Friday, August 3, 2007

Papal Infallibility: God's, not Man's

By Aimee Milburn

A reader has written, a Protestant grappling with the relationship between authority and Papal infallibility in the Church, and we've had quite a correspondence about it. He can accept the necessity of authority, but has difficulty accepting infallibility. It's not an issue I was concerned about entering the Church, as it was was clear to me from the beginning that if I really trust Christ, then I also trust that He is in control of the Church He founded, and so I can trust the Church. But it's not that easy for everyone, and my reader's questions have led me to grapple more deeply with the issue. Here is my latest reflection, which I thought other readers might enjoy. It's a bit long, so bear with me.

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.

This is what has happened in the Protestant world, because Protestants rejected the Pope and the Magisterium, the sole source of infallibility for the Church. Protestants take scripture as the sole rule of authority and consider it infallible – which it is – but scripture does not interpret itself, and in the absence of an authoritative, infallible interpreter, how can anyone know which interpretation is correct? Who has the power to decide?

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.

When I was a Protestant, I was taught that the Holy Spirit is the interpreter of scripture, which is correct. However, it confused me, because I could not see how He could interpret one way through one person, and another way through another person, and both be right, because God is not a God of confusion.

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.

There is only one passage in the New Testament where Jesus clearly gives authority to another: Matt 16:13-19. In this passage, Jesus asks who the disciples think he is, and they all give different answers. He then asks Peter, who says, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.”

Jesus replies, "Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jona! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven."

God revealed to Peter alone a truth of the faith, the true identity of Christ, when the others were confused and divided. That is the seed of Papal infallibility in scripture.

The passage is strikingly similar to Is 22:20-24:
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.

And to Rev. 3:7:

And to the angel of the church in Philadelphia write: 'The words of the holy one, the true one, who has the key of David, who opens and no one shall shut, who shuts and no one opens.

Keys in scripture are symbolic of authority; the key of David symbolizes the authority of God. The passage in Isaiah is in the context of usurping a former authority that wasn’t true to God, and establishing a new authority while the old is cut down (Isaiah was prophesying to Judah and Jerusalem, just prior to the Babylonian exile). The passage in Revelation is clearly a reference to Christ, who is God Incarnate.

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.

Peter alone, and no other, was given a direct revelation by our Father in heaven of Christ’s identity, and so given the biblical keys of authority, the authority of God to bind and loose, make final decisions. And it is not an arbitrary authority, but the authority of God to steer the Church to the truth in moments of man’s confusion, given to Peter alone. That is why the Church defines the Magisterium as “The Pope and the Bishops in union with the Pope.”

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?

The gift given to Peter, as with all charisms, continues to be given, to the appropriate member of the Body: Peter’s successor.

What were the Apostles given?

At the Last Supper, Jesus tells the disciples, “This is my body …, this is my blood. Do this in remembrance of me.” This is the charism of consecrating the bread and wine, given only to the Apostles.

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.

Later, after His death and resurrection, Jesus breathes on the disciples and says, "Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained." (Jn 20:22-23) This, too, is a sacramental charism 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.

It is God’s authority, God’s infallibility at work in the Church, God acting and making His will clear, not men deciding according to their opinions. In the Protestant mindset, God wrote the bible through men, and men follow the bible. That is not how the early church worked, and is not how the Church works today. Never has.

The doctrine Sola Scriptura would have confounded the early Christians. Authority is not confined to the written word, nor does it actually come from the written word. It comes from God, who guides the Church through the Pope and the Apostles, wrote and interprets the bible through them, develops and protects the understanding of doctrine through them, and guides the Church through them. That’s how it’s always been.

Also please understand: doctrine develops, but it does not evolve, does not change from one thing to another. Revelation is finished. It is our understanding that is incomplete, which is why Jesus said “I have yet 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” (Jn 16:12-13); our understanding that is developing and growing, as an acorn into an oak tree.

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.

God did not only act in distant history, and leave us only a book to follow, with only fallible men to try to figure out what the book really means – and so fail at what the book asks us to do, because we can’t agree on the meaning. Infallibility is the lynchpin of authority and interpretation, and of unity, without which the former would be meaningless and the latter would fall apart. All are a work of the Holy Spirit, all are God working directly in His Church to infallibly teach us, guide us, and keep us united as one. He’s been doing it all along in the Catholic Church.

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.

The real Church in its fullness truly is a single, living organism, united in faith and practice. It is the Body of Christ, united as one through the Eucharist, His Body and Blood. It has a single head on earth, the Pope, stewarded and guided by Christ in heaven, the real Head of the Body. The Holy Spirit lives in the Church as His Temple, guiding her leaders and sanctifying her members. It is a single organism, and God really is living and speaking and teaching in her midst and is really her Real Leader – without whom it would all fall apart. In a very real way, the Church is God Incarnate on the earth.

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.

This is not to say that the members of the Church, including her leaders, are without sin. There are saints and sinners in the Church, wheat and weeds, as promised by scripture, and it shows in her colorful history. But it doesn’t mean the Church is not God's Church. She belongs to God, and always recovers, due to God’s grace, and continues on.

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.

In the wake of the priest scandal, conversions to Catholicism in the US have increased: 100,000 entered the Church this year, an all-time high. I think it’s because the Church really is the Body Christ, and her suffering is His suffering – which is redemptive: When I am lifted up, I will draw all people to myself (Jn 12:32). People are drawn through the power of the cross – and perhaps this is the pruning of Christ in action. Pruning always results in new growth, and makes a tree healthier. And the Church is the great Tree of Christ, growing from all over the earth into heaven.

Do we limit God to only acting in heaven, and we just have to figure things out as best we can on earth, or do we grant that He really is infinite and all-powerful, and can act on the earth as well as in heaven, through the men He chooses? Do I trust what Jesus said, that He would found his church upon the rock, and the gates of hell would not prevail against it, regardless of how things sometimes look? Or am I a doubter, who runs away from the foot of the cross when Jesus appears defeated – when the Church His Body appears defeated – and so miss the joy of the resurrection, when He comes alive again?

I trust Him; that is why I became a Catholic. That is why now, rather than trying to decide whether a doctrine is true or not, I instead accept it, and try to understand how it is true, trusting that it is coming from God, and not from men. I no longer have the hubris to think that I can judge the deep things of God, when God has given me no authority to do so. If there is a problem, the problem is with me, my ability to understand, not with the Church.

I close this reflection with this quote from an article on Papal Infallibility:

Often those who object to the doctrine of infallibility confuse it with impeccability or personal inerrancy. It is neither. Impeccability means that a person is incapable of sinning. Popes, like other Christians, are sinners. Personal inerrancy means that Popes cannot make mistakes. Infallibility, on the other hand, refers to that guidance of the Holy Spirit that guards Popes from officially teaching error in matters of faith and morals. [italics mine]

It is a gift that I, for one, am extremely grateful.

No comments: