Over nearly two thousand years, people within the Church’s hierarchy have sometimes failed to live up to the honorable reputations befitting their offices. The inquisition and the Crusades, scoundrel popes, or even the recent priest scandal often cause Catholics to cringe in embarrassment or, worse, prompt some to leave the Church altogether.
Some non-Catholics cite such human failings as evidence that the Catholic Church cannot be God’s true Church. A recent writer to Catholic Answers stated his concern quite clearly: “I do not believe that Christ would use such men to represent him.”
Should Catholics be concerned that sinful popes and bishops do not authentically represent Christ in their teaching? Amid scandal, can the teaching of our Church be true?
Scripture can help us answer these questions.
The First Christians
Jesus appointed the apostles to be the first representatives of his Church:
And when it was day, he called his disciples, and chose from them twelve, whom he named apostles; Simon, whom he named Peter, and Andrew his brother, and James and John, and Philip, and Bartholomew, and Matthew, and Thomas, and James the son of Alphaeus, and Simon who was called the Zealot, and Judas the son of James, and Judas Iscariot, who became a traitor. (Lk 6:13-16; see also Mt 10:1-4, Mk 3:13-19)
The word apostle is translated from the Greek word apostolos, which simply means one who is sent as a messenger. Christ’s apostles were sent by him endowed with the authority to teach in his name: “And he appointed twelve, to be with him, and to be sent out to preach . . .” (Mk 3:14).
Let’s look at the reputations of some of the apostles.
A Thief and a Traitor
The most notorious of the apostles is, of course, Judas Iscariot—the one who betrayed Jesus.
“Then one of the twelve, who was called Judas Iscariot, went to the chief priests and said, ‘What will you give me if I deliver him [Jesus] to you?’ And they paid him thirty pieces of silver. And from that moment he sought an opportunity to betray him” (Mt 26:14-16).
Of Judas, Jesus said, “It would have been better for that man if he had not been born” (Mt 26:24).
Judas seems like an obvious example of a scandalously sinful person who Jesus appointed to represent him. But some might argue that Judas was not corrupt when Jesus first appointed him an apostle, not until the Last Supper when “Satan entered into” him (cf. Lk 22:3, Jn 13:27), or that Judas died before he ever got a chance to really “represent” Jesus.
But Scripture indicates that Judas was a serious sinner before the Last Supper. For example, consider the story of Lazarus’ sister Mary anointing Jesus’ feet with expensive perfume: “Judas . . . said, ‘Why was this ointment not sold for three hundred denarii and given to the poor?’ This he said, not that he cared for the poor but because he was a thief, and as he had the money box he used to take what was put into it” (Jn 12:4-6).
So Judas was a thief long before he betrayed Jesus. But did he ever really represent Jesus? Scripture indicates that he did—he was one of the apostles to whom Jesus said: “And preach as you go, saying, ‘The kingdom of heaven is at hand’” (Mt 10:7).
Jesus entrusted preaching to Judas, a serious sinner! (More on this later.)
Finally, some might claim that Jesus didn’t know of Judas’ sinful character when he appointed him to be an apostle. John’s Gospel tells us otherwise:
[Jesus said,] “But there are some of you that do not believe.” For Jesus knew from the first who those were that did not believe, and who it was that should betray him . . . “Did I not choose you, the twelve, and one of you is a devil?” He spoke of Judas the son of Simon Iscariot, for he, one of the twelve, was to betray him. (Jn 6:64, 70-71)
In other words, Jesus knowingly appointed a thief and a betrayer to preach on his behalf.
A Waffler and a Hypocrite
But it was Peter who Jesus appointed to be the head of his Church—our first pope. And Peter, too, was a sinful man.
For example, he wrongly rebuked Jesus:
Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. And Peter took him and began to rebuke him, saying, “God forbid, Lord! This shall never happen to you.” But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me; for you are not on the side of God, but of men.” (Mt 16:21-23)
For a moment Peter lost faith in what Jesus was teaching him and, for this, Jesus rebuffed him. And it was Peter who later denied Jesus—three times—rather than suffer with him: “Peter was sitting outside in the courtyard. And a maid came up to him, and said, ‘You also were with Jesus the Galilean.’ But he denied it before them all, saying, ‘I do not know what you mean’” (Mt 26:69-70). Yet even after all of this, Jesus kept Peter as an apostle. After the Resurrection, Jesus confirmed Peter’s love and exhorted him to continue leading his followers: “Jesus said to Simon Peter, ‘Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?’ He said to him, ‘Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.’ He said to him, ‘Feed my lambs’” (Jn 21:15).
Some might argue that these examples all took place before Jesus ascended into heaven and left the Church in the hands of the apostles. So we need to look at the Church in the post-Ascension era. Do we find evidence of sin there? We do.
Consider the scandalous incident of Peter, now our first pope, at Antioch. He knew full well that Christians—whether Jewish or Gentile converts—were not bound by the Mosaic law, yet he hypocritically went along with some of the Jewish converts in not eating with the Gentile converts (a prohibition formerly imposed by the Mosaic law). Other Christians followed his bad example, and so Paul rebuked Peter:
I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. For before certain men came from James, he ate with the Gentiles; but when they came he drew back and separated himself, fearing the circumcision party. And with him the rest of the Jews acted insincerely, so that even Barnabas was carried away by their insincerity. (Gal 2:11-13)
It is significant to note that the Barnabas just mentioned was considered to be an apostle (cf. Acts 13:2, 14:14) and that he, too, behaved badly on this occasion.
Luke says of Barnabas, “he was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith” (Acts 11:24), yet he is another example of an authoritative representative of Christ who did not always represent Jesus well in his personal behavior.
We’ve seen scriptural proof that at least a few of Jesus’ authoritative representatives were manifest sinners. I mean no disrespect to any of them—the truth is, all of the apostles were sinners: “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom 3:23). The same is true of their successors, the leaders of the Catholic Church. Yet Jesus appointed them anyway.
Can Sinners Be Infallible?
So, clearly, Jesus does use sinners to represent him. But what does this say about the trustworthiness of the teachings of those representatives (i.e., infallibility)?
We have already seen in Matthew 10:7 that Jesus appointed Judas to preach. But how could he know Judas, a thief and future traitor, would get it right? The answer lies further on in the same passage: “[W]hat you are to say will be given to you . . . for it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you” (Mt 10:19-20).
You see, Jesus wasn’t concerned about Judas misrepresenting the truth that he was sent out to teach because the Holy Spirit would guide him. Jesus made similar promises to all of the apostles at the Last Supper: “[The Father] will give you another Counselor, to be with you for ever . . . the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you. . . . He will guide you into all the truth” (Jn 14:16, 26; 16:13).
And finally, Jesus’ promises are for all of his authoritative teachers until he returns in glory: “I am with you always, to the close of the age” (Mt 28:20).
The Christian faith “was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 1:3), and it has been authentically handed down and taught authoritatively by sinners—the apostles and their successors, the magisterium of the Catholic Church—under the guidance of the Holy Spirit for nearly two thousand years.
Thank God we do not have to rely on the personal holiness of Christ’s appointed representatives to know that what they are teaching is true.