Papacy & Papal Infallibility: Classic Catholic Reflections

Papacy & Papal Infallibility: Classic Catholic Reflections October 24, 2018

1. The Church’s Developing Understanding of Infallibility

A. Papal Primacy and the Universal Church (Catholic Statement) 

“We believe that the New Testament is given to us not as a finished body of doctrine but as an expression of the developing faith and institutionalization of the church in the first century.

“In many respects the New Testament and the doctrines it contains are complemented by subsequent developments in the faith and life of the church. For example, the statements of faith in the early creeds, though they are in conformity with Scripture, go beyond the words and thought-patterns of scripture. The church itself, moreover, had to take responsibility for the selection of the canonical books, no list of which appears in the scriptures themselves. Similarly, the church had to specify its sacramental life and to structure its ministry to meet the requirements and opportunities of the post-apostolic period.

“As Roman Catholics we are convinced that the papal and episcopal form of Ministry, as it concretely evolved, is a divinely-willed sequel to the functions exercised respectively by Peter and the other apostles according to various New Testament traditions.” (1)

B. Kilian McDonnell

“There are human factors which contributed to the evolution of the doctrine of papal primacy. There was a widespread conviction in antiquity that Rome was accorded special honor because it was the first city of the empire . . .

“The border between what is of divine will and what is of man’s making cannot be defined . . . The presence of political facts and the operation of human laws of social organization do not postulate the absence of divine intent . . .

“The church’s judgment on the contents of the canon is not based on any precise evidence coming from the historical Jesus. If a `special direct intervention’ of God is seen in the formation of the canon, . . . could not the same `special divine intervention’ account for the emergence of the Petrine office, for which there is some evidence in the leadership role assigned to Peter in the New Testament witness . . .” (2)

C. Jeffrey Mirus

“There seems to be a demand to see the thirteenth century papacy in the first and second centuries, before the Catholic claim can be accepted. But such a view is nonsensical. The conditions of the declining Roman Empire and the early, scattered Christian communities were conditions that made for isolation and a painful sort of local self-reliance. We would not expect to see a continuous stream of fully-developed papal administrative activity in the centuries of minority and persecution. Likewise, we would expect to find no pomp and glory in episcopal or papal carriage until Christianity became legal with the conversion of Constantine in the early fourth century. Thus, when Protestant and secular historians speak of the papacy being formed in the fourth and fifth centuries, they superficially refer only to its external estate.

“For as more and more evidence from the early years is uncovered, the record booms out the reality of papal primacy with greater and greater intensity. The bishops of Rome were continuous, and their authority was taken for granted.” (14:145)

D. Robert Hugh Benson

“By divine guidance St. Peter himself sought the city and established his See just where he would gain all the aid that natural and human surroundings could give him for the swift and sure development of the final supremacy of his Chair. This supremacy is no more the result of mere worldly circumstances than the healthy growth of a tree is the result of the mere soil in which its seed once found a congenial home. If the authority on the one hand, and the seed on the other, had not existed, neither the Chair of Peter nor the tree would have emerged.

“It was not, then, until the head had been fully established as supreme over the body that men had eyes to see how it had been so ordained and indicated from the beginning. After it had come to pass it was seen to have been inevitable. All this is paralleled, of course, by the ordinary course of affairs. Laws of nature, as well as laws of grace, act quite apart from man’s perception or appreciation of them; and it is not until the law is recognized that its significance and inevitability, its illustrations and effects, are intelligibly recognized either.” (6:109)

E. Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman

“Whether communion with the Pope was necessary for Catholicity would not and could not be debated till a suspension of that communion had actually occurred . . . It is a less difficulty that the Papal supremacy was not formally acknowledged in the second century, than that there was no formal acknowledgment on the part of the Church of the doctrine of the Holy Trinity till the fourth. No doctrine is defined till it is violated . . .

“Moreover, an international bond and a common authority could not be consolidated . . . while persecutions lasted. If the Imperial Power checked the development of Councils, it availed also for keeping back the power of the Papacy. The Creed, the Canon, in like manner, both remained undefined . . . All began to form, as soon as the Empire relaxed its tyrannous oppression of the Church. And as it was natural that her monarchical power should display itself when the Empire became Christian, so was it natural also that further developments of that power should take place when that Empire fell. Moreover, when the power of the Holy See began to exert itself, disturbance and collision would be the necessary consequence . . . St. Paul had to plead, nay, to strive for his apostolic authority, and enjoined St. Timothy, as Bishop of Ephesus, to let no man despise him . . . It was natural that Polycrates should oppose St. Victor; and natural too that St. Cyprian should both extol the See of St. Peter, yet resist it when he thought it went beyond its province . . .

“Supposing there be otherwise good reason for saying that the Papal Supremacy is part of Christianity, there is nothing in the early history of the Church to contradict it. . .

“It is the absolute need of a monarchical power in the Church which is our ground for anticipating it. A political body cannot exist without government, and the larger the body the more concentrated must the government be. If the whole of Christendom is to form one Kingdom, one head is essential . . . wherever the Pope has been renounced, decay and division have been the consequence . . .

“Doctrine cannot but develop as time proceeds and need arises, and . . . therefore it is lawful, or rather necessary, to interpret the words and deeds of the earlier Church by the determinate teaching of the later.” (4:151-152, 154-155)

2. The Definition of Papal Infallibility at Vatican I (1870)

A. The Definition

“We teach and define that it is a dogma divinely revealed: that the Roman Pontiff, when he speaks `ex cathedra,’ that is, when, in discharge of the office of pastor and teacher of all Christians, by virtue of his supreme Apostolic authority, he defines a doctrine regarding faith or morals to be held by the universal Church, is, by the divine assistance promised to him in Blessed Peter, possessed of that infallibility with which the divine Redeemer willed that His Church should be endowed in defining doctrine regarding faith or morals; and that, therefore, such definitions of the Roman Pontiff are of themselves, and not from the consent of the Church, irreformable.” (3:256)

Constantly we hear the charge that the Catholic Church “invents” doctrines late in the game, which were not present in earlier centuries. In our present case, it has been shown by overwhelming scriptural and historical argument, that papal infallibility has indeed been in existence from the very earliest days of the Church, notwithstanding an expected development. In addition to the consensus of fathers and councils, we present one more example of the continuity of doctrine in the Church, in the form of St. Francis’s teaching, c. 1596, of papal infallibility, in order to illustrate the absurdity of claims that the “ultramontanes” in 1870 were out to subvert the Church by granting previously unheard-of prerogatives to the pope, purely out of a fanatical lust for monarchical power, a charge heard often today by large portions of the Church considering themselves “progressive”.

B. St. Francis de Sales

“When he teaches the whole Church as shepherd, in general matters of faith and morals, then there is nothing but doctrine and truth. And in fact everything a king says is not a law or an edict, but that only which a king says as king and as a legislator. So everything the Pope says is not canon law or of legal obligation; he must mean to define and to lay down the law for the sheep, and he must keep the due order and form .

“We must not think that in everything and everywhere his judgment is infallible, but then only when he gives judgment on a matter of faith in questions necessary to the whole Church; for in particular cases which depend on human fact he can err, there is no doubt, though it is not for us to control him in these cases save with all reverence, submission, and discretion. Theologians have said, in a word, that he can err in questions of fact, not in questions of right; that he can err `extra cathedram,’ outside the chair of Peter. that is, as a private individual, by writings and bad example.

“But he cannot err when he is ‘in cathedra,’ that is, when he intends to make an instruction and decree for the guidance of the whole Church, when he means to confirm his brethren as supreme pastor, and to conduct them into the pastures of the faith. For then it is not so much man who determines, resolves, and defines as it is the Blessed Holy Spirit by man, which Spirit, according to the promise made by Our Lord to the Apostles, teaches all truth to the Church.” (9:306-307)

3. Reasoned Explanations of Papal Infallibility

A. Robert McAfee Brown (P)

“If it is wrong to assert that a man (in this case, the Pope) can speak for God beyond possibility of error, it is also wrong to assert that a group of men (in this case, the writers of Scripture) can speak for God beyond the possibility of error. If papal infallibility is wrong, so is paper infallibility . . .

“[The Catholic position on infallibility] has many strengths. (a) It is clear-cut and unambiguous (particularly in comparison with Protestant hedging on the same issue . . . (b) It has an impressive degree of historical plausibility . . . (c) It has the theological advantage that it stresses the continuing activity of the Holy Spirit at all stages in the life of the church. (d) It has great logical appeal. It is logical that Christ should found a church to carry on his work, logical that he should provide for the continuation of that work through a direct succession, logical that one person should have this power rather than a group of persons who might disagree, and logical that God should endow the head of the church with infallibility, in order to protect his church from error.” (7:70, 174-175)

B. Peter Kreeft

“Papal infallibility certainly seems to be a specifically Catholic dogma that Protestants cannot accept. But they often misunderstand it. First, they often think of the pope as an autocrat rather than as the head of a body. (A head is part of a body, not floating above it in the air.) Second, they often think of the Church along political lines and want it to be a democracy. But Scripture thinks of the Church along organic lines, and no organic body is a democracy. Third, they often misunderstand infallibility as attaching to the Pope personally. In fact, it attaches to the office, not the person, and only when defining a doctrine of faith or morals.” (13:270)

C. James Cardinal Gibbons

“You will tell me that infallibility is too great a prerogative to be conferred on man. I answer: Has not God, in former times, clothed His Apostles with powers far more exalted? They were endowed with the gifts of working miracles, of prophecy and inspiration; they were the mouthpiece communicating God’s revelation, of which the Popes are merely the custodians. If God could make man the organ of His revealed Word, is it impossible for Him to make man its infallible guardian and interpreter? For, surely, greater is the Apostle who gives us the inspired Word than the Pope who preserves it from error . . .

“Let us see, sir, whether an infallible Bible is sufficient for you. Either you are infallibly certain that your interpretation of the Bible is correct or you are not.

“If you are infallibly certain, then you assert for yourself, and of course for every reader of the Scripture, a personal infallibility which you deny to the Pope, and which we claim only for him. You make every man his own Pope.

“If you are not infallibly certain that you understand the true meaning of the whole Bible . . . then, I ask, of what use to you is the objective infallibility of the Bible without an infallible interpreter?

“If God, as you assert, has left no infallible interpreter of His Word, do you not virtually accuse Him of acting unreasonably? for would it not be most unreasonable of Him to have revealed His truth to man without leaving him a means of ascertaining its precise import?

“Do you not reduce God’s word to a bundle of contradictions . . . which give forth answers suited to the wishes of every inquirer? . . .

“Is not this variety of interpretations the bitter fruit of your principle: `An infallible Bible is enough for me,’ and does it not proclaim the absolute necessity of some authorized and unerring interpreter? You tell me to drink of the water of life; but of what use is this water to my parched lips, since you acknowledge that it may be poisoned in passing through the medium of your interpretation?

“How satisfactory, on the contrary, and how reasonable is the Catholic teaching on this subject!

“According to that system, Christ says to every Christian: Here, my child, is the Word of God, and with it I leave you an infallible interpreter, who will expound for you its hidden meaning and make clear all its difficulties.

“Here are the waters of eternal life, but I have created a channel that will communicate these waters to you in all their sweetness without sediment of error.

“Here is the written Constitution of My Church. But I have appointed over it a Supreme Tribunal, in the person of one `to whom I have given the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven,’ who will preserve that Constitution inviolate, and will not permit it to be torn to shreds by the conflicting opinions of men. And thus my children will be one, as I and the Father are one.” (2:108-110)

D. Bishop Vincent Gasser (Vatican I)

“We do defend the infallibility of the person of the Roman Pontiff, not as an individual person but as the person of the Roman Pontiff or a public person, that is, as head of the Church in his relation to the Church Universal . . .

“We do not exclude the cooperation of the Church because the infallibility of the Roman Pontiff does not come to him in the manner of inspiration or of revelation but through a divine assistance. Therefore, the Pope, by reason of his office and the gravity of the matter, is held to use the means suitable for properly discerning and aptly enunciating the truth. These means are councils, or the advice of the bishops, cardinals, theologians, etc. Indeed the means are diverse according to the diversity of situations, and we should piously believe that, in the divine assistance promised to Peter and his successors by Christ, there is simultaneously contained a promise about the means which are necessary and suitable to make an infallible pontifical judgment.

“Finally we do not separate the Pope, even minimally, from the consent of the Church, as long as that consent is not laid down as a condition which is either antecedent or consequent. We are not able to separate the Pope from the consent of the Church because this consent is never able to be lacking to him. Indeed, since we believe that the Pope is infallible through the divine assistance, by that very fact we also believe that the assent of the Church will not be lacking to his definitions since it is not able to happen that the body of bishops be separated from its head, and since the Church universal is not able to fail.” (12:41-44)

E. Ronald Knox

“[It is a] quite unworkable idea that the authority of the Pope depends on the authority of the Council. There is no way of deciding which councils were ecumenical councils except by saying that those councils were ecumenical which had their decisions ratified by the Pope. Now, either that ratification is infallible of itself, or else you will immediately have to summon a fresh ecumenical council to find out whether the Pope’s ratification was infallible or not, and so on `ad infinitum.’ You can’t keep on going round and round in a vicious circle; in the long run the last word of decision must lie with one man, and that man is obviously the Pope. In the last resort the Pope must be the umpire, must have the casting vote. If therefore there is to be any infallibility in the Church, that infallibility must reside in the Pope, even when he speaks in his own name, without summoning a council to fortify his decision.” (1:130)

F. Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman

“If the Christian doctrine, as originally taught, admits of true and important developments, . . . this is a strong antecedent argument in favour of a provision in the Dispensation for putting a seal of authority upon those developments . . .

“What can be more absurd than a probable infallibility, or a certainty resting on doubt? – I believe, because I am sure; and I am sure, because I suppose . . .

“Those who maintain that Christian truth must be gained solely by personal efforts are bound to show that methods, ethical and intellectual, are granted to individuals sufficient for gaining it; else the mode of probation they advocate is less, not more, perfect than that which proceeds upon external authority . . .

“Nor can we succeed in arguing . . . against a standing guardianship of revelation without arguing also against its original bestowal. Supposing the order of nature once broken by the introduction of a revelation, the continuance of that revelation is but a question of degree; and the circumstance that a work has begun makes it more probable than not that it will proceed. We have no reason to suppose that there is so great a distinction of dispensation between ourselves and the first generation of Christians, as that they had a living infallible guidance, and we have not . . . Preservation is involved in the idea of creation. As the Creator rested on the seventh day from the work which He had made, yet He `worketh hitherto’ . . . As creation argues continual governance, so are Apostles harbingers of Popes . . .

“The supremacy of conscience is the essence of natural religion; the supremacy of Apostle, or Pope, or Church, or Bishop, is the essence of revealed . . .

“The common sense of mankind . . . feels that the very idea of revelation implies a present informant and guide, and that an infallible one; not a mere abstract declaration of Truths . . . This is shown by the popular notion which has prevailed among us since the Reformation, that the Bible itself is such a guide . . .

“If Christianity is both social and dogmatic, and intended for all ages, it must humanly speaking have an infallible expounder. Else you will secure unity of form at the loss of unity of doctrine, or unity of doctrine at the loss of unity of form; you will have to choose between a comprehension of opinions and a resolution into parties, between latitudinarian and sectarian error. You may be tolerant or intolerant of contrarieties of thought, but contrarieties you will have . . . The doctrine of infallibility is a less violent hypothesis than this sacrifice either of faith or of charity.” (4:79-80, 83, 85-87, 90-91)


1. Ronald Knox, In Soft Garments, Garden City, New York: Doubleday Image, 1941.

2. James Cardinal Gibbons, The Faith of Our Fathers, New York: P. J. Kenedy & Sons, revised edition, 1917.

3. Dogmatic Canons and Decrees, Rockford, Illinois: TAN Books, 1977 (orig. New York: 1912) [Documents of Councils of Trent and Vatican I, plus Decree on the Immaculate Conception and the Syllabus of Errors of Pope Pius IX].

4. John Henry Newman, An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, Notre Dame, Indiana: Univ. of Notre Dame Press, 1989 (orig. 1845).

6. Robert Hugh Benson, The Religion of the Plain Man, Long Prairie, Minnesota: Neumann Press, 1906.

7. Robert McAfee Brown, The Spirit of Protestantism, Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1961.

9. St. Francis de Sales, The Catholic Controversy, translated by Henry B. Mackey, Rockford, Illinois: TAN Books, 1989 (orig. 1596).

12. Vincent Gasser, The Gift of Infallibility, translated with commentary by James T. O’Connor, Boston: Daughters of St. Paul, 1986 (Gasser’s Relatio from First Vatican Council, 1870).

13. Peter Kreeft, Fundamentals of the Faith, San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1988.

14. Jeffrey A. Mirus, editor, Reasons For Hope, Front Royal, Virginia: Christendom Press, revised edition, 1982.


1. Paul C. Empie and T. Austin Murphy, Papal Primacy and the Universal Church, Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1974, 34-35. This book is the result of a joint official project of Lutheran and Catholic scholars.

2. Ibid., 177-178.


(originally compiled in 1994)

Photo credit: Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman [public domain]


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