He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter said in reply, “You are the Messiah,
the Son of the living God.” Jesus said to him in reply, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah. For
flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father. And so I say to you, you are
Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail
against it. I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound
in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”
Matthew 16, 16-19
In Roman Catholic theology, papal infallibility is the doctrine that the pope, acting as the supreme leader or shepherd under extraordinary circumstances, cannot err when he teaches matters in faith and morals. This doctrine is based on the belief that Jesus entrusted his Church with a teaching mission whose mandate required that it remain faithful to Christ’s teaching under the guidance of the Holy Spirit who guarantees that what the Church teaches is always absolutely true and can be accepted with absolute certainty without any shadow of a doubt. The charism of papal infallibility ensures that the Church teaches only that which Christ has taught without the least taint of adulteration in his teachings. Meanwhile, this doctrine is related to but distinguished from the concept of the Church’s indefectibility, viz., the doctrine that the grace Jesus has promised his Church assures its preservation of the faith until our Lord returns in glory at the end of time.
The definition of the First Vatican Council (1869-70) states the conditions under which the pope has spoken infallibly or ex-cathedra (“from his chair” of supreme teacher): 1. “The Roman pontiff speaks;” 2. “he speaks ex-cathedra;” 3. “defines the following;” 4. “that doctrine concerning faith and morals;” 5. “must be held by the whole Church.” We have one instance of a pope speaking ex-cathedra and with infallibility in the Apostolic Constitution, Benedictus Deus, of Pope Benedict Xll in A.D. 1336.
1 (The Roman Pontiff speaks)
“The Apostolic Constitution, Benedictus Deus, of Pope Benedict Xll”
2 (Speaks ex-cathedra)
“with apostolic authority”
3 (We pronounce, declare, and define)
“define the following”
4 (That doctrine concerning faith and morals)
Pope Benedict declares ex-cathedra that each soul will be particularly judged immediately after death
according to his or her deeds before the general day of judgment.
5 (Must be held by the whole church)
“which is to remain in force forever”
Thus, with the definition of the First Vatican Council, it is more accurate to say that papal infallibility is a “dogma” of the Catholic Church which states, in virtue of Jesus’ promise to Peter, the Pope, when appealing to his universal primacy of authority (Extraordinary Magisterium) as the supreme leader or as the head shepherd, is preserved or safeguarded by the Holy Spirit from the possibility of committing an error of doctrine first given to the apostolic church and handed down in the deposit of faith: Scripture and Tradition.
The pope isn’t only the visible head of the Church but also the head of the episcopal college. When Jesus founded the Twelve, “he constituted them in the form of a college or permanent assembly, at the head of which he placed Peter, chosen from among them.” Just as Peter and the Apostles constitute a single apostolic college, likewise the Roman Pontiff (Peter’s apostolic successor) and the bishops in the entire world (successors of the rest of the apostles) are associated with each other in a bond of unity (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 880). Jesus made Simon, whom he would name Peter, alone the “rock” of his Church. He gave Peter the “keys” of his Church and established him as shepherd of the entire flock. The office of “binding and loosing” was given to Peter and was also assigned to the college of apostles united to its head (CCC, 881).
Bishop Vincent Ferrier Gassier explains the importance of this prerogative that our Lord conferred on Peter. “The purpose of this prerogative is the preservation of truth in the Church. The special exercise of this prerogative occurs when there arise somewhere in the Church scandals against the faith, i.e., dissensions and heresies that the bishops of the individual churches or even gathered together in the provincial council are unable to repress so that they are forced to appeal to the Apostolic See (in Rome) regarding the case, or even the bishops themselves are infected by the sad strain of error” (The Gift of Infallibility: Ignatius Press, 2008). This pastoral office of Peter and the other apostles belongs to the Church’s very foundation and is continued by the bishops who are united to the pope under his universal primacy of authority.
The bishop of Rome who is the pope in a universal capacity as Peter’s successor in the divine office “is the perpetual and visible source and foundation of the unity both of the bishops and of the whole company of the faithful” (CCC, 882). The Roman Pontiff, by reason of being the Vicar of Christ, and as pastor of the entire Church, has “full, supreme, and universal power over the whole Church, a power which he can always exercise unhindered” (CCC, 883). Thus, the college of bishops has no authority or power to teach with infallibility unless it is united with the pope since he has succeeded Peter as head of the entire Church. As such, the college has “supreme and full authority over the universal Church; but this power cannot be exercised without the agreement of the Roman Pontiff.” The college of bishops exercises its authority in a formal and solemn manner in an ecumenical council. But “there never is an ecumenical council which is not confirmed or at least recognized as such by Peter’s successor” (CCC, 884). On the occasion of an ecumenical council in which we have the college of bishops defining matters of faith and morals in union with the pope, there is the exercise of what we call the Universal Magisterium.
Since the Roman Pontiff is believed to be graced with the charism of infallibility in virtue of being the apostolic successor of Peter, we must turn to the New Testament to see whether Jesus had, in fact, established the apostle as the visible head of the Church and bestowed on him the gift of infallibility. To make this determination, we must examine the meaning of the words “rock” and “keys” and the power to “bind and loose” while, in the meantime, uncovering the ancient Jewish roots of Peter’s unique office that lends it credibility and establishes its validity.
Scriptural support for the pre-eminence of Peter in the nascent church and his unique role as head shepherd is found in the fact that his name is mentioned no less than 191 times in the New Testament. Next in line is the beloved disciple John who is mentioned 48 times. If this isn’t strong enough evidence, however, we can turn to the list of the apostles in the Gospel of Matthew to support the Church’s tradition. We read in Chapter 2, Verse 1: “The names of the twelve apostles are these: First, Simon called Peter,” The Greek word for “First” that describes Peter is protos (πρῶτος). Methodist theologian and professor James H. Strong defines the word “before, principal, most important” (Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible: Hendrickson, 2009. Entry 4413. Protos). In other words, among the apostles, Peter is “first and foremost” or “primary first.” Peter’s description as being “first” is not “an arbitrary numerical detail” or a “chronological indicator” of when Peter became an apostle. We see in John 1:41 that Peter’s brother Andrew was the first one chosen by Jesus to be an apostle of his. Peter’s name appears first in the list of apostles because he is the “primary” apostle within the entire college (John Salza, The Biblical Basis for the Papacy: Our Sunday Visitor Publishing Division, 2007).
Other New Testament writers use protos to describe the pre-eminence of individuals. Luke uses protos to describe Publius as “the chief (protos) man on the island” (Acts 28:7). He was the chief magistrate of the island of Melita and a man of authority. Paul also describes himself as a sinner “of whom I am the chief (protos). Other translations have Paul humbly describe himself as the “foremost” sinner (1 Tim 1:15). In the Septuagint (Old Testament), protos is also used as a title of pre-eminence. The sacred author describes the “chief (protos) singers appointed, to praise with canticles, and give thanks to God” (2 Ezdra 12:45; 2 Neh in the RSV-CE). So, Peter is described as “the first” of the apostles because he is the “chief” or “foremost” among them. He holds a pre-eminent place in the apostolic college (The Biblical Basis for the Papacy).
This fact becomes more obvious by seeing how Jesus and Peter relate to each other while they are together during our Lord’s three-year public ministry. Let’s examine some examples in the Gospels. To begin, Peter is the first apostle to profess the divinity of Christ. Jesus tells him that he has received this divine knowledge by a special revelation from God the Father (Mt 16:16-17). As we have noted, Jesus builds his Church only on Peter, the rock, with the other apostles as the foundation and Jesus as the cornerstone or head (Mt 16:18). And the keys which represent authority over the entire Church (clergy and laity) are given only to Peter (Mt 16:19). Further, a tax collector approaches Peter for Jesus’ tax payment because he must be aware that the apostle is our Lord’s spokesperson (Mt 17:24-25). This incident illustrates what Catholics mean about the pope being the vicar of Christ. He speaks for Christ, and our Lord speaks through him, on the occasion of making a declaration ex-cathedra. In fact, Jesus pays the half-shekel tax with one shekel for both himself and Peter (Mt 17:26-27) since he is our Lord’s representative on earth.
We have an example of Peter assuming a leadership role among the apostles when he asks Jesus to explain the rules of forgiveness for all to understand (Mt 18:21). He actually speaks on behalf of all the apostles, besides himself, when he assures Jesus that they have left everything to follow him (Mt 19:27; cf. Mk 10:8). In the Garden of Gethsemane, at the start of our Lord’s passion, Peter and the apostles are sound asleep while Jesus is praying. But our Lord asks no one else but Peter why he was sleeping at this hour. This is because Peter is accountable to Jesus in a special way above the rest of the apostles. Since he has been appointed as their leader, he should be awake or alert and set a good example to the others (Mk 14:37).
In the Gospel of John, at the Last Supper, Jesus chooses to wash the feet of Peter to set an example of what it takes for him to be the servant of servants (Jn 13: 6-9). Peter could have washed the feet of the other apostles in emulation of our Lord who “did not come to be served but to serve” (Mt 20:28) though it isn’t recorded. Indeed, Jesus asks Peter in front of the apostles whether he loves him more than them (Jn 21:15). This is because he has been appointed the visible head of the apostolic see. His allegiance is first and foremost to Christ without any compromise. Soon before he leaves to return to the Father, Jesus charges Peter to “feed [his] lambs” and “feed [his] sheep” (Jn 21:15-17). These lambs or sheep mean all people including the apostles. Our first pope is charged with the primary responsibility of tending to the faith of both the clergy and the laity in a universal capacity.
Peter’s unique position as “the first” of the apostles is clearly spelled out in Matthew 16:13-19. Simon Peter’s supernatural ability to intuit divine knowledge from God (a fundamental Christological truth) and communicate it without error to the apostles who are present illustrates what the Catholic Church understands about the concept of papal infallibility. The pope isn’t infallible by nature but by the operation of the Holy Spirit who guides his thoughts. As soon as Simon pronounces the first papal infallible decree in Church history, Jesus changes his name to Peter, in Greek Petros. The name ‘Cephas’ (also spelled Kepha) is a Greek transliteration of the Aramaic word “rock” (See Jn 1:42; 1 Cor 1:12; 3:22; 9:5; 15:5; Gal 2:9).
The Greek text is a translation of Jesus’ words, which were actually spoken in Aramaic. Aramaic only had one word for rock, kepha which explains why Peter is often called Cephas in the Bible. The word kepha in Aramaic means “huge rock.” The Aramaic word for “little stone” is evna and Peter isn’t called “Evna.” In Aramaic, Jesus said, “You are Peter (Kepha) and upon this rock (kepha) I will build my Church.” The metaphor works well in Aramaic where nouns are neither feminine nor masculine, but in NT Koine Greek, the noun “rock” is feminine and thus an unsuitable name for Peter. This is why the Aramaic word kepha has been translated to the masculine name Petros when it refers to Peter, and to the feminine noun petra when it refers to the rock (The Biblical Basis for the Papacy).
D. A. Carson explains: “… the words petros and petra were synonyms in first-century Greek. They meant “small stone” and “large rock” in some ancient Greek poetry, centuries before the time of Christ, but that distinction had disappeared from the language by the time Matthew’s Gospel was rendered in Greek. The difference in meaning can only be found in Attic Greek, but the New Testament was written in Koine Greek—an entirely different dialect. In Koine Greek, both petros and petra simply meant “rock.” If Jesus had wanted to call Simon a small stone, the Greek lithos would have been used” ( The Expositor’s Bible Commentary [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1984], Frank E. Gaebelein, ed., 8:368).
In the kingdom of David, the king who ascended to the throne delegated his royal authority to a chief steward who would rule and govern in his absence. The king would formally invest his chief steward with this authority by presenting him with the keys to the kingdom. As the keeper of the keys, the chief steward (vizier or vicar) was said to be “over the house” of the king, viz., the house of David. He would be second only to the king and would have plenary power over the palace and the authority to pass judgments over the king’s subjects. Jesus came into the world to restore the kingdom of David to a new dimension, so like his royal ancestors on the throne of David, he presented his chief steward or vicar with the keys to a visible kingdom, namely the Church. He appointed Peter over “the house of God” (cf. 2 Cor 5:1; 1 Tim 3:15; 1 Pet 4:15) who would rule and govern God’s household in the king’s absence after his ascension into heaven.
The Hebrew Scriptures mention “keys” only once, and that is in the context of the authority of the Davidic king’s chief steward. Around 715 B.C., Hezekiah was the king of the Southern Kingdom, and Shebna was his chief steward or vice-regent. God reveals through the prophet Isaiah that He will remove Shebna from his office and replace him with Eliakim, to whom he will give the “key to the house of David.”
This is what the Lord, the Lord Almighty, says:
Go, say to this steward,
to Shebna the palace administrator:
What are you doing here and who gave you permission
to cut out a grave for yourself here,
hewing your grave on the height
and chiseling your resting place in the rock?
“Beware, the Lord is about to take firm hold of you
and hurl you away, you mighty man.
He will roll you up tightly like a ball
and throw you into a large country.
There you will die
and there the chariots you were so proud of
will become a disgrace to your master’s house.
I will depose you from your office.
In that day I will summon my servant, Eliakim son of Hilkiah. I will clothe him with your robe and fasten your
sash around him and hand your authority over to him. He will be a father to those who live in Jerusalem and to
the people of Judah. I will place on his shoulder the key to the house of David; what he opens no one can shut,
and what he shuts no one can open. I will drive him like a peg into a firm place; he will become a seat of honor for
the house of his father.
Isaiah 22, 15-23
So, God gives Eliakim the key to the house of David which was previously held by Shebna. This office is transferrable by appointing successors. Having custody of the key to David’s kingdom, whatever Eliakim opens, no one will shut, and whatever he shuts, no one will open. In other words, his final judgment is indisputable and irrevocable since he represents the king in his absence and speaks for the king in accordance with his will. Eliakim will be known as a “father” to Israel in the exercise of his office. Just as God was directly involved in the administration of his kingdom in the Old Dispensation, so He is in charge of the administration of His kingdom in the New Dispensation.
That God should choose the reign of King Hezekiah to reveal the succession of the chief steward is significant.
The “great sign” John sees in heaven is that of the restoration of the Davidic Messianic kingdom in the person of the Blessed Virgin Mary herself giving birth to the Messiah King (Rev 12:1-5). The nativity of Christ is the fulfillment of all the Old Testament prophetic signs of the Restoration (cf. Micah 5:1-3). In ancient Judaic tradition, Hezekiah prefigured the Messiah more closely than the other Davidic kings had. In a Christian context, Hezekiah resembles Christ more closely than the others do. God decrees Hezekiah’s sickness unto death and then promises to raise him up or heal him on the third day.
In those days Hezekiah became ill and was at the point of death. The prophet Isaiah son of Amoz went to him and
said, “This is what the Lord says: Put your house in order, because you are going to die; you will not recover.”
Hezekiah turned his face to the wall and prayed to the Lord, “Remember, Lord, how I have walked before you
faithfully and with wholehearted devotion and have done what is good in your eyes.” And Hezekiah wept
bitterly. Before Isaiah had left the middle court, the word of the Lord came to him: “Go back and tell Hezekiah,
the ruler of my people, ‘This is what the Lord, the God of your father David, says: I have heard your prayer and
seen your tears; I will heal you. On the third day from now you will go up to the temple of the Lord.
2 Kings 20, 1-5
By raising Hezekiah on the third day, God makes him the most important Messianic figure among the kings who inherited David’s throne. Since the king prefigures the Messiah, his kingdom prefigures the kingdom of our Lord and King in the house of David. Just as Hezekiah had a succession of chief stewards, so, too, Jesus would also have a succession of chief stewards. Linus was the first successor to Peter in A.D. 67 (See 2 Tim 4:1). Just as Eliakim would be known as a “father” to Israel in the kingdom of Judah, so, too, Peter and his successors would be known as “holy fathers” in the new kingdom or house of Israel, which is the Church. Thus, we have a biblical precedent for the appointment of Peter as the steward or vicar of Jesus’ kingdom on earth. Now, let’s turn to the topic of binding and loosening.
As we have seen, just as Eliakim had the authority to “open and shut,” so, too, Peter is given the authority to “bind and loose.” Since this authority is derived from possessing the keys to the kingdom, Jesus confers this primacy of authority on Peter and not equally on the Twelve. John Salza explains what the terms binding and loosing mean in a Jewish context. “’Binding and loosing’ (Heb. asar ve-hittar) were common rabbinical terms used by the Jewish religious authorities of the day. These terms described their legislative and judicial authority to ‘forbid’ or ‘permit.’ This included rules of conduct (halakah) for God’s people, as well as issuing definitive interpretations of Scripture, oral tradition, and the whole of the Mosaic law. In short, the terms described the Pharisees’ authority over doctrinal and disciplinary matters” (The Biblical Basis for the Papacy).
We have an example of Peter exercising this authority in Acts 15, 12-17. At the general council in Jerusalem, he resolves the first doctrinal and disciplinary issue on whether the Gentiles should be circumcised after they have been baptized. None of the apostles in attendance question or dispute with Peter but remain silent. Only after Peter issues his statement, in the capacity of Christ’s chief steward or vicar on earth, do Paul and Barnabas (bishops) respond in support of Peter’s definitive declaration. Finally, James, who has presided over the council as Bishop of Jerusalem, gives his assent.
Further, in the time of Jesus, the scribes and Pharisees were successors of Moses and the appointed religious teachers of Israel. The “chair of Moses” Jesus refers to in Matthew 23:2-4 signified their authority to interpret and expound the Mosaic law. The chair was placed in the middle of a synagogue on which the official teacher of the Law would sit to read the Scriptures and address the congregation. The Jews based this tradition on Exodus 18, where God says, “And the next day, Moses sat to judge the people” (v. 13). Moses rendered God’s judgments from the chair he was sitting on. ‘And Moses answered him: “The people come to me to seek the judgment of God. And when any controversy (extraordinary circumstance) falls out among them, they come to me to judge between them, and to show the precepts of God, and His laws”’ (Vv. 15-16). The authority of Moses and the tradition of the chair were passed on through generations to Joshua, the judges or elders, the prophets, and finally to the Sanhedrin of Jesus’ time (The Biblical Basis for the Papacy). The chair stood for the divine office which presupposes there should be successors.
Jesus himself acknowledged the scribes and Pharisees to be legitimate successors to the chair of Moses, and taught with his authority, despite their personal shortcomings and imperfections. Our Lord told the apostles to observe “everything” (panta hosa) they said while sitting on the chair (Mt 23:5-7). And although Jesus harshly criticized them for abusing their divine authority and exercising it in pride and contempt towards the common Jew, notably the marginalized (Mt 23:5-7, 13), he acknowledged their authority to “bind” and “loose” and to “open” or “shut” in the kingdom of God in matters of faith and morals in accordance with the Torah.
Jesus uses terms familiar to the Jews when he addresses Peter. By this, he is inaugurating a new ruling and teaching authority in his Church. There is to be a transfer of power and authority of the teachers of the Law to the teachers of the Law of Christ (Gal 6:2). The New Covenant of grace and charity (agape) shall replace the Law of the Old Covenant with all its civil and ceremonial prescriptions under the curse of the law. As a result, the chair of Moses will be replaced by the chair of Peter. Not unlike Moses, Peter shall have the authority to “render the judgment of God” (Ex 18:15) and shall be the official interpreter of God’s word (See 2 Peter 3:16). Peter shall have the power Eliakim had to “open” what none can “shut” (Isa 22:22). And with the authority of the Sanhedrin of his time, Peter shall be able to “shut the kingdom of heaven against men who separate themselves from his teaching (Mt 23:13). Only Peter and his successors in the papacy have the plenary authority to excommunicate heretics and schismatics from the Church whether they be clergy or laity.
Hence, there is biblical and ancient traditional support for papal infallibility and the universal primacy of papal authority in the Church that Christ has established. What Peter binds on earth, heaven binds. What Peter loosens on earth, heaven loosens. Heaven’s reciprocal binding (estai dedemenon) and loosing (estai lelumenon) are in the passive voice. This could be translated as “shall be bound” or “shall having been bound” (The Biblical Basis for the Papacy). Heaven is receiving the binding and loosening from Peter and ratifying his decisions. At the same time, the Holy Spirit ensures that Peter makes the right decision in accordance with divine revelation. Just as God revealed to Peter a fundamental Christological truth of salvation, God will now confirm all of Peter’s official teachings on salvation, and so shall all his successors on the chair.
The future tense (“shall be bound”) indicates that heaven’s ratification of Peter’s decisions will have occurred at the time he has made them. Heaven will ratify what heaven has guided him to say through the Holy Spirit and not by any private judgment of his (flesh and blood) that would amount to an arbitrary theological opinion. “The Holy Spirit’s unique use of the future tense with the passive voice to describe heaven’s reciprocal binding and loosening underscores that Peter truly speaks for heaven just as he did when he confessed the divinity of Christ. Peter’s binding and loosening decisions are ordained by God” (The Biblical Basis for the Papacy).
The gift of papal infallibility basically means that God has protected Peter and protects all his successors who speak from his chair (ex-cathedra) from teaching error in matters of faith and morals. The Holy Spirit guarantees that what they have declared and taught is part of God’s revelation. Since Jesus has promised that the gates of hell shall not prevail against his Church and has promised to send the Holy Spirit to guide the Church in all truth (Jn 16:12-13; cf. 1 Tim 3:15) until his glorious return, papal teachings from the chair of Peter shall always be free from error. Any ex-cathedra pronouncement is definitive teaching on faith or morals and is intended to be infallible and be believed by the entire Church without question because of the seal of the Holy Spirit.
Early Sacred Tradition
“The church of God which sojourns at Rome to the church of God which sojourns
at Corinth … But if any disobey the words spoken by him through us, let them know
that they will involve themselves in transgression and in no small danger.”
St. (Pope) Clement of Rome
1st Epistle to the Corinthians, 1,59:1
(c. A.D. 96)
“And he says to him again after the resurrection, ‘Feed my sheep.’ It is on him that he
builds the Church, and to him that he entrusts the sheep to feed. 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 flock which is to be fed by all the
apostles in common accord. 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? This unity
firmly should we hold and maintain, especially we bishops, presiding in the Church,
in order that we may approve the episcopate itself to be the one and undivided.”
St. Cyprian of Carthage
The Unity of the Church, 4-5
“The reason for your absence was both honorable and imperative, that the
schismatic wolves might not rob and plunder by stealth nor the heretical dogs bark
madly in the rapid fury nor the very serpent, the devil, discharge his blasphemous
venom. So it seems to us right and altogether fitting that priests of the Lord from
each and every province should report to their head, that is, to the See of Peter, the
Council of Sardica, To [Pope] Julius
“You cannot deny that you know that in the city of Rome the Chair was first
conferred on Peter, in which the prince of all the Apostles, Peter, sat…in which Chair
unity should be preserved by all, so that he should now be a schismatic and a sinner
who should set up another Chair against that unique one.”
St. Optatus of Mileve
The Schism of Donatists, 2:2-3
(c. A.D. 367)
“Wherefore the most holy and blessed Leo, archbishop of the great and elder Rome,
through us, and through this present most holy synod together with the thrice
blessed and all-glorious Peter the Apostle, who is the rock and foundation of the
Catholic Church, and the foundation of the orthodox faith, hath stripped
him of the episcopate, and hath alienated from him all hieratic worthiness. Therefore
let this most holy and great synod sentence the before mentioned Dioscorus to the
Council of Chalcedon, Session III (A.D. 451)
But I have prayed for thee, that thy faith fail not:
and thou, being once converted, confirm thy brethren.
Luke 22, 32