James A. Beverley is professor of Christian
thought and ethics at Tyndale Seminary.
His longer analysis of Roman Catholicism is
available in Nelson’s Illustrated Guide to Religions
(Nelson, 2009). Find more of these columns at
In the world of Roman Catholi- cism, two dates a century apart present a stark contrast in understanding authority for
On July 18, 1870 the Vatican
Council, under Pope Pius IX, proclaimed the doctrine of papal
infallibility as part of an overall
dogma of papal supremacy. While
the scope of infallibility is limited
(it is only assured when the pope
“defines a doctrine concerning faith
or morals to be held by the whole
Church”), the claim, affirmed by
Vatican II in 1964, certainly adds to
the status of the pope in the eyes of
most Roman Catholics.
But not all.
On July 18, 1970 the Catholic
theologian Hans Küng, Swiss born
and teaching then in Tübingen,
Germany, published an explosive
response to the doctrine under the
title Infallible? An Inquiry. He gave
a decisive No to the question.
Küng’s views were condemned by
many, including Harry McSorley,
former theologian at the University
of Toronto, and Karl Rahner, the
most influential Catholic thinker of
the 20th century. Küng’s position
led nine years later to his expulsion
as a Catholic theology teacher.
All Christians have to decide
what authorities should shape our
beliefs and practices.
It will come as no surprise that I,
like all Protestants, side with Küng
about papal authority and infallibil-
ity (full disclosure: I studied with
him in 1985 and became a friend).
Anyone who comes to believe the
pope is “the vicar of Christ” and that
“his supreme magisterium” should
be acknowledged “with reverence”
(as Vatican II said) should join
Mother Rome. This happened to
Frank Beckwith, former president of
the Evangelical Theological Society.
Yet studying Catholic claims
about the Chair of St. Peter helps to
clarify significant principles and
1. In assessing claims to truth we
need to get basic facts right. For example, some accuse Catholics of
believing the pope to be sinless or
that he can’t make errors in everyday life. In fact, Pope Francis goes
to confession, as all Catholics are
supposed to do.
As long as issues are not about
defining universal doctrine, conservative Catholics will admit papal
errors. For example, Sixtus V issued
a corrupt version of the Bible, and
Catholic writers of his day celebrated
that his death halted his Bible’s
success. John Paul II apologized for
past church errors on Galileo.
2. In assessing truth, focus on the
crucial issues. Whether Peter was
ever in Rome is irrelevant to the
issue of papal infallibility. The fact
Peter was married has little to do
with infallibility since Catholic
doctrine doesn’t teach all previous
popes were unmarried. Whether
Küng drove a fancy red sports car
at Vatican II is idle gossip.
3. Be careful to follow the rules of
logic. Even if we believe the pope is
not the supreme teacher of truth
for Christians, it does not mean
Catholic doctrine is always wrong.
Conversely, affirming papal infallibility does not demand slavish
obedience, as demonstrated by Cardinal Ratzinger’s resistance to Pope
John Paul II’s overestimation of the
position of Mary and Paul’s resisting
Peter to his face (Galatians 2: 14).
Similarly, denying papal infal-
libility doesn’t necessarily lead to
denying the absolutes of the gospel
or leaving the Catholic Church.
Küng remains a Catholic priest and
defends Jesus as the only Saviour.
4. Resist the questioning of motives.
Sadly, much of the attack on Küng
involved false attacks on his intentions. He was not out to destroy the
Church, and is not obsessed with
fame and power (in fact, he resisted
an offer from Pope Paul VI to put
aside questioning to pursue a path
to becoming pope).
Protestant attacks on Catholics
sometimes contain ridiculous allegations, as noted in the work of Terence Fay of the University of Toronto.
5. In critique remember also to affirm the positive. Yes, Pope Alexander VI was a moral monster, but
Francis of Assisi is a model of
Christian charity – and don’t forget
Mother Teresa. Yes, Pope Honorius
taught some heretical views, but
this was caught by other popes.
Yes, Pope John Paul II should have
been tougher on the clerical abuse
of children, but Pope Francis has
made significant steps to correct this.
Yes, Pope Clement XI condemned
the view that Scripture reading was
for everyone. Thankfully, this one-time official ruling is offset by affirmations of the importance of the
Bible from Vatican II, the Code of
Canon Law and the Catechism.
In the end the proper way to think
of religious authority is a matter of
obedience to Scripture when it tells
us to “test the spirits.” Nothing
more and nothing less. /FT
Chair of St.
JAMES A. BEVERLEY
The authority of the pope
What do Catholics believe? What should other Christians think?
38. 7 PER CEN T OF
THE COUN TR Y’S
POPULATION AS A