Question: How can the Pope be infallible, as the Catholic Church claims? He is just a man. Wouldn't he have to be God to be truly infallible?
A very good question! especially as the Church comes under increasing fire for its controversial teachings on homosexuality, contraception, abortion, and other similar moral issues.
Many wonder why the Church doesn't just get with the program and adapt its teachings to the modern world, but the truth is, the Catholic Church has absolutely no authority to change its teachings, because it has received those teachings directly from Jesus through the apostles. It only has authority to proclaim the truths God has delivered to it.
So how can the Church do this: teach the teachings of Jesus and the Apostles without error? At the heart of this lies the doctrine of infallibility. This is perhaps one of the Church's most important but least understood doctrines.
Let me start by explaining what the teaching of infallibility is and is not. Infallibility does not refer to the personal holiness or lack of holiness of the Pope or bishops. In fact, it works in spite of these things. It does not imply, as many commonly believe, that the Pope is sinless or that scandals will not occur. The Pope is human and is susceptible to sin like everyone else.
Infallibility is a charism or gift of the Holy Spirit that applies to the office of the Pope. It protects the Pope and the magisterium of the Church (essentially the Pope and all bishops teaching in union with him) from ever teaching error when speaking under the following four conditions:
- Ex cathedra (from "the chair of Peter," in his official office as Pope).
- On issues of faith and morals.
- Clearly defining the doctrine to be believed.
- On matters to be believed by the universal Church.
Then how does this gift of infallibility work? How is the Church protected from teaching error?
Scripture gives us a clear picture of this.
During the Last Supper, Jesus promised to send the Holy Spirit to the Apostles. In John 14:26 He says, "But the Counsellor, 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."
In John 16:13 He goes on to add, "When the Spirit of Truth comes, He will guide you into all the truth; for He will not speak on His own authority, but whatever He hears He will speak, and He will declare to you the things that are to come."
St. Paul carries this theme on, instructing the bishop Timothy to "follow the pattern of the sound words which you have heard from me, in the faith and love which are in Christ Jesus; guard the truth that has been entrusted to you by the Holy Spirit who dwells within us" (2 Tim. 1:13-14) and then, "what you have heard from me before many witnesses, entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also" (2 Tim. 2:2).
That's it! That's how the Holy Spirit guards the teachings Jesus left to the Church: from Pope to Pope and bishop to bishop. They are passed on intact in a living way in the Church, through the successors of the apostles, the bishops. This is referred to as apostolic succession, and is the primary way the Holy Spirit guards the truths Jesus left to us, protecting them from any form of error or corruption.
Recall also that in Matthew 16 Jesus gives Peter the keys to the kingdom of heaven and promises that the gates of hell will not prevail against the Church. This is profound in itself, but He then goes on to add that "whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven."
Can you imagine an error being "bound" or taught on earth by the Church if it also had to be bound in heaven? It simply could not happen.
Precisely because of Jesus's promise of the Holy Spirit, the Catholic Church, founded on the apostles and their successors, can claim that "he who hears you hears Me, and he who rejects you rejects Me" (Lk. 10:16), and, "as the Father has sent me, even so I send you" (Jn. 20:21 and Jn. 17:18).
We can stand with St. Paul in declaring with certainty that the Church is "the pillar and foundation of truth" (1 Tim. 3:15).
"Would the heretics dare to come to the very seat of Peter, whence apostolic faith is derived and whither no errors can come?" asked St. Cyprian, martyred Bishop of Carthage, 256 AD.