that the only possible course was to grant this
power to his Church.
Let us now see if the conclusion of our reason and common sense is
supported by history. Is the conferring of inerrancy a historical fact?
Did Christ grant it to Peter, the first Pontiff?
A study of the New Testament reveals several pertinent passages
spoken to Peter:
1. "I for my part declare to you, you are 'Rock,' and on this
rock I will build my church, and the jaws of death shall not prevail
against it" (Mt. 16:18). This was addressed exclusively to Peter.
In effect Christ says, "I will establish a Church which will last
until the end of time. I will lay the foundation of this Church so deep
and strong on the rock of truth that the winds and storms of error shall
not prevail against it."
2. Also spoken to Peter, the first Pontiff, directly: "Whatever
you declare bound on earth shall be bound in heaven; whatever you
declare loosed on earth shall be loosed in heaven" (Mt. 16:19).
"The decisions which you make," says Christ in effect,
"will be ratified in heaven." Surely God is incapable of
sanctioning an untruthful judgment.
3. "Simon, Simon! Remember that Satan has asked for you, to sift
you all like wheat. But I have prayed for you that your faith may never
fail. You in turn must strengthen your brothers" (Lk, 22:31-32). It
is worthy of note that Jesus prays only for Peter. And why for Peter in
particular? Because on his shoulders was to rest the burden of the
Church. Our Lord prays that the faith of Peter and of his successors
might not fail. Christ utters a prayer and then says, "With the
faith I have gained for you, shield the faith of your brothers from the
assaults of Satan."
4. "Feed my lambs . . . Feed my sheep" (Jn. 21:15-17).
Peter is appointed by our Lord the universal shepherd of his flock. The
Pope must feed the flock not with the poison of error but with the
healthy food of sound doctrine; for he is not a hireling, who
administers questionable food to his flock, but, rather, a good
"Yes," comes the remark, "I can see that the evidence
is clear enough for the fact that Christ guaranteed to Peter a guidance
that would safeguard him from error. But there is quite a gap from Peter
to the Church of the twentieth century."
Remember that the mission which Christ gave to Peter and the Apostles
was to cover all nations and all mankind. But Peter and his associates
were mortal men, destined to pass away with their generation while their
mission was to continue. The guidance of Christ was, therefore, to
continue with their successors. That is clearly disclosed by the words
of Christ: "And know that I am with you always, until the end of
the world!" (Mt. 28:20). Since the Apostles were not to live until
the end of the world, Christ promised to be with them in the person of
their successors until the end of time.
The logic of this conclusion can be denied only by those who believe
that Christ was interested in saving only the souls of those who lived
in his day, and was totally indifferent about all posterity.
In connection with this subject we hear at times a remark such as,
"For my part I have an infallible Bible, and this is the only
infallibility that I require." While this may seem plausible at
first view, it does not stand the test of further investigation. Either
such a person is infallibly certain that his particular interpretation
of the Bible is the correct one, or he is not. If he maintains that he
is infallibly certain, then he claims for himself a personal
infallibility. Furthermore, he cannot logically deny his personal
infallibility to every other reader of the Bible. He denies it only to
the Pope. We claim it only for the Pope. According to this view, each of
the hundreds of millions of readers of the Bible becomes a pope while
the only one who is not a pope is the Pope himself. You avoid admitting
the infallibility of one man by multiplying infallibility by the number
of readers of the Bible. If one who holds this theory does not claim to
be infallibly certain that his interpretation of the whole Bible is
correct, then of what value is it to have an infallible Bible without an
infallible interpreter? In either case the statement crumbles. The plain
fact is that an infallible Bible without an infallible living
interpreter is largely futile.
If a church is not infallible, it is liable to err; for there is no
medium between infallibility and liability to error. If a church and her
ministers are fallible in their doctrinal teaching, as they admit, they
may be preaching falsehood to you instead of truth. If so, you are in
doubt whether you are listening to truth or falsehood. If you are in
doubt, you can have no faith, for faith excludes doubt, and in that
state you displease God, for "without faith, it is impossible to
please him" (Heb. 11:6). Faith and infallibility go hand in hand.
You admit infallible certainty in the physical sciences, such as an
astronomer's prediction of an eclipse; that certain insects have 8,000
eyes; that a drop of water sometimes contains more atomic bodies than
there are inhabitants on our planet. If we accept these and countless
other inconceivable statements as correct, it is evident that the vast
majority of us do so on faith, depending solely on the assertions of a
very few individuals, most of whom we have never seen. We are all
disciples of someone, and many of us accept the declarations of the
"popes of science" quite as submissively as Catholics receive
an ex cathedra utterance of the Holy See.
It has been said, too, that the Catholic Church in the course of ages
ceased to teach the pure truths of Christ, introduced error, and so
today cannot be regarded as the true Church.
Remember these words spoken by Christ of his Church:
a) "I for my part declare to you, you are 'Rock,' and on this
rock I will build my Church,
and the jaws of death shall not prevail
against it" (Mt. 16:18).
b) "I will ask the Father and He will give you another Paraclete —
to be with you always:
the Spirit of truth" (Jn. 14: 16-17).
c) "And know that I am with you always, until the end of the
world!" (Mt. 28:20).
So spoke Christ of his Church. Either the Catholic Church never was
the true Church; or it once was the true Church and went into error; or
it was and still is the true Church. There is no other choice.
As for the first possibility (it never was the true Church), where
was Christ's Church for 1,600 years? As for the second point, if it were
the true Church and went into error, then Christ lied when He said the
jaws of death would not prevail against it, and that the Spirit of truth
would always be with it, and that He would be with it to the end of the
world; for if it fell into error, then the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of
truth, has not been with it all days.
The only conclusion is the third possibility: the Catholic Church
was, and still is, the Church of Christ.
It is a marvelous fact, worthy of record, that in the entire history
of the Church, from the first century to the twentieth, no example can
be produced to show that any Pope or general council ever revoked a
decree of faith or morals enacted by any preceding Pontiff or
council. Her record of the past nineteen centuries ought to be an
assurance that there will be no change in the future. Pope John XXIII
affirmed this fact on October 11, 1962, in his speech opening the Second
The Twenty-first Ecumenical Council, which will draw upon the
effective and important wealth of juridical, liturgical, apostolic, and
administrative experiences, wishes to transmit the doctrine, pure and
integral, without any attenuation or distortion, which throughout twenty
centuries, notwithstanding difficulties and contrasts, has become the
common patrimony of men. It is a patrimony not well received by all, but
always a rich treasure available to men of good will. Our duty is not
only to guard this precious treasure, as if we were concerned only with
antiquity, but to dedicate ourselves with an earnest will and without
fear to that work which our era demands of us, pursuing thus the path
which the Church has followed for twenty centuries.
The infallibility which Christ promised to his Church, it should be
noted, "resides also in the body of bishops when that body
exercises supreme teaching authority with the successor of Peter,"
said the Fathers of Vatican II. This is true, they explained, only when
the bishops are "gathered together in an ecumenical council,"
or "when they are dispersed around the world, provided that while
maintaining the bond of unity among themselves and with Peter's
successor, and while teaching authentically on a matter of faith or
morals, they concur in a single viewpoint as the one which must be held
conclusively" (Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, No.
25). In both cases, the bishops must act in conjunction with the Pope.
In other words, the successor of Peter must be involved in any
infallible pronouncement. He does not need the approval of the bishops
to teach infallibly, but they cannot do so without his approval.
We should not leave this question of papal authority and
infallibility without saying something about the duty of Catholics to
give positive assent to the Pope's non-infallible teachings, such as
the encyclicals which are frequently issued by the Pontiffs. There are
three good reasons why Catholics should accept these authentic, but not
infallible, pronouncements: (1) They can be considered informed because
the Pope seeks the advice of experts on the religious or moral issue to
be treated. (2) They can be considered important because the Holy Father
and his advisers are unlikely to use the power of the Papacy to
influence the times in which they live needlessly or unwisely. (3) They
can be considered reliable because the Pope still receives assistance
from the Holy Spirit, even when he is not speaking ex cathedra.
The Second Vatican Council emphasized the importance of the
non-infallible teaching of the Vicar of Christ when it declared that
"religious submission of will and of mind must be shown in a
special way to the authentic teaching authority of the Roman Pontiff,
even when he is not speaking ex cathedra. That is, it must be
shown in such a way that his supreme magisterium is acknowledged with
reverence, the judgments made by him are sincerely adhered to, according
to his manifest mind and will. His mind and will in the matter may be
known chiefly either from the character of the documents, from his
frequent repetition of the same doctrine, or from his manner of
speaking" (Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, No. 25).
The concepts of authority and infallibility are not only reasonable,
but are necessary safeguards for the transmission of God's truths to
1 Non-Catholics ordinarily mention four Popes as having erred, viz.,
Paul V and Urban VIII, who condemned Galileo; and Liberius and Honorius,
who are said to have fallen into heresy. The conditions required for an
infallible decision were not present in any of these cases. For further
discussion, cf. Most Rev. M. Sheehan, Apologetics and Catholic
Doctrine, Dublin: M. H. Gill and Son, Ltd., 1944, pp. 191 ff.
2 Pope John's Opening Speech to the Council, The Documents of
Vatican II, ed. Walter M. Abbott, S.J., New York: The America Press,
1966, p. 715.