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.