The Papacy (Pope), St. Peter’s Weaknesses, and Papal Infallibility

“And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the powers of death 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.”  (Matthew 16:18-19)

John’s Gospel records a scene after the resurrection where Christ specifically commissioned St. Peter as shepherd in front of the other apostles.  “When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, ‘Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?’ He said to him, ‘Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.’ He said to him, ‘Feed my lambs.’ A second time he said to him, ‘Simon, son of John, do you love me?’ He said to him, ‘Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.’ He said to him, ‘Tend my sheep.’ He said to him the third time, ‘Simon, son of John, do you love me?’ Peter was grieved because he said to him the third time, ‘Do you love me?’ And he said to him, ‘Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Feed my sheep.  Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were young, you girded yourself and walked where you would; but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will gird you and carry you where you do not wish to go.’ (This he said to show by what death he was to glorify God.) And after this he said to him, ‘Follow me.’” (John 21:15-19)

From the Catholic perspective there is much to be learned from this passage.  One insight is to understand limitations of the English language can allow us to miss a significant point.  The first two times Christ asks Peter if he loves him, the word Christ uses is agape –love which is self-sacrificial and would be willing to lay down one’s life for another.  When Peter responds yes, he does love Christ, the word he uses is phileo – brotherly love.  The third time Christ asks Peter if he loves him, he meets Peter where he is and uses the word phileo.  Why does Peter not respond that the love he has for Christ is agape love?  I think it’s because he knows he does not yet possess agape love as Christ does.  Christ was willing to lay down his life for others.  When confronted with probable personal harm, Peter instead denied Christ.

There is a definite parallel between this post-resurrection scene and Peter’s denial of Christ.  Both occur around a charcoal fire (John 21:9, John 18:18).  When confronted, Peter denies Christ three times.  Christ allows Peter to affirm his love for him three times.  Peter is greatly grieved by this exchange with Christ, just as he wept bitterly after he denied Christ (Luke 22:62).  But in foretelling Peter’s death would glorify God, Christ lets us know Peter’s love indeed would grow to become agape.  As Catholics of course we know Peter himself was crucified in Rome, although he requested to be crucified upside down because he believed he was not worthy to die as Christ did.

Catholics also view this exchange between Christ and Peter in the presence of the other apostles shows his role as chief shepherd of the Church.  Protestants will often deny that.  One such view is expressed this way – “To suggest this proves Peter is a pope is short sighted.  Jesus was reversing, by ceremony, the three denials of Peter with three confessions of faith.  Three times Peter denied the Lord, and three time Peter was asked to proclaim his love for the Lord.  The emphasis was not on Peter ‘leading the church as a pope’ being promoted to ‘top position’ but rather accepting him back from the realm of condemnation into the common fold of the apostles who had not denied the Lord.  Peter was told to be a shepherd of the sheep not a pope.”

The problem of course with the view this was accepting Peter back into the common fold of the apostles who had not denied Christ is with the exception of John, they all denied Christ because they all abandoned him.  Christ predicts this will happen at the Last Supper when he tells them – “You will all fall away because of me this night; for it is written, ‘I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be scattered’” (Matthew 26:31).  This is when Peter assures Christ he will never fall away, and Christ tells him indeed he will deny him, before the cock crows three times.  We then see when Christ is arrested all of the apostles “forsook him and fled” (Matthew 26:56).  Peter at least followed along behind Christ, which is why he is placed in a position to deny Christ with his words, not just his actions as the others had.  To have the view expressed above that Peter alone had denied Christ is not a correct one. 

This is not the first encounter Peter had with Christ after the resurrection.  We’re told Christ met with Peter alone before he ever saw the rest of the apostles (Luke 24:34, 1 Corinthians 15:5).  We are not privileged to know the exchange in that meeting, but it would be hard to convince me there was still need for reconciliation between the two to occur after their initial encounter.  The exchange we’re given in John’s Gospel seems to be a public one for the benefit of the others, and to indeed confirm Peter’s role as the chief shepherd among the apostles. We never see Christ’s reconcilation with the other apostles at all, although we can be certain it occured with each of them. But only Peter’s was public and recorded in Scripture for the benefit of all.

We of course see other times in Scripture when Peter has moral failings.  Immediately after Christ pronounces Peter is the rock on which he will build his Church and tells him he will give him the keys to the kingdom (Matthew 16:18-19), Christ tells the apostles he will be killed in Jerusalem.  Peter’s response is “God forbid, Lord!  This shall never happen to you.”  Christ in turns says to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan!  You are a hindrance to me; for you are not on the side of God, but of men.”  (Matthew 16:22-23) We see while Peter is bold and follows Christ onto the water, he also quickly loses faith and begins to sink and Jesus has to save him, telling him “O man of little faith, why did you doubt?”  (Matthew 14:31). 

And in Galatians 2:11-14 we see St. Paul publicly rebuke Peter because even though Peter himself made the decision to bring the Gentiles into the Church without requiring them to be circumcised (Acts 10), when men were sent from James who was leading the “circumcision party,” out of fear Peter stopped eating with the Gentile converts. 

All of these situations in Scripture that point to Peter’s weaknesses are often given as proof Catholics are wrong when we claim the Pope to be “infallible” in matters of faith and morals.  The standard mantra is no man can ever be infallible, and Peter’s errors recorded in Scripture are proof.  From the Catholic perspective, Scripture records Peter’s failings while rarely mentioning the others precisely because his position of leadership makes them more problematic. It also sets realistic expectations for us about those who will lead us.  They will indeed have moral failings. 

Also from the Catholic perspective, part of the problem is the failure to recognize the difference between infallibility and impeccability.  To be impeccable would be to free of all flaws, and that claim has never been made about any pope, to include St. Peter.  Catholics do not believe the pope cannot sin or have personal flaws.  It was well known Pope St. John Paul II went to confession weekly.  Popes are not free from correction; it is expected especially their fellow bishops take on that role when needed, just as St. Paul did with St. Peter.  One well known example in history is when St. Catherine of Sienna reproves Pope Gregory XI in the fourteenth century and ultimately persuaded him to return the papacy to Rome after being in Avignon for 68 years.  It is said she used an “intolerably dictatorial tone” with the Pope.  We’ve had 266 popes in the last 2000 years but only 37 people have been honored with the title “doctor of the Church,” one of whom is St. Catherine of Sienna. 

The other part of the problem is people often don’t understand when we say the Pope is “infallible” in defining “faith and morals,” that in no way means every word spoken by the Pope on these topics qualifies.  The charism of infallibility has been defined to have a very narrow scope, and also encompasses the collective of bishops along with the Pope.  People can tend to want to comb through every word of a pope, spoken or written, both before and after he became Pope to try to find errors to prove the Catholic teaching on this is wrong.  They do not realize these “findings” are not applicable to the teaching on infallibility because they are outside of its limited scope. 

Catholic teaching can be divided into three categories.  There is that which has been defined infallibly, that which is defined authoritatively, and then there is theological opinion.  Faithful Catholics are to accept and believe all that has been defined infallibly and authoritatively. 

Infallible doctrines become so because there is a solemn doctrinal definition of an ecumenical council, or by an ex-cathedra (from the “chair”) proclamation of the Pope.  Such pronouncements from the Pope are rare, deliberate, and are certainly not done randomly or in a silo as is often thought.  For example, prior to declaring the Immaculate Conception of Mary as infallible dogma in 1854, Pope Pius IX had overwhelming support of the bishops he consulted between 1851 and 1853.  Prior to Pope Pius XII infallibly declaring the Assumption of Mary as dogma in 1950 we see this — “In the hundred years before Pope Pius’s declaration, the pope had received petitions from 113 cardinals, 250 bishops, 32,000 priests and religious brothers, 50,000 religious women, and eight million lay people, all requesting that the Assumption be recognized officially as Catholic teaching.  Apparently, the pope discerned that the Holy Spirit was speaking through the people of God on this matter.”  (From Alan Schreck’s book “Catholic and Christian”)

A papal encyclical or the Catechism of the Catholic Church would be examples of authoritative, but not necessarily infallible teachings.  Of course the Catechism includes the teachings that have been infallibly defined, but in its entirety is considered to be a work of the “Ordinary” Magisterium and therefore is authoritative but not infallible. 

Does it really matter if a teaching has been defined infallibly or authoritatively?  Sometimes people like to make that case (I don’t have to follow this teaching because it’s not been infallibly defined).  That would not be consistent with how Catholics understand we are to live and practice our faith.  In the application to our lives, there is no difference between the two. 

What is important however is to be able to distinguish theological opinion from the other two.  Pope Benedict’s book “Jesus of Nazareth” was released shortly after he became Pope.  In the foreword he wrote “It goes without saying that this book is in no way an exercise of the magisterium, but is soley an expression of my personal search ‘for the face of the Lord.’ Everyone is free, then, to contradict me.  I would only ask my readers for that initial goodwill without which there can be no understanding.”  He expected his readers to understand just because he was Pope, not everything that comes from his writings or speech is considered to be a magisterial teaching much less infallible, and that has always been the case.

The same is true for the multitude of religious authors we have available to us as Catholics.  One very popular one is Bishop Robert Barron, who consistently engages the culture through his Word on Fire organization.  Even though he is a bishop, his work in this area is not an exercise of his magisterial office.  That doesn’t mean his works don’t have value and aren’t very good, they are in fact both.  Sometimes these authors and teachers have ways to help explain our faith that are very insightful and easier to understand than our authoritative sources.  They can have great value to help us better learn and deepen our faith.  Other times however, some works may have problems that are not consistent with the faith.  Recognizing the Catechism of the Catholic Church is the official source of our teaching can help us be on guard for potential problems that can arise from other areas.

It is also much easier for those who are anti-Catholic to “cherry pick” through these multitude of theological works to try to find flaws within Catholicism.  One example would be to find a book that has an imprimatur and cite it as official Catholic teaching.  An imprimatur on a work simply means an individual bishop has read the work and didn’t find any major conflicts with Catholic teaching.  But an individual bishop does not reach the level of authoritative or infallible for the universal church.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve found individuals on forums citing a work with an imprimatur as though it were authoritative Catholic teaching, and then using that work to try to disprove Catholicism.  While we are given some assurance that a work is solid because it has an imprimatur, that does not mean it is official Catholic teaching or is guaranteed not to contain errors, for individual bishops can err in this regard.  Discussions about official Catholic teaching should always rely on the Catechism to be the ultimate authority. 

And not just any Catechism, but the Catechism of the Catholic Church.  This was promulgated during the pontificate of Pope St. John Paul II in coordination with the bishops of the world and is authoritative teaching.  There are many works that include the name “Catechism” that have been produced, and some are quite good.  Others, not so much.  But again, they are not authoritative in nature.

The charism of infallibility Catholics believe is given to the papacy to protect the faith is indeed very limited in scope, and that needs to be understood.  But are non-Catholics right – can no man be said to be infallible under any circumstances?  I would ask them only to look at their Bible, and what they believe to be true about Sacred Scripture.  They have no problem believing sinful, fallen men could be used by God to pen infallible Scripture.  Catholics only believe that very limited scope is just a bit broader, and is needed in order to keep Christ’s church unified and provide the necessary leadership to assure various opinions don’t result in schisms that fracture the Church.  Scripture alone has not proven to be sufficient for this, nor is it what Christ intended.  Christ prayed at the Last Supper (John 17:20-23) that we may be one, even as he and the Father are one.  This is not something he left to chance.  The keys of authority given to the man he named “Rock” to act as his royal steward of the kingdom ensure we know where Christ’s one, holy and apostolic Church is to be found, along with the fullness of the faith once delivered to the saints (Jude 3).

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