Wednesday, July 27, 2005


And the Gates of the Hell Shall Not Prevail Against It: A Biblical Defense For Papal Infallibility

One of the few things that unite all non-Catholics (unfortunately, you can include a few Catholics), be they Eastern Orthodox, Protestant, or Anglican, is their rejection of the Catholic dogma of papal infallibility. They see it as unbiblical and illogical.

Papal infallibility, according to the First Vatican Council, means:

"....we teach and define as a divinely revealed dogma that when the Roman Pontiff speaks EX CATHEDRA, that is, when, in the exercise of his office as shepherd and teacher of all Christians, in virtue of his supreme apostolic authority, he defines a doctrine concerning faith or morals to be held by the whole Church, he possesses, by the divine assistance promised to him in blessed Peter, that infallibility which the divine Redeemer willed his Church to enjoy in defining doctrine concerning faith or morals. Therefore, such definitions of the Roman Pontiff are of themselves, and not by the consent of the Church, irreformable."

The objections to this dogma, however fueled by difficult historical circumstances and scandalous behavior of some popes, hit a wall when seen in the light of Christ’s promise to Peter that “ the gates of hell will not prevail against it [the Church].” (some translations render it “Jaws of Death” “Gates of the Nether World”)

Who is the driving force behind the gates of Hell? Satan. What traits does Jesus attribute to Satan? In John 8:44, our Lord states: “ He was a murderer from the beginning and does not stand in truth, because there is no truth in him. When he tells a lie, he speaks in character, because he is a liar and the father of lies.” The lie and the murder are inseparable. Anyone who has observed how abortion on demand has become legal in many lands will see how true this is.
What does this have to do with religious doctrine and Peter? If the Church, to whom Christ promised the “ gates of Hell will not prevail against “, were to teach one falsehood as though it was true, then the gates of Hell will have prevailed, thus proving Jesus to be a liar. Now what does this have to do with Peter? Two things: Jesus is making this statement as he is conferring primal authority upon Peter and this is the only time that this phrase appears in scripture.
Although not articulated in the explicit formal language of Vatican I, the Divine protection of the teaching office of the Bishop of Rome from error was understood, at least in kernal form, from the earliest times.

For example, we have Clement of Rome, the fourth pope, stating in the year 80 A.D. : “If; on the other hand, there be some who fail to obey what God has told them through us, they must realize that they will enmesh themselves in sin and no insignificant danger.” (Epistle to the Corinthians #59)

The qualifier “what God has told them through us” shows that Clement understood that the authority he is exercising is not merely human authority, but divine authority, which is of course without error. Some would object that because Clement is using the plural pronoun “us” that he is not claiming any authority for himself in a supreme way. But the use of this “us” and “we” is standard papal etiquette that has been used by popes through out history. In fact, the only modern pope to favor the singular pronouns such as “I” and ‘my” is the present Holy Father John Paul II.

In the sixth century, Pope Hormisdas states:

[Our] first safety is to guard the rule of the right faith and to deviate in no wise from the ordinances of the Fathers; because we cannot pass over the statement of our Lord Jesus Christ who said: "Thou art Peter and upon this rock I will build my church" . . . [Matt. 16:18]. These [words] which were spoken, are proved by the effects of the deeds, because in the Apostolic See the Catholic religion has always been preserved without stain. (emphasis added)

The early ecumenical councils, in recognizing the Bishop of Rome as successor to Peter, reflect the same attitude.

Council of Ephesus

"Philip, presbyter and legate of [Pope Celestine I] said: ‘We offer our thanks to the holy and venerable synod, that when the writings of our holy and blessed pope had been read to you, the holy members, by our holy voices, you joined yourselves to the holy head also by your holy acclamations. For your blessedness is not ignorant that the head of the whole faith, the head of the apostles, is blessed Peter the apostle. And since now [we], after having been tempest-tossed and much vexed, [have] arrived, we ask that you order that there be laid before us what things were done in this holy synod before our arrival; in order that according to the opinion of our blessed pope and of this present holy assembly, we likewise may ratify their determination’" (Acts of the Council, session 2 [A.D. 431]).

Council of Chalcedon

"After the reading of the foregoing epistle [The Tome of Leo], the most reverend bishops cried out: ‘This is the faith of the fathers! This is the faith of the apostles! So we all believe! Thus the orthodox believe! Anathema to him who does not thus believe! Peter has spoken thus through Leo!’" (ibid., session 2).

The Third Council of Constantinople, some two hundred years later, likewise states: “Peter has spoken through [Pope] Agatho.”

One might object, “ Well that’s all fine and good. But doesn’t Matt. 16:23 where Jesus says to Peter, "Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me; for you are not on the side of God, but of men." make any claims to Petrine infallibility unravel like a cheap watch? In a word, no. There are two responses to this objection. Number one, Jesus’ promise to Peter is phrased in a future tense (“on this rock, I will build my Church.”). Number two, Catholic doctrine has always maintained that infallibility applies only to the pope’s official teaching capacity, not to personal behavior. The incident in Matt. 16:23, like that described by Paul in Galatians indicates an instance of Peter’s behavior, not an exercise of teaching authority. In other words, the popes are not impeccable. They are not without sin. Popes throughout history have made regular use of the sacrament of confession. They have to have some sins to confess in order for it to be a valid sacrament.

Nor does papal infallibility mean that statements of the pope’s private opinions (which include homilies and allocutions), even in matters theological, are protected from error. Since the pope, as a private person, is fallible like everyone else, it would therefore seem, at least on the surface, that the idea of papal infallibility is irreconcilable with reason. But it isn’t. Even though we are fallible humans, we can recognize some truth will infallible certainty (e.g. that two plus two equals four).

With this understanding we can see how, in papal infallibility, God uses fallible man’s ability to know infallible truth in an extraordinary way to ensure that “the gates of hell” will not prevail against the Church.


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