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Volume 12, Issue 1: Non Est

Rome's Perfectionism

Douglas Jones

I’ve noticed that the “Roman solution” has a particular draw for those with a bit of a perfectionistic streak. Roman Catholicism promises so much squeaky intellectual neatness. You don’t have to discern the times, sift the prophets, weigh the fruit, or walk by faith.

The much-praised defense of the Roman papacy, Jesus, Peter, and the Keys by Butler, Dahlgren, and Hess1 reveals the sort of ecclesiastical perfectionism I have in mind. Scott Hahn endorses this book as “simply staggering.” The book is important because it addresses the key dividing point between Rome and just about everybody else: papal infallibility. And it’s this doctrine that shapes Rome’s perfectionism.
When all is said, the authors of this book give only one main argument for papal infallibility, and this argument reveals Rome’s discomfort with Old Testament messiness.
It runs roughly like this: The exegetical case for the Apostle Peter being singled out by Christ as the most prominent teaching authority among the apostles is overwhelming (Matt. 16:18; Is. 51:11; Ps. Jn. 1:42; 21:15–17; Acts 15:7–11, etc.). Peter is not only prominent among the apostles, he is the only one to whom Christ has given the keys of the kingdom in a special way. The keys of the kingdom (Matt. 16:19) are the keys delegated to the chamberlain, the master of the palace (Is. 22:22), who has the supreme delegated authority to open and close the door of the palace, binding and loosing, like the magisterial teaching seat of Moses (Matt. 23:2). This teaching office of binding and loosing is genuinely authoritative and final, and so it must be infallible. The authors sum it up this way:
To have true unity of thought and mind, there must be some arbiter of the truth and falsity of any philosophical or theological idea that arises. This arbiter of the truth of the matter needs to address any significant issue authoritatively and conclusively. The charism that would accompany this position, or office, necessarily demands finality according to very strict guidelines that are delimited by reason, revelation, and tradition . . . . Peter and his successors, together with the bishops (on most occasions), have exercised the gift of infallibility judiciously, utilizing the symbols of authority inherited from those occupying Moses’ seat.2
Note here the inference from conclusive authority to infallibility. Everything rests on this.
First of all, it’s important to note that one could grant many aspects of the Roman case for the sake of argument. For example, it’s really quite irrelevant whether we agree or not that Peter is the Rock Christ designates. Peter’s being “the Rock” doesn’t entail that he’s infallible. Abraham was also the Rock (Is. 51:1), but he wasn’t infallible the way Rome wants.
Everyone seems to agree that Isaiah 22 is the background for Christ’s discussion of the keys of the kingdom. In that passage, God says of Eliakim that “the key of the house of David I will lay on his shoulder” (Is. 22:22). First, even though Eliakim will have all authority in the house, the context is not even priestly but civil. Surely, we’re not supposed to believe that the king’s servant has to be infallible. Second, the passage works strongly against Rome. God is angry with the unfaithfulness of the current bearer of the keys, Shebna, and is replacing him with faithful Eliakim. If God can judge the one with the keys, and Rome wants this context for understanding Peter, then we’d have to say that God can cast off papal authority too.
As for the authority of Moses’ seat and that of “binding and loosing” (Matt. 16:19), Robert Sungenis argues, “When the Church makes a binding or loosing decision it must be inerrant otherwise God would not be able to issue an error-free binding or loosing in heaven.”3 But again the Jewish context shows the failure of this move. Drawing on Nehunya Ben Ha-Kanah in the first century, one Roman Catholic writer the authors cite helps here: “[Christ] was simply using the language of the day. Everybody knew what it meant. The Rabbis were said to bind when they forbade something and to loose when they permitted it.”4 From this, the authors argue that the Pharisees and scribes may have been moral wretches, but their teaching authority was indeed infallible. As Christ says, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. Therefore whatever they tell you to observe, that observe and do, but do not do according to their works; for they say, and do not do” (Matt. 23:2,3). The problem is that Christ rebuked not only their morality but their doctrine too. The Pharisees, similar to Rome, held that God had preserved a line of authoritative oral tradition since Moses’ time. But Christ says that this doctrinal tradition is false at places: “Teaching as doctrines the commandments of men” (Mk. 7:3). Moses’ seat is authoritative but not infallible.
But unlike individualistic evangelicalism, this doesn’t mean that the Church lacks genuine authority. In normal life throughout the millennia, the Church exercises binding creedal authority to which individuals submit. But we have no grounds or need to say that it’s infallible. Scripture often demands true justice in civil and family ethics, but it doesn’t require them to be infallible. We are called to walk by faith not by sight. It’s easy to faithlessly submit to an infallible authority. Real faith shows up when we have to submit to fallible but genuine authorities. Think of marriage.

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