The relationship between authority and infallibility is the meat of the issue. It is good that you see the importance of authority. It is important to understand, however, that when it comes to the real Church founded by Christ, authority and infallibility are inseparable, because Church authority cannot work without infallibility. It would become meaningless – it would simply, and rapidly, devolve into merely the opinions of men, with one asserting one thing and another asserting another, causing the rapid breakup of the church over disagreements, with different groups forming different camps.
No one does, so people disagree and divide, because there is no final, infallible interpreter in the Protestant world to interpret scripture and explain doctrine. In practice, Protestant “authority” and interpretation really is just private judgment, and people group together with those they agree with – and change and go to a different church if they disagree – which is anti-scriptural on so many levels.
So, you ask, what makes the Catholic Church different? Isn’t it just another man, or group of men, issuing their own private judgments, their own faulty opinions?
No, it’s not. Authority in the Catholic Church is not and never has been the same as authority in the Protestant world. It is important to understand that we are not talking about the authority of a man, the Pope, to assert his opinions as true above the opinions of other men. The Pope is not really the one who decides matters of doctrine. It is God who decides, through the office of the Pope; God, not man, who is guiding the Church in unfolding and explaining the meaning of the deposit of faith. God is the interpreter of scripture and the One who settles matters of doctrine, and He does so infallibly through the Pope and the Magisterium of the Church.
People can make the mistake of thinking of the Pope as the “boss” of the Church, but he’s not. He and the Apostles, Bishops today, are not bosses; they are servants of God and stewards of His Church. God inspired Peter and the Apostles to write the New Testament, and He continues to guide and inspire them in correctly interpreting scripture in the Church through the Holy Spirit. It is God’s infallibility at work in the Church, not man's. The Church belongs to God, and He is the One running it, through the men He has chosen to serve Him as stewards – keeping it on track despite all the ways that men can stray in history.
As a Catholic, I now understand that the Protestant world has a fundamental misunderstanding of how the Holy Spirit works, and how God orders the Church. He does not work to interpret scripture or doctrine through just anyone, and certainly not through everyone. He works in many ways with many people, but when it comes to interpretation, either of scripture or of doctrine, He works only through the designated authorities of the Church, whom scripture tells us to obey. Who are the designated authorities? Peter and the Apostles, and their successors the Pope and the Bishops, in the valid Apostolic Succession through the laying on of the hands.
In that day I will call my servant Eli'akim the son of Hilki'ah, and I will clothe him with your robe, and will bind your girdle on him, and will commit your authority to his hand; and he shall be a father to the inhabitants of Jerusalem and to the house of Judah. And I will place on his shoulder the key of the house of David; he shall open, and none shall shut; and he shall shut, and none shall open. And I will fasten him like a peg in a sure place, and he will become a throne of honor to his father's house. And they will hang on him the whole weight of his father's house, the offspring and issue, every small vessel, from the cups to all the flagons.
So, in Matt 16:13-19, Jesus Himself, recognizing that God the Father has chosen Peter, gives him the keys to His own authority, the authority of God, and the power of binding and loosing that goes with it, in a clear allusion to Is 22. The Isaiah background is the judgment of the Jews and the destruction of the Temple, which Jesus also prophesied. Jesus was founding a new church in place of the Judaic Temple, and proclaiming a new leader, revealed by God the Father, in Peter.
It was our Father in heaven who chose Peter, Jesus who confirmed him, before the Holy Spirit later descended on him, turning him into the powerful leader and witness he became. None of the other Apostles received this much special treatment. Are you really willing to argue with the Trinity over their choice of a leader for the Church, and pooh-pooh their decision?
That is why today the symbol for the Pope includes two keys, but the Apostles have only one. It symbolizes that their authority is complete only when in union with the Pope, because of the Pope’s union with God in the special charism given by God to recognize and protect the true faith. And it hardly would work to protect the Church over the ages, if the gift had died with Peter. Why would God have gone to the trouble, if He didn’t intend it to last? Why would He write it into scripture, if He didn’t intend it to be a lasting thing?
What were the Apostles given?
At another point in the evening he tells them, “I have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth … He will take what is mine and declare it to you.” (Jn 16:12-15) This is the promise of the Holy Spirit, who will guide them in correctly interpreting scripture and doctrine, so they can correctly preach and teach everyone else – also given only to the Apostles.
Consecrating, interpreting the faith correctly, forgiving sins. These are unique charisms given by Christ to the Apostles, which from the beginning they handed on, and have always handed on, to their successors through the laying on of the hands.
In the book of Acts, at Pentecost, the Holy Spirit fell not only on the Apostles, but on everyone gathered there with them. What power was given? The power of witnessing, (Acts 1:8), which is shared by all believers. And Paul later explains how the Holy Spirit also gives different gifts – but not all gifts are given to everyone. The Body is ordered. Only some are given certain gifts, not all. And authority, God’s authority to interpret scripture and doctrine, matters of the faith, are given only to Peter and the Apostles, with Peter given final authority on matters of doctrine.
The Faith of the Catholic Church today is the faith of the early Church, is the faith of Jesus, is the faith of the bible - explained and interpreted correctly. The mass, too, is the mass of the early Church: remarkably the same, which I can attest to, having studied the development of liturgy in the early Church. Nothing, actually, has changed, except for our understanding of it and a few externals of practice; and our understanding has grown and will continue to grow and unfold, guided by the Holy Spirit who guides us into all truth, as Jesus said He would, the infinite truth of God, speaking and explaining His Revelation through the voice of the Magisterium.
Which brings me to another related point: the nature of the Church. The Protestant world has a very truncated view of the Church, as only a “mystical body” united in faith, though visibly fragmented. But this is not the Church founded by Christ, and it is not the Church spoken of by scripture.
This is why I say that, when it comes to matters of the faith, to trust the Church is to trust God, and not to trust the Church is to fail to trust God. The Protestant Reformation was a massive failure of trust in God, trust that He is in control of His Church and knows what He is doing, and a massive usurpation of the authority of God Himself. But it is a usurpation that failed. Though God continues to save souls in the Protestant world, the Protestant world only becomes ever-more divided over time, and theology ever more debased, while the Catholic Church has recovered, grown stronger, gone on, and continued to grow and develop in ever more beautiful ways.
I’ve been around both the Protestant world and the Catholic Church long enough now to notice a very curious thing: when there is controversy in the Protestant world, congregations tend to split up and go their separate ways. I could tell stories about it. It happened to my old church, when a scandal engulfed the pastor and huge numbers of the congregation left. When controversy comes to the Catholic Church, however, she gets stronger. A few may leave, but more stay, and more come in. She always recovers and grows.
I close this reflection with this quote from an article on Papal Infallibility:
It is a gift that I, for one, am extremely grateful.