Peter and the Papacy: In today’s gospel, Jesus takes Peter back to that moment in time when, at a charcoal fire, he denied him three times. But now, before this new charcoal fire, things are very different.
By Deacon Frederick Bartels
30 April 2022
The gospel (John 21:1-19) holy mother Church gives us on this Third Sunday of Easter is filled with beautiful symbolism and meaning. What I want to focus on today, is our Lord’s words to Saint Peter, his response, and how they relate to the papacy. I’ve found that it’s often the case that people misunderstand and misinterpret the role of the pope. So, let’s spend some time learning about the papacy.
In the context of our gospel, Jesus and Peter are seated at a charcoal fire. This is revealing because the only other place a charcoal fire is mentioned in the NT is when Peter is warming himself by it after Christ had been arrested. You’ll remember that story well. On the night of his arrest, Jesus gave Peter this warning: “Truly, I say to you, this very night, before the cock crows, you will deny me three times” (Matt 16:24). And, indeed, Peter did just that. He denied Christ three times while he stood beside a charcoal fire in the high priest’s courtyard.
Now it seems Jesus has called Peter back to that moment again, there by the charcoal fire. But this time things are different. Christ is not facing his passion and death, bound in chains, but has passed into death and over it. Now, he’s resurrected to new life, sitting on the seashore. The point is, Jesus gives Peter a second chance to affirm his love for him. Three times Jesus asks Peter about whether he loves him. And three times Peter says that he does: “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” And all of this takes place before that familiar charcoal fire.
After each of Peter’s affirmations of love, Jesus tells him to care for his Church by saying, “Feed my lambs”; “Tend my sheep”; and “Feed my sheep.”
Vatican I declared that there, before that charcoal fire, Jesus made Peter the visible head and chief pastor over the universal Church (Pastor aeternus, chap.1). We also know that Jesus made Peter his vicar on earth and leader of the apostles when he said to him in Matthew’s gospel:
[Y]ou are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. (Matt 16:18-19).
As Catholics, we know that Peter was installed as the earthly steward of Christ’s Church. He became Christ’s Vicar on Earth, the leader of the apostles and was given the authority to govern the Church. Peter was installed as the First Bishop of Rome by Christ. The popes who follow him throughout history are his successors—they sit in the chair of Peter, so to speak, as Christ’s earthly stewards.
But what does all of this mean, practically speaking? How much power and authority does the pope have? What is his role in the Church, exactly?
Sign of Unity
The Church teaches that the pope is a sign of unity. Vatican II said this about it:
CCC 882: The Pope … “is the perpetual and visible source and foundation of the unity both of the bishops and of the whole company of the faithful” (LG 23).
Said another way, the role of the pope is to bind all the members of the Church together, all throughout the world, in their one profession of faith. The function of the pope is as the foundation of the unity of the Church, as a kind of cohesive glue holding together the one body of Christ.
The pope’s authority over the Church is as supreme pastor. Quoting again from Vatican II: “[The] Roman Pontiff, by reason of his office as Vicar of Christ, and as pastor of the entire Church has full, supreme, and universal power over the whole Church, a power which he can always exercise unhindered” (LG 22; cf. CD 2, 9).
So, the pope has supreme authority. He can rule unhindered. For example, should he discipline a member of the clergy, he does not need anyone’s approval to do that. Should he issue an infallible decree, he can do so on his own authority.
As you probably know, the pope enjoys what we call the charism of infallibility. This is perhaps the most misunderstood and misrepresented aspect of the papacy. Let’s explore this charism for a moment. What does it mean to say that the pope is infallible?
The very first thing we must know is that the pope is not always infallible. His charism of infallibility applies only in very specific circumstances, and only in limited ways. The pope has supreme authority but not absolute, unlimited authority.
The pope is infallible only when he does the following:
When he formally, as leader of the Church, issues a definitive proclamation to the entire Church defining some aspect of doctrine pertaining to faith or morals, and he makes this definition binding on all the faithful. In other words, he proclaims that a particular doctrine must be held by the entire Church (CCC 891).
Let’s break this down so we can understand it better.
For a pope to be infallible, he must meet all of the following criteria:
- He must speak in his official capacity, as leader of the Church.
- He must define a doctrine pertaining to faith or morals in a definitive way.
- He must declare that his definition is binding on the entire Church.
All of those criteria must be met. If they’re not, if even only one is absent, then an infallible statement is not made.
This means that the pope is not infallible in his ordinary, common teaching. He might be talking about a doctrine of faith or morals that is infallible, but he is not making an infallible decree on his part. For example, if the pope is giving a homily, he is not infallible. If he is teaching a group of people, he is not infallible. If he is speaking extemporaneously, he is not infallible. If the pope is speaking about something outside of faith or morals, he is not infallible. If a pope should speak about the economy or climate change or a matter of the natural sciences, he is not infallible.
So, not everything the pope says is infallible. He might make prudential judgments about various topics or offer his opinion, but these kinds of things do not rise to the level of infallibility on the part of the pope, nor are they binding on all the faithful.
The charism of infallibility the pope enjoys ensures that, when he formally defines some doctrine of faith or morals as binding on the entire Church, the Holy Spirit will prevent him from teaching error. Obviously, this means that not everything a pope says can be taken as a statement guided by the Holy Spirit.
What the Pope Can’t Do
Finally, notice that the pope can only define as infallible what the Church already believes. Recall that an infallible definition can only pertain to a doctrine of faith or morals. This means that the pope exercises the charism of infallibility only within the context of the deposit of faith, not outside of it. The pope cannot invent something entirely novel and new which is foreign to the belief of the Church and bind the Church to that idea.
The pope can never change the principles of faith and morals in an essential way. He can’t reverse, erase, or delete what the Church believes and holds as true. The dogmas of the faith are changeless and irreformable. Although the Church comes to understand the faith in a deeper way over time, and can say more about it, the pope cannot add or subtract from the deposit of faith itself.
Infallible Decrees are Rare
Infallible decrees by the pope are very rare in the life of the Church. We might think of the dogmas of the Immaculate Conception and Assumption of Mary as recent examples. The are about 8 to 12 times in the history of the Church when popes have made infallible decrees, although there is some disagreement about the exact number of times this has happened.
The Duties of the Pope
Pope Benedict XVI said this of the duties of the pope in a 2005 homily:
The power that Christ conferred upon Peter and his Successors is, in an absolute sense, a mandate to serve. The power of teaching in the Church involves a commitment to the service of obedience to the Faith. The pope is not an absolute monarch whose thoughts and desires are law. On the contrary: the pope’s ministry is a guarantee of obedience to Christ and to his Word. He must not proclaim his own ideas, but rather constantly bind himself and the Church to obedience to God’s Word, in the face of every attempt to adapt it or water it down, and every form of opportunism….
The pope knows that in his important decisions, he is bound to the great community of faith of all times, to the binding interpretations that have developed throughout the Church’s pilgrimage. Thus, his power is not being above the Word of God, but at the service of it. It is incumbent upon him to ensure that this Word continues to be present in its greatness and to resound in its purity, so that it is not torn to pieces by continuous changes in usage.
I think our Lord summed up the character of the papacy well when he said: “No disciple is superior to the teacher; but when fully trained, every disciple will be like his teacher” (Lk 6:40). As Peter said to the Sanhedrin in our first reading from the Acts of the Apostles, “We must obey God rather than men.”
The job of the pope is to guard the faith and ensure that it is transmitted in its full purity, without corruption, in a way that is always faithful to Christ’s life and teaching. The pope is the servant of the Word of God, not its master. He must serve as a living witness of Christ, nothing more and nothing less.
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. For more, visit YouTube, iTunes and Google Play.