- papal infallibility
As a Catholic, I believe that Jesus Himself laid the foundations for the papacy and papal infallibility in Matthew 16:16-19/Isaiah 22:20-22, Luke 22:31-32 and John 21:15-17 (inasmuch as every organization or institution needs a physical leader, it seems reasonable to believe that the restored Davidic Kingdom, the Church – “the pillar and foundation of truth” – would have need of one). And the earliest Christian writings display an understanding of Peter’s special primacy, as well as that of his successors, the bishops of Rome.
In the early 2nd century Rome was singled out for special praise and honor by St. Ignatius of Antioch. By the late 2nd century, the popes believed that they had the power to excommunicate bishops as far away as Asia Minor, and that communion with Rome was a necessary condition for being in communion with the Catholic Church. At the same time, Christians were saying that Rome was the standard for sound doctrine and that agreement with her was necessary. Heretics were making attempts to gain recognition in Rome and, by the middle of the 3rd century, Novatian became an anti-pope. Around this time, St. Cyprian was saying that false doctrine can have no access to Rome, and that Jesus Christ instituted the papacy as a necessary requirement for preserving church unity. Less than a century later, Pope Julius rebuked Alexandria for deposing a bishop (St. Athanasius) without first consulting Rome, grounding his rebuke on an earlier custom of the church. He assumed he had the authority to reopen cases which had already been closed in other apostolic sees. By the time of the Nestorian controversy, popes were deputizing other bishops to depose heretics. It is clear, then, that from a very early date, the see of Rome claimed to have a universal jurisdiction. And, while it is true that Christians sometimes appealed to other sees for guidance, Rome was unique, for Rome has never been allowed a case which had been decided in Rome to be carried to the East. On the contrary, the Apostolic See has always known that it was lawful to appeal to her from a judgment which had been pronounced in the East, and many times have such appeals been made from the East to Rome. Thus, the appeals-process was asymmetrical; Rome held an authority unequaled by the other sees. She claimed this authority was derived from the Apostle Peter.
We might summarize the patristic evidence in favor of infallibility like this: the bishop of Rome possessed an unequaled didactic authority, namely, the authority to act on behalf of the universal church in ratifying doctrinal statements. Accordingly, any doctrine which Rome accepted while exercising this authority was de facto accepted by the universal church. Since communion with Rome was understood as a necessary condition for communion with the Catholic Church even as early as the 2nd century, it would follow that any church which rejected Rome’s decisions would no longer be Catholic. I do not think it is going too far beyond the facts of history to claim that this understanding of Roman primacy is behind much of what the Fathers say about the papacy. And if this understanding of papal primacy is correct, then, when conjoined with the doctrine of the indefectibility of the church, it does logically entail papal infallibility.
There is also corroborating evidence to support papal infallibility. In particular, the inductive argument for papal infallibility was not unnoticed in the early church. When one compares the history of Rome with the history of the Eastern churches, it is remarkable that Rome always came down on the orthodox side of the issues, whereas the East’s reputation was much more checkered. One author calculates that during the five centuries separating the time of Constantine and the seventh ecumenical council in 787 AD, the see of Constantinople was out of communion with Rome for a total of 200 years. That is, the Eastern bishops were in a state either of schism or heresy for a combined total of two centuries during this period, whereas Rome took the right side from the very beginning, even though it by no means had the better theologians. These facts led Pope Hormisdas (r. 514-523 AD) to observe: “‘We cannot ignore the declaration of our Lord Jesus Christ when he said ‘Thou art Peter, etc.’ Moreover, the truth of his word is shown by actual fulfillment, since in the Apostolic See [Rome] the Catholic Religion has always been preserved without spot.” Already in 180 AD, St. Irenaeus said that “all churches must agree” with Rome and, by 250 AD, St. Cyprian had remarked that “false faith can have no access” to Rome. St. Optatus seems to have presupposed some kind of papal infallibility, because he stated that the true church must always possess the chair of Peter and orthodox doctrine, which clearly entails that Rome could never abandon the orthodox faith. Writing later, Theodoret observed: “This most holy See [Rome] has preserved the supremacy over all Churches on the earth, for one especial reason among many others; to wit, that it has remained intact from the defilement of heresy. No one has ever say on that Chair, who has taught heretical doctrine; rather that See has ever preserved unstained the Apostolic grace.” I am not saying that these authors had all the details worked out, but certainly the claim of infallibility seems to be implicit in their statements.
The next three will be shorter, I promise!