God’s Gag Reflex-Papal Infallibility

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Does the thought of God having a “gag reflex” sound irreverent? Don’t cry “blasphemy” just yet; all will be explained.

Let’s begin by establishing what the Church means by papal infallibility. It is pretty straight forward:  The pope is protected from teaching something that is false, WHEN a very specific set of criteria is met:

  1. He speaks as the Successor of Peter, Head of the Apostles
  2. upon a matter of faith or morals,
  3. with the intention of instructing the entire Church

So the Catholic Church is NOT claiming that the Pope:

  • is infallible when he reflects on the readings during a Sunday homily
  • speaks infallibly on matters of science, mathematics, economic policy, politics, etc.
  • will speak out when he should (cowardice could keep him from speaking at all)
  • will enunciate the truth as clearly as is possible
  • doesn’t sin (that would be impeccability, not infallibility; and the Church has NEVER claimed impeccability for the Pope.)

The Church’s ONLY claim regarding papal infallibility is that when three criteria are met, God will RESTRAIN the Pope from saying something FALSE. (Yeah, when I called it the “Divine Gag Reflex,” I was referring to a different kind of “gag” – the kind you stuff in a mouth.)  Infallibility is a completely negative gift; God will not allow the Pope to insert something false into the official body of Truth entrusted by Christ to the Church. God would “reflexively” act to stop such an attempt.

Where do we Catholics come up with this belief? Like everything else, we trace it back to Jesus. He made some pretty startling promises to those Apostles:

“He who hears you hears Me, and he who rejects you rejects Me” (Luke 10:16)
“[The Holy Spirit] 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” (John 14:26; 16:13)

Paul the Apostle, knowing Jesus’ teaching, and himself moved by the Holy Spirit, wrote of “the church of the living God, the pillar and bulwark of truth” (1 Timothy 3:15). WOW – Jesus’ intent was for the Church to be the place that the world could turn to hear the Truth, to get a reality check. And what measures did He, does He, take to guarantee this?

He called a fisherman named Simon, and after changing his name to Peter (Rock), Jesus told him, “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” (Matthew 16:19). The Jewish mind of the first century, hearing those words, would have immediately shot back to the Israelite monarchy. Jesus was adopting the terminology used to refer to the Master of the Palace, or vizier – what we today would call the “Prime Minister.” He was second in command after the king (2 Kings 18:18; 15:5), and as such held “the keys of the kingdom.” (Flip to Isaiah 22:21-23 and examine how Jesus made use of the same vocabulary in speaking to Simon-Peter.)

Jesus, in announcing the Kingdom of God, was announcing that all of the promises God had made to King David about an everlasting kingdom, were about to be fulfilled. Jesus, the descendant of David, was the long-awaited Messiah; and He was renewing Israel. Israel had begun with the 12 sons of Jacob – its renewal with the 12 Apostles of King (Christ) Jesus. And Peter was to be the Prime Minister, using the power of the keys to bind God’s people to Truth and the way of Love. It would be meaningless to speak of the authority of other ministers to bind and loose apart from their unity with Peter. Jesus’ purpose wasn’t to make Peter some type of dictator in regard to the other Apostles; in Christ’s Kingdom the greatest is meant to serve the rest. Part of Peter’s service, and that of the Popes who have succeeded him in office, is to speak the final word when matters are in dispute, thus maintaining the unity of the Church/Kingdom. This service is especially important when the ones arguing are fellow shepherds.

And so we have Jesus’ words to Peter,

“You are Rock, and on this rock I will build My Church; and the gates of hell 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” (Matt.16:17-19).

What is the power of hell? Deception. The devil deceives; that’s always been his modus operandi. To combat it Jesus gave Peter the keys – authority to speak out, definitively binding the Church to Truth and loosing it from deception.

Now, Jesus couldn’t have meant that Peter got to flip a coin, decide what was true, and God would magically rearrange spiritual and temporal realities to make it so. God isn’t manipulated! No, Peter is simply a minister in Another’s Kingdom. Peter speaks to the Church and world on behalf of the King (Who has ascended into Heaven). To use the power of the keys demands a reflexive action on God’s part – “gagging” Peter, preventing him in some way, if he ever attempted to teach something that was false. At the same time, when God allows Peter to teach the Church, He expects it to be adhered to. Ignore Peter? Well, remember what Jesus had said, “He who hears you hears Me, and he who rejects you rejects Me” (Luke 10:16). Whenever the pope speaks in his official capacity (remember the three criteria with which I started the article?) as Successor to Peter, Prime Minister of the Kingdom, the same is true.

Oh hey, I do recall Jesus talking about having a gag reflex – yes, a true, biological gag reflex. Many years after His resurrection He told the Apostle John to write a letter to the church in Laodicea, “I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! So, because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I am about to spit you out of my mouth” (Revelation 3:15-16). Stay on fire, my friends!

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