This post begins a series addressing arguments against papal infallibility. The first of them is fairly easy to refute, but it is worth mentioning because of how common it is.
The argument goes like this: “The pope is a sinner, like everyone else, and so therefore can hardly claim to be infallible.”
Now, you will find this argument in more places than just Internet comboxes. You will find it among people who, you would think, should know better than to ever make it. Even Dr. John MacArthur has made this argument, though in a somewhat more sophisticated way:
John Paul II apologized for the historical failings of Catholics in a very vague way because when he was confronted with some of the issues of the past, some of the embarrassing things like forced conversion and anti-Semitism and some of the horrible things that were done, he apologized in a vague way. And you have to understand this. How can you apologize if you’re infallible? How can an infallible church apologize? But listen to what they believe. They do not believe that the church consists in the laity. The church does not consist in the laity. … The sins have been committed by the sons and daughters of the church who make up the laity. This is absolutely ridiculous given the sexual perversion of the priesthood.
What Dr. MacArthur is saying here is that the Church teaches that the laity can sin, but not priests—and certainly not the pope. Infallibility means that the pope is without sin; but the laity, who are not infallible, can sin.
What happens, when a respected leader among Protestants says this kind of thing, is that the misinformation takes root and becomes more widespread than it deserves to.
There are two ways you can answer the error, apart from the obvious one of pointing out that, since even the pope goes to confession, the Church can hardly teach that he is like Mary, or Christ, and does not sin.
The first is to point to the actual texts in which the Church speaks about infallibility and thus show that she makes no claim about the sins of popes. Infallibility means something quite else. Here, for example, is the Catechism of the Catholic Church, §890.
It is [the] Magisterium’s task to preserve God’s people from deviations and defections and to guarantee them the objective possibility of professing the true faith without error. Thus, the pastoral duty of the Magisterium is aimed at seeing to it that the People of God abides in the truth that liberates. To fulfill this service, Christ endowed the Church’s shepherds with the charism of infallibility in matters of faith and morals.
So the teaching here is not that the pope will not do bad things, but that he will not teach false things. The point of all this is for Catholics to know the truth, not for them to have leaders who do not sin.
Nor does Pastor Aeternus make any mention of a sinless pope. PA is the Vatican I document that first defined the dogma of papal infallibility. Here is what it says:
We teach and define that it is a divinely-revealed dogma: that the Roman Pontiff, when he speaks ex Cathedra, that is, when in discharge of the office of Pastor and Teacher of all Christians, by virtue of his supreme Apostolic authority, he defines a doctrine regarding faith or morals to be held by the Universal Church, by the divine assistance promised to him in blessed Peter, is possessed of that infallibility with which the divine Redeemer willed that His Church should be endowed for defining doctrine regarding faith or morals: and that therefore such definitions of the Roman Pontiff are irreformable of themselves, and not from the consent of the Church.
The pope, says Vatican I, is infallible when he defines doctrine. It does not say that the pope will be without sin.
So all this is one response that you can make to this bit of anti-Catholic lore. A second is to employ the Socratic method against it. You might ask questions such as these ones.
- Was Paul a sinner?
- Are his epistles infallible?
- Since the answer to both questions is “yes,” why do you think that infallibility implies sinlessness?
A line of inquiry like that has a double usefulness. Perhaps someone will concede that the Church makes no claim the pope is without sin, but will still want to argue that, since sin makes us stupid, the pope’s reason has been so corrupted that infallibility is thereby impossible.
The problem with that line of reasoning, however, is that a Protestant fully accepts that the Bible is infallible, though it was written by sinners. If Paul was the “chief of sinners,” that would mean he was the chief of stupid people. But Romans is still infallible. Galatians is still infallible. If the Holy Spirit could ensure that the authors of Scripture made no errors, how is it that the Holy Spirit cannot ensure that the pope makes no errors when defining doctrine to be held by the Church?
Now, none of this proves that papal infallibility is true. But what it does do is force people who use Dr. MacArthur’s argument to abandon some of their myths. Bad claims are out there, and come back from time to time like flies that are in regular need of swatting. Better ones also exist, though, and must also be answered. And those I will turn to in my next couple of posts.