I’m well aware of the turmoil, conflict and division that has reared its ugly head during the reign of Pope Francis. Even so, I thank the Lord Jesus Christ for the papacy and the hierarchical structure of the Spirit-guided Church.
By Deacon Frederick Bartels
22 February 2019
Today we celebrate the Feast of the Chair of St. Peter, Apostle. Here’s our gospel:
When Jesus went into the region of Caesarea Philippi he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” They replied, “Some say John the Baptist, others Elijah, still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter said in reply, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Jesus said to him in reply, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah. For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father. And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys to the Kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”Matthew 16:13-19
I’m well aware of the turmoil, conflict and division that has reared its ugly head during the pontificate of Pope Francis (by the way, let’s keep him in our prayers. It’s the Christian thing to do). It seems the Church has become unstable, bleeding out from the wounds of intentional doctrinal ambiguity, confusion and widespread attempts at irreconcilable changes. The laity rightly fear that clergy at the very highest levels of the Church cannot be trusted, that they are more interested in politics and pushing a homosexual, modernist agenda than they are in promoting divine truth accompanied by a zealous transmission of the gospel in order to bring the light of Christ into a dark, secular, morally bankrupt world.
It’s been painful. For all of us.
Even so, I thank the Lord Jesus Christ for the papacy and the hierarchical structure of the Spirit-guided Church. Without it, we could not have unity but only division; in place of leadership, chaos; rather than the consolation and certainty of the fullness of truth, a storm of subjective, dissenting opinion. Truth replaced with heresy. Faith with apostasy. Apart from the divinely constituted structure of the Church, we would have no foundation of faith, no sacraments and thus no means of sanctification, no transmission of certain and infallible truth, no instrument of salvation in the world to lead humankind by the words of truth and the sacraments of life into eternal communion with the Tripersonal God.
Yes. The papacy is essential. All we need do is look at the consequences born out by the lack of it to recognize that truth. In absence of submission to the roman pontiff, we have schism, division, and heresy. History has, sadly, shown these to be the result. Christ did not establish his Church on St. Peter by whim. He did not say those words to Peter arbitrarily and in passing.
It should go without saying that the pope is not God. He is not impeccable. Some popes are better than others. Some have been downright atrocious—the bad example of the Renaissance popes comes to mind. None are infallible in everything they say, do, write or suggest.
People would do well to learn about precisely when and if a pope can exercise the doctrine of papal infallibility. I’ve written elsewhere about the authoritative limits of the papacy. When it is misunderstood, misrepresented, or granted levels of power it does not possess, harm is the result. On the other hand, it’s destructive when people instantly reject anything a pope says that doesn’t jive with their personal opinion simply because it’s not infallible.
The bottom line, however, is that the papacy was instituted by Christ himself. Its origin is by divine constitution. That means it’s essential. It’s the will of God.
But that doesn’t mean everybody recognizes those basic facts.
There’s lots of disagreement among our Protestant brothers and sisters about what the above passage from Matthew means. Of course, they don’t see it in the same light as do Catholics. Although the papacy had been around for 1500 years, Martin Luther and others rejected it in their deliberate break from the Church in the 16th century. They saw doing so as necessary to start and maintain their own separate communities. They could not be tied to the papacy and its authority. Those attitudes continue on into the present.
Protestants don’t agree with the Catholic and scriptural theology of Peter as the First Bishop of Rome, the first pope. They don’t agree that the gospel explicitly indicates the papacy is ordained by divine constitution—brought into being by the words of Christ. They suggest that Jesus was merely saying he would establish his Church on Peter’s “rock-like” faith, not on the person of Peter as the leader of the apostles. They don’t see how apostolic succession can mean that the Church has had popes throughout her twenty centuries who sit in the Chair of Peter and govern the universal Church as Christ’s earthly vicars. And they don’t seem to see the problem with Jesus saying he would found his Church (in the singular) on Peter in comparison to the tens-of-thousands of Protestant denominations today. These are but a few examples.
However, all of those objections make no sense when we take the passage from Matthew in its entire context and, also, when we refer back to its OT grounding found in Isaiah 22:20 ff. Here we find the story of Eliakim, who is given the key of the house of David and granted authority to rule in the king’s absence. Peter and the other apostles would have based their understanding of Jesus’ words on that OT principle, on the giving of authority to a representative of the king who, as a kind of prime minister, is able to govern and rule with the king’s authority.
It is unarguable that Jesus gives Peter the “keys of the kingdom of heaven” and the power to govern through binding and loosing. If Jesus is simply building his Church on the faith of Peter, it makes no sense to invest Peter with that kind of divine authority. It makes no sense at all for Jesus to say those words to Peter. If Peter is not to govern, why mention “keys to the kingdom”? If he has no authority over the Church, why say anything at all to him about the power to “bind and loose”?
Jesus founded his Church on Peter—that is clear from the words of the text itself. And, of course, if that divine institution was meant for only Peter alone, without the possibility of successors in the future, then the Church would have disintegrated shortly after Peter’s death by crucifixion. Jesus’ imperative command at the end of Matthew’s gospel would then be rendered meaningless:
“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Mt 28:19-20)
The Catholic understanding of Matthew 16 is logical and sound on every level. And thank God! In absence of a Spirit-guided Church led by Christ’s earthly vicar, we would soon have no access to the fullness of truth. A leaderless Church is a divided house. Everything would unravel into an uncertain storm of conflicting opinion.
Photo Credit: Marcus Obal, wikimedia commons.
Deacon Frederick Bartels is a member of the Catholic clergy who serves the Church in the diocese of Pueblo. He holds an MA in Theology and Educational Ministry and is a Catholic educator, public speaker, and evangelist who strives to infuse culture with the saving principles of the gospel.