Irenaeus, and the rest of the Christians in those first hundred years after the death of Peter and Paul, all agreed that the Church of Rome had a special teaching ministry, a special leadership role in the whole church. Most Christians don’t object to the idea that the church leaders should exercise a teaching ministry, a ministry that overcomes evil and a ministry that forgives sins in Jesus’ name. Many Christians wouldn’t even mind that one church –a church which is most ancient and wise–ought to exercise some sort of leadership. But a problem comes when Catholics claim that the Bishop of Rome exercises a teaching ministry that actually claims to be infallible.
This is a difficulty, and the idea that the Pope is infallible is not only a problem for non-Catholics. Many Catholics have trouble accepting and understanding it. To understand what we mean by the Pope being infallible we should look first of all at what the word infallible means. It does not mean morally perfect. It doesn’t even mean totally and completely right about all things. It simply means faithful, reliable, trustworthy, and therefore without error. Furthermore, infallibility is not first and foremost an attribute of the Pope. I think this problem of infallibility is more easily understood when it is put in its bigger context. We should shift our primary attention away from the Pope and see how infallibility works for all Christians in other ways.
The most important thing to remember is that first and foremost it is Jesus Christ who is infallible. It is Jesus who is the Way, the Truth and the Life, and who gives us a way to the Father which is reliable without fail. The infallibility of Jesus is based on the authority which he was given by his father. But where is this infallible Christ alive in the world today? Paul says the body of Christ is the Church. In Ephesians, in the same passage where he expresses Christ’s universal power he says that power finds its fullest expression in the Church. Later, in Ephesians five, Paul says that Christ has washed the church and presented her as a ‘glorious church without spot or wrinkle–blameless in his sight.’ and in I Timothy 3.15 Paul says the church is the ‘pillar and foundation of truth.’ Again in Ephesians 3.10 Paul says it is God’s design that through the church all the wisdom of God should be made known. So first and foremost it is the church–the body of Christ–which holds and teaches the truth infallibly.
Paul also says in Ephesians that the church is built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets. Christ gave his authority to his apostles in the Gospels specifically to teach the truth. Surely he had to give his apostles the grace to teach the truth without fail–reliably and in a trustworthy manner so we could be assured of the truth–our very salvation depends on it. So what we are saying is that Christ–who is infallible– shares a measure of that trustworthiness–that complete reliability with his body the Church. But that infallible teaching has to be expressed by someone, and so it was. Through the preaching and writings of the apostles we are given the Word of God and all Christians regard the Scripture as the completely reliable teaching– a source without fail which can bring us to the saving knowledge of God’s love. So we believe in the infallible Scriptures–even though they were written by fallible men.
So far all Christians would agree that we have a sure, reliable and therefore infallible source of truth which comes to us from the apostles. However, Catholics believe that the same infallible Spirit of Christ who filled the apostles and fired the Church into birth at Pentecost, and went on to inspire the Scriptures, still dwells in the apostolic church today. Catholics believe the church, led by the successors of the apostles, and the successor of Peter continues to proclaim and teach the gospel without fail. Continue Reading