In Which The Pope is Either God or ET

Roman Catholics and Protestants don’t get along so well. Personally, the whole fight bores me, but there it is. Point being, the following is not meant to be a jab at Papists as such, but just a think I had over the weekend.

On a friend’s blog, a person commented (in the context of a discussion of theological epistemology) “I’d rather [let the Pope interpret for me] than be my own pope (paraphrased so I don’t have to bore you with a verbatim exposition of the context.).” Now, I expect (and sincerely hope) that there is more to the doctrine of the infallibility of the magistracy than that, but based upon that expression, I’d like to point out what seems to my limited understanding to be a fundamental flaw in this doctrine.

It’s a simple matter of logic, mostly. Circular arguments reveal two things: either ignorance and laziness, or the god of the arguer. Assuming this to be true (and we’ll drop the laziness accusation for the time being), the Christian who wishes to declare that the Pope (or the Church magistracy in general) is infallible in matters of interpretation, doctrine, and praxis, faces an unpleasant conundrum. Either…

1. The Pope is God (or the Church magistracy collectively). Given that the Pope and the rest of the magistracy are men, this is simple idolatry (and has worked as a fine Protestant straw man for, oh, ever). No Roman Christian I know would want to say that. However, saying that the Pope or magistracy are the “voice of God” or something of that nature, while it may alleviate the problem somewhat, begs the question: “Says who?” If your answer is “the Pope”, then you are right back where you started. If you point to Scripture, you face an alternate problem.

2. Using Scriptural exegesis to defend the infallibility of the magistracy is self-defeating. Who interpreted that Scripture in order to prove that point? That’d be you, pilgrim.

If the Pope is infallible in his Scriptural interpretation “just because”, then he is your God. I understand the desire to have a simple, definitive answer to questions of exegetical accuracy and authority, but naming some guy (however eminent) as the infallible interpreter only moves the problem to a different location (off of yourself and onto a bishop), much like some evolutionists who answer the question “So, where did the primordial ooze come from?” with “From outer-space, sucka.”.

Claiming complete personal exegetical autonomy (as some radical protestants do) is just the flip-side of the idea of Papal infallibility: Both are intellectually lazy and morally arrogant, desiring a simple answer with no gray areas, and having the foolishness to actually think that the world that God has made is really simple enough for us to delineate it out to the last detail.

As usual, it seems that the answer lies in the communal gray area between an egalitarian chaos and a top-down absolutism: You know, that place that requires us to play well with others.


8 comments on “In Which The Pope is Either God or ET

  1. Allison Steinberg says:

    Hi, Bennet,
    Just checkin’ your blog while doing my rounds in the sphere of that name, and I couldn’t resist saying,
    Like in a good Anglican body?
    That’s all,

  2. Allie,

    Wonderful to hear from you! And yes, more or less (though there is, I think you would agree, still plenty of work still to do in that area). I have a feeling (and I pray earnestly for it) that this great splitting of the Church, followed by it’s myriad schismatic shatterings, will be but a small blip in the historical sanctification of the Church as we look back at it victorious from several millenia out.
    Like so many personal relationships (and what is the Church, but a collection of persons), Protestants and Catholics have become so myopic in their view of the world that they have taken the flaws which the other points out (often legitimately) and made those flaws their most beloved personal characteristics.
    Thanks for dropping by.

    Blessings in our Lord,

    Ben (and Abra and Ophelia)

  3. Matt says:

    Mr. Carnahoodle,

    Good to hear from you and I’ll be replying to your e-mail shortly. But I just remembered this post and that I hadn’t responded to it yet, so here I go.

    The simple answer is that if Jesus taught the primacy of Peter, this whole argument melts away. I won’t bore you with my personal exegetical analysis of the Biblical texts, especially since you’ll accuse me of resorting to sola scriptura, but I would certainly point you to the testimony of the Fathers.

    The early Church, from the earliest times, gave primacy to the Petrine See. This was not a matter of ‘My interpretation of Scripture can beat up your interpretation of Scripture’, it was simply a doctrine of the faith which the letters of the earliest Bishops attest is not only sound but universal.

    If the doctrine of Petrine Supremacy is a doctrine handed down from Jesus but not explicitly referred to in Scripture (though I certainly think it is at least inferred) it holds no different place than infant baptism, nowhere commanded in Scripture, but wholly in keeping with the God of the Old Covenant and roundly accepted by the early Church.

    I say the problem melts away because, if the Petrine See is our guarantee of sound doctrine on Christ’s own words, it is not a matter of shifting the intellectual responsibility to someone else, but rather letting the one to whom Christ gave the responsibility hold it and not picking it up for ourselves or for any local episcopacy or presbytery.

    All that is to say, I don’t think you’ve really dealt with the Catholic doctrine of the Papacy, but rather with an intellectual straw man.

    In Pax Christi,


  4. Thanks for the comments Matt.

    For what it’s worth, I’m not interested in gaining sparring points, so I’d be (honestly) interested in hearing your exegetical observations on the supremacy of the Roman bishop.

    I agree with you almost (and I have absolutely no problem with the Church creating a hierarchy based upon inferences from the Scriptures). Nevertheless, the conundrum still seems to remain: Who decides? I don’t personally see it, but I’m happy to grant that the bishop of Rome could be the de-facto temporal leader of the church. My issue (of course) is primarily with claims of infallibility, which is not that same thing as claiming authority.

    Perhaps (probably) this is due to propagandistic misconstruals by Protestants, not at all helped by the actions of many of the Popes of the 14th – 16th centuries, and shored up by some aggressive and arrogant neo-conservative Catholics. Nevertheless, any human being who claims infallibility in any way faces this difficulty in some shape or form. Thoughts?

    Related to this (and speaking of straw men), how do you personally deal with the historical contradictions (which in a few instances have undeniably bordered on the absurd) between holders of the bishopric of Rome? (that meant as a serious question, not a rhetorical challenge)?
    Does a leader with such exceptional responsibility have no accountability? Does anyone get to play Paul’s part in correcting Peter when he falls into grievous error, and if so, who?



  5. […] Authority, which I think were interesting. If that sort of thing is interesting to you too, read it here. And I swear, for the faithful few who check in here, I’ll get back in the saddle […]

  6. Matt,

    One other problem. You’ve changed the debate mid-comment here. At first we are talking about Petrine Supremacy, as handed down from Jesus (an issue of governmental practice). But later on you talk of the Roman bishop as “our guarantee of sound doctrine”, which isn’t the same thing at all, and such a claim would require a much higher burden of proof than the former.

    Back to you.

  7. […] The original post was In Which the Pope is either God or ET, presenting an obviously silly dilemma which I hope illustrated in a semi-accurate fashion a […]

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