From booklet, "The Papacy: Expression of God's Love", + Imprimatur: Most Reverend John J. Carberry:
Primacy is a word meaning first place or first rank. The word is often used by Catholics in reference to St. Peter and his successors, the popes. It may strike the reader that this kind of talk makes three large assumptions. The first is the assumption that Jesus gave such primacy to Peter; the second is the assumption that it was primacy not simply of place but also of authority; and the third is the assumption that Peter’s primacy was passed on to his successors.
It will come as no surprise that Catholics hold these three assumptions to be valid. This is part of our faith tradition, something that has been handed down from generation to generation since the time of the Apostles. It is reflected in the Scriptures as they are read within the Church. It is attested to in the writings of the time immediately following that of the Apostles and in the sermons and treatises of the Fathers of the Church. With no desire to provoke debate but simply to explain what we believe, we offer the following reflections on the papacy.
It seems reasonable to relate John 6 with Matthew 16 in some sort of time frame. From this we can set the following scene. Fifteen days before the Passover in the second year of His ministry, Jesus journeyed from Capernaum where He had foretold the institution of the Eucharist. In danger from the agents of Herod Antipas who were listening to everything He said, He was making His journey to Jerusalem in a roundabout way. He left the Lake of Genesareth and went north to Caesarea Philippi. The twelve disciples were with Him, those who were to form His core group from that time on. They were Simon Bar-Jonah (son of John), Andrew his brother; James and John, sons of Zebedee; Philip and Nathaniel (son of Tolmai and known to us also as Bartholomew); Matthew-Levi, the tax-collector; James the Less and Jude Thaddeus, who were cousins of Jesus; Thomas the twin; Simon of the Zealot party; and finally Judas from Kerioth, a newcomer to the group.
These twelve were among the few who remained after the discourse on the Eucharist. Shocked that Jesus had talked about giving His body and blood as food for eternal life, the greater number had walked away. Sadly, Jesus had turned to the twelve and asked, “Do you want to leave me too?” And Simon Peter had answered, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe; we are convinced that you are God’s holy one.”
In a village in the region of Caesarea Philippi, a halting place on the trip southward to the Holy City, Jesus asked an important question. He had been debating with the scribes and Pharisees and it was time to judge whether the hostility was shared by the common people. This is how Matthew tells it.
When Jesus came to the neighborhood of Caesarea Philippi, He asked His disciples this question: “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” They replied, “Some say John the Baptist, others Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” “And you,” He said to them, “who do you say I am?” “You are the Messiah,” Simon Peter answered, “the Son of the living God!” Jesus replied, “Blest are you, Simon, son of John! No mere man has revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father. I for my part declare to you, you are the Rock and on this rock I will build My Church and the jaws of death shall not prevail against it. I will entrust to you the keys of the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you declare bound on earth will be bound in heaven, whatever you declare loosed on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Mt 16: 13-19).
From earliest times, as the tradition recorded by Matthew shows, Christians have placed great importance on this commission given by the Lord to Peter. The scene as found in Matthew is foreshadowed by another which appears early in St. John’s gospel (Jn 1:42).
John the Baptist had begun to preach beside the Jordan. An unknown man comes to him among the others. It is Jesus of Nazareth. The prophet is inspired to recognize Him. He points Him out to two who had already been baptized and had become his disciples. “Look,” he said, “there is the Lamb of God.” The significance of this title like a Hebrew code-word was not lost on them. It could only mean the Messiah. So the two followed Jesus and spent the day with Him. One of the pair was Andrew, Simon’s brother. The gospel continues: “The first thing he did was seek out his brother Simon and tell him, ‘we have found the Messiah!’… He brought him to Jesus who looked at him and said, ‘You are Simon, son of John, your name shall be Cephas (which is rendered Peter).’”
This simple phrase changes everything. Henceforth Simon will be more than Simon. He will be Cephas. The Aramaic word means rock. The fullness of Christ’s meaning did not appear on that first occasion but it did come to light during the dialogue at Caesarea Philippi. Together, both texts, John 1:42 and Matthew 16:13-19, witness tellingly to the nature of Peter’s primacy—that it was a primacy of real authority and not just honorary precedence.
We have noted that the event at Caesarea Philippi occurred in the second year of Jesus’ preaching. It is clear that by this time Peter had already achieved what might be called a primacy of honor. Read the scriptures and see how his name invariably appears first in the listing of the Apostles (cfr Mt 10:2: “first Simon who is called Peter;” Mk 1:36: “Simon and his companions;” etc.). Surely the very seriousness and solemnity of the text prefaced by the words, “I for my part declare to you,” indicate that Jesus intended to give Peter something more than he had already had up to that time.
Our impression is that Jesus intended to go beyond primacy of honor and give Peter real authority in the Church so that he might in face speak and act in His name. The impression is heightened by the very symbols which Jesus used. The first of these is “rock”, a time-honored word in the Scriptures to signify firmness, strength and unchanging fidelity. It was often applied in Old Testament times to God. In time it would be applied in the New Testament to Christ. Some have argued from this that Jesus never could have applied the word to the person of Peter. But why not? A figure of speech can be used in various ways and often, even in Scripture, we have different spheres of meaning. The Scriptures would not be adverse to calling Peter the rock who symbolizes the solidity and fidelity of God, the Rock, or of Jesus, the Rock. As a matter of fact, such an understanding would be perfectly in keeping with the belief that Peter is Christ’s vicar, making visible the invisible presence of the rocklike Christ.
Christ and Peter
A problem sometimes arises because people take the metaphor out of context. How can Peter be the rock if Christ is the foundation stone (1 Cor 3:11)? But the image in the first passage sees Christ as the builder and Peter as the rock on which He builds. The image in the second passage simply considers Christ in Himself as the mediator of God’s saving plan with no reference at all to Peter. Even the most ardent defender of Peter’s primacy would not dream of seeing the Apostle in the place of Christ. All that is implied is that Christ has given Peter the key role, subordinate to Himself. The language is that of a poet rather than of an engineer. There is no need to be terribly literal. What Christ meant was that Peter would be His chief ambassador, His authentic Vicar (or man-on-the-scene), the instrument of His loving care for His Church. Physically it is not possible to have a double foundation stone. Theologically, it would be very correct to say that Peter in Christ, with Christ and through Christ is the rock foundation of the Church.
The impression that Christ gave Peter real power and not just “pride of place” is vastly strengthened by the symbol of the keys which bind and loose. Jesus said, “I will entrust to you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, whatever you declare bound on earth shall be bound in heaven; whatever you declare loosed on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Mt 16: 19).
There are several Scripture passages which help to illuminate these words. In Isaiah we read: “On that day I will summon my servant, Eliakim, son of Hilkiah … I will place the key of the House of David on his shoulder; when he opens, no one shall shut, when he shuts, no one shall open.” God in the prophecy is speaking of the infidelity of Shebna, master of the royal palace in Jerusalem. He will be removed from office and his place will be taken by Eliakim, son of Hilkiah (cfr Is. 22:22). For our purpose here, the point of interest is in the expression the prophet uses. He speaks of power in terms of a key that can be shut so that no one may open and open so that no one may shut. Christ’s words about giving the keys to Peter for binding and loosing are clearly in this tradition.
Further, in Revelation, the risen Christ appears to John and says: “There is nothing to fear. I am the First and the Last and the One who lives. Once I was dead but now I live—forever and ever. I hold the keys of death and the nether world” (Rev 1:17). Here again, the mention of keys implies real power. In a similar way the word “key” appears in chapter 20:1: “Then I saw an angel come down from heaven, holding the key to the abyss.”
Bind and Loose
The gospel words, “bind” and “loose”, are sometimes said to be Greek expressions taken from the pagan world of magic. The better opinion, however, seems to be that the terms are taken from the Semitic language as used in the rabbinic literature of the times. In this literature, the rabbis use the words “binding” and “loosing” to express wide authority such as that of admitting persons or excluding them from the community, admitting or excluding doctrines as authentic teaching. Consideration of this rabbinical usage at the time of Christ has led many impartial scholars to admit for Peter a real fullness of power to act as Christ’s vicar.
Prince of Apostles
There are many, of course, who read the Scriptures and agree with Catholics that Christ did indeed choose Peter as His vicar, the one with special power to rule over the early Christian Church, the mainstay who, once confirmed in his own belief, would sustain the faith of his brethren (Lk 22:32). Some object to this on the grounds of the dispute between Paul and Peter as related in Galatians 2:11 ff. But a careful reading shows that this dispute refers to a personal failing on Peter’s part rather than any false teaching or universal discipline. The relationship between Paul and Peter as seen in Acts and the great prominence given to Peter in the early development of the Church leave little doubt about Peter’s acceptance by the early Christians as prince of the Apostles and vicar of Christ. The witness of Acts is especially noteworthy. Between the Ascension and Pentecost, Peter is the spokesman who acts for the community. He presides when Matthias is chosen to succeed Judas (Acts.1:15-26), he interprets the Pentecost event (Acts 2:14ff). He heals the lame man and advances the early Church (Acts 3:1-6; 4:4-6). Peter defends the Church before the Sanhendrin (Acts 4:5-22), judges Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:1-11), appears a second time before the Jewish court in the name of the Christians (Acts 5:29), goes to Samaria to lay hands on those baptized by Philip the deacon (Acts 8:15), scolds Simon the magician (Acts 8:14-24), works miracles (Acts 11:31-43).
Peter’s imprisonment and release are of vital interest to the young community (Acts 12:3-17). He acts as president of the so-called “Council of Jerusalem” (Acts 15:6-12) and his vision opens up the Church to gentiles as well as Jews (cfr. Chapters 9 and 10). The cumulative effect of reading the first 15 chapters of Acts is one of seeing Peter as at the very heart of the early Church, the key person in its life, the ultimate decision maker.
Among those who accept with Catholics the belief that Peter had a primacy of jurisdiction as well as primacy of honor, there are many who part company with Catholics on the matter of Peter’s successors. They will agree that Peter was Christ’s vicar. They will not agree that the power given Peter continues, by Christ’s wish, to be extended to Peter’s successors. The matter calls for some calm consideration.