The keys to the kingdom

I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.

If you've ever seen the official Papal seal, you'll notice a set of golden keys included in it. Catholic teaching puts this verse in context with Isaiah 22:22, where God tells Isaiah to go to King Hezekiah's steward, Shebna, and inform him of God's intention to replace him with Eliakim. In regards to the new steward, Eliakim, God says: I will place on his shoulder the key to the house of David; what he opens no one can shut, and what he shuts no one can open.

In Old Testament times, the steward of the palace was the king's right-hand man, the second-in-command. When the king was away, the royal steward was keeper of the keys to the kingdom, ruling in the king's stead. While he looked after the affairs of the kingdom as the king instructed, he never replaced the king but awaited his return. When the present steward died (or in this case, when the Almighty intervened), the office was filled by another.

The office of the Papacy works in the same manner. Catholics believe Christ, to ensure the unity and health of His flock, gave Peter governing authority over His Church by handing over the keys to His Kingdom. Like the ancient "key keepers," Catholics do not believe the Pope is the new king but instead a steward awaiting the King's return. Even the Pope's title "Father" imitates the role and title of the steward of Judah, also called "father." Until Christ's second coming, the keys will be passed on to each successor to the Papal office (Ray 1999, 29-40; CCC 857-860).

Now, what do the terms "binding" and "loosing" refer to? These words sounded strange to my modern ears, so I looked for some historical context. Apparently, the terms were common in Rabbinic canon-law, representing the legislative and judicial powers held by a Rabbi (Ray 1999, 40). In this context, Catholics view Peter's key-keeping status as one that makes him "Supreme Pastor," with final authority over what is permitted and what is denied in matters of doctrine and spiritual discipline.

How does Papal Infallibility work?

The issue of religious authority brings up an often misunderstood doctrine of Catholic teaching: Papal infallibility. We see that Catholics believe the Pope has great authority in matters of the faith, but this doesn't mean that Catholics believe every word the Pope says comes straight from the Heavenly Father like Peter's first pronouncement.

Papal infallibility refers to the belief that while all Christians have personal access to the Holy Spirit in prayer, Christ promised a unique protection over the Apostles’ teachings, ensuring they would preach without error (John 16:12-15). In order for a papal teaching to be considered free of error or "infallible," the Pope must a) be speaking on a matter of faith and morals (not on his recent vacation plans) and b) make it clear he is speaking from the "Chair of Peter" and that what he is about to say is binding. Back to the concept of guardianship, the Catholic Church teaches that infallible statements are for affirming what has always been true and is not a method of creating new beliefs (CCC 86, 888-891). Official statements of infallibility are rare today – the last one was made in 1950, long before Pope Benedict XVI.

Another important clarification: Papal Infallibility refers to doctrine being protected from error, not the man holding the Papal office being free of imperfection or sin. Catholics point to Peter's sinfulness as an example of failings in a Pope, and John Paul II was known to confess his sins weekly.