The brilliant convert from Anglicanism, G. K. Chesterton, noted in his biography of Geoffrey Chaucer that “for Catholics, in history, the Pope is a leader as well as a ruler”. Indeed for Catholics and for all Christians, and for two thousand years of Christian history, our Lord has willed for the Pope to be the chief leader and ruler of His Church on earth.
But are there good reasons to believe this assertion? We might begin such an investigation by asking two key questions:
QUESTION #1: Did Peter hold a superior position among the apostles?
Catholics say yes. The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) states that among the twelve apostles Peter alone was designated by Jesus to be the head of the apostles, and of the Church:
“The Lord made Simon alone, whom he named Peter, the “rock” of his Church. He gave him the keys of his Church and instituted him shepherd of the whole flock.” (see CCC 880 & 881)
These claims of the Catechism are not out of thin air. Consider the following points:
1. Every time the apostles are listed, Peter is the first to be mentioned (and Judas the last). It is clear that the Gospel writers are being intentional in their “roster order” (Matt 10:2; Luke Luke 6:13-16; Acts 1:3).
2. Peter is called the chief apostle. In Matthew 10, after noting that Jesus had given the apostles special authority to work wonders, St. Matthew lists the apostles. He begins by writing, “first, Simon who is called Peter, and Andrew….”.
In the original Greek translation, the word used is protos, which can mean “first in number” (initial) or “first in importance” (chief). But Peter was not the first apostle called by Christ (John 1:35-42), therefore he must be the first—or chief—apostle in importance:
“And he called to him his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to heal every disease and every infirmity. The names of the twelve apostles are these: first [Gk. protos], Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother…and Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him.” (Matt 10:1-4)
To make his implication explicit, St. Matthew later confirms Peter’s chief position among the apostles (Matthew 16:17-20).
Like St. Matthew, St. Augustine (writing in A.D. 416) saw Peter’s chief position clearly. He asks rhetorically:
“Who is ignorant that the first of the apostles is the most blessed Peter?” (Commentary on John 56:1).
3. Peter is always listed first among Jesus’ inner three. The very fact of the “inner three” among the apostles—Peter, James and John—suggests that Jesus’ scheme for His Church’ structure would involve some form of hierarchy.
Throughout the Gospels, Jesus often invites Peter, James and John to join Him for special periods of prayer and teaching, and to be special witnesses of miracles (such as the Transfiguration). Peter is always listed first by the Gospel writers (Mt 17:1; Mk 5:37; 9:2; 14:33; Lk 8:51; 9:28).
4. On several occasions Peter is the only name mentioned when referring to the group of disciples.
St. Paul does this (1 Cor 9:5; 1 Cor 15:5). St. Luke (Acts 2:37) does this; as does St. Mark. This implies that the early Church leaders and evangelists recognized Peter’s unique place among the disciples.
In St. Mark’s Gospel, for example:
“But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going before you to Galilee; there you will see him, as he told you.” (Mark 16:7)
For what other (and more plausible) reason would Mark, Luke and Paul write in this pro-Petrine style?
5. Peter’s name (in the forms of Peter, Kepha and Cephas) is mentioned in the New Testament more than all of the other apostles’ names put together.
In his apologetical work, Hands On Apologetics, Dave Armstrong mentions that Venerable Archbishop Fulton Sheen—a first-class Bible scholar—has estimated that all the other apostles combined are mentioned approximately 130 times. Peter is mentioned almost 200 times. Armstrong writes:
“Surely, such consistent predominance is beyond coincidence”. (p. 12)
The next most-mentioned apostle is the “beloved apostle”, St. John, who is mentioned almost 50 times.
QUESTION #2: Did Peter hold the superior position of authority in the universal Christian Church?
Again, we say yes and point to the Bible to make our evidence-based case:
1. Jesus gives Simon a new name. He names him Kepha in Aramaic—Peter in English.
This is significant. When God gives a person a new name in the Old Testament, it reflects a new God-ordained mission and status. When Abram became Abraham (Gen 17:1-5), this reflected his new significance as the “father of nations” (see also when Jacob is re-named Israel by God). Simon’s new name, Peter, is more than a name. It is, as convert Steve Ray writes in Upon This Rock, “a new designation, a new commission and a new status” (p. 24).
2. To be given “the keys” by a Jewish king means a transferal or extension of royal authority. In the Davidic kingdom, a steward of the king could act with the king’s authority in his absence. We see this with Eliakim, the king’s steward in Book of Isaiah:
“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.” (Isaiah 22: 15-25)
These words, in Jewish language, meant a sharing of royal authority. St. Peter is given the keys by Jesus and is thus designated His steward:
“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 16:19)
In Revelation 3:7, we see that Jesus still holds the keys to the Kingdom as well; indeed this further emphasizes how St. Peter’s role as the “key-holder” of the Church is a shared role effected by Christ. God shares much with his steward, as God the Rock (Ps 18:2) makes Peter the rock (Mt 16:18), God the Shepherd (Jn 10:11) makes Peter the shepherd (Jn 21:17) and God the Key Holder (Rev 3:7) makes Peter the key holder (Mt 16:19). Not a small task for a fisherman.
The keys of the kingdom of heaven allowed Peter the authority to make or bind definitive clarifications on matters of faith and morals. It has been so from the beginning: thus in A.D. 251, bishop Cyprian of Carthage wrote:
“If someone does not hold fast to this unity of Peter, can he imagine that he still holds the faith? If he [should] desert the chair of Peter upon whom the Church was built, can he still be confident that he is in the Church?” (The Unity of the Catholic Church 4; 1st edition).
From these words of Cyprian we can see that the keys of Peter have been passed on (to his successors) and remain relevant to the Church even in the 3rd century, as he exhorts Christians to heed the Petrine key holder of Rome.
3. The power to “bind and loose” represents administrative authority.
The Jewish Encyclopedia states that “binding and loosing” is a “[r]abbinical term for “forbidding and permitting.”
In the Scriptures, Old and New, we see several forms of this richly significant phrase.
In Isaiah 22, God speaks through the prophet Isaiah:
“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.” (Isaiah 22: 15-25′ see also Rev 3:7)
In John 20, Jesus speaks to His apostles collectively:
“Jesus…said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” (John 20:21-23)
In Matthew 16, Jesus speaks to Peter singularly:
“I will give you [singular] the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you [singular] bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you [singular] loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” (Matt 16:19)
Often Catholic-Protestant debate on Matthew 16 tends to fixate on who or what Jesus meant by the “rock”; but regardless it is clear that Jesus confers unique authority upon Peter in the words that follow (regarding the keys and binding and loosing). Based on Jesus’ language, there can be no doubt that Peter is the chief key holder, as well as binder and looser, among the college of apostles—and thus Jesus’ steward and ruler of the earthly Church.
4. Peter is the Satan’s prized target among the apostles.
This is not explicit, but it is implied in its context. Jesus tells Peter:
“Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat.” (Luke 22:32)
5. Jesus prays specifically for Peter’s fortitude, faith and leadership.
“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.” (Luke 22:32)
Bishop St. Ambrose of Milan writes in A.D. 379:
“‘You are Peter, and upon this rock will I build my Church. . . .’ Could [Jesus] not, then, strengthen the faith of the man to whom, acting on his own authority, he gave the kingdom, whom he called the rock, thereby declaring him to be the foundation of the Church [Matt. 16:18]?” (The Faith 4:5 [A.D. 379]).
6. Peter affirms the necessity of apostolic succession after Christ’s ascension.
This is Peter’s first recorded dogmatic declaration in the early Church. St. Luke writes that Peter stood among “the brethren” and affirmed:
“[Judas] was numbered among us, and was allotted his share in this ministry. For it is written in the book of Psalms,
‘Let his habitation become desolate,
and let there be no one to live in it’;
and his office let another take.’” (Acts 1:15-20)
Immediately following Peter’s declaration as chief apostle, Matthias is chosen to succeed Judas Iscariot.
7. Peter makes the final, decisive dogmatic decision regarding the Gentiles at the Council of Jerusalem.
The atmosphere is thick with intense debate. The early Church leaders have gathered to decide whether Gentile converts to Christianity must be circumcised. Peter stands; and the boisterous apostles and elders hush immediately for Peter, Christ’s royal steward, is about to speak.
Then Peter declares his conclusive decision on the matter—and nobody argues with him.
“And after there had been much debate, Peter rose and said to them, ‘Brethren, you know that in the early days God made choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel and believe. And God who knows the heart bore witness to them, giving them the Holy Spirit just as he did to us…..But we believe that we shall be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.’
And all the assembly kept silence.” (see Acts 15)
James also makes a decision shortly afterwards at the council, as the bishop of Jerusalem. But his decision reflects a pastoral judgement (to write a letter to the Gentile believers), not a dogmatic judgement as Peter did.
Critics sometimes respond by pointing to the sins and shortcomings of Peter, or specifically to St. Paul’s opposition to St. Peter at Antioch (Gal 2:11). But these things prove absolutely nothing about Peter’s role in the Church. They just affirm another age-old belief of the Catholic Church—that the pope is a sinner like the rest of us.
At its essence the papacy is not a power-grab, nor a holiday for the elected. Surely the burden of the papal keys could only reflect the weight of the cross. The faithful upholding of these keys by our popes through the ages has earned, for example, an upside-down crucifixion for Peter, mass public ridicule for Paul VI, a bullet for John Paul II, and all of the men in between and after, inconceivable suffering, public and private, for the sake of their office.
History has shown that the keys come with a price. They bring with them serious business to be carried forward—business of the eternal kind. Truly no man could possibly bear the weight of the keys of the kingdom of heaven under his own steam. The burden is too great. This is why the papacy can only be understood to be an office where God shares with man, and where man participates with God. Indeed it is at the ring of those mysterious keys where God’s hand touches the hand of a sinner forming a grip not even the destructive forces of hell can prevail against.
Pope Fiction by Patrick Madrid
Jesus, Peter And The Keys by Butler, Dahlgren and Hess
Upon This Rock by Steven K. Ray