Common Misunderstanding: Most fundamentalists insist that Peter was never appointed by Christ as head of the Church on earth because the Church was never intended to have such an earthly head.
Sources: Keating, Fundamentalism and Catholicism; John Hardon, S.J., The Catholic Catechism; Code of Canon Law; Teaching Authority and Infallibility in the Church: Lutherans and Catholics in Dialogue VI; James Cardinal Gibbons, Faith of Our Fathers; Jurgens, The Faith of the Early Fathers;The Catechism of the Catholic Church;
Here we are dealing with several different questions: 1) Did Jesus ever desire any human being to be the visible “head” or “vicar” of the Church and did he indeed appoint Peter to be that head? 2) If so, is the Pope, as the successor of Peter infallible? 3) Did Jesus intend succession? 4) Would this detract from Jesus’ role as Head? 5) Does the supremacy of Peter conflict with the supreme dominion of Christ?
Peter and the Papacy
Peter as first bishop of Rome. Some argue that Peter was never in Rome and so could not have been the first Pope.
Not true – there are indirect allusions to Rome in Peter’s epistles.
We shouldn’t restrict our inquiry to just the Bible, but use well-known resources from the Fathers of the Church. W.A. Jurgens, The Faith of the Early Fathers has thirty references to this from the Didache to John Damascene. Keating summarizes Lorrain Boettner’s criticism:
To sum up, Boettner does not know what he is talking about when he claims there is no “historical proof of any kind” and that “all rests on legend.” The truth is that all the historical evidence is on the side of the Catholic position.” (see Keating p 201ff).
Petrine primacy. The New Testament shows evidence that Peter was first in authority among the apostles (Keating, p 205)
Peter almost always first on list of apostles (Mt 10:1-4; Mk 3:16-19; Lk 6:14-16; Acts 1:13)
Peter generally spoke for the apostles (Mt 18:21; Mk 8:29; Lk 12:41; Jn 6:69).
Peter preached first at Pentecost (Acts 2:14-40; he worked the first healing (Acts 3:6,7). Peter came to the revelation that Gentiles were to be baptized (Acts 10:46-48). Peter was named “rock” by Jesus. Always prior to this the name “rock” had been reserved to God. Peter was given the “keys to the Kingdome” (Mt 16:19, see Isa 22:22; Rev 1:18). Peter was commissioned by Jesus to strengthen his brother apostles and disciples (Lk 22:32; Jn 21:15-17). See Isa 22:22 for the background on Peter as vicar of Christ, holding the keys. Jesus prayed that Peter would not become a Shebna in official proclamations (wielding of the keys) in matters of doctrine and morals. This passage does describe a position of “vicar” or “prime minister’ who is second in power, exercising the power of one who is greater.
Church Fathers: St. Ambrose - “Where Peter is, there is the Church.” Sts. Chrysostom and Ambrose say that St. Paul’s visit to Jerusalem recorded in Gal 1:18 was “not an idle visit of ceremony but… to testify his respect and honor for the chief of the Apostles.” St. Jerome goes on to observe that “Paul went not to behold Peter’s eyes, his cheeks or his countenance, whether he was thin or stout… but to show honor to the first Apostle.”
What does the “rock” of “You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church” refer to (Mt 16:18)?
“Rock” – problems of petros, little pebble, and petra, massive stone. Is the rock referred to Peter himself and/or to his faith? Note that the original would have been in Aramaic where the difference does not exist. Is Jesus really the rock, the only foundation (see Rev. 21:14 where the Apostles are the foundation? Compare to the Protestant hymn, The Church’s One Foundation). See Keating, pp 208-211 for a summary of all the issues concerning this wording.
The name “Peter.” Petros. This means “rock.” Up to this point in Jewish culture this word was never used as a name for a person. It described God only. In John 1:42 Jesus says when he first sees Simon… you will be called Kephas” (Aramaic for rock, Greek equivalent, petros). Note the importance of a name in biblical times. This marks a key change. Comparison to Abram to Abraham.
The Infallibility of the Pope
Definition: Infallibility does not mean – freedom from sin (impeccability), inspiration, a new revelation, not doctrine, infallible in economics or politics, nor the power to dictate to the state.
Papal infallibility does mean “that the Pope, as successor of St. Peter, Prince of the Apostles, by virtue of the promises of Jesus Christ, is preserved from error of judgment when he promulgates to the Church a decision on faith or morals” (Gibbons, p 101). Hardon summarizes well:
Peter’s declaration before the Sanhedrin illustrates the various differences. “Of all the names in the world given to men,” he said, “this is the only one by which we can be saved” (Acts 4:12). The salvation of the world by Jesus Christ is a matter of revelation; the instinct to protest against the injustice of the Jews an proclaim the name of Christ, we are told by St. Luke, was a divine inspiration, since Peter was “filled with the Holy Spirit,” and in writing this episode, the author of the Acts was supernaturally inspired. But when Peter spoke as the Vicar of Christ to “rulers, elders, an scribes,” he was divinely assisted by the gift of infallibility (Hardon, Catechism, pp 224-5).
What is the scope of papal infallibility? It applies to doctrines involving areas of faith and morals.
Vatican I established the four conditions for an infallible papal definition (cf. DS 3074). The Pope must speak:
In fulfillment of his office as supreme pastor and teacher of all Christians
In virtue of his supreme apostolic authority, i.e., as successor to Peter
Determining a doctrine of faith and morals, i.e., a doctrine expressing divine revelation
Imposing a doctrine to be held definitively by all
Jn 21: 15-17 “Feed my sheep…”
Lk 22:32 “I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail…”;
Mt 16:18 “You are Peter…” Jesus promised the protection of the Holy Spirit “to guide you into all truth” (Jn 16:13).
That mandate and that promise guarantee that the Church will never fall away from his teachings (1 Tim 3:15).
Early references in the Fathers:
Cyprian of Carthage (256 AD), “Would heretics dare to come to the very seat of Peter whence apostolic faith is derived and whither no errors can come?”
Augustine of Hippo, “Rome has spoken; the case is closed (ca. 400).
Pope Sixtus III (433 AD) said that to assent to the Bishop of Rome’s decisioin is to assent to Peter, who lives in his successors an whose faith does not fail. (See Keating, p 217 and Gibbons, Faith pp 90-93).
Some ask, “Why did they wait so long to make this up?”
Answer: It had not been contested strongly. Things are not formally defined until their validity has been challenged. Ex. The divinity of Christ was formally defined at the Council of Nicea in 325 A.D. but was always true.
What we know: that Jesus instituted a permanent office first occupied by Peter as “vicar of Christ” or “prime minister”; also that the person occupying this office enjoys a power of infallibility when speaking officially in this role to the whole Church in matters of faith an morals.