The Pope: is Papal infallibility a "one man council?"

One of the most misunderstood things about the Pope is this "infallibility" thing. Some Evangelicals think infallibility means that Catholics claim that every word that comes out of the Pope's mouth is supposed to be infallible.

The Pope is human and therefore sins. He's the first to admit it. He goes to regular confession where he confesses his sin, repents and is granted forgiveness. Catholics do not deny the Pope's humanity. At a meeting of Priests, Pope Benedict said:

"…The Pope is not an oracle, he is infallible on the rarest of occasions, as we know…"

What the Church is saying with the doctrine of infallibly is that Christ is protecting his flock by giving the Pope the ability to say the right things when making official statements about faith and morals. The Church claims that these proclamations are "infallible," not that Church leaders are "indefectible." Most certainly everybody in the Catholic Church has defects (including its leaders), just like all humans.

The doctrine of infallibility has nothing to do with the brainpower, intuition, moral fibre, or even the faith of the Pope. The Doctrine of infallibility has everything to do with God protecting his Church. It's amazing that even during medieval times when there were some questionable and even bad Popes, God kept them silent on issues of faith and morals during their office.

A Pope only exercises infallibility on rare occasions - a handful of times in history. Here are the conditions:

  1. The Pope must speak ex cathedra (from the Chair of Peter) in his official capacity.
  2. The decision must be binding on the whole Church.
  3. It must be on a matter of faith or morals.
  4. He must be intending to teach.

Some Evangelicals wonder how this mystery and miracle of infallibility could be possible. How can a defectible human, under some conditions, speak infallibly? We have to ask ourselves "is Jesus capable of protecting his flock in this way?" The answer is that Jesus can do anything. Christ promised to guide and protect his Church and to send the Holy Spirit to lead it into all truth. (Mat 16:18-19, 18:18, 28:20; Jn 14:16, 25, 16:13). The Holy Spirit guided the Church when it decided which books were to be included in the Bible. That was an infallible decision. Praise God!

Certainly many who are reading this have had experiences where God made something very clear to them through the Grace of the Holy Spirit. How much more would He want to do that for someone who has been trusted to lead and influence millions of Christians.

Peter’s infallibility (see Matt 16:18-19) is not his own, but comes from Christ. Peter is merely Christ’s instrument.  Peter is merely the VICARIOUS Rock of the Church (he is Christ’s vicar / physical substitute), whereas Christ Himself is of course the Church’s only real and ultimate Rock.

Is the Pope a one man council?

An Eastern Orthodox friend asks:

please explain how the RC teaching on papal infallibility is different from saying the Pope can, ex cathedra, act as a one-man ecumenical council. Thanks.

First of all, we need to examine the nature of Ecumenical Councils. By this, I specifically mean the first 7 Ecumenical Councils of the Church. They were basically political, imperial-sponsored events to poll the bishops of the Roman Empire to see what was, and was not, orthodox doctrine. But, this was not the Traditional method for determining orthodoxy. Rather, it was Constantine's way of finding out what Christianity taught, because he was looking for a glue to hold his Empire together, so it was of monumental importance that all the bishops be in agreement. We must remember Constantine's situation: The Empire was overflowing with Christians, yet had problems with disunity. By embracing the Church, he assumed that he could fix this in one fell swoop. However, then Constantine found out -- much to his surprise -- that these Christians weren't so "unified" after all (i.e., Arianism). And, if that was the case, he needed to find out if Christianity was really (as the orthodox Christians claimed) a universal phenomenon. Otherwise, his plan was pointless.

So, for Constantine, what the bishops taught was never important to the powers behind Nicaea, Constantinople I, Ephesus, Chalcedon, Constantinople II, Constantinople III, and Nicaea II. Rather, the driving force was what could be agreed on (in order to promote the "One Church, One Empire" agenda) just as it was at the illicit "ecumenical councils" :

There are a number of councils which espoused ideas that could have ended Christianity.

  • Antioch (in 341, where about 100 Eastern bishops approved of straight Arianism)
  • Sirmium (in 351, where another 100 or so Eastern bishops espoused semi-Arianism),
  • the Robber Council of Ephesus (in 449-450 which declared Monophysitism to be orthodox doctrine),
  • numerous "councils" in Constantinople (which included the patriarchs of Antioch, Alexandria, and Jerusalem, which declared Monophysitism to be orthodox),
  • and the councils of Constantinople of 638 and 639 which approved of the Ecthesis, embracing Monothelitism.

All these Councils could have been defined historically as "Ecumenical," if it were not for Rome's refusal to cooperate with them.

So, what trumps what? A Council, or Rome's teaching authority? It is Rome's teaching authority -- the very thing "Saint" Photius (being an agent of the Empire himself) denied, so as to foster Byzantine primacy through an unTraditional bid to make the P. of Constantinople "Ecumenical Patriarch," a title which, was not approved of for the P. of Constantinople until after 1453. It was a title given to him by the anti-Latin TURKS! Not by the Papacy nor by the ancient Church.

I suggest that the Orthodox have a non-Ecclesial, imperial notion of what determines orthodoxy via magisterium. Their idea that "all bishops are equal" is really rooted in the Imperial idea of polling bishops so as to see what is taught everywhere. However, while this is sometimes a useful tool it is no replacement for a magisterium. Rather, it is not all that dissimilar to opinion polls, the very Achilles Heel of non-representational Greek Democracy. In other words, it doesn't work. If it did, we would not have had all those illicit "ecumenical councils" I referred to above. And, in this, we see a simple rule for defining orthodoxy:

With Rome = Legitimate Ecumenical Council

Without Rome = Illicit, Heretical Council

And any honest student of Christian history would have to admit this. The Roman Magisterium made the political exercise of the Ecumenical Council work. Without that Roman Magisterium, there was confusion and heresy. Why? :-)

Now, with this in mind, let's address 4 common theories of Eastern Orthodoxy which I think are revisionist.

Common Orthodox Theory #1: First Among Equals

The first theory is that the Pope of Rome used to be "First Among Equals" (and/or "Ecumenical Patriarch") and then "placed himself over the other bishops, wanting to be Head of the Church."

The Pope never held the title "First Among Equals." However, he did posses the titles "Vicarius Christi" (Vicar of Christ, late 300's), "Servus Sevorum Dei" (Servant of the Servants of God, mid-400's), and "Head of the Church" (late 400's), a title by which the Pope is addressed, not only by innumerable Eastern Fathers, but ALSO by the synodal letters from three Ecumenical Councils (Chalcedon, Constantinople III, and Nicaea II). So, any Orthodox who denies that the Pope of Rome is Head of the Church does not stand with the Council Fathers.

As for Ecumenical Patriarch, that was an out-and-out creation by the Byzantine government in the 600's (and it was never offered to Rome, but was designed for Constantinople). Gregory the Great was the first to deny this title to the P.of C. (calling it "haughty" and "unTraditional") and the denials continued well into the 900's (when Photius demanded to have it); and, after him, Michael Cerularius which was fuel to the fire re: the Great Schism.

Common Orthodox Theory #2: Five Patriarchs with Equal Authority

The 2nd theory goes like this: "There used to be 5 Patriarchs, all with equal authority. Then, the Pope of Rome broke off from the Church, whereas the other 4 remained."

This is not only revisionism, but out-and-out Greek bigotry. It makes it seem like there were 4 independent Patriarchs at the time who freely refused to stick with Rome in 1054. However, once one bothers to read the history, that's not the case at all.

In 1054, the Patriarchs of Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem were not the local bishops who used to rule from these sees (since all of the locals broke off with the Monophysites). Rather, the Orthodox bishops of these sees in 1054 were all Byzantine Melkites -- Imperial appointees from Constantinople. They were presiding within Muslim countries; and their flocks were not very large at the time (most of the Christians in those regions were Monophysite, not Orthodox at the time). So, they were no longer the great metropolitan sees of the ancient Church.

The Orthodox sometimes say that there were 5 patriarchs and 1 broke off. It was not a 4 to 1 split. It was a 1 to 1 split -- Rome and Constantinople. The sees of Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem at this time (ruled by imperial-minded Greeks from Byzantium) followed Constantinople. And, if Churches like the Copts and the Jacobites turn out not to be Monophysite after all, then these men weren't even the the legitimate bishops. But, the "Greek invaders" as the Copts and Syrians saw them.

So, in essence, the Orthodox position implies that one must be Byzantine Greek in order to be in the Church. This is contrary to the long held ecumenical "poll of bishops" to determine orthodoxy. By 1054, Byzantium had done away with that replacing (rightly or wrongly) the legitimately-elected bishops of Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem when they did not agree with the Byzantine decisions at Chalcedon. So, if Orthodoxy truly believes that correct doctrine is determined by a poll of the teachings of all bishops everywhere, it needs to look at this attitude which was in place from about 451 on.

Common Orthodox Theory #3: An Ecumenical Council must be "Ratified" by the Laity

Theory number 3 is that an Ecumenical Council, even if agreed upon by all the bishops, cannot be ratified without the approval of the laity. In this, Orthodoxy gives the reason of: "we are all the Church." Well, yes we are, but that's not how Councils work. For example, the pro-Arian councils after Nicaea were approved by the people of the Eastern Empire (and for over 20 years!). Yet, did that make Arianism orthodox? In the same way, Nicaea was never "approved by the people." It was declared to be so by the bishops and the Emperor. Same goes for all the other Ecumenical Councils including and especially Chalcedon, which was rejected by the majority of Christians in Egypt, Ethiopia, Armenia, Syria, and Palestine. So, where was the mandate from the laity here?

Orthodox common theory # 3 is a straw man, created to explain away why the Byzantines backed out of Lyon II and Ferrara-Florence -- both cases in which ALL the Eastern Patriarchs approved of Western orthodoxy. This idea that "oh, well, the people must approve of it" is IMPERIAL in nature, not Spiritual or Ecclesiastical at all. Tthe average Greek knew nothing about the theology of Filioque?! Ah! But, they did know about the differences between East-West civilizations. And, if the "people" disapproved of Lyon and Ferrara-Florence, it wasn't because the "Holy Spirit" was moving them! It was bagainst those "Western barbarians," who "couldn't be right."

I submit that Orthodoxy's Imperium clouds its vision, even in matters of who are the "people of God." Are the people of God only the Greeks? What about all the Westerners, and the Non-Chalcedonians? Why didn't "the people" of the West or the Orient refuse to agree with the non-Conciliar heresy? Aren't they anointed by the Spirit through Baptism too? Or are only the "civilized Byzantines" given this charism?

Common Orthodx Theory #4: An Ecumenical Council is Enough

And so, theory # 4 ties all these together quite nicely. And that is the theory of the Ecumenical Council itself. Now, is an Ecumenical Council a good thing? Sure it is. However, is an Ecumenical Council enough? No. However, many in the Orthodox church don't believe that an Ecumenical Council is a political exercise, but rather they think it is an aspect of Tradition. In this, they point to Acts 15 and say, "The Apostles decided things via council. So, an Ecumenical Council where all bishops are polled is merely a reflection of Acts 15." Let's explore Acts 15.

Acts 15 and the Leadership of Peter

We are told of a crisis in the church of Antioch. Having returned from their first missionary journey, Paul and Barnabas find that:

"Some who had come DOWN FROM JUDAEA were instructing the brothers, 'Unless you are circumcised according to the Mosaic practice, you cannot be saved.' Because there arose no little DISSENSION and debate by Paul and Barnabas with them, it was decided that Paul and Barnabas, and some of the others, should GO UP to Jerusalem to the Apostles and presbyters about this question."

Notice that the Scripture says that Paul and Barnabas were DISSENTING. Interesting word, yet, it reveals that those who were pushing for circumcision were IN AUTHORITY over Paul and Barnabas (who were the younger colleagues at this time). And they were in authority because they came from Judaea/ Jerusalem -- seat of the magisterium. So, what's happening is that agents of the magisterium are coming to Antioch and preaching something that doesn't seem right (i.e, "the spirit of Vatican II"). Therefore, Paul and Barnabas are going to check to see if the Jerusalem magisterium is really teaching this.

Yes. It does say that they were going to see the "Apostles and presbyters." It does not say that they were going to see Peter. However, there's a good reason. They probably DIDN'T KNOW that Peter was going to be there! Or, possibly, they knew that all the Apostles were gathered there (probably for Mary's funeral / Assumption).

If you look in Acts 12:17, Peter had fled Jerusalem "for another place" (which Tradition tells us is Rome -- both Eusebius and Jerome count Peter's episcopacy in Rome from this time, which was AD 42). However, the Council of Jerusalem took place in AD 49 and, strangely enough, Peter just happens to be there having disappeared from the narrative of Acts since chapter 12. Why so? Well, as we know from Seutonius, all the Jews were expelled from Rome by Emperor Claudius in AD 49 (same year as the Jerusalem council) and their expulsion was because of a riot over someone named "Chrestus" (i.e., "Christus" or Christ). So, Peter was among the refugees which is why he was back in Jerusalem (thereafter to go on to Antioch, after the Council, and then back to Rome after Claudius' death, when Jews could return).

So, Peter was at the Council. And, here's how the Council operated:

"The apostles and presbyters met together TO SEE about the matter. AFTER MUCH DEBATE HAD TAKEN PLACE, PETER got up and said to them...."

And Peter's teaching on the matter is conveyed through the next several verses. Thereafter, when Peter finishes, it says:

"The whole assembly FELL SILENT..." (That is, the other Apostles and presbyters) ... "...and they LISTENED while Paul and Barnabas described the signs and wonders God had worked among the Gentiles through them."

So, did the Jerusalem Council operate like the Orthodox model of an Ecumenical council? Or rather like the Catholic model? Here's how it worked:

The bishops met TO EXAMINE the matter. They DEBATED.

Then, Peter -- after listening to the debate -- gave HIS TEACHING (vox Petros).

After this, the Council FALLS SILENT (a la, the Tome of Leo).

Then, Paul and Barnabas were permitted to tell about their first missionary journey so as to back up Peter's teaching with signs from the Holy Spirit (e.g. as in the Immaculate Conception dogma backed up by the miracles at Lourdes).

And, thereafter, James gives a ruling. And, THIS is the only thing that seems unCatholic to some.

However, whereas it does say (in verse 13) how Paul and Barnabas "fall silent," allowing James to respond, this does not take away from the entire assembly "falling silent" after Peter's teaching in verse 12. Why? Because we are dealing with 2 Greek words. In 13, the verb is "sigesai" (infinitive aorist: meaning that Paul and Barnabas finished talking). In verse 12, it's "esigese" (past tense aorist usage -- meaning that the assembly REMAINED SILENT after Peter's address). And, indeed, after Peter speaks, all debate stops. The matter had been settled.

So, why does James speak? Three reasons:

  1. He's the bishop of Jerusalem. Peter was just a visitor.
  2. What he says, he Paul and Barnabas ...ties into Peter's declaration: "Brothers, listen to me. SYMEON has described how God..." etc.
  3. And, most importantly, because James was the leader of the Church's "Jewish wing." Remember, in verse 1 and 2 how Acts 15 describes:

"Some who had come DOWN FROM JUDAEA were instructing the brothers, 'Unless you are circumcised according to the Mosaic practice, you cannot be saved.'

They were coming FROM JAMES! They were HIS disciples! Therefore, he renders judgment on the matter for his Jewish party, not as a superior or equal of Peter at all. And, this is MOST clear in verse 19, where it says:

"It is my judgment, therefore, that WE ought to STOP TROUBLING THE GENTILES."

Who was "troubling" the Gentiles? Not Paul and Barnabas. Not Peter and his disciples, who Baptised the first Gentiles without circumcision. So, who? ONLY the Jewish Christians under James. Therefore, it is NOT the whole Church, but only the "Jewish party" that James is giving a "judgment" to.

So again, the Council of Jerusalem was not an Ecumenical Council by Byzantine Orthodox definition. Rather, it was COMPLETELY based on the Petrine teaching office: the magisterium of the Church.

And so, let's address the common Orthodox theories:

  1. Peter is not acting as a "First Among Equals," but "In Persona Christi Capitas." The assembly which, at this time, was pretty much the same thing as an assembly to administer the Sacrament of Confession, needed a presiding minister. In the early Church, when one received the Sacrament of Confession, a penitent would confess before the entire assembly. However, in this, the presiding bishop gave absolution on behalf of the church -- acting "In Persona Christi CAPITAS." And so, at Jerusalem, we see Peter as Head of the Church, speaking for the Church, making decisions for the Church, acting unilaterally on behalf of the Church. He does not share this authority with other bishops. He does not participate in the debate. Rather, it says: "After much debate had taken place, PETER GOT UP ..." His teaching ENDS the debate. He acts as father (Pope) to all.
  2. Contrary to the Orthodox understanding that Rome, Alexandria, Antioch, Constantinople, and Jerusalem all share equal authority, basing this on episcopal authority derived from their sees and the supposed equality of their sees -- It is interesting to note that, in Acts 15, Peter does not act as a bishop of a see. Rather, he is merely a visitor. Yet, his Petrine office and teaching authority are in place -- even over the resident reigning bishop (James). Therefore, the idea that the Pope of Rome's teaching authority is merely that of a bishop is not sensible. If, as the Orthodox maintain, the Pope of Rome is the successor of Peter, it therefore follows that he succeeds to Peter's unique ministry and to a teaching office that is superior to the rest of the episcopate. Therefore, even if the Schism was a 4 to 1 split, as the Orthodox say, they would still be the ones in error. As St. John Chrysostom puts it: "And if one should say, 'How then did James receive the throne of Jerusalem?,' this I would answer that He appointed this man (Peter) teacher, not of that throne, but of the whole world." (Chrysostom, In Joan Hom). That's a Papacy, my friend. :-)
  3. The incredibly revisionist Orthodox idea: "An Ecumenical Council can only be official if it's accepted by the laity..." SEEMS to be supported by Acts 15:22:

"Then the Apostles and presbyters, IN AGREEMENT WITH THE WHOLE CHURCH, decided to choose representatives and to send them to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas. This is the letter delivered by them..."

"So," say the Orthodox, "See? The laity had to approve." However, I say: COMPLETE NONSENSE! :-) First of all, what does this verse mean by "together with the whole church"? Does it mean "church" (local church) or "Church" (universal Church) ?

Well, common sense should tell you that it means only the church of Jerusalem (small "c"). It refers to Jerusalem's magisterium and especially to those of the Jerusalem magisterium who were arguing FOR circumcision. The point of the verse is that all of those loyal to Jerusalem gave up the pro-circumcision position. That's all.

However, if one bothers to think about it, the verse DOES NOT refer to the laity in Antioch (who are being GIVEN a decision by the Council, a decision which could have gone the other way, if that was God's will). It also does not address how the council's decision was accepted by the faithful in Egypt, or Laodocia, or Cyprus. So, contrary to the Orthodox mis-reading, verse 19 is NOT speaking in an Ecumenical sense. It is merely referring to those faithful in the city where the Council was held, underscoring the idea that all of the Judean Christians under James held to it.

And, by that criterion, both Lyon and Ferrara-Florence are legitimate councils, since they were accepted by the faithful of those regions in the West. There would be no excuse, for example, if Paul and Barnabas returned to Antioch and rejected the Jerusalem ruling because the laity there wouldn't accept it! :-) Far from it, Antioch would be in open disobedience of the Council! As were the Judaizers in Ephesus, and Corinth, and Rome (who Peter and Paul encountered later). And so it is with the East regarding Lyon II and Ferrara-Florence. The Orthodox position cannot stand. They are in open disobedience to the universal Magisterium.

Papal Infallibility

So, now that we know what a Council is and should be, we can examine the issue of the Infallibility of the Pope's teaching office. Answer: He is not a one-man Council because a Council isn't what the Orthodox think it is. As with Jerusalem, a Council goes like this:

  1. The bishops meet to examine the matter (Acts 15:6)
  2. They debate (Acts 15:7)
  3. The Petrine office renders a decision BASED ON THE INFORMATION PRESENTED IN THE DEBATE (which is what a Council is for). (Acts 15:7-11)
  4. The Petrine position, which is now the official teaching of the Magisterium, is explained for those parties who have trouble understanding it (Acts 15:12-19)
  5. (Amendments may be made for the sake of peace (Acts 15:20 and 28-29)
  6. A document is drafted to convey the Council's decision to the faithful

Therefore, the Orthodox mis-characterization of the Papacy as a "one-man council" does not stand. If one considers the last three ex cathedra declarations by the Pope (The Immaculate Conception, the Assumption, and forbidding female priesthood), NONE of them were proclaimed without step B.

With the Immaculate Conception, the Pope polled the bishops to see if there was any reasonable objection. There was none (since it was after 700 years of theological examination of the doctrine), so Peter spoke.

With the Assumption, the Petrine office spoke out of the Desposit of Faith and Sacred Tradition -- Mary's Assumption having been a feast day since the late 400's; and, as "the Memory of Mary," for centuries before that in numerous local churches -- including those of North Africa, as when pseudo-Augustine (at one time attributed to St. Augustine), writes c. 500 AD:

"This venerable day has dawned, the day that surpasses all the festivals of the saints, this most exalted and solemn day on which the Blessed Virgin was assumed body and soul into heavenly glory. On this day the queenly Virgin was exalted to the very throne of God the Father, and elevated to such a height that the angelic spirits are in admiration."

On the subject of a female priesthood, the Pope also speaks out of Tradition -- opposing even bishops who are favorable to the heresy. Yet, he rules with Peter's voice, rendering a council pointless and unproductive. There can be no legitimate public debate on this matter. Therefore, there is no reason to call a Council. The Pope speaks with those loyal to Tradition. And many doctrines have been decided this way: No re-Baptism, Mary's Perpetual Virginity, Donatism as a heresy, etc.

So, the bottom line: The Pope is not a "one-man council" because he does not speak alone. Not at first, anyway. He must draw his teaching from the debate in question. So, with female priests, the Pope listened to the debate, and ruled in favor of Tradition. "Women cannot be priest because they cannot image Christ the Bridegroom." Yet, this decision was not made without considering the debate, or even the views of the liberal bishops. Their views, however, did not fit with the truth (Acts 15:7-11). And thus, Peter spoke. This is what the Petrine office does. This is its purpose. So, we have

  1. A Council, the purpose of which is to debate and present all sides.The Papal Magisterium, the purpose of which is to pick the correct side and champion it. This is where infallibility comes in. The Papacy approves of the orthodox doctrine, and the Council ratifies the Papacy's teaching for all: signifying that they have all assented to it, coming to agreement on this matter. (Acts 15:22)

So, a Council is only necessary when the matter must be seriously debated, that is, when the matter is not apparently unorthodox (e.g. women priests). Otherwise, the direct magisterium (the Chair of Peter) can act on its own. As it did with the issue of female priests. However, the Eastern Orthodox, who have reduced the magisterium to Ecumenical Council alone, cannot act in this way and are vulnerable in 2 ways:

  1. They cannot judge things alien to the Depost of Faith (i.e., modern birth control, cloning, social justice issues). And
  2. They cannot produce universal agreement on matters within the Deposit of Faith (i.e., one bishop interprets Tradition this way, another that way. Whose position is correct?)

Yet 1 and 2 above are precisely the description of the Petrine ministry, a ministry established by Christ to guard and proclaim orthodox doctrine and to preserve unity in that truth -- the very things Eastern Orthodoxy lacks in its application of the Apostolic Faith.

More on the Pope here

Thanks to Mark Bonocore for the basis of this article.

Lord Jesus, let Your prayer of unity for Christians
become a reality, in Your way.
We have absolute confidence
that you can bring your people together,
we give you absolute permission to move.