Mary Ann Collins
According to the official teaching of the Catholic Church, Catholic men and women are not allowed to believe what they read in the Bible without first checking it out with the Catholic Church. They are required to find out how the bishops of the Church interpret a passage and they are to accept what the bishops teach “with docility” as if it came from Jesus Christ Himself. They are not allowed to use their own judgment or follow their own conscience. They are required to believe whatever the bishops teach without questioning it.
The Catholic Church teaches that when the bishops officially teach doctrine relating to faith and morals, then God supernaturally prevents them from making any errors. This is called “infallibility”. It applies to official councils, such as the Second Vatican Council. It also applies to other teachings, as long as the bishops and the Pope are in agreement about them.
The Pope is said to be infallible whenever he makes an official decree on matters of faith and morals. According to Catholic doctrine, it is impossible for the Pope to teach false doctrine. Catholics are expected to obey the Pope without question even when he is not making an “infallible” statement about doctrine. They are expected to submit their wills and minds to the Pope without question.
The Early Fathers, and the theologians and canon lawyers of the Middle Ages, never taught that the bishops or the Pope were infallible. This is demonstrated by the fact that in 680 A.D. the Sixth Ecumenical Council condemned a pope as a heretic. It was not until the fourteenth century that the theory of infallibility began to emerge. With the development of this theory came a change in the interpretation of some biblical passages.
The history of the early Church shows that the Bishop of Rome was considered to be just another bishop. For example, Pope Gregory (590-604 A.D.) explicitly stated that all of the bishops were equal. He specifically repudiated the idea that any one bishop could be the supreme ruler of the Church.
The claim for papal infallibility does not stand up to the test of history. For example, Pope Zosimus (417-418 A.D.) reversed the pronouncement of a previous pope. He also retracted a doctrinal pronouncement that he himself had previously made. Pope Honorious was condemned as a heretic by the Sixth Ecumenical Council (680-681 A.D.). He was also condemned as a heretic by Pope Leo II, as well as by every other pope until the eleventh century. So here we have “infallible” popes condemning another “infallible” pope as a heretic. In 1870, the First Vatican Council abolished “infallible” papal decrees and the decrees of two “infallible” councils.
The doctrine of Assumption of Mary was officially declared to be a dogma of the Roman Catholic faith in 1950. This means that every Roman Catholic is required to believe this doctrine without questioning it. However, as we will see, the teaching of the Assumption originated with heretical writings which were officially condemned by the early Church.
In 495 A.D., Pope Gelasius issued a decree which rejected this teaching as heresy and its proponents as heretics. In the sixth century, Pope Hormisdas also condemned as heretics those authors who taught the doctrine of the Assumption of Mary. The early Church clearly considered the doctrine of the Assumption of Mary to be a heresy worthy of condemnation. Here we have “infallible” popes declaring something to be a heresy. Then in 1950, Pope Pius XII, another “infallible” pope, declared it to be official Roman Catholic doctrine.
The doctrine of papal infallibility is based upon Matthew 16:18 in which Jesus tells Peter, “And I say unto thee, That thou are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” A huge doctrine with immense historical consequences has been built upon one short verse. The question is, does the rock on which the church is built represent Peter or does it represent Jesus?
Peter himself answers this question when he says that Jesus is a living stone (1 Peter 2:4). (This is a Messianic prophecy which Peter quotes from Isaiah 28:16.) The Apostle Paul says that Jesus Christ is our spiritual Rock (1 Corinthians 10:4). In Romans 9:31-33, Paul says that Jesus was a rock of offense for the Israelites who were trying to be saved by works of the law instead of by faith.
In the New Testament there are three words for “stone”. “Lithos” means a stone like a mill stone or a stumbling stone. The other two words are “petra” and “petros”. “Vine’s Expository Dictionary” says, “‘Petra’ [Strong’s number 4073] denotes ‘a mass of rock,’ as distinct from ‘petros,’ [Strong’s number 4074], ‘a detached stone or boulder,’ or a stone that might be thrown or easily moved.”
In Matthew 16:18, the word for Peter is “petros,” a detached stone that can easily be moved. The word for the rock on which the church is built is “petra,” a mass of rock. Other examples of the use of “petra” show what a huge mass of rock is meant by the word. They include the man who built his house on rock, as opposed to sand (Matthew 7:24-27) and the tomb where Jesus’ body was put, which was carved out of a rock (Matthew 27:60).
Debating the fine points of a language that most of us don’t understand (Greek) is not the only way to approach this problem.
The Bible commends the people of Berea because they “searched the Scriptures daily” in order to “see whether these things were so”. (Acts 17:10-11) God wants His people to check everything against Scripture.
In the days of the Apostle Paul, the Scriptures consisted of the Old Testament. The New Testament was in the process of being written (Paul and other apostles were writing letters and Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were writing the Gospels). Paul’s epistles constitute about one-fourth of the New Testament. These are Scriptures that we study, and that theologians analyze. Paul was one of the leading theologians of his time. In addition, he had been to the Third Heaven where he had seen mysteries that he was not allowed to tell us about. (2 Corinthians 12:2-4) But the Bible does not criticize the Bereans for questioning what the Apostle Paul taught them. Rather, it commends them for checking it out for themselves by comparing his teaching with Scripture.
1 Thessalonians 5:21 says, “Prove all things; hold fast that which is good.” (According to “Strong’s Concordance,” the word “prove” means “to test”.) God requires that every man and woman test all things for themselves.
However, the Catholic Church teaches that only the Magisterium of the Church (the Pope and the bishops in communion with him) has the right to interpret Scripture. People like you and I (and the Bereans) are not allowed to interpret Scripture for themselves.
Where does the Catholic approach leave Christian prisoners in countries where there is persecution? All they have to go on is prayer and their memory of Scripture. They can’t read a Bible. They can’t consult with a priest or bishop. They are often doing well if they get to see any Christians at all. Would God set up a system that doesn’t take care of His most faithful followers, those who are willing to pay the highest price for serving Him?
Catholicism teaches that Christians are supposed to “receive with docility” any directives given to them by Church authorities. According to Webster’s Dictionary, “docile” means “disposed to be taught; tractable; as, a docile child”. The word “tractable” means “capable of being easily led, taught, or controlled; docile.”
That doesn’t sound like Berean men who are studying the Scriptures to see whether or not what the Apostle Paul taught them is Biblical. Rather, it sounds like a young child who accepts without question whatever his parents tell him. In fact, I believe that is precisely what Jesus warned us against when He told us to “Call no man father”. (Matthew 23:9)
On December 8, 1854, Pope Pius IX declared the dogma of the Immaculate Conception of Mary. The Pope said that if anybody “dares” to even think anything contrary to this dogma, then that disagreement will shipwreck their faith, cut them off from the Church, and make them become “condemned”. And if anybody in any way outwardly expresses their disagreement, then they are subject to “penalties established by law.”
Did Jesus treat people like this for disagreeing in their hearts with something which He or the Apostles told them? With amazing patience He kept on teaching the crowds of people, healing the sick and demonstrating the love and the power of God. When His disciples didn’t understand His teachings, He explained them. (Luke 8:5-15) When the rich young man turned away from Jesus, He didn’t rebuke him or threaten him. He let him go. (Matthew 19:16-22) In John 6:48-68, Jesus gave a teaching that was difficult for people. Many of His disciples left him and no longer followed Him. He asked the Twelve, “Will ye also go away?” (Verse 67) He didn’t threaten them or rebuke them. He didn’t try to force them to believe what He taught them. He left them free to believe or not believe, to stay or to leave.
Now if Jesus didn’t demand that people believe His teachings about morals and doctrine, then how can anybody else validly do it? Nobody else has the purity of doctrine, or the purity of heart, that Jesus did.
There was one occasion when James and John wanted to call down fire on some Samaritans who wouldn’t listen to them. Jesus rebuked them saying, “You know not what manner of spirit ye are of.” (Luke 9:55-56; see Luke 9:51-56.)
Look at how Jesus responded to “doubting Thomas”. All of the Apostles except Thomas had seen Jesus after the Resurrection. Jesus had repeatedly told his Disciples that He would be crucified and then resurrected on the third day. In spite of all that, Thomas said that he wouldn’t believe unless he put his finger into the holes from the nails, and put his hand into the wound in Jesus’ side. When Jesus appeared again, did He rebuke Thomas? No. Did Jesus call down curses and anathemas on Thomas for not believing what the Apostles had said? No. He invited Thomas to put his finger into the nail holes and to put his hand into the wound in Jesus’ side. In other words, he invited Thomas to check it out for himself. (See John 20:24-29)
Look at a theological confrontation that occurs in Galatians 2:11-16. Peter made a decision that was theologically incorrect. Paul publicly scolded Peter “to his face” for it, and then he wrote to the Galatian church about it. We have no record that Paul was rebuked for this. He certainly wasn’t embarrassed by it because he used the incident as a teaching illustration in his Epistle to the Galatians.
According to the Catholic Church, Peter was the first pope. How does Peter address people? Does he demand that they believe what he says? Read the two epistles of Peter. (They are short.) In 1 Peter, he identifies himself as “Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 1:1). In 2 Peter, he identifies himself as “Simon Peter, a servant and an apostle of Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 1:1). He does not set himself apart as being in a higher position of authority than the other apostles.
It is Peter who tells us that all Christians are “a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people”. (1 Peter 2:9) He tells us,”Ye also, as lively stones, are built up a spiritual house, an holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices, acceptable to God by Jesus Christ.” (1 Peter 2:5) Peter (supposedly the first pope) says that every Christian man and woman is a priest, and that our spiritual sacrifices can be acceptable to God.
DANGERS OF INFALLIBILITY
When the Disciples asked Jesus what the signs of the End Times would be, the first thing that He said was, “Take heed that no man deceive you.” (Matthew 24:4) The main sign of the End Times is deception.
If every Christian reads the Bible and checks things out against Scripture (like the Bereans did), then the devil and his demon cohorts will have a tough job deceiving each of the Christians individually.
However, if Roman Catholics are required to accept whatever the Pope says “with docility” (like a trusting, unquestioning child), then the devil’s job is much easier. If he can just deceive the Pope to the point where he declares an error to be doctrine, then the devil has successfully deceived everybody who is under the Pope’s authority.
The Apostle Peter was so deceived by the devil that Jesus rebuked him saying, “Get thee behind me, Satan: thou art an offense unto me; for thou savourest not the things that be of God, but those that be of men.” (Matthew 16:23, Mark 8:33, Luke 4:8) The devil successfully deceived Peter concerning an important matter of faith (the death and resurrection of Jesus, as prophesied by Jesus Himself). So how can the popes (who claim to be the successors of Peter) say that the devil is incapable of deceiving them?
Even without claims of infallibility, Christians become vulnerable if any one man has too widespread an influence. If that man is persuasive, and if the devil succeeds in deceiving him, then that man will pass his deception on to his followers.
As Lord Acton said, “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” When you give any one man (the Pope) or group of men (the Magisterium) the power to define what people are required to believe in order to be able to go to Heaven, then you invite abuses of power.
History is full of examples of this abuse of power. Paul Johnson is a devout Catholic and a historian. His book A History of Christianity shows many examples of abuses of power.
I realize that there have been scandals in many Christian denominations throughout Church history. Jesus warned us about wolves in sheep’s clothing. (Matthew 7:15) Therefore, we should not be shocked when we discover some of them.
In Matthew 7:15, Jesus is talking about false prophets. Prophets are people who claim to speak for God. That is precisely what the Pope does. He claims to be the vicar (representative) of Christ. The Magisterium also claims to speak for Christ. The “Catechism of the Catholic Church” says that whoever listens to the Pope and the bishops (the Magisterium) is actually listening to Christ.
There have been tares among the wheat, and wolves among the sheep, throughout Church history. No denomination has been perfect. However, only the Catholic Church claims to be infallible. That claim makes wolves in sheep’s clothing far more dangerous because of the power that it gives them over the minds (and therefore the lives) of other people.
Jesus promised us that the gates of hell will not prevail against His Church. That requires the supernatural intervention of God. According to the Bible, God has done this by sending us the Holy Spirit to teach us and to guide us. 2 Timothy 3:16 says that Scripture is the key to sound doctrine and instruction in righteousness.
According to the Catholic Church, God has miraculously protected the popes from making errors when they make pronouncements about faith or morals. This idea has a natural appeal. We would all like to have magical protection from error. Also, it is nice to be able to be passive spectators, receiving “with docility” whatever our superiors give us, without having to face the responsibility of checking it out for ourselves. But attractive or not, this idea is not supported by Scripture or by Church history.
What is our source of authority? God. He reveals Himself and His ways in the Bible, which He has given us for instruction in doctrine and in how to live a Godly life. (2 Timothy 3:16) And He has sent the Holy Spirit to enable us to understand Scripture, and to “guide us into all truth.” (John 16:13)
USE OF THIS ARTICLE
I encourage you to link to this article. You have permission to quote from this article, as long as you do it fairly and accurately. You have permission to make copies of this article for friends and for use in classes.
1. Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraphs 85, 87, 100, 862, 891, 939, 2034, 2037, 2041, and 2050. The Catechism is published in a variety of editions and translations. Because the paragraphs are numbered, information can be accurately located in any edition.
2. Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraphs 890, 891, 939, 2033, 2034, and 2049.
3. Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraphs 892, 2037, and 2050.
4. William Webster, The Church of Rome at the Bar of History (Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1995), pp. 34-55.
5. William Webster, The Church of Rome at the Bar of History, pp. 63-71, op. cit.
6. William Webster, The Church of Rome at the Bar of History, pp. 81-85, op. cit.
7. Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraphs 85, 100, 891, and 2051.
8. Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraphs 87, 1310, and 2037.
9. Pope Pius IX, Ineffabilis Deus (Apostolic Constitution on the Immaculate Conception), December 8, 1854. Near the end of this encyclical there is a section called “The Definition.” The statements that I described are in the last paragraph of that section. If the link doesn’t work, then search for Ineffabilis Deus. (Accessed 10/1/08)
10. Paul Johnson, A History of Christianity, (New York: Touchstone, Simon & Schuster Publishing, 1995), pp. 67-124.(Paul Johnson is Catholic.)
11. Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraphs 87, 862, 891, and 2051.