What Think Ye of Rome?
The Catholic-Protestant Debate on Papal Infallibility
by Norman L. Geisler and Ralph E. MacKenzie
Papal infallibility was formalized at the First Vatican Council, A.D. 1870. It is required
belief for Roman Catholics but is rejected by evangelicals. On examination, the
major biblical texts used to defend this dogma do not support the Catholic position.
Further, there are serious theological and historical problems with the doctrine of
papal infallibility. Infallibility stands as an irrevocable roadblock to any ecclesiastical
union between Catholics and Protestants.
According to Roman Catholic dogma, the teaching magisterium of the church of
Rome is infallible when officially defining faith and morals for believers. One
manifestation of this doctrine is popularly known as "papal infallibility." It was
pronounced a dogma in A.D. 1870 at the First Vatican Council. Since this is a major
bone of contention between Catholics and Protestants, it calls for attention here.
THE DOCTRINE EXPLAINED
Roman Catholic authorities define infallibility as "immunity from error, i.e.,
protection against either passive or active deception. Persons or agencies are
infallible to the extent that they can neither deceive nor be deceived."
Regarding the authority of the pope, Vatican I pronounced that
all the faithful of Christ must believe "that the Apostolic See and the Roman
Pontiff hold primacy over the whole world, and that the Pontiff of Rome
himself is the successor of the blessed Peter, the chief of the apostles, and is
the true [vicar] of Christ and head of the whole Church and faith, and
teacher of all Christians; and that to him was handed down in blessed Peter,
by our Lord Jesus Christ, full power to feed, rule, and guide the universal
Church, just as is also contained in the records of the ecumenical Councils
and in the sacred canons."
Furthermore, the Council went on to speak of "The Infallible 'Magisterium' [teaching
authority] of the Roman Pontiff," declaring that
when he speaks ex cathedra, that is, when carrying out the duty of the
pastor and teacher of all Christians in accord with his supreme apostolic
authority he explains a doctrine of faith or morals to be held by the
Universal Church, through the divine assistance promised him in blessed
Peter, operates with that infallibility with which the divine Redeemer
wished that His church be instructed in defining doctrine on faith and morals;
and so such definitions of the Roman Pontiff from himself, but not from the
consensus of the Church, are unalterable. [emphases added]
Then follows the traditional condemnation on any who reject papal infallibility: "But
if anyone presumes to contradict this definition of Ours, which may God forbid: let
him be anathema" [i.e., excommunicated].
Roman Catholic scholars have expounded significant qualifications on the doctrine.
First, they acknowledge that the pope is not infallible in everything he teaches but
only when he speaks ex cathedra, as the official interpreter of faith and morals.
Avery Dulles, an authority on Catholic dogma, states for a pronouncement to be
ex cathedra it must be:
(1) in fulfillment of his office as supreme pastor and teacher of all Christians;
(2) in virtue of his supreme apostolic authority, i.e., as successor of Peter;
(3) determining a doctrine of faith and morals, i.e., a doctrine expressing
†††††††††(4) imposing a doctrine to be held definitively by all.
Dulles notes that "Vatican I firmly rejected one condition...as necessary for
infallibility, namely, the consent of the whole church."
Second, the pope is not infallible when pronouncing on matters that do not pertain
to "faith and morals." On these matters he may be as fallible as anyone else.
Third, although the pope is infallible, he is not absolutely so. As Dulles observes,
"absolute infallibility (in all respects, without dependence on another) is proper to
God....All other infallibility is derivative and limited in scope."
Fourth, infallibility entails irrevocability. A pope cannot, for example, declare
previous infallible pronouncements of the church void.
Finally, in contrast to Vatican I, many (usually liberal or progressive) Catholic
theologians believe that the pope is not infallible independent of the bishops but
only as he speaks in one voice with and for them in collegiality. As Dulles noted,
infallibility "is often attributed to the bishops as a group, to ecumenical councils, and
to popes." Conservatives argue that Vatican I condemned this view.
A PROTESTANT RESPONSE
Not only Protestants but the rest of Christendom -- Anglicans and Eastern
Orthodox included -- reject the doctrine of papal infallibility. Protestants accept
the infallibility of Scripture but deny that any human being or institution is the
infallible interpreter of Scripture. Harold O. J. Brown writes: "In every age there
have been those who considered the claims of a single bishop to supreme
authority to be a sure identification of the corruption of the church, and perhaps
even the work of the Antichrist. Pope Gregory I (A.D. 590-604) indignantly
reproached Patriarch John the Faster of Constantinople for calling himself the
universal bishop; Gregory did so to defend the rights of all the bishops, himself
included, and not because he wanted the title for himself."
There are several texts Catholics use to defend the infallibility of the bishop of
Rome. We will focus here on the three most important of these.
Matthew 16:18ff. Roman Catholics use the statement of Jesus to Peter in
Matthew 16:18ff. that "upon this rock I will build my church..." to support papal
infallibility. They argue that the truth of the church could only be secure if the one
on whom it rested (Peter) were infallible. Properly understood, however, there are
several reasons this passage falls far short of support for the dogma of papal
First, many Protestants insist that Christ was not referring to Peter when he spoke
of "this rock" being the foundation of the church. They note that: (1)
Whenever Peter is referred to in this passage it is in the second person ("you"), but
"this rock" is in the third person. (2) "Peter" (petros) is a masculine singular term
and "rock" (petra) is feminine singular. Hence, they do not have the same
referent. And even if Jesus did speak these words in Aramaic (which does not
distinguish genders), the inspired Greek original does make such distinctions. (3)
What is more, the same authority Jesus gave to Peter (Matt. 16:18) is given later
to all the apostles (Matt. 18:18). (4) Great authorities, some Catholic, can be cited
in agreement with this interpretation, including John Chrysostom and St. Augustine.
The latter wrote: "On this rock, therefore, He said, which thou hast confessed. I
will build my Church. For the Rock (petra) is Christ; and on this foundation was
Peter himself built."
Second, even if Peter is the rock referred to by Christ, as even some non-Catholic
scholars believe, he was not the only rock in the foundation of the church. Jesus
gave all the apostles the same power ("keys") to "bind" and "loose" that he gave
to Peter (cf. Matt. 18:18). These were common rabbinic phrases used of
"forbidding" and "allowing." These "keys" were not some mysterious power given
to Peter alone but the power granted by Christ to His church by which, when they
proclaim the Gospel, they can proclaim God's forgiveness of sin to all who believe.
As John Calvin noted, "Since heaven is opened to us by the doctrine of the gospel,
the word 'keys' affords an appropriate metaphor. Now men are bound and loosed
in no other way than when faith reconciles some to God, while their own unbelief
constrains others the more."
Further, Scripture affirms that the church is "built on the foundation of the apostles
and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the capstone" (Eph. 2:20). Two things
are clear from this: first, all the apostles, not just Peter, are the foundation of the
church; second, the only one who was given a place of uniqueness or prominence
was Christ, the capstone. Indeed, Peter himself referred to Christ as "the
cornerstone" of the church (1 Pet. 2:7) and the rest of believers as "living stones"
(v. 4) in the superstructure of the church. There is no indication that Peter was
given a special place of prominence in the foundation of the church above the rest
of the apostles and below Christ. He is one "stone" along with the other eleven
apostles (Eph. 2:20).
Third, Peter's role in the New Testament falls far short of the Catholic claim that he
was given unique authority among the apostles for numerous reasons.
(1) While Peter did preach the initial sermon on the day of Pentecost, his role
in the rest of Acts is scarcely that of the chief apostle but at best one of the
"most eminent apostles" (plural, 2 Cor. 21:11, NKJV).
(2) No one reading Galatians carefully can come away with the impression
that any apostle, including Peter, is superior to the apostle Paul. For he
claimed to get his revelation independent of the other apostles (Gal. 1:12;
2:2) and to be on the same level as Peter (2:8), and he even used his
revelation to rebuke Peter (2:11-14).
(3) Indeed, if Peter was the God-ordained superior apostle, it is strange that
more attention is given to the ministry of the apostle Paul than to that of
Peter in the Book of Acts. Peter is the central figure among many in chapters
1-12, but Paul is the dominant focus of chapters 13-28.
(4) Furthermore, though Peter addressed the first council (in Acts 15), he
exercised no primacy over the other apostles. Significantly, the decision
came from "the apostles and presbyters, in agreement with the whole
church" (15:22; cf. v. 23). Many scholars believe that James, not Peter,
exercised leadership over the council, since he brought the final words and
spoke decisively concerning what action should be taken (vv. 13-21).
(5) In any event, by Peter's own admission he was not the pastor of the
church but only a "fellow presbyter [elder]" (1 Pet. 5:1-2, emphasis added).
And while he did claim to be "an apostle" (1 Pet. 1:1) he nowhere claimed
to be "the apostle" or the chief of apostles. He certainly was a leading
apostle, but even then he was only one of the "pillars" (plural) of the church
along with James and John, not the pillar (see Gal. 2:9).
This is not to deny that Peter had a significant role in the early church; he did. He
even seems to have been the initial leader of the apostolic band. As already noted,
along with James and John he was one of the "pillars" of the early church (Gal.
2:9). For it was he that preached the great sermon at Pentecost when the gift of
the Holy Spirit was given, welcoming many Jews into the Christian fold. It was
Peter also who spoke when the Spirit of God fell on the Gentiles in Acts 10. From
this point on, however, Peter fades into the background and Paul is the dominant
apostle, carrying the gospel to the ends of the earth (Acts 13-28), writing some
one-half of the New Testament (as compared to Peter's two epistles), and even
rebuking Peter for his hypocrisy (Gal. 2:11-14). In short, there is no evidence in
Matthew 16 or any other text for the Roman Catholic dogma of the superiority, to
say nothing of the infallibility, of Peter. He did, of course, write two infallible books
(1 and 2 Peter), as did other apostles.
John 21:15ff. In John 21:15ff. Jesus says to Peter, "Feed my lambs" and "Tend
my sheep" and "Feed my sheep" (vv. 15, 16, 17). Roman Catholic scholars believe
this shows that Christ made Peter the supreme pastor of the church. This means
he must protect the church from error, they say, and to do so he must necessarily
be infallible. But this is a serious overclaim for the passage.
First, whether this text is taken of Peter alone or of all the disciples, there is
absolutely no reference to any infallible authority. Jesus' concern here is simply a
matter of pastoral care. Feeding is a God-given pastoral function that even
nonapostles have in the New Testament (cf. Acts 20:28; Eph. 4:11-12; 1 Pet.
5:1-2). One does not have to be an infallible shepherd in order to feed one's flock
Second, if Peter had infallibility (the ability not to mislead), then why did he mislead
believers and have to be rebuked by the apostle Paul for so doing? The infallible
Scriptures, accepted by Roman Catholics, declared of Peter on one occasion, "He
clearly was wrong" and "stood condemned." Peter and others "acted
hypocritically...with the result that even Barnabas was carried away by their
hypocrisy." And hypocrisy here is defined by the Catholic Bible (NAB) as "pretense,
play-acting; moral insincerity." It seems difficult to exonerate Peter from the
charge that he led believers astray. And this failing is hard to reconcile with the
Roman Catholic claim that, as the infallible pastor of the church, he could never do
so! The Catholic response -- that Peter was not infallible in his actions, only his ex
cathedra words -- rings hollow when we remember that "actions speak louder
than words." By his actions he was teaching other believers a false doctrine
concerning the need for Jewish believers to separate themselves from Gentile
believers. The fact is that Peter cannot be both an infallible guide for faith and
morals and also at the same time mislead other believers on the important matter
of faith and morals of which Galatians speaks.
Third, in view of the New Testament terminology used of Peter it is clear that he
would never have accepted the titles used of the Roman Catholic pope today:
"Holy Father" (cf. Matt. 23:9), "Supreme Pontiff," or "Vicar of Christ." The only
vicar (representative) of Christ on earth today is the blessed Holy Spirit (John
14:16, 26). As noted earlier, Peter referred to himself in much more humble terms
as "an apostle," not the apostle (1 Pet. 1:1, emphasis added) and "fellow-presbyter [elder]" (1 Pet. 5:1, emphasis added), not the supreme bishop, the
pope, or the Holy Father.
John 11:49-52. In John 11:49-52 Caiaphas, the High Priest, in his official capacity
as High Priest, made an unwitting prophecy about Christ dying for the nation of
Israel so that they would not perish. Some Catholics maintain that in the Old
Testament the High Priest had an official revelatory function connected with his
office, and therefore we should expect an equivalent (namely, the pope) in the
New Testament. However, this argument is seriously flawed. First, this is merely an
argument from analogy and is not based on any New Testament declaration that it
is so. Second, the New Testament affirmations made about the Old Testament
priesthood reject that analogy, for they say explicitly that the Old Testament
priesthood has been abolished. The writer to the Hebrews declared that "there is a
change of priesthood" from that of Aaron (Heb. 7:12). The Aaronic priesthood has
been fulfilled in Christ who is a priest forever after the order of Melchizedek (Heb.
7:15-17). Third, even Catholics acknowledge that there is no new revelation after
the time of the New Testament function. So no one (popes included) after the first
century can have a revelatory function in the proper sense of giving new
revelations. Finally, there is a New Testament revelatory function like that of the
Old, but it is in the New Testament "apostles and prophets" (cf. Eph. 2:20; 3:5),
which revelation ceased when they died. To assume a revelatory (or even infallible
defining) function was passed on after them and is resident in the bishop of Rome
is to beg the question.
In addition to a total lack of support from the Scriptures, there are many other
arguments against papal infallibility. We will divide them into theological and
There are serious theological problems with papal infallibility. One is the question of
heresy being taught by an infallible pope.
The Problem of Heretical Popes. Pope Honorius I (A.D. 625-638) was condemned
by the Sixth General Council for teaching the monothelite heresy (that there was
only one will in Christ). Even Roman Catholic expert, Ludwig Ott, admits that
"Pope Leo II (682-683) confirmed his anathematization..." This being the
case, we are left with the incredible situation of an infallible pope teaching a fallible,
indeed heretical, doctrine. If the papal teaching office is infallible -- if it cannot
mislead on doctrine and ethics -- then how could a papal teaching be heretical? This
is misleading in doctrine in the most serious manner.
To claim that the pope was not infallible on this occasion is only to further
undermine the doctrine of infallibility. How can one know just when his doctrinal
pronouncements are infallible and when they are not? There is no infallible list of
which are the infallible pronouncements and which are not. But without such a
list, how can the Roman Catholic church provide infallible guidance on doctrine and
morals? If the pope can be fallible on one doctrine, why cannot he be fallible on
Further, Ott's comment that Pope Leo did not condemn Pope Honorius with heresy
but with "negligence in the suppression of error" is ineffective as a defense.
First, it still raises serious questions as to how Pope Honorius could be an infallible
guide in faith and morals, since he taught heresy. And the Catholic response that he
was not speaking ex cathedra when he taught this heresy is convenient but
inadequate. Indeed, invoking such a distinction only tends to undermine faith in the
far more numerous occasions when the pope is speaking with authority but not
Second, it does not explain the fact that the Sixth General Council did condemn
Honorius as a heretic, as even Ott admits. Was this infallible Council in error?
Finally, by disclaiming the infallibility of the pope in this and like situations, the
number of occasions on which infallible pronouncements were made is relatively
rare. For example, the pope has officially spoken ex cathedra only one time this
whole century (on the Bodily Assumption of Mary)! If infallibility is exercised only
this rarely then its value for all practical purposes on almost all occasions is nill. This
being the case, since the pope is only speaking with fallible authority on the vast
majority of occasions, the Catholic is bound to accept his authority on faith and
morals when he may (and sometimes has been) wrong. In short, the alleged
infallible guidance the papacy is supposed to provide is negligible at best. Indeed, on
the overwhelming number of occasions there is no infallible guidance at all.
The Problem of Revelational Insufficiency. One of the chief reasons given by
Catholic authorities as to the need for an infallible teaching magisterium is that we
need infallible guidance to understand God's infallible revelation. Otherwise it will be
misinterpreted as with the many Protestant sects.
To this the Protestant must respond, How is an infallible interpretation any better
than the infallible revelation? Divine revelation is a disclosure or unveiling by God.
But to claim, as Catholics do, that God's infallible unveiling in the Bible needs further
infallible unveiling by God is to say that it was not unveiled properly to begin with.
To be sure, there is a difference between objective disclosure (revelation) and
subjective discovery (understanding). But the central problem in this regard is not
in the perception of God's truth. Even His special revelation is "evident" and "able
to be understood" (Rom. 1:19-20). Our most significant problem with regard to
the truth of God's revelation is reception. Paul declared that "the natural person
does not accept [Gk: dekomai, welcome, receive] what pertains to the Spirit of
God..." (1 Cor. 2:14). He cannot "know" (ginosko: know by experience) them
because he does not receive them into his life, even though he understands them
in his mind. So even though there is a difference between objective disclosure and
subjective understanding, humans are "without excuse" for failing to understand
the objective revelation of God, whether in nature or in Scripture (Rom. 1:20).
In this regard it is interesting that Catholic theology itself maintains that unbelievers
should and can understand the truth of natural law apart from the teaching
magisterium. Why then should they need an infallible teaching magisterium in order
to properly understand the more explicit divine law?
It seems singularly inconsistent for Catholic scholars to claim they need another
mind to interpret Scripture correctly for them when the mind God gave them is
sufficient to interpret everything else, including some things much more difficult
than Scripture. Many Catholic scholars, for example, are experts in interpreting
classical literature, involving both the moral and religious meaning of those texts.
Yet these same educated minds are said to be inadequate to obtain a reliable
religious and moral interpretation of the texts of their own Scriptures.
Furthermore, it does not take an expert to interpret the crucial teachings of the
Bible. The New Testament was written in the vernacular of the times, the trade-language of the first century, known as koine Greek. It was a book written in the
common, everyday language for the common, everyday person. Likewise, the
vast majority of English translations of the Bible are also written in plain English,
including Catholic versions. The essential truths of the Bible can be understood by
any literate person. In fact, it is an insult to the intelligence of the common people
to suggest that they can read and understand the daily news for themselves but
need an infallible teaching magisterium in order to understand God's Good News for
them in the New Testament.
The Problem of Indecisiveness of the Teaching Magisterium. There is another
problem with the Catholic argument for an infallible teaching magisterium: if an
infallible teaching magisterium is needed to overcome the conflicting interpretations
of Scripture, why is it that even these "infallibly" decisive declarations are also
subject to conflicting interpretations? There are many hotly disputed differences
among Catholic scholars on just what ex cathedra statements mean, including
those on Scripture, tradition, Mary, and justification. Even though there may be
future clarifications on some of these, the problem remains for two reasons. First,
it shows the indecisive nature of supposedly infallible pronouncements. Second,
judging by past experience, even these future declarations will not settle all matters
completely. Pronouncements on the inerrancy of Scripture are a case in point.
Despite "infallible" statements, there is strong disagreement among Catholics on
whether the Bible is really infallible in all matters or only on matters of salvation.
In addition to biblical and theological problems, there are serious historical problems
with the Catholic claim for infallibility. Two are of special note here.
The Problem of the Antipopes. Haunting the history of Roman Catholicism is the
scandalous specter of having more than one infallible pope at the same time -- a
pope and an antipope. The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church says
"there have been about thirty-five antipopes in the history of the Church."
How can there be two infallible and opposing popes at the same time? Which is the
true pope? Since there is no infallible list of popes or even an infallible way to
determine who is the infallible pope, the system has a serious logical problem.
Further, this difficulty has had several actual historical manifestations which bring
into focus the whole question of an infallible pope.
Catholic apologists claim that there were not really two popes, since only one can
be infallible. However, since the faithful have no way to know for sure which one is
the pope, which one should they look to for guidance? Each pope can
excommunicate the other (and sometimes have). This being the case, claiming
that only one is the real pope is at best only a theoretical solution. It does not
solve the practical problem of which pope should be followed.
The Problem of Galileo. Perhaps one of the greatest embarrassments to the
"infallible" church is its fallible judgment about Galileo Galilei (A.D. 1564-1642),
generally known as Galileo. In opposition to Galileo and the Copernican solar-centric theory he adopted, the Catholic church sided with the scientifically outdated
Ptolemaic geocentric universe.
In A.D. 1616, the Copernican theory was condemned at Rome. Aristotelian
scientists, the Jesuits, the Dominicans, and three popes (Paul V, Gregory XV, and
Urban VIII), played key roles in the controversy. Galileo was summoned by the
Inquisition in 1632, tried, and on June 21, 1633, pronounced "vehemently
suspected of heresy." Eventually Pope Urban VIII allowed Galileo to return to his
home in Florence, where he remained under house arrest until his death in 1642.
After the church had suffered many centuries of embarrassment for its
condemnation of Galileo, on November 10, 1979, Pope John Paul II spoke to the
Pontifical Academy of Science. In the address titled, "Faith, Science and the Galileo
Case," the pope called for a reexamination of the whole episode. On May 9,
1983, while addressing the subject of the church and science, John Paul II
conceded that "Galileo had 'suffered from departments of the church.'" This, of
course, is not a clear retraction of the condemnation, nor does it solve the problem
of how an infallible pronouncement of the Catholic church could be in error.
Roman Catholic responses to the Galileo episode leave something to be desired.
One Catholic authority claims that while both Paul V and Urban VIII were
committed anti-Copernicans, their pronouncements were not ex cathedra. The
decree of A.D. 1616 "was issued by the Congregation of the Index, which can raise
no difficulty in regard of infallibility, this tribunal being absolutely incompetent to
make a dogmatic decree." As to the second trial in 1633, which also resulted
in a condemnation of Galileo, this sentence is said to be of lesser importance
because it "did not receive the Pope's signature." Another Catholic authority
states that although the theologians' treatment of Galileo was inappropriate, "the
condemnation was the act of a Roman Congregation and in no way involved
infallible teaching authority." Still another source observes, "The condemnation
of Galileo by the Inquisition had nothing to do with the question of papal infallibility,
since no question of faith or morals was papally condemned ex cathedra."
And yet another Catholic apologist suggests that, although the decision was a
"regrettable" case of "imprudence," there was no error made by the pope, since
Galileo was not really condemned of heresy but only strongly suspected of it.
None of these ingenious solutions is very convincing, having all the earmarks of
after-the-fact tinkering with the pronouncements that resulted from this episode.
Galileo and his opponents would be nonplussed to discover that the serious
charges leveled against him were not "