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What Think Ye of Rome?

The Catholic-Protestant Debate on Papal Infallibility

(Part Four)

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.


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."[1]

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."[2]

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][3]

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].[4]


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 divine revelation;

†††††††††(4) imposing a doctrine to be held definitively by all.[5]

Dulles notes that "Vatican I firmly rejected one condition...as necessary for infallibility, namely, the consent of the whole church."[6]

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."[7]

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."[8] Conservatives argue that Vatican I condemned this view.[9]


Not only Protestants but the rest of Christendom -- Anglicans and Eastern Orthodox included -- reject the doctrine of papal infallibility.[10] 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."[11]

Biblical Problems

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 infallibility.

First, many Protestants insist that Christ was not referring to Peter when he spoke of "this rock" being the foundation of the church.[12] 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