The Church and the Rock

Author: Rev. Edward J. Hayes et alii


Rev. Edward J. Hayes, Rev. Msgr. Paul J. Hayes and James J. Drummey

(Chapters of 9 and 12 of Catholicism and Reason by Rev. Edward J. Hayes, Rev. Msgr. Paul J. Hayes and James J. Drummey.)


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 religious nature.

In establishing a society there are several points which require attention.

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" (Mt. 10:14-15).

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. 16: 19).

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 alone: 

"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 his society.

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 way.

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— the Catholic Church.

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.[1] 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 successors.

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.


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 teaching.

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 private individual.

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 upon it.

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 preserved.

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 could?

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 shepherd.

"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.[1] 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 Vatican Council:

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.[2]

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 men.


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.