Has Peter Spoken?

L. C. De Winter

(Investigator 1, 1988 July)

(Lana De Winter is a student accountant and freelance writer. She is the Research
Officer of the South Australian Skeptics and is a practicing Roman Catholic)

Roman Catholics believe that, among his many other titles, the Pope is the Vicar of Christ in the world today. Most Catholics believe that he has been granted a special grace from the Holy Spirit whereby, in certain clearly defined circumstances relating to the faith and morals of the Catholic Church, he can make pronouncements with which he cannot err. He is therefore, in these extraordinary circumstances, infallible. To the Church it is a case of Peter having spoken.

Before any explanation can be made of what Infallibility is it will be instructive to see what it isn’t. This can easily be done by observing what some non-Catholics say that it is — in this case the Christadelphians:
"... Once a Pope is appointed by the Conclave of Cardinals, who claim to be guided in their choice by the Holy Spirit, he exercises complete and absolute authoritative power. Everything is subject to his decree, including the Foreign Policy and Economics of the Organization. Although he listens to his advisers and hearkens to their counsel, the Pope’s decision is absolute in every regard: doctrinal, political, financial. What he decides becomes the policy and law of the Church, for he is deemed by decree of 1870, to be infallible." (Mansfield, 1986, p.1)

"In 1870 the infallibility of the Pope was endorsed by the Church with the result that all he says is accepted as authoritative, as the voice of heaven, and so beyond dispute. To challenge it in any fundamental manner is to risk excommunication, to be anathematised by its priests, and consigned to hell." (Mansfield, 1986, p.6)
To explain what Papal Infallibility actually is two quotes follow — one from a Catholic and the other from a secular source:

"St. Peter had the final say among the apostles in handing on the teachings of Jesus Christ. So does the Pope among the bishops. They listen to him with reverence, because they know that in matters of faith and morals he is guided in a unique way by the Holy Spirit. It is possible for an individual bishop to make a mistake in teaching a matter of faith or morality to his people, but the Holy Spirit does not allow the Pope to lead the Church into error in similar matters. This is the full extent of what we mean by the infallibility of the Pope. It places him in unique position among’ the bishops, making him the final court of appeal in matters of faith and morality, but it does not mean that he can do no wrong. He has no guarantee of infallibility in administrative and ceremonial matters. Like all men he is capable of making mistakes or unwise decisions in the day-to-day administration of the Church. History proves that popes have done so in the past." (FitzPatrick,1979 p.144)

"The definition of the first Vatican Council (1869-1870), established amid considerable controversy, states the conditions under which a pope may be said to have spoken infallibly or ex cathedra ("from his chair" as supreme teacher). It is a prerequisite that the pope intends to demand irrevocable assent from the entire church in some respect of faith or morals." (Anonymous 1987)

The above is a concise form of what the doctrine of infallibility implies. It is unfortunate that many non-Catholics are uninformed to the point of ignorance about this. Unfortunately there are many Roman Catholics who themselves believe anything uttered from the lips of the Pope as being Holy Writ. However it would be wrong to judge a belief of the Church on the misunderstanding of some of the faithful.

So the question to be asked is how important is the doctrine of Papal Infallibility in the Roman Catholic Church? This doctrine was only officially adopted by the Church at the First Vatican Council in 1870. Since then it has been formally exercised only once. In 1950 the then Pope, Pius XII, declared ex cathedra that the Blessed Virgin Mary was assumed, body and soul, into Heaven thus experiencing neither death nor corruption. This doctrine is therefore binding upon all Roman Catholics as part of their faith.

Therefore in 118 years only one declaration has been made with implicit use of Papal Infallibility. With such a history behind it Papal Infallibility is not a doctrine of major importance to the Church. Without it the Pope will still be Pope and shepherd of Christ's Church on Earth.
The doctrine of Papal Infallibility was declared formally and in perpetuity at the First Vatican Council in dubious circumstances which will be outlined below. However there is still a Biblical argument which the Church advances. The central Biblical theme can be found in St. Matthew's Gospel Chapter 16:15-20:

"Jesus said to them: But who do you say I am? Simon Peter answered and said: Thou art Christ, the son of the living God. And Jesus answering said to him: Blessed art thou, Simon Bar-Jona: because flesh and blood hath not revealed it to thee, but my father who is in heaven. And I say to thee: That thou art Peter; and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. And I will give to thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven. And whatsoever thou shalt bind upon earth, it shall be bound also in heaven : and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth, it shall be loosed also in heaven."
To a Catholic the implication of this is twofold. Firstly Peter is told that his statement of faith — "thou art Christ, the son of the living God" — is inspired of God. It is therefore infallible. Secondly the passage indicates the primacy of Peter, and by extension the unbroken succession of the Papacy.
Why was it not until 1870 that Papal Infallibility became an official tenet of belief? There are two possible answers. One is that the declaration on Infallibility was the result of the Holy Spirit guiding the Council which dogmatised it as dogma. The second answer is that the Council's vote was imposed upon them by a Pontiff who was out of touch with reality.

In 1977 a book was published in German entitled (in English) Pius IX Papal Infallibility and the First Vatican Council. The author, Father August B. Hasler, a Catholic historian, charges that Pius IX deliberately intimidated the Council to such an extent that several members died of heart attacks:

"The triumphant "infallibilists" destroyed much Vatican I documentation long ago, and most of what remains was secret until Pope Paul opened the archives on Pius IX in 1970. Even so, Hasler says he had to become a "detective". Though his is the first book on the long-sealed archives, the church denied him access to much Pius material." (Anonymous 1977)
The Church took a dim view of this book but has not convincingly answered the claims of Father Hasler.

In spite of this strange state of affairs the Holy Father is still the Vicar of Christ on Earth and the spiritual head of the Church militant and triumphant. If the doctrine of Infallibility were to pass away the people of Christ would still remain.


Anonymous 1977 Was Vatican I Rigged? Time Magazine 1977, November 14, p.79

Anonymous 1987 Papal Infallibility in Encyclopaedia Britannica 1987, Volume 9, p.124

FitzPatick 1979 The Catholic Religion, The Catholic Enquiry Centre, Maroubra N.S.W.

Mansfield, H.P. The Papacy in Prophecy, In Herald of the Coming Age, Volume 35, Number 5.