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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 a relatively new doctrine, say within the last 100 years or so? }

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.

  1. 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.

  2. 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

"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."

St. Maximos the Confessor, d. 622, Opuscula theologica et polemica, 11-137Dff. (Migne)

"The Apostolic See ... from the very Incarnate Word of God and from all the holy synods of all the churches throughout the world in their sacred canons and definitions has received and possesses, in and for every thing, dominion, authority, and power to bind and loose. With it the Word, set at the head of the Heavenly powers, binds and looses in Heaven."

St. Maximos the Confessor, d. 622, Opuscula theologica et polemica, 12-144C.4-12 (Migne)

"...It is clear that this Roman Church is to all churches throughout the world as the head is to the members, and that whoever separates himself from it becomes an exile from the Christian religion, since he ceases to belong to its fellowship."

Pope St. Boniface I (died 422), Epistle 14,1

"Yet, we do not hesitate to mention that which is known to the Universal Church, namely, that as the See of Blessed Peter the Apostle has the right to loose what has been bound by the judgments of any bishops, whatsoever, and since it has jurisdiction over every church, so that no one may pass judgement on its verdict, the canons providing that an appeal should be to it from any part of the world, no one is permitted to appeal against its judgement."

Pope St. Gelasius (died 496), Theil, Epistle 26

"...Peter's true confession was revealed from Heaven by the Father, and for it Peter was pronounced blessed by the Lord of all; and he received also, from the Redeemer of us all, by a threefold commendation, the spiritual sheep of the Church that he might feed them. Resting on his protection, the Apostolic Church (of Rome) has never turned aside from the way of truth to any part of error and her authority has always been faithfully followed and embraced as that of the Prince of the Apostles, by the whole Catholic Church, and by all the venerable Fathers who embraced her doctrine, by which they have shone as most approved lights of the Church of Christ, and has been venerated by all orthodox doctors."

Pope St. Agatho (died 681), Letter to the 6th Ecumenical Council, Mansi, XI, p. 233

You cannot deny that you are aware that in the city of Rome the episcopal chair was given first to Peter; the chair in which Peter sat, the same who was head — that is why he is also called Cephas — of all the Apostles; the one chair in which unity is maintained by all. Neither do other Apostles proceed individually on their own; and anyone who would set up another chair in opposition to that single chair would, by that very fact, but a schismatic and a sinner. . . . I but ask you to recall the origins of your chair, you who wish to claim for yourselves the title of holy Church.

St. Opatatus of Milevis, The Schism of the Donatists, ca. A.D. 367, 2,2

I follow no leader but Christ and join in communion with none but Your Blessedness, that is, with the chair of Peter. I know that this is the rock on which the Church has been built. Whoever eats the Lamb outside this house is profane. Anyone who is not in the ark of Noah will perish when the flood prevails.

Letter of Jerome to Pope Damasus I, A.D. 374-379, 15, 2

The Church here is split into three parts, each teacher to seize me for its own. . . Meanwhile I keep crying: "He that is joined to the chair of Peter is accepted by me!" Meletius, Vitalis, and Paulinus each claims to be loyal to you, which I could believe did only one make the claim. As it is, either two of them are lying, or else all three. Therefore I implore Your Blessedness by the cross of the Lord, by the necessary glory of our faith, the Passion of Christ -- that as you follow the Apostles in dignity may you follow them also in worth,-- . . . tell me by letter with whom it is that I should communicate in Syria. Despise not a soul for whom Christ died!

Letter of Jerome to Pope Damasus I, A.D. 374-379, 16,2

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

Simon, My follower, I have made you the foundation of the holy Church. I betimes called you Peter, because you will support all its buildings. You are the inspector of those who will build on Earth a Church for Me. If they should wish to build that is false, you, the foundation, will condemn them. You are the head of the fountain from which My teaching flows, you are the chief of My disciples. Through you I will give drink to all peoples. Yours is that life-giving sweetness which I dispense. I have chosen you to be, as it were, the first-born in My institution, and so that, as the heir, you may be executor of my treasures. I have given you the keys of my kingdom. Behold, I have given you authority over all my treasures!

St. Ephraim (d. 373), Homilies, 4,1

I now inquire into your opinion, to see whence you usurp this right for the Church. Do you presume, because the Lord said to Peter, "On this rock I will build my Church, I have given you the keys of the kingdom of Heaven", or "whatever you shall have bound or loosed on Earth will be bound or loosed in Heaven," that the power of binding and loosing has thereby been handed on to you, that is, to every Church akin to Peter? What kind of man are you, subverting and changing what was the manifest intent of the Lord when He conferred this personally upon Peter? On /you/ He says, I will build my Church; and I will give to /you/ the keys, not to the Church; and whatever /you/ shall have bound or /you/ shall have loosed, not what /they/ shall have bound or /they/ shall have loosed."

Tertullian, Modesty, 21,9

Peter alone (among the Apostles) do I find married, and through mention of his mother-in-law. I presume he was a monogamist; for the Church, built upon him, would for the future appoint to every degree of orders none but monogamists.

Tertullian, Monogamy, post A.D. 213, 8,4

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 succsssions 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, 180 A.D., 3,3,2

Our forefathers gave the name `Chair' to this feast so that we might remember that the Prince of the Apostles was entrusted with the `Chair' of the episcopate ... Blessed be God, who deigned to exalt the apostle Peter over the whole Church. It is most fitting that this foundation be honoured since it is the means by which we may ascend to Heaven.

St. Augustine, Sermon 15 on the Saints

Nor does the kingdom of Heaven belong to the sleeping and the lazy; rather, the violent take it by force . . . On hearing these words, the blessed Peter, the chosen, the pre-eminent, the first among the disciples, for whom alone with Himself the Savior paid the tribute (Matthew 17:27), quickly grasped and understood their meaning.

St. Clement of Alexandria, Who Is the Rich Man That Is Saved, A.D. 190-210, 21,3

"It is on one man that He builds the Church; and although He assigns a like power to all the Apostles after His resurrection, when He says, "As the Father has sent me, so also do I send you; receive the Holy Spirit: if you forgive any man his sins, they shall be forgiven; and if you retain any man's sins, they shall be retained (John 20:21), nevertheless, in order that unity might be clearly shown, He established by His own authority a source for that unity, which takes its beginning from one man alone. Indeed, the other Apostles were that also which Peter was, being endowed with an equal portion of dignity and power; but the origin is grounded in unity, so that it may be made clear that there is but one Church of Christ. . . . If someone does not hold fast to this unity of the Church, can he imagine that he still holds the faith? If he resists and withstands the Church, can he still be confident that he is in the Church, when the blessed Apostle Paul teaches this very thing and displays the sacred sign of unity when he says: "one body and one spirit, one hope of our calling, one Lord, one faith, one Baptism, one God?" Most especially must we bishops, who exercise authority in the Church, hold firmly and insist upon this unity, whereby we may demonstrate also that the episcopate itself is one and undivided. Let no one mislead the brotherhood with a lie, let no one corrupt the faith by a faithless perversion of the truth. The episcopate is one, of which each bishop holds his part within the undivided structure. The church also is one, however widely she has spread among the multitude through her fruitful increase. . . . The Church is bathed in the light of the Lord, and pours her rays over the whole world; but it is one light that is spread everywhere, and the unity of her structure is undivided.

St. Cyprian of Carthage, The Unity of the Catholic Church, A.D. 251-256, ch 4

With a false bishop appointed for themselves by heretics, they dare even to set sail and carry letters from schismatics and blasphemers to the chair of Peter and to the principal Church, in which sacerdotal unity has its source; nor did they take thought that these are Romans, whose faith was praised by the preaching Apostle, and among whom it is not possible for perfidy to have entrance.

Letter of St. Cyprian to Cornelius of Rome, A.D. 252 59 (55), 14

Our Lord, whose commands we ought to fear and observe, says in the Gospel, by way of assigning the episcopal dignity and settling the plan of His Church: "I say to you that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of Hell will not overcome it. And to you I will give the keys of the kingdom of Heaven: what whatever things you bind on Earth will be bound also in Heaven, and whatever you loose on Earth, they will be loosed also in Heaven."

From that time the ordination of bishops and the plan of the Church flows on through the changes of times and successions; for the Church is founded upon the bishops (cf. Ephesians 2:20), and every act of the Church is controlled by these same rules. Since this has indeed been established by divine law, I marvel at the rash boldness of certain persons who have desired to write me as if they were writing their letters in the name of the Church, "since the Church is established upon the bishop and upon the clergy and upon all who stand firm in the faith" .

Letter without Heading, of St. Cyprian to the Lapsed, A.D. 250. 33 (27), 1

They who have not peace themselves now offer peace to others. They who have withdrawn form the Church promise to lead back and to recall the lapsed to the Church. There is one God and one Christ, and one Church, and one Chair founded on Peter by the word of the Lord. It is not possible to set up another altar or for there to be another priesthood besides that one altar and that one priesthood. Whoever has gathered elsewhere is scattering.

St. Cyprian to All His People, A.D. 251 [43 (40), 5]

Peter holds primacy so as to show that Christ's Church is one, that his chair is one.; God is one. The Lord is one. The Church is one. The Chair founded by Christ is one.

St. Cyprian, Epistle 43, 5

"No one doubts, but rather it has been known to all generations, that the holy and most Blessed Peter, chief and head of the Apostles, the pillar of the faith, the foundation stone of the Catholic Church, received the keys of the kingdom from our Lord Jesus Christ the Savior and Redeemer of the human race, and that the power of binding and loosing sins was given to him, who up to this moment and always lives in his successors, and judges."

Council of Ephesus, 431 A.D., from the speech of Philip the Roman legate, action III

We exhort you in every respect, honorable brother, to heed obediently what has been written by the Most Blessed Pope of the City of Rome; for Blessed Peter, who lives and presides in his own see, provides the truth of faith to those who seek it. For we, by reason of our pursuit of peace and faith, cannot try cases on the faith without the consent of the Bishop of the City of Rome.

Letter of Peter Chrysologus to Eutyches, 25, 2449 A.D.

If in your view, in regard to a matter to be handled and decided jointly with your brothers, their decision was other than you wanted, then let the entire matter, with a record of the proceedings, be referred to us. . . . Although bishops have a common dignity, they are not all of the same rank. Even among the most blessed Apostles, though there were alike in honor, there was a certain distinction of power. All where equal in being chosen, but it was given to one to be preeminent over the others. From this formality there arose also a distinction among bishops, and by a great arrangement it was provided that no one should arrogate everything to himself, but in individual provinces there should be individual bishops whose opinion among their brothers should be first; and again, certain others, established in larger cities, were to accept a greater responsibility. Through them the care of the universal Church would converge in the one See of Peter, and nothing should ever be at odds with this head.

Letter of Pope Leo I to Anastasius, Bishop of Thessalonica, 14, 11, c. 446 A.D.

From the whole world only one, Peter, is chosen to preside over the calling of all nations, and over all the other Apostles, and over the Fathers of the Church. Thus, although among the people of God there are many priests and many pastors, it is really Peter who rules them all, of whom, too, it is Christ who is their chief ruler. Divine condescension, dearly beloved, has granted to this man in a wonderful and marvellous manner the aggregate of its power; and if there was something that it wanted to be his in common with other leaders, it never gave whatever it did not deny to others except through him.

Pope Leo I, Sermons, 4, 2, ante 461 A.D.

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