The election of Pope Francis has triggered some discussion with my non-Catholic friends. Such conversations often reveal misconceptions about Christianity, Catholicism and the Papacy in particular. I’ll try to make a few things more clear in “layman’s terms.”
There is a slogan that is used by many non-Catholic Christians, especially those from Fundamentalist backgrounds. The slogan is, “No hope in the Pope!” The meaning being that Christians should place their eternal hope in Jesus Christ, not in an imperfect man. As a devout Roman Catholic, I agree with their premise.
The misconception is that Catholics follow the Pope instead of Christ, or that the Pope trumps the Word of God in some way. Many non-Catholics believe that the Pope can make up whatever rules he wants, even if they contradict biblical principles. They often think that “infallible” means “impeccable.” Infallible is not the same as impeccable. In other words, Catholics do not believe that the Pope is totally free from error or that he is free from mistakes. Even Peter, the first Pope, made mistakes. He also made some infallible statements and decisions when God gave them to him. For example, when Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” it was Peter who gave the infallible answer, “You are the Christ.”
Most of my non-Catholic, Christian friends go to church somewhere. Those churches have pastors. The people in those churches generally trust God to speak to them through the preaching/teaching of their pastors. If they have questions about the Bible and its meaning, they typically ask their pastors for an interpretation. Or, they read the Bible and make their own interpretations, or they ask a friend for an opinion. If the preaching or teaching of the pastor is deemed incorrect, there are other pastors in other churches to choose from. The trick is to determine whether or not the preaching and teaching of the pastor is properly aligned with the “final authority” of the Bible. There are many pastors teaching many opposing things about the Bible while all claiming to be “led by the Holy Spirit.” So, how can they know who is right? Checking the Bible does not solve differences of opinion about the Bible.
The Bible is not a pastor. The Bible cannot lead the people in the way that a shepherd leads a flock. Jesus told Peter, “Feed my sheep.” Jesus gave Peter (and his fellow apostles) a specific office of authority that included “binding and loosing” of things here on earth and in Heaven. He also gave Peter the “keys to the Kingdom of Heaven.” By giving Peter this unique office, Jesus mirrored the Old Testament tradition of a king appointing his prime minister. Peter’s office also needed to be filled upon his death, just as the empty office of Judas had been filled. This is why we have a 2000 year succession of Popes and apostolic authority in the Church.
The Catholic bishops are the successors of the apostles. There are more than twelve of them now because the Church is so large and global. Yet, there still is only one head of the apostles. There needs to be a “go to guy,” a pastor that all the Church is accountable to. The Bible alone cannot fill this role. There are too many varying opinions about how to discern and interpret the Bible. Incidentally, no one even knew what books and letters to officially include in the Bible before the Catholic Church made that decision nearly 400 years after Christ. The Bible is actually part of the Sacred Tradition handed down to us from the leadership of the Catholic Church. Part of the Pope’s role (along with his fellow bishops) is to protect this Sacred Tradition (aka “The Deposit of Faith”) which includes the Bible.
Jesus, of course, is The Good Shepherd. He is the Head of the Church. Catholics worship Jesus and strive to follow Jesus. Part of following Jesus includes following the earthly pastor appointed by The Holy Spirit. Jesus promised that The Holy Spirit would guide His Church. The Pope is simply an instrument of The Holy Spirit. I have a pastor in my local Church, but he also is answerable to the highest, earthly pastor. In this way, we heed the words of the apostle Paul “that there be no divisions among you.” (1Cor 1:10) When disagreements arise, as is often the case with human beings, the Church authority is there for direction and discipline (Matt 18:17). Without that 2000 year old Church authority, Christians have no rudder to steer them on the drifting waves of conflicting opinions and divided denominations.
Infallibility means that God protects the office of the Pope from teaching error in faith and morals. It does not mean that everything the Pope says is infallible. Nor does it mean that the Pope is sinless or free from mistakes. Infallibility is given to the Christ-established office of the Pope. The man himself, like Peter, is just a man. The Pope cannot contradict Sacred Tradition, including Scripture. The Pope cannot add to or subtract from Scripture. Catholics believe that God is powerful enough to protect the office of the Pope, just as God is powerful enough to protect the inerrant, inspired Bible that the Catholic Church compiled. He gives us His Word and a pastor to guide us all. Jesus is The King, and the Pope is His earthly Prime Minister. What an awesome God we serve!