I have many Protestants in my life, all of them very dear and good people.  Many of them share my love for talking about our faith.  In doing so, I have noticed at times a strange phenomenon, especially when among “mixed company.”

Something that invariably comes up is the topic of Communion, and my Protestant friends are invariably put off by the fact that they are not allowed to receive Communion in the Catholic Church.  Or it may be that they were mistakenly under the impression that it was all right for them to do so.  I find that correcting that impression and explaining the reasoning behind the Church’s teaching  can be a very delicate manoeuvre.  I try to explain that to Catholics, Communion is not just about one’s union with God, but also their union with the Catholic Church and everybody within it.  Catholicism is not a private faith; it is a communal faith as well.  When you receive Communion, you are saying with your body, “I am one with you and with this Church.  I believe as you believe.”

That usually does not end the conversation, however.  Most Protestants find that explanation unfair.  They will protest, “We are baptized Christians.  We too are part of the Body of Christ.  And we are nearly identical to you Catholics in every way!”

Here’s the funny part: once they’ve put in their last word with me, they have a very strong tendency to turn to their Protestant neighbor and say, “Well, I don’t believe in papal infallibility, of course.”

It pretty well catches me off guard every time, causing me to sit dumbstruck for a moment.  “Let me get this straight,” I say to myself.  “My Protestant brethren are so identical to me that they see no problem with receiving Communion with me and think it’s mean and unfair that the Church does not invite them to Communion.  And yet they don’t agree with me on papal infallibility.  Isn’t that sort of a major, irreconcilable difference between us?  Do they just consider it of no importance?  Do they understand that if I had to, and if God gave me the grace, I would prefer to die rather than deny papal infallibility?  It’s not a matter of small import–and it is not an optional belief for Catholics.”

I feel like Catholics–definitely myself included–don’t talk about papal infallibility enough.  Probably because we don’t really understand it ourselves.  And perhaps because it makes us uncomfortable.  I think we like to think of it as something that divided Christians many hundreds of years ago… but we’re supposed to be “over it” now and not let it come between us any more.  It’s like Catholics are supposed to just look the other way when non-Catholics assert that papal infallibility is wrong. I can attest that doing so seems to keep the peace and make life easier.

But more and more, I am not OK with that.  It may keep peace between my Protestant friends and me… but it does not give me inner peace.

I think that’s because infallibility has less to do with the pope than with the Holy Spirit.  It seems to me that to deny papal infallibility is to deny the Holy Spirit’s leadership and custody of the Church.  Infallibility is not some magical power the pope himself has; rather, it is a divine power that the Holy Spirit exercises over the pope.  And ironically, to deny that is to attribute far more power to the pope than he himself or any faithful Catholic would do.  He is our human head, but our Church is not merely human-led.  The pope is the successor of St. Peter–not of Christ Himself.  And why would Christ have sent His Holy Spirit upon the Church if the Church did not need His power, guidance, and protection?

I need to study and think about this topic more.  It is far too important to ignore.  Sadly, it continues to divide Catholics and Protestants today just as surely as it did hundreds of years ago.  Catholics and Protestants today need to acknowledge and respect that.  We are not “over it” now.  The communion among us is still very much broken.  These are facts, even if we fancy otherwise.

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