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“You are Peter”: Getting Papal Authority Straight

Conferral of the Keys to St Peter – Perugino (ca. 1450–1524)

There’s a scene in Evelyn Waugh’s masterpiece novel, Brideshead Revisited, that I often recall, to my amusement. Father Mowbray is giving instructions in the Catholic faith to a lapsed Protestant named Rex Mottram. Mister Mottram isn’t really sincere in his conversion (in fact he’s completely disinterested in spiritual matters), but he very much wants to please his Catholic fiancée, Lady Julia Flyte, and her family.

After a brief discussion of prayer, Father Mowbray asks Rex: “Supposing the Pope looked up and saw a cloud and said, ‘It’s going to rain,’ would that be bound to happen?” “Oh, yes, Father,” Rex answers, not really believing it, but eager to please his instructor. Taken aback, Father Mowbray says, “But supposing it didn’t?” Rex thinks a moment and answers, “I suppose it would be sort of raining spiritually, only we were too sinful to see it.”

Although Rex didn’t “seem to have the least intellectual curiosity or natural piety” (as Father Mowbray put it), he at least knew that Catholics look to the pope as their spiritual leader and Christ’s representative on earth. And it would seem he had heard something, somewhere, about the Catholic doctrine of Papal Infallibility. And so, when Father Mowbray asked Rex whether the pope could infallibly predict the weather, Rex said what he thought the priest wanted to hear. An absurd answer, obviously.

It was on the foundation rock of Saint Peter, the chief of the Apostles (Mt 10:2), that Our Lord built His Church:

“You are Peter [Greek Petros], and upon this rock [Greek petra] I will build my Church, and the gates of the netherworld [Greek Hades] shall not prevail against it” (Mt 16:18).

Jesus instructed Peter to tend the sheep of the flock (Jn 21:15-19). He prayed specifically for Peter that his faith may not fail, and entrusted Peter with the task of strengthening the believers (Lk 22:32). It was the Lord Himself who made Peter the chief shepherd of His flock and provided that Peter’s successors would lead the Church and safeguard the truths revealed by God.

This gets to the heart of the question, Why be a Catholic Christian? Of all the brands of Christianity past and present, why Catholicism?

Jesus Christ, the Son of God and Savior of the world, established the Church as His form in the world, His mystical Body through which He lives and acts. He is the Head of the Body, and Christians are its members. The bishops are the successors of the Apostles, and the pope, being the bishop of Rome, is the successor specifically of the Apostle Peter, Rome’s first bishop. Christ gave to His Apostles and their successors authority to teach, sanctify, and govern the Christian faithful. That Church which has Peter and his successors as its supreme pastor on earth is the one Church of Christ: the Catholic Church. Our Lord promised to remain with His Church always, even to the end of the world (Mt 28:20). Certainly He would not allow His Church’s teaching authority to fall into error concerning what pertains to our salvation!

Popes may have geopolitical authority (as, for example, when Saint John Paul II exercised it against Communism) or intellectual authority (as was on brilliant display in Benedict XVI’s reasoned defense of reason). Those kinds of authority serve the Church well, of course, but they have waxed and waned over the centuries. Behind them lies a kind of authority that makes the papacy unique, namely, its claim to divinely granted and protected authority over the Body of Christ on earth. Catholic doctrine holds that the pope, when he fully engages his authority as successor of Peter and speaks from Peter’s seat of authority (“ex cathedra“) on matters of faith and morals, is divinely protected against teaching error. From the time a man becomes pope until his death (or abdication, as the case may be), he has a special charism or gift from God that ensures that he will never invoke his full teaching authority to require us to believe anything in faith and morals that is false. This is what is meant by the doctrine of Papal Infallibility (see further the Catechism of the Catholic Church, nos. 874-96).


Since the definition of Papal Infallibility at the First Vatican Council in 1870, it has been exercised in a manner beyond dispute only once, namely, in Pius XII’s 1950 definition of Mary’s bodily assumption into heaven. This does not mean, however, that because a doctrine hasn’t been solemnly defined ex cathedra it is revocable or optional. Catholics are bound to affirm everything definitively proposed by the Church regarding teaching on faith and morals. Such doctrines can be defined solemnly by the pope when he speaks ex cathedra or by the college of bishops gathered with the pope in an ecumenical council, or they can be taught infallibly by the Church’s ordinary and universal teaching authority (magisterium) as a belief to be held definitively. For helpful guides to understanding what does and does not belong in the category of infallible teaching, see HERE and HERE.

Papal Infallibility, it should go without saying, does not mean that popes cannot sin (that would be impeccability, not infallibility). We know there have been notoriously wicked popes in the Church’s long history. Nor does infallibility mean that popes cannot err in personal judgment; a pope’s personal opinions enjoy, or at least ought to enjoy, only as much standing as his wisdom and intelligence may give him. Even in his authoritative judgments, the pope isn’t immune from making decisions unrelated to “faith or morals” that are ill-considered, erroneous, or bad; in such cases Catholics still owe him obedience—and the duty of respectfully submitting their reasons for believing him to be mistaken. The temptation to idolize the papacy—a temptation that becomes especially strong when combined with morally good and charismatic popes—leads to extreme ultramontanism: the belief that the pope’s every word and deed is, if not divinely inspired, at least beyond criticismThis way of thinking is rightly ridiculed by Protestants (who wrongly reject the papal office) and is not part of the Catholic faith.

To Simon Peter was given the mission of being the rock of faith for that early Christian community because, in spite of his sinfulness and limitations, he had the ability to listen intently to Christ’s message and communicate it faithfully. That’s always been a big part of the pope’s job description. The Church isn’t the manufacturer of the truth, but an infallible guide to the truth. The pope is the servant of the Church’s living Tradition, not its master. And because the primary expression of that Tradition is the Church’s official worship, the pope’s preference is not the arbiter of Catholic liturgy: sound liturgical and theological principles are.

Some people may hope or expect that the Church will solemnly teach error on matters of faith or morals. They may hope, for example, that the pope will reverse Catholic teaching on the impossibility of ordaining women to the priesthood, or the indissolubility of sacramental marriage, or the immorality of procured abortion, contraception, euthanasia, fornication, homosexual acts, etc. Happily (for those who care about the integrity of truth), we have a divine guarantee that that will never happen. At the same time, may we avoid the sort of ultramontanism that equates critical evaluation, however respectful and humble it may be, with disloyalty.


7 thoughts on ““You are Peter”: Getting Papal Authority Straight”

  1. Dear Father. Here is a copy and paste from Bishop Gasser’s Relatio at Vatican 1:

    [S]ome will persist and say: there remains, therefore, the duty of the Pontiff – indeed most grave in its kind – of adhering to the means apt for discerning the truth, and, although this matter is not strictly dogmatic, it is, nevertheless, intimately connected with dogma. For we define: the dogmatic judgments of the Roman Pontiff are infallible. Therefore let us also define the form to be used by the Pontiff in such a judgment. It seems to me that this was the mind of some of the most reverend fathers as they spoke from this podium. But, most eminent and reverend fathers,this proposal simply cannot be accepted because we are not dealing with something new here. Already thousands and thousands of dogmatic judgments have gone forth from the Apostolic See; where is the law which prescribed the form to be observed in such judgments?


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