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Arthur Finn wrote:

Hi, guys —

You quote the New Testament credibly to confirm the Pope's infallibility.

  • Am I mistaken in saying that the Pope's infallibility is a relatively new doctrine, say within the last 100 years or so?


  { Is the Pope's infallibility is a relatively new doctrine? }

Eric replied:

Hi, Arthur —

Thanks for the question.

Papal infallibility is not what you would call a new doctrine. From the very beginning, the Pope, Bishop of the Church of Rome, was seen as having the final say in matters of doctrine.

One of the chief objections the Protestants had in the sixteenth century was over Papal infallibility. So we know it goes back to there. Pope St. Innocent I wrote to the Fathers of the Council of Carthage, in 417 A.D., and described his own authority and the role of the Pope in making final judgments. He says:

"we know how to condemn evils just as well as we know how to approve what is laudable", and that other churches however remote did not regard any matter as final until it was reviewed and confirmed "by the total authority of this [church]". (Full quotes are at the end of my answer.)

St. Maximos the Confessor, who lived in the East and died in 622 A.D., described how the Roman Church (i.e. the Pope) possesses the right confession, and "opens the true and only religion" and "shuts up and locks every heretical mouth".

St. Augustine (fourth century) uttered a famous saying, "Rome has spoken, the case is closed", meaning that when Rome issues a final decision, there is no more doubt or question on the matter.

The roots of Papal infallibility extend even further; for example, St. Irenaeus of Lyons writes in 180 A.D.:

"For with this Church, because of its superior origin, all Churches must agree, that is, all the faithful in the whole world; and it is in her that the faithful everywhere have maintained the Apostolic tradition."

What you heard, and probably are referring to, is the fact that Papal infallibility was not defined infallibly by a council until 1868 A.D. (the First Vatican Council) But one must not make the mistake of concluding that just because an ecumenical council formally defines something in year X, that the belief therefore arose around year X.

A few quick proofs of this: It was not until 325 A.D. that the deity of Christ was formally defined, yet no orthodox Christian would say that Christians did not believe in the deity of Christ since the beginning. The same goes for the deity of the Holy Spirit (390 A.D.). Finally, the Canon of the
Old Testament was never formally defined by a Council until the sixteenth century. Again, no one would argue that the Canon was new; the Church just never had a reason to define it.

A few things must be kept in mind when looking at doctrines defined by councils.

First of all, we believe that only those things that the Apostles taught in the 1st century and handed down through Tradition, are valid doctrines that can be declared infallibly. In other words, a doctrine an ecumenical council defines must be something that has demonstrably been believed (though not necessarily unanimously) since the beginning. They [the councils] only articulate 1st-century Apostolic teaching; they do not invent anything new, or add any new Revelation.

Second of all, doctrines are usually only defined by councils when the need arises, typically when they are challenged. Some things were, for many years, so obvious or non-controversial that no one saw the point in defining them. Papal infallibility was taken for granted until at least the Protestant Reformation. For whatever reason, they never bothered addressing it until the 19th century. I don't think the inspiration of Scripture was addressed until Vatican II (last century).

So, to sum up, the roots of Papal infallibility are evident in the 2nd century, and well developed by the 4th and 5th centuries, even though it was not formally defined until the 19th century.

I hope this answers your question. Let me know if you have any more.

Eric Ewanco

Quotes from the Early Church

"In seeking the things of God, . . . . following the examples of ancient tradition, . . . you have strengthened . . . the vigor of your religion with true reason, for you have acknowledged that judgment is to be referred to us, and have shown that you know what is owed to the Apostolic See, if all of us placed in this position are to desire to follow the Apostle himself from whom the episcopate itself and the total authority of this name have emerged. Following him, we know how to condemn evils just as well as we know how to approve what is laudable. Or rather, guarding with your priestly office what the Fathers instituted, you did not regard what they had decided, not by human but by divine judgments, as something to be trampled on. They did not regard anything as finished even though it was the concern of distant and remote provinces, until it had come to the notice of this See, so that what was a just pronouncement might be confirmed by the total authority of this See, and thence other Churches,--just as all waters proceed from their own natal source and, through the various regions of the whole world, remain pure liquids of an uncorrupted head,--might take up what they ought to teach, whom they ought to wash, whom the water worthy of clean bodies would shun as being soiled with a filth incapable of being cleansed."

(Letter of Pope St. Innocent I to the Fathers of the Council of Carthage, 417 A.D. 29,1)

For the extremities of the earth, and all in every part of it who purely and rightly confess the Lord, look directly towards the most holy Roman Church and its confession and faith, as it were a sun of unfailing light, awaiting the bright radiance of our fathers, according to what the six inspired and holy Councils have purely and piously decreed, declaring most expressly the symbol of faith. For from the coming down of the Incarnate Word among us, all the churches in every part of the world have possessed that greatest church alone as their base and foundation, seeing that, according to the promise of Christ Our Savior, the gates of hell do never prevail against it, that it possesses the Keys of right confession and faith in Him, and that it opens the true and only religion to such as approach with piety, and shuts up and locks every heretical mouth that speaks injustice against the Most High. (P.G. 91, 137ff.)

St. Maximos the Confessor (died 622 A.D.)

"But since it would be too long to enumerate in such a volume as this the successions of all the Churches, we shall confound all those who, in whatever manner, whether through self-satisfaction or vainglory, or through blindness and wicked opinion, assemble other than where it is proper, by pointing out here the successions of the bishops of the greatest and most ancient Church known to all, founded and organized at Rome by the two most glorious Apostles, Peter and Paul, that Church which has the tradition and faith which comes down to us after having been announced to men by the Apostles. For with this Church, because of its superior origin, all Churches must agree, that is, all the faithful in the whole world; and it is in her that the faithful everywhere have maintained the Apostolic tradition."

(St. Irenaeus of Lyons, Against Heresies, 3,3,2)


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