The Limits of Authority

Infallible–what a word to strike fear into the hearts of those accustomed to putting their own convictions above everyone else’s!  How dare someone suggest that “an old man in Rome” could know better than myself how to live!  When I first heard of the “infallibility of the pope,” I cringed at such audacity.  To think that some man would say he had the final say on all things here on earth!  What arrogance!  However, this kind of reaction often comes when we fail to ask basic questions:  What is meant by infallibility?  How far does it extend?  Upon what basis is it claimed?

First, to be infallible does not mean that the Pope is sinless.  There are only four humans who were sinless and only two who remained so:  Adam and Eve, Jesus and Mary.  Adam and Eve disobeyed God and were the first humans to sin.  Jesus was without sin because He is the Second Person of the Trinity.  Mary was sinless by a one-time-only act of God by which she was preserved from all sin in anticipation of her Son’s sacrifice. (This was done for her because she was to be the mother of God, Jesus Christ.)  No pope, from the first, St. Peter, to the present, Pope Francis, has been sinless.  They have been and are, most assuredly, fully human and sinners redeemed by grace who still suffer concupiscence, the tendency to sin.

Second, infallibility is not the same thing as omniscience.  The pope doesn’t know everything.  Not only does he not know everything, he can be wrong about some things the same as anyone else can.   Just today I read an article by Fr. Z about Pope Francis being mistaken in his assessment on why the poor are not being fed in the world today (see article here).  And he certainly cannot predict the future.  Pope Francis had to await the outcome of the World Cup just like every other rabid soccer fan in the world!

Third, the pope’s infallibility doesn’t extend to every area of life.

So, if infallibility doesn’t make him sinless, all-knowing, or an expert in everything, then what is it?  Quite simply, the pope is infallible in matters of faith and morals.  That’s it.  However, considering the extent to which faith and morals affect life here on planet Earth, that’s a lot.

Most of the time the popes do not make infallible declarations on their own.  Usually, a pope consults extensively with his bishops and any experts in the field with which he is concerned.  However, even with all voices saying, “Yea,” the pope has been known to say, “Nay” and vice versa.

One of the best examples of this is the release of the encyclical Humanae Vitae by Pope Paul VI in 1968.  This declaration created shock waves throughout the Western world because everyone thought the Catholic Church’s ban on birth control was going to be lifted just as every other church had since 1930 (no church approved prior to that).  Many experts, theologians, and even bishops urged the pope to approve it and he was personally inclined to do so for some time.  However, after much prayer and study, when the time came to write the document, what he released was the opposite of what had been expected:  The pope reaffirmed what had been long-held, that artificial forms of birth control were immoral means to use in family planning.

The shockwaves and repercussions were huge!  Many Catholics simply revolted and used ABC anyway with their priests and bishops supporting their decisions, even suggesting it.  In Canada, the bishops came out with their own response of rebellion against this teaching (the Winnipeg Statement).  However, when reading the document today, the pope’s warning of consequences is almost eerie.  How could any man have predicted what he did so accurately?  The following paragraphs are from the document, which is worth reading in its entirety.  It’s not long or hard to understand (Humane Vitae).  (boldface mine)

17. Responsible men can become more deeply convinced of the truth of the doctrine laid down by the Church on this issue if they reflect on the consequences of methods and plans for artificial birth control. Let them first consider how easily this course of action could open wide the way for marital infidelity and a general lowering of moral standards. Not much experience is needed to be fully aware of human weakness and to understand that human beings—and especially the young, who are so exposed to temptation—need incentives to keep the moral law, and it is an evil thing to make it easy for them to break that law. Another effect that gives cause for alarm is that a man who grows accustomed to the use of contraceptive methods may forget the reverence due to a woman, and, disregarding her physical and emotional equilibrium, reduce her to being a mere instrument for the satisfaction of his own desires, no longer considering her as his partner whom he should surround with care and affection.

Finally, careful consideration should be given to the danger of this power passing into the hands of those public authorities who care little for the precepts of the moral law. Who will blame a government which in its attempt to resolve the problems affecting an entire country resorts to the same measures as are regarded as lawful by married people in the solution of a particular family difficulty? Who will prevent public authorities from favoring those contraceptive methods which they consider more effective? Should they regard this as necessary, they may even impose their use on everyone. It could well happen, therefore, that when people, either individually or in family or social life, experience the inherent difficulties of the divine law and are determined to avoid them, they may give into the hands of public authorities the power to intervene in the most personal and intimate responsibility of husband and wife.

Also, since 1968, science and medicine have advanced dramatically and we now know what we didn’t then:  ABC works about a third of the time by preventing implantation, not through preventing conception.  Science has now proven that life does, indeed, begin at conception.  Divorce rates, marital infidelity, premarital sex, domestic abuse, rape, abortion (necessary for failed contraception), China’s one-child policy, UN requirements that force “family planning” on poor countries needing aid, etc.  The list could go on and on.  Even the pope himself couldn’t foresee the tragedy that contraception would allow.

So, how could an old man in Rome possibly know this?  Because Jesus promised His disciples that they would be led into all truth by the Holy Spirit (John 14:26, 15:26, 16:12-14; Acts 15:28 gives example of proper application of these verses).  I’ve already written about Peter being given the Keys to the Kingdom, about the Church being built upon him, about Jesus giving him the authority to “bind and loose.”  Jesus gave His Church into the care of Peter by the Sea of Tiberias (John  21:15-19) and that care and authority was passed on to the next pope and the next and so on down through history so that the Church would be able to distinguish the truth amid all the voices claiming their own version of truth.

This is the gift that papal infallibility gives to all of us, especially in a time of such fast technological and scientific advances.  The Bible alone will not give us clear answers to questions about artificial contraception, in-vitro fertilization, women’s ordination and many other issues never imagined by our First Century brothers and sisters in Christ.  Jesus assured us that He would never leave us nor forsake us, even in 21st Century America.

The Papacy, Part 2: Left in Charge

In my last post I said I would do the next one on what is included in the pope’s authority.  I am going to do that, but not with this post because I think there’s more explanation needed as to why Jesus would leave someone in authority.

As any Christian who has picked up a Bible knows, Genesis tells us the story of the world’s creation, man’s fall, and The Curse.  I’ll let you go find it yourself if you’re in need of a refresher, but the part I’m concerned about is The Curse.  As most know, Adam and Eve were given a test, failed it, and incurred The Curse.  Now, just to be clear, The Curse was not God’s version of a temper tantrum because He wasn’t listened to and obeyed, nor was His decision to drive Adam and Eve out of Eden a divine version of sticking out one’s tongue.  No, both were acts of love and redemption.

How can kicking them out of the Garden be an act of love?  Genesis 3:22-24,

Then the LORD God said, “Behold, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil; and now, lest he put forth his hand and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever”–therefore the LORD God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from which he was taken…He placed cherubim, and a flaming sword…to guard the way to the tree of life.

Adam and Eve had eaten from the one tree they were forbidden to eat from and now knew, as God and all the heavenly Host knew, good and evil.  If they would then eat from the Tree of Life, they would live forever in their sin.  Since God had no desire to see us forever locked in our sin and He had already promised a Savior, He removed man from that danger and also gave man something to do to try to keep him out of trouble.  (Ever hear the saying, “Idle hands are the Devil’s workshop?”)  It was God’s love that caused Him to force man from the Garden.  But what about the curse?  How could that be love?

As I already said, man needed something to do, so God gave him weeds to contend with in order to grow food to survive.  But He also did something even more significant: He put someone in charge.  “To the woman He said, “…yet your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you” (v. 16)  Why would God do this?  Because He is a loving Father who knows that there will be endless squabbling and chaos if He doesn’t make it clear who is in charge.  Now, just to be clear, there is lot of excellent discussion about the whys and wherefores of this decision of His, but that’s not to my purpose in this post.  (Sometime I’ll probably get into it because it is a favorite topic of mine, especially when the feminist types start kicking up their heels in their own personal tantrum about it.)  My concern is with the fact that God knew someone had to be in charge, which anyone with more than one child knows is necessary when Mom and Dad are going to be gone for any length of time.

I am the mother of six children.  My oldest two are natural leaders, as is my fourth.  The rest like to think they are and, if nothing else, at least believe they are perfectly capable of acting in their own best interest most of the time (well, okay, all the time).  Where did they get such flagrant assumptions about their own personal wisdom and holiness?  From me, of course.

(Anyone who knows Nolan knows it isn’t from him, especially his brother Terry who finally confessed to the number of punishments Nolan took that Terry escaped, even though the escapades were his idea!  However, lest anyone get the wrong idea, if you know Nolan at all you know he doesn’t budge where he doesn’t wish–he just doesn’t say anything while not budging!)  I digress…

Now, as the kids got old enough to be left alone for short periods of time, it became quickly apparent that although Emily adores (present tense) Daniel and will do whatever he says, the rest were not so easily convinced.  So, at times I’ve had to reiterate these instructions:

“When I leave, Daniel is in charge.  If you disobey him, you’ve disobeyed me because I have given him my authority while I’m gone.  If you think he’s being unfair, you can talk to me about it when I get home and if he’s abused his authority, he’ll be in trouble with me.  However, if not, then you’re going to be in trouble for disobedience.”

End of discussion.  Problem solved.  And I’ve stuck to that because it works.  I’m not brilliant in this.  I’m doing what God did.

[Y]ou are Peter, and on this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it…whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.  (Matthew 16:18ff.)

Jesus said to [the disciples]…”As the Father has sent me, even so I send you”…He breathed on them, and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.  If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.   (John 20:21ff.)

Jesus said to Simon Peter, “…Feed my lambs…Tend my sheep…Feed my sheep.   (John 21: 15ff.)

Once sin entered, God knew we would no longer act out of love for Him first and others second.  He knew that sin is completely self-interested, no matter the cost to others.  Even after the Savior came and forgiveness of sins was made available to all who choose it; even after we’ve been washed clean, we sin again.  So, God did what He could to lessen the problems.  And the first thing He did was put Adam in charge over Eve.  There were only the two of them, but He knew the rules needed to be clear or chaos would ensue.  When Jesus prepared to leave this earth for heaven, He put Peter in charge and did so in a way that those around them knew it was to carry on in succeeding generations of Church leaders.

One of the most fascinating things I came across as I studied the Catholic faith was the writings of the Early Church Fathers.  Those men who were the disciples of the Apostles.  Those first believers who could tell us what it was like when the Church was young.  One of the most prolific writers was St. Ignatius of Antioch, the second successor to St. Peter as the bishop of Antioch.  He was bishop from 69 A.D. until his death by martyrdom in 107 A.D.  He’s also the first person to call the Church the “Catholic Church.”  (If you want a good read on the history of the term “Catholic,” check out Steve Ray’s article on it here.)  Here’s some of what he wrote to the Smyrnaeans:

You must follow the lead of the bishop, as Jesus Christ followed that of the Father; follow the presbytery as you would the Apostles; reverence the deacons as you would God’s commandment.  Let no one do anything touching the Church, apart from the bishop…Where the bishop appears, there let the people be, just as where Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church…It is well to revere God and bishop.  He who honors a bishop is honored by God.  He who does anything without the knowledge of the bishop worships the devil.

About a 150 years later, St. Cyprian, bishop of Carthage in North Africa, wrote The Unity of the Catholic Church.  Here are a few of his quotes:

(He begins by quoting what I did above from Matthew and John)   And although He assigns a like power to all the Apostles, yet He founded a single Chair, thus establishing by His own authority the source and hallmark of the (Church’s) oneness.  No doubt the others were all that Peter was, but a primacy is given to Peter, and it is (thus) made clear that there is but one Church and one Chair.

If a man does not hold fast to this oneness of Peter, does he imagine that he still holds the faith?  If he deserts the Chair of Peter upon whom the Church was built, has he still confidence that he is in the Church?

One of the things people tend to miss is that no Church leader in the early Church ever debated was whether or not Peter (or the current Bishop of Rome) was the head of the Church.  It was assumed.  There were those who argued against the Church, but no one questioned that Peter and his successors as Bishop of Rome were the final authority of the Church.  Jesus intentionally left one person in charge with the final say in all matters of faith and morals.  He even promised that the Holy Spirit would guide them in a special way,

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.  He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you.  All that the Father has is mine; therefore I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you. (John 16:13-15)

Remember, this is was said at the Last Supper when only the Apostles were present.  This was not given to everyone who was and is a Christian.  Why am I so sure?  Read on:

I do not pray for these only, but also for those who believe in me through their word, that they may all be one; even as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.  (17:20-21)

The Apostles, and Peter in primacy, were given the authority to rule and govern the Church by Jesus Himself.  It was to be a visible testament to the world so that the world would believe in Christ as the Son of God, Savior of the world.  The Church must be visible or the world will not know whom to believe.

The Church remained visible and unified until 1054 when the East-West Schism happened.  Then in 1517 the Protestants broke away and it’s been chaos ever since.  Now that so many claim to be in authority, the world is confused as to who has the whole Truth and it is more obvious than ever why Christ established one Church with one leader over it.

The beauty of it is that we are not asked to follow blindly or check our brains at the Church door.  Yes, there is faith and some things can’t be explained adequately in human terms (take a shot at the Trinity!), but the Church welcomes questions and challenges.  When something is not understood, we’re told to learn why the Church has decided as she has just as I will explain the rules of the house to my own children.  But just as my kids need an appointed leader and final decision-maker when I leave, so does the Church.  Jesus is King and He left a line of Prime Ministers to rule in His stead until He returns.  I realized that someday I will stand before Him to explain why I rejected His appointed leaders.  That’s when I became Catholic.

First century bishop St. Ignatius, disciple of the apostles wrote:

See that ye all follow the bishop, even as Jesus Christ does the Father, and the presbytery as ye would the apostles; and reverence the deacons, as being the institution of God. Let no man do anything connected with the Church without the bishop. Let that be deemed a proper Eucharist, which is [administered] either by the bishop, or by one to whom he has entrusted it.

Wherever the bishop shall appear, there let the multitude [of the people] also be; even as, wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church. It is not lawful without the bishop either to baptize or to celebrate a love-feast; but whatsoever he shall approve of, that is also pleasing to God, so that everything that is done may be secure and valid.

– See more at:

First century bishop St. Ignatius, disciple of the apostles wrote:

See that ye all follow the bishop, even as Jesus Christ does the Father, and the presbytery as ye would the apostles; and reverence the deacons, as being the institution of God. Let no man do anything connected with the Church without the bishop. Let that be deemed a proper Eucharist, which is [administered] either by the bishop, or by one to whom he has entrusted it.

Wherever the bishop shall appear, there let the multitude [of the people] also be; even as, wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church. It is not lawful without the bishop either to baptize or to celebrate a love-feast; but whatsoever he shall approve of, that is also pleasing to God, so that everything that is done may be secure and valid.

– See more at:

The Papacy, part 1

I’m not sure if there’s a prize for the slowest blog, but if there is, I might just win!  In truth, I think quite often of this blog and struggle with how to write it.  I’ve worked for some time on an article about Peter and the papacy, but I just deleted the whole thing.  It’s not easy to try to condense something so profound into a simple blog.  In addition, I know of much better sources to explain it all.  However, I realize that few people will necessarily pick and read those sources simply because it’s not a drive in their lives like it was in mine.  So, I’m going to try to do a small series of articles on the papacy.  The papacy became for me the pivotal point of my spiritual journey.

As you may recall from my earlier posts, my journey began with the question, “What does God expect of me as a woman?”  That quest led me through many books, tapes, discussions, and internal struggles.  Then came the pivotal moment in the Sunday School class when I began to wonder where my professors and their professors and their professors, etc. had gotten their understanding of Scripture when some things are not explicitly taught in the Bible.  It took a long time, but it was in finally studying the papacy that I understood what I was searching for:  Authority.

Remember when the people were amazed at Jesus because He taught with such authority and not as the scribes and teachers of the Law?  The scribes and teachers of the Law gave their views and interpretations of the Law and the Prophets, but there were different schools of thought.  Jesus came along and said, in a sense, “This is what is meant,” rather than, “I believe it means this.”  And however He said it, the people believed Him and followed Him in crowds.  (Big enough crowds to make the scribes and teachers of the Law very jealous.)  The people were hungry for certainty.  Scholars may enjoy debating points back and forth, but the common man-on-the-street just wants to know the truth he needs to follow so he can get on with it because he’s got a living to earn.  Debate is for those who have the time.  I felt very much like that.  After studying and debating for a couple of years, I, too, just wanted to know the truth so I could get on with it.  But I had to know it was the truth.  I’m not the type of person who can simply say, “Good enough” when it comes to matters of religion.  After all, we are talking about our eternal destiny.

The question is, then, did Jesus leave anyone in authority?  The simple answer is, “Yes.”  He left Peter that responsibility.  The other Apostles were also given authority as well as the responsiblity to pass on that authority to other men through the laying on of  their hands (called “apostolic succession”).  In this way, their authority to govern His church would be passed down through time until His return.  How do we know this?  Scripture teaches it as well as the Early Church Fathers, those men who were the disciples of the Disciples.  There are those who believe that Jesus gave every individual the freedom to interpret His commands on their own, but there isn’t anything to back up that belief from the Early Church.  That idea was completely foreign to the first Christians, as evidenced by their writings and early practice.

There are a couple of key Scriptures that help here.  The first is rather well-known, Matthew 16:13-20, when Jesus asks the disciples who men say He is and Simon responds, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”  Jesus says that His Father in heaven has revealed this to him and then says, “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it.  I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”  Although that may sound like a strange conversation to the average American it was powerful for the disciples.  They knew exactly what Jesus was referring to, or, I should say, whom.

His name was Shebna and he was in trouble with God.  His story is told in Isaiah 22:15ff.  Shebna was the steward of Jerusalem and he had proven himself untrustworthy.  Isaiah was sent to tell him that he was going to be hurled away by God and made the shame of his master’s house.  In his place God would put Eliakim and this is what he would receive:

“and I will clothe him with your robe, and will bind your belt on him, and will commit your authority to his hand; and he shall be a father to the inhabitants of Jerusalem and to the house of Judah.  And I will place on his shoulder the key of the house of David; he shall open, and none shall shut; and he shall shut, and none shall open.”

The key here is very significant because it is the key to the main gate of the city.  It symbolizes that Eliakim will have the authority to decide who stays and who goes–that’s the opening and shutting part.  If Eliakim said someone wasn’t permitted in the city, he was not permitted.  And woe to him if he tried to enter!  Essentially, Eliakim was the Prime Minister, ruling on behalf of the king in his absence.  The implications for Peter and the other disciples is pretty obvious–Peter was being appointed Prime Minister of Christ’s Church with all the authority to bind and loose, open and shut.

The other significant issue is that Jesus had just re-named Simon as “Peter.”  Although there are some people who still cling to the false notion that Jesus was giving Peter a name meaning “pebble,” most scholars of integrity today have understood two things, 1) Jesus originally spoke in Aramaic, giving the name Kepha, which means “rock.”  (Since they were in Caesarea Philippi at the time, home to one of the largest “rocks” around, it must’ve been a pretty impressive object lesson!)  Peter was to be the rock upon which the wise man built his house; 2) Jesus was speaking to Peter, about the man himself, and not referring to his faith.  Nowhere in these verses are we given any indication that Jesus was talking about Peter’s faith.  The only way to come up with that interpretation is due to a refusal to accept the plain meaning:  Jesus had just made Peter head of His Church and given him the authority to decide who is, and isn’t, allowed into the Kingdom.

Now, if that last statement has your head screaming, “No way!” then I should remind you who said it:  Jesus Christ, the Son of God.  If you want to argue, argue with Him.  It’s His kingdom (not democracy) and He runs it the way He wants it run. He said, “whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”  Although we as humans may think it preposterous to give man such power, God apparently does not.  In fact, if you read through the Bible, you’ll notice He does that a lot.  He even left the mission of telling the entire world about the Gospel to a few insignificant followers in Jerusalem.  Jesus never does do things the way we think He should do them.

And, just for the record, it’s working!  At least it has for 2000 years, thanks to the protection of the Holy Spirit.  Because, in all honesty, with all the centuries of good popes, weak popes, a few bad ones, attacks by heresies, scandals, and the like, the fact that the Catholic Church has survived for 2000 years is only possible because of the promise of Christ that the Holy Spirit would lead the Disciples into all truth and that the gates of Hades wouldn’t be able stand against the Church.

In my next post, I’ll explain what is included in that authority–and what isn’t.

(If you want the most thorough treatment of this subject, I suggest getting a copy of Steve Ray’s, Upon This Rock, published by Ignatius Press.  He has everything documented, footnoted, appended, etc.)