Pope Benedict XVI
Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesare'a Philip'pi, he asked his disciples, "Who do men say that the Son of man is?"And they said, "Some say John the Baptist, others say Eli'jah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets." He said to them, "But who do you say that I am?" Simon Peter replied, "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God." And Jesus answered him, "Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jona! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you 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."
With these words Jesus Christ established the office of the Papacy. It is beyond the scope of this essay to address all that needs to be said when discussing this particular topic. Instead I will focus on three critical areas which will clarify the role of this unique institution.
1. Who the pope is and what he does and does not do as the universal pastor of the Church.
2. The practical reasons why the Papacy exists.
3. The Scriptural basis for the Papacy.
Road to Rome
The Pope is Vicar of Christ, the universal pastor of the Catholic Church. He is the Bishop of Rome, the Servant of the Servants of God. He possesses a primacy amongst all bishops and is said to be the “first amongst equals.” The Church has always taught this authority was passed on to his successors as an office. There is strong Scriptural support for the Papacy. Yet the historical evidence is equally compelling. History tells us Peter established the Church at Rome (along with St. Paul) and dwelt there the majority of his life. He was also martyred in Rome, where his bones still reside (under the altar at St. Peter’s in the Vatican). Thus, the Church of Rome was also referred to as the See of Peter.
Early Church writers such as St. Ignatius of Antioch referred to the Church in Rome as “the Church…which is worthy of God, worthy of honour, worthy of the highest happiness, worthy of praise, worthy of credit, worthy of being deemed holy, and which presides over love” Ignatius of Antioch, Epistle to the Romans, Prologue (A.D. 110). St. Irenaeus said, “For it is a matter of necessity that every Church should agree with this Church (“founded and organized at Rome”), on account of its pre-eminent authority, that is, the faithful everywhere, inasmuch as the apostolic tradition has been preserved continuously by those [faithful men] who exist everywhere” Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 3:3:2 (A.D. 180). In other words, the Church in Rome was regarded as the “chief church from whence unity takes its source” (Cyprian, To Cornelius, Epistle 54/59:14 (A.D. 252). All others looked to Rome and its Bishop for guidance and authority regarding matters of the faith (as evidenced in Clement’s 1st Epistle to the Romans). But what specifically does this authority extend to?
As the universal pastor of the Church, the Pope helps to guide the Church in Her beliefs and expressions. Through his many letters, encyclicals, audiences, and speeches, the Pope provides clarity on many issues. He applies the timeless values and teachings of the Church to unique social and cultural questions of the day. The Church never changes its doctrines on faith or morals despite living in time. Yet, there is a constant need for clarification as new philosophies or technologies challenge traditional values. Thus, a unified voice is necessary. This is what the Pope provides by authoritatively addressing each challenge to the Church’s teachings.
The office of the Papacy is the office of a shepherd. His office is more than simply the CEO of a Fortune 500 company, he is a pastor and father. He calls attention to the needs of his people, addressing issues such as persecution, starvation, poverty, or even the right to life. He has a powerful voice as the Pontiff of over one billion Catholics. The office of the Papacy also possesses respect from non-Catholics for its contributions to scholarship and charitable work around the globe. Thus, when he speaks, much is achieved to alleviate the suffering of the people.
The Pope does not only see to the worldly needs of the people but also to their spiritual needs. This is his primary responsibility. The Pope helps clarify the moral and doctrinal questions of the day, giving emphasis to those areas which need special attention.
The final area in which the Pope exercises his unique role is that of universal teacher. When he pronounces dogmas unilaterally, it is called an “ex cathedra” statement. Ex cathedra means “from the seat of authority.” When the Pope proclaims an ex cathedra statement, the Holy Spirit protects him from teaching error. This has only occurred twice in the history of the Church in the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption of Mary. Catholics refer to this teaching as papal infallibility. This charism extends only to matters of faith and morals.
Misconceptions on the Pope
There are many misconceptions about the Papacy. Thus, it is extremely important to address what the Pope does not do. The Pope practices the “principle of subsidiarity.” His job does not entail micromanaging each diocese in the world. Rather, each bishop possesses the ordinary jurisdiction in his diocese. While the Pope meets with political leaders and discusses Catholic values with them, he does not tell them how to govern their respective nations. This was one of the great fears many Americans had when electing John F. Kennedy to the presidency. Would Kennedy simply be a puppet of the Roman Pontiff? This misunderstanding of the role of the Papacy still occurs today.
The Pope is not infallible on political, scientific, or personal matters. Catholics should give great deference to his opinions, because of his spiritual fatherhood. However, Catholics are not bound to agree with the Pope on all such matters. When the Pope speaks about moral issues that have become political, it is incumbent upon all Catholics to submit in faith whether they understand and agree or not.
Many view the Pope’s “unchecked” authority as a stumbling block. However, since the Pope is bound by Apostolic Tradition, and thus history, his authority is limited. The Pope cannot add or subtract from the original deposit of faith which was completed in the Apostolic era. On the other hand, a Protestant is ultimately bound by nothing but his own interpretation of the Bible due to the teaching of sola scriptura (Scripture alone). He reads history through a subjective lens and accepts or rejects Tradition based on his own understanding of Scripture. He even decides which church to select by first determining which church most closely resembles his own opinions on Scripture. This problem was anticipated by Jesus, which is why he built a hierarchy for His Church by giving Peter the “keys.”
The issue of contraception is a great, historical example of the above. Until 1930 (the Lambeth Conference) all Christians were united in their teaching that using contraception is a grave moral evil. While numerous Protestant denominations changed their position on birth control, the Catholic Church alone withstood the public pressure. Pope Paul VI wrote Humanae Vitae and affirmed the consistent teaching of Christianity to the chagrin of many. This is a great example of the limited power the Pope possesses in pastoring the Church as opposed to the individual Protestant. One is bound by Tradition and history while the other is bound only by the limits of his interpretative lens.
Are leaders needed?
What need is there for the Papacy? Every group needs a leader. Without authority there is no unity. Any organization (secular or religious) requires some type of hierarchy (such as a body of elders in a church or just a single pastor) to function.What happens when an organization has two leaders of equal status who disagree? Who possesses the veto power or trump card? Such chaos would render this organization dysfunctional.The Catholic Church is no different. Each and every bishop is the head of his particular diocese yet they must all be in union with Rome (The Pope) or they separate themselves from the Catholic Church.
This is precisely what has happened within Christendom. Currently there are approximately 30,000 different denominations all claiming to understand the Bible correctly, while disagreeing with each other over matters varying from non-essential to essential. Who ultimately decides who is right? An army without a general is ineffective and so is a Church without a visible leader.
Though a logical case for the necessity of a central ecclesial leader can be made, this does not prove God intended to create such an office. The Papacy can only be a legitimate part of Christ’s Church if its origins are of a divine nature. Did Christ establish the Papacy or did the medieval Catholic Church invent it for duplicitous reasons? Ironically, we will turn to the Bible for evidence that the Scripture is not the sole infallible rule of faith.
Earlier, I referred to the Biblical text in Mt 16:13-19. Here Christ stated,
you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church.
The significance of Jesus’ statement is lost in the translation from Greek to English. The actual text in Greek reads, “you are Petros (rock), and on this petra (rock) I will build my church.”
Jesus spoke in Aramaic. Thus, Jesus’ actual words would have been
“you are Kepha (rock) and on this kepha (rock) I will build my church.”
Why is this significant? Jesus renamed Simon to Peter, which means “rock”. When God renamed His people in the Old Testament, He did so to establish their mission (i.e. Abram to Abraham or Isaac to Israel). In this particular case, Jesus established Peter’s mission as the “rock” on which He would build His Church.
It is also significant that Jesus stated,
the gates of Hell shall not prevail against it
This statement guarantees both the long-standing nature and the doctrinal orthodoxy of the Church. This is because if the Church ceased to exist, or fell into apostasy, the gates of Hell would have prevailed despite Jesus’ promise.
The next statement Jesus made is an allusion to the Old Testament. In Isa 22:19-22, the prophet wrote:
I will thrust you from your office, and you will be cast down from your station. In that day I will call my servant Eli'akim the son of Hilki'ah, and I will clothe him with your robe, and will bind your girdle on him, and will commit your authority to his hand; and he shall be a father to the inhabitants of Jerusalem and to the house of Judah. And I will place on his shoulder the key of the house of David; he shall open, and none shall shut; and he shall shut, and none shall open.
This verse was written about Eliakim, the prime minister in the Davidic Kingdom of the Old Testament. The prime minister had the authority to “open…and shut” the doors to the Davidic Kingdom. This was an authoritative position.The reader is told that Eliakim is the replacement to Shebna as holder of the “keys.” This Davidic office was passed on from generation to generation since both Shebna, and his successor Eliakim, possessed the keys 300 years after the death of King David! Therefore, this office possessed both authority and a seat of succession.A first century Jew would have immediately understood this upon hearing Jesus’ words to Peter: “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven.” Jesus brings this allusion to mind to announce He is the New David in the New Davidic Kingdom (i.e. Kingdom of Heaven), and that Peter would be his new Eliakim (i.e. Prime Minister).
Jesus then tells Peter he has the authority
bind on earth (what) shall be bound in heaven, and (to) loose on earth (what) shall be loosed in heaven”. “Binding” and “loosing” were rabbinical terms for the authority to proclaim doctrinal orthodoxy. Jesus’ statement has a similar connotation to the phrase, “he shall open, and none shall shut; and he shall shut, and none shall open.
Thus, as the authoritative office of the “keys” in the Old Davidic Kingdom was passed on successively, so to the “steward of the house” in the New Davidic Kingdom passed on the office of the “keys” to his successor. Pope Benedict is the 264th successor of St. Peter.
The next verse to examine is Luke 22:31-32
Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail; and when you have turned again, strengthen your brethren.
Again, the translation from Greek to English is imperfect. In this text, Jesus uses the word “you” in plural form when He says, “Satan demanded to …sift you” but only uses the singular when saying, “but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail.” Thus, Jesus clearly intended to convey a primacy to Peter even amongst the other Apostles when he specifically prayed for Peter and then told him to “strengthen” his brethren.
The last verse to explore is John 21:15-19
When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, "Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?" He said to him, "Yes, Lord; you know that I love you." He said to him, "Feed my lambs." A second time he said to him, "Simon, son of John, do you love me?" He said to him, "Yes, Lord; you know that I love you." He said to him, "Tend my sheep." He said to him the third time, "Simon, son of John, do you love me?" Peter was grieved because he said to him the third time, "Do you love me?" And he said to him, "Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you." Jesus said to him, "Feed my sheep.
In this text Christ specifically addressed Peter amongst all of “these” (i.e. the other Apostles). In their presence, Jesus appointed Peter as “shepherd” of His sheep (including those Apostles present). Jesus never spoke to any other apostle individually in the way He did to Peter. There are other texts to consider including the choosing of a successor for Judas in Acts 1, the Council of Jerusalem in Acts 15, the authority to “bind and loose” given to all Apostles in Mt 18:18, among several others. However, the texts reviewed above should suffice for a cursory study of the issue.
The office of the Papacy has lasted longer, in an unbroken chain, than any other human institution. The Bishop of Rome serves the Church in a unique way as its Earthly and visible leader in the name of Jesus Christ. He is both a father and a shepherd. He is the focal point for unity, helping to guide the Church. He provides stability as the final arbiter in questions of the faith. Above all things the Pope is the Servant of the Servants of God.
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