Holy Smoke, A New Pope!  What the Catholic Church Teaches about the Papacy

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last week, you are probably aware that the Catholic church has elected a new pope.  So, I thought it would be a good time to make Christians aware of what the Catholic church teaches about the papacy.  Most importantly, with the new pope a big news item and with so many Catholics in the world, I’m hopeful that you can use this information to open up a conversation that allows Christians to share the gospel with their Catholic friends.

The reason the Catholic church even has a pope is they believe that Jesus instituted Peter as the first pope, and that there is a divinely appointed lineage of popes since Peter.  More specifically, at the First Vatican Council in 1870, this is the church’s official teaching:

“On the institution of the apostolic primacy in blessed Peter, We teach and declare that, according to the gospel evidence, a primacy of jurisdiction over the whole church of God was immediately and directly promised to the blessed apostle Peter and conferred on him by Christ the lord…. Therefore, if anyone says that blessed Peter the apostle was not appointed by Christ the lord as prince of all the apostles and visible head of the whole church militant; or that it was a primacy of honour only and not one of true and proper jurisdiction that he directly and immediately received from our lord Jesus Christ himself:  let him be anathema…. Therefore, if anyone says that it is not by the institution of Christ the lord himself (that is to say, by divine law) that blessed Peter should have perpetual successors in the primacy over the whole church; or that the Roman pontiff is not the successor of blessed Peter in this primacy:  let him be anathema.”

They justify this by Jesus’ statement to Peter that He gave him the keys to the kingdom to bind on earth and in heaven (Matthew 16:19).  However, Jesus makes this same statement to His disciples in Matthew 18:18, thus nullifying any kind of papal primacy for Peter.

The First Vatican Council also taught that the pope has supreme power over the whole church:

“So, then, if anyone says that the Roman pontiff has merely an office of supervision and guidance, and not the full and supreme power of jurisdiction over the whole church, and this not only in matters of faith and morals, but also in those which concern the discipline and government of the church dispersed throughout the whole world; or that he has only the principal part, but not the absolute fullness, of this supreme power; or that this power of his is not ordinary and immediate both over all and each of the churches and over all and each of the pastors and faithful:  let him be anathema.”

Also at the First Vatican Council, the Catholic church formalized the doctrine of papal infallibility.  Here is what they said:

“We teach and define as a divinely revealed dogma that when the Roman pontiff speaks EX CATHEDRA, that is, when, in the exercise of his office as shepherd and teacher of all Christians, in virtue of his supreme apostolic authority, he defines a doctrine concerning faith or morals to be held by the whole church, he possesses, by the divine assistance promised to him in blessed Peter, that infallibility which the divine Redeemer willed his church to enjoy in defining doctrine concerning faith or morals.  Therefore, such definitions of the Roman pontiff are of themselves, and not by the consent of the church, irreformable.”

Importantly, this does not mean that everything the pope says is infallible.  Generally speaking, it is limited to pronouncements spoken “from the chair” (ex cathedra), that is, from the authority that comes from being the pope.  Furthermore, this is generally limited to teaching on faith or morals.

As we demonstrated in the Sola articles on our website, the papacy was clearly not infallible, as several pronouncements from the Council of Trent contradict Scripture.

Rome also teaches that if a person does not profess obedience to the pope he cannot be saved:

“In this way, by unity with the Roman pontiff in communion and in profession of the same faith , the church of Christ becomes one flock under one supreme shepherd.  This is the teaching of the catholic truth, and no one can depart from it without endangering his faith and salvation.” (First Vatican Council)

“In the second place, we ask whether you and the Armenians obedient to you believe that no man of the wayfarers outside the faith of this Church, and outside the obedience to the Pope of Rome, can finally be saved.” (Pope Clement VI, Super Quibusdam, 1351)

“It is an absolute necessity to submit to the Supreme Pastor, to whom it is absolutely necessary for salvation to remain subject.”  (Pope Leo XIII, Satis Cognitum, 1896)

“We declare, say, define, and pronounce that it is absolutely necessary for the salvation of every human creature to be subject to the Roman Pontiff.”  (Pope Boniface VIII, Unam Sanctum, 1302)

Many Catholics I know disagree with several of these doctrines, especially infallibility, but that just makes them bad Catholics.  Regardless of these doctrines, the important thing is to use this information to open up a conversation with your Catholic friends.  Share with them the true gospel of Jesus Christ.