Infallibility: Argument From the Teaching Office

Recently, John and Matthew have been making me think about how to better explain the doctrines of Papal Infallibility and Church Infallibility to sympathetic Protestants. What follows is a brief outline of an argument from the existence of a teaching office in the Church.

Infallibility of the Church

To the best of my knowledge, everyone here agrees that there is a teaching office in the Church which is endowed with a real authority.

It seems to me, that in order to be a real authority, the teaching office must at times be able to bind the believer to a certain set of teachings. An authority which we are always free to dismiss is no authority at all.

If there is a teaching authority which can bind the believer (and thus the Church as a whole) to a set of teachings, then one of two things follows. (1) The teaching office may bind the Church to a falsehood. (2) God will preserve the teaching authority from binding the Church to falsehood.

Since #1 presents an irreconcilable moral dilemma, it seems that #2 must be the case. And it turns out that #2 is just a restatement of Infallibility of the Church.

When the teaching authority absolutely binds the whole Church to a certain teaching, God preserves the Church from being bound to a falsehood.

Infallibility of the Pope

So far we have mostly talked abstractly about the teaching authority of the Church. But investigating the early Church reveals that in fact, the teaching authority was manifested in bishops.

In particular, the Bishop of Rome held a place of high esteem among the other bishops. The question then follows, “Does the Bishop of Rome have the authority to teach the whole Church?”

Let’s look at the testimony of the Church Fathers.

“But since it would be too long to enumerate in such a volume as this the successions of all the churches, we shall confound all those who, in whatever manner, whether through self-satisfaction or vainglory, or through blindness and wicked opinion, assemble other than where it is proper, by pointing out here the successions of the bishops of the greatest and most ancient church known to all, founded and organized at Rome by the two most glorious apostles, Peter and Paul—that church which has the tradition and the faith with which comes down to us after having been announced to men by the apostles. For with this Church, because of its superior origin, all churches must agree, that is, all the faithful in the whole world. And it is in her that the faithful everywhere have maintained the apostolic tradition”

– St. Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 189 AD

In the city of Rome the episcopal chair was given first to Peter; the chair in which Peter sat, the same who was head—that is why he is also called Cephas [‘Rock’]—of all the apostles, the one chair in which unity is maintained by all. Neither do the apostles proceed individually on their own, and anyone who would [presume to] set up another chair in opposition to that single chair would, by that very fact, be a schismatic and a sinner. . . . Recall, then, the origins of your chair, those of you who wish to claim for yourselves the title of holy Church”

– St. Optatus of Milevis, The Schism of the Donatists, 367 AD

The holy Roman Church has been placed at the forefront not by the conciliar decisions of other churches, but has received the primacy by the evangelic voice of our Lord and Savior, who says: ‘You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it; and I will give to you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you shall have bound on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you shall have loosed on earth shall be loosed in heaven’ [Matt. 16:18–19]. The first see, therefore, is that of Peter the apostle, that of the Roman Church, which has neither stain nor blemish nor anything like it”

– Pope Damasus I, Decree of Damasus, 382 AD

I follow no leader but Christ and join in communion with none but your blessedness [Pope Damasus I], that is, with the chair of Peter. I know that this is the rock on which the Church has been built. Whoever eats the Lamb outside this house is profane. Anyone who is not in the ark of Noah will perish when the flood prevails”

“The church here is split into three parts, each eager to seize me for its own. . . . Meanwhile I keep crying, ‘He that is joined to the chair of Peter is accepted by me!’ . . . Therefore, I implore your blessedness [Pope Damasus I] . . . tell me by letter with whom it is that I should communicate in Syria”

– St. Jerome, Letters to Pope Damasus, 396 AD

“We exhort you in every respect, honorable brother, to heed obediently what has been written by the most blessed pope of the city of Rome, for blessed Peter, who lives and presides in his own see, provides the truth of faith to those who seek it. For we, by reason of our pursuit of peace and faith, cannot try cases on the faith without the consent of the bishop of Rome”

– St. Peter Chrysologus, Letters, 449 AD

There is, of course, relevant Scripture, but I chose to focus on the Fathers because of the way in which they distill the essence of the Scripture and Tradition which they have received.

On this basis, it seems most likely that the Bishop of Rome does have the authority to teach to the whole Church in a binding manner. And if he does, then the arguments above indicate that he will be protected from error when binding the Church. That, in sum, is the doctrine of papal infallibility.

Objections can be brought against various aspects of the argument from the teaching office, but I think the general line of thought is sound.

Questions, critiques, and general observations are welcome.

About Joshua Michael

Writer. Catholic. Fan of John Henry Newman and the Inklings.
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5 Responses to Infallibility: Argument From the Teaching Office

  1. Matt says:

    This is really helpful, Joshua. But it would be really, really helpful for me, as a sympathetic Protestant reader, to see the biblical grounds you refer to. That would be super great.

    • Thanks, Matt. (Do you prefer Matt or Matthew?)

      I am planning on getting around to the biblical grounds in the next couple of days, but thought this was a good place to start.

  2. Matt says:

    I’m definitely a “Matt” 🙂

    This was indeed an excellent place to start. I found it very interesting. Your case for the infallibility of the Church is very compelling. Yet my struggle still is (sorry for being cliched here) some historical realities: Peter being incorrect in his argument with Paul about Gentiles; Peter’s denial; a number of significant missteps that the Church has made re Crusades and things of that sort. I know that done of those things were done ex cathedra (if I’m not mistaken, ex cathedra has only be used once, is that correct?), but the idea of an infallible Church strikes me as… well, unbiblical. Of all of the biblical heroes of our faith, nary a one is depicted as something other than a fallible human through whom the Holy Spirit is still able to work. Being fallible doesn’t seem to preclude being a trustworthy authority. You’re just not an infallible authority. My thoughts are scattered. Perhaps this weekend I’ll write an extended thoughtpiece on my own blog. Thanks for this conversation though! It is really challenging me to think.

    • Matt it is, then. 🙂

      You’re quite right that Papal Infallibility has rarely been invoked. There are two definite instances, as well as a few debated instances. The debated instances are pretty academic, since they are things like the Tome of Leo, which the Council of Chalcedon acclaimed as the orthodox teaching on Christ. (In other words, even if Papal Infallibility wasn’t invoked by Leo, the infallibility of an Ecumenical Council was.)

      I’ll get into some of the detailed objections later, but on a conceptual level, I think it’s important to recognize that infallibility is the infallibility of Christ himself in his mystical body. The human frailty of St. Peter and St. Paul in no way prevented Christ from speaking infallibly in their letters, and that was a much greater gift than the mere protection from error claimed by the Catholic Church.

    • Just wanted to add that being “a fallible human through whom the Holy Spirit is still able to work” is very close to the definition of Church/papal infallibility. 🙂

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