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It’s Not Just the Pope Who’s Infallible

Not only does the Catholic Church teach that the pope is infallible, but there are other people who are infallible, too!

Suan Sonna

Have you ever caught yourself overthinking a simple answer to a seemingly complex question? Here’s one example: has God ever made someone infallible?

The answer is remarkably simple: if you accept the doctrine of biblical inerrancy, then the answer is yes. And if you’re a traditional Protestant, then you have at least sixty-six examples—not to mention all the times in Scripture where God guides a prophet to prophesy or a priest through the Urim and Thummim!

Someone might insist, however, that although the biblical text is inerrant, the human authors are not infallible. In one sense, this is true. King David was infallible and supernaturally guided when he wrote the Psalms, but he was not infallible when he thought adultery and murder were okay (2 Sam. 11). Nevertheless, God decided in his providence to make David produce an inerrant text at a certain moment. The supernatural gift of textual inerrancy was not a blanket gift to literally everything David said or did.

This is exactly how Catholics understand infallibility. We don’t believe that the pope, for instance, is without error in literally everything he says or does. The Holy Spirit protects him from error only when he gives a definitive pronouncement on a doctrine concerning faith and morals. We say the pope is infallible with this narrow sense in mind.

You can see infallibility at work in the first pope. Peter was certainly infallible when he wrote 1 and 2 Peter, but he was not without error when he flaked on the Gentile Christians in Antioch (Gal. 2:11-14). In 1 and 2 Peter, Peter was giving definitive teachings as an apostle while in Rome. In Antioch, Peter was setting a poor example for the Church through his actions. So we accept the infallibility of Peter’s epistles and frown upon his actions in Antioch without hesitation.

A Protestant might reassert here that “only God is infallible! That’s why we can’t say that the human authors are!”

It’s true that only God is infallible in the fullest sense of the word. So why can we still say the authors of Scripture are infallible? It’s because “the Bible didn’t drop out of the sky fully written.”

When I was Protestant, I never really understood this remark. It wasn’t until I was a Catholic dealing with Protestant objections that it clicked: human beings were involved in the writing of Scripture. Sola scriptura had made me narrowly focus on the text’s inerrancy without considering how the author must have been inerrant as well in some capacity.

For example, St. John has a way of telling the story of Christ’s life that is distinct from the Synoptics, and St. Paul has a way of writing that’s unique from St. James, and so on. God did not possess the writers of Scripture and turn them into automatons. He supernaturally protected them from error without diminishing their agency, without eliminating their unique voices and personalities. We therefore cannot deny that there was human involvement in the writing of Scripture, but this human involvement does not (and cannot) exclude God.

Think about how we argue all the time that the universe exhibits design, and therefore we can infer that a brilliant designer created it. The features of the effect reveal the nature of the cause.

Here, Scripture is the “effect.” Now, what’s the “cause” of Scripture? Well, it’s not God alone, because the biblical authors were human. But it’s not the biblical authors alone, because they were fallible men. Rather, it’s God and man together. The biblical authors were infallible when writing Scripture—not by their own power, but only in a borrowed or derivative sense from God’s infallible nature.

One might concede my point but insist that God made only the biblical authors infallible. But why limit infallibility to only the biblical authors? God seems to have good reasons for authorizing a single enduring institution to infallibly settle disputes on doctrine (the Magisterium) for his beloved children (the Church). After all, it would be nice if Paul were still around to help us understand his letters, or at least if there were a divinely appointed interpreter! And, as I’ve argued elsewhere, God did install such an interpreting institution.

A final worry might be that the gift of infallibility means that the Catholic Church can write new Scripture. The unanimous witness of the apostles, however, is that we are simply to conserve what we have received from them “either by word of mouth or by our letter” (2 Thess. 2:15). In other words, the Church is infallibly bound to the teachings of the apostles. It cannot invent new teachings, but can only defend and clarify what it received from Jesus through the apostles.

This is reminiscent of how the Bible sometimes quotes and clarifies itself without adding new revelation. Luke, for example, clarifies that “the yeast of the Pharisees” is “hypocrisy” (12:1). Jesus had already used this phrase before, and so Luke is simply clarifying and not adding something totally foreign (Matt. 16:6; Mark 8:15).

The exercise of infallibility does not require that new revelation is always given. Infallibility can also include perfectly conserving and clarifying what has been received. This is how infallibility works in the Catholic Magisterium.

Indeed, Vatican I teaches, “For the holy Spirit was promised to the successors of Peter not so that they might, by his revelation, make known some new doctrine, but that, by his assistance, they might religiously guard and faithfully expound the revelation or deposit of faith transmitted by the apostles.”

God has certainly made people infallible. It’s as simple as that.

Image via Pxhere.

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