Petrine primacy

Petrine primacy

"And I say to thee: That thou art Peter; and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it." (Mateo 16,18-19)

In this section you will find biblical, historical and patristic theme studies and analysis of the major Protestant objections.

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Talking with my evangelical friends about Papacy (Part 2)

By José Miguel Arráiz

You can read it in Spanish, English and Portuguese. You can read the Part 1 of this dialog too.

DiálogoWe reproduce excerpts of conversations between Catholics and Evangelicals from the book "Talking with my evangelical friends", very useful in helping our fellow Christians understand the Catholic faith.

Michael: Hi Joseph, can we continue with our conversation?

Pauline: Yes, this time it’s Michael who has different points to bring out.  

Joseph: Yes, of course.

Michael: Our previous conversation was very interesting and if I have to be honest, I agree with you on some things.

Joseph: Really?

Michael: Yes, I think that Jesus in Matthew 16,18 was referring to Peter as the rock on which the Church is built. In particular, I think that the distinctions that are often made to mean that Jesus was referring to another rock other than Peter seem forced, but there is a huge stretch from that point to understanding that Peter was who you understand as "Pope".

I mean: it is true that Peter had a strong leadership among the apostles, and because of that he received the keys as his representative, but he had no special ministry distinct from the apostles. In fact, when the apostle Paul lists the ministries of the Church, he never lists the papacy: “And he gave some apostles, and some prophets, and other some evangelists, and other some pastors and doctors: For the perfecting of the saints, for the word of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ” (Eph 4,11-12). If the office of the Papacy really existed at this time, why doesn’t Paul mention it? Why doesn’t he say that he allows some of them to be apostles and prophets, but also "Popes"?

Furthermore, if we read the letters that he wrote in his own hand, we can see that he never refers to himself like “Pope” or head of the Church, instead, he says that he is one of the elders of the congregation: “The ancients therefore that are among you, I beseech who am myself also an ancient and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as also a partaker of that glory which is to be revealed in time to come.” (1 Pet 5,1). Who can imagine that someone could name the ministers of the Catholic Church or write the official orders of the Vatican without mentioning the Pope? However, the Bible contains all the information related to the minor offices and to other people without mentioning the Pope. If I have to be honest, I only find one explanation: There was no Pope in the early Church.  

Joseph: The fact is that you’re making a mistake when you think that the Pope plays a role in the ministry that is different from the role of the rest of the bishops. He doesn’t. The Pope is a bishop like the rest, and hence he is precisely “the Bishop of Rome”. The difference between the Pope and the other bishops isn’t the competence of their ordinations, but the power in his jurisdiction. To make it clearer, let’s look at this text of the Gospel:

When therefore they had dined, Jesus saith to Simon Peter: Simon, son of John, lovest thou me more than these? He saith to him: Yea, Lord, thou knowest that I love thee. He saith to him: Feed my lambs. He saith to him again: Simon, son of John, lovest thou me? He saith to him: yea, Lord, thou knowest that I love thee. He saith to him: Feed my lambs. He said to him the third time: Simon, son of John, lovest thou me? Peter was grieved because he had said to him the third time: Lovest thou me? And he said to him: Lord, thou knowest all things: thou knowest that I love thee. He said to him: Feed my sheep.” (John 21,15-17)

On this occasion, Jesus was with all the apostles, but it is to Peter who he asked three times: “lovest thou me more than these?” and every time that Peter answered, Jesus solemnly entrusted to him shepherding his flock. There are two elements that we have to highlight: the first one is that even when Jesus talks only to Peter, all the apostles share the same office, shepherd the Church. However, Peter is the only one that receives a unique mandate. He has to shepherd “the sheep”, but he also has to shepherd “the lambs”. What else can represent the lambs but the rest of the apostles, the ones to whom he asks if they loved him more than themselves? The role of Peter here is the same role as the rest of the apostles, but his jurisdiction as minister extends beyond and includes them.

Pauline: Joseph, but there are also other reasons why Jesus talks only to Peter in that moment. Remember that he had denied him three times, so it is normal to think that he was giving him the opportunity to rectify his betrayal, confirming his love also three times.

Joseph: Of course that could be one of the reasons, but that doesn’t explain why he is entrusting him to shepherd his brothers (lambs) in the way of the faith.

Here is another text where the same idea is confirmed. On another occasion Jesus tells Peter: “And the Lord said: Simon, Simon, behold Satan hath desired to have you, that he may sift you as wheat.  But I have prayed for thee, that thy faith fail not: and thou, being once converted, confirm thy brethren.” (Luke 22,31-32). Look that Jesus was with the rest of the apostles again and he said to them that Satan has demanded permission to tempt all of them, but at the same time, he emphasizes that he’s specially praying for Peter, for his faith not to fail, and he immediately gives them the reason for that, and that’s that he’ll have the function of confirming to his brethren (the rest of the apostles) in the faith: “and thou, being once converted, confirm thy brethren.”

Let me use an analogy with a basketball team. Each team is composed of a set of players, but one of them has a special role: the captain. The captain isn’t more important than the rest, however, he has the duty to coordinate the team and he has to ensure that it remains cohesive and organized. In the same way, the Pope is as a bishop as the rest, but he has the jurisdiction to maintain the union and the orthodoxy within the Christian Church. And even when he may have played this function in different ways throughout history, this has been always present[1].

If you look at it in this way, you can understand why Peter, as a butler, receives the revelation that the gentles might come to the Church (Acts 10,28). He is the first to preach at Pentecost (Acts 2,14), he is the one who takes the initiative on the need to complete the group of twelve (Acts 1,15-22), he is the one who makes the first miraculous healing after the resurrection (Acts 3,6-7). He is also mentioned first in all the lists of the apostles, while Judas appears last (Matt 10,2-4; Mark 3,16-19; Luke 6,13-16; Acts 1,13), and it is also remarkable that in the gospel of Matthew, when he begins to list them, he explicitly says “First, Simon” (Matt 10,2) this will be redundant if we see it only for the order of mention, but if we compare this with the other texts we have seen, where Peter appears as the apostle who occupies the preeminence among the rest of the disciples, it makes much sense.

Michael: But if you’re right, and Peter was the one commissioned to maintain the doctrinal orthodoxy of the Church, how do you explain that it was the apostle, Paul who corrected him in his own doctrine? Let’s take a moment to read what the New Testament says to us:

But when Cephas was come to Antioch, I withstood him to the face, because he was to be blamed. For before that some came from James, he did eat with the Gentiles: but when they were come, he withdrew and separated himself, fearing them who were of the circumcision. And to his dissimulation the rest of the Jews consented: so that Barnabas also was led by them into that dissimulation. But when I saw that they walked not uprightly unto the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas before them all: If thou, being a Jew, livest after the manner of the Gentiles and not as the Jews do, how dost thou compel the Gentiles to live as do the Jews?(Gal 2,11-14)

By the way, can you imagine any opportunity which has been made public, where a subordinate of the Pope (a cardinal, for example) has reprimanded him in public and (as if that wasn’t enough) on matters of doctrine, like the case of Paul, who has rebuked Peter for judaizing?

Joseph: In first place, I have to clarify that the error of Peter was disciplinary, not doctrinal. Both Peter and Paul agreed that the observances of the Jews should be abolished. Even St. Peter didn’t agree that the gentle that had been converted in Antioch were circumcised, as the Jews desired (Acts 15,10) and as St. Paul recognizes, he wasn’t judaizing, he was “living as a gentle”.

To find people rebuking the Pope in history isn’t as strange as you might think. St. Irenaeus, bishop of Lyon rebuked Pope Victor with a letter, disapproving of his decision to excommunicate the bishops of Asia Minor on the occasion of the Easter controversy and with his words, he got that this Pope desisted from his functions. San Bernardo, a humble monk, wrote a letter to warn the Pope Eugenius III about the dangers that he was exposed to. St. Catherine of Siena, a nun, rebuked the Pope Gregory XI, using a letter, because of his decision to remain in Avignon, and she even urged the Pope to return to Rome, making him see how damaging it was to the interests of the Church for him to stay there[2].

Pauline: Joseph, but what I see here is that as he was trying to act hypocritically because he was afraid of the Jews, with his actions and his mandates, he was denying the truth of the Gospel, since (literally) he forced the gentle to do the same (as we can read on the verse 14), and Paul never did this in order to justify the sinner of the God Father.

Joseph: You can realize that when you use the word “actions” and not “preaching” or “teaching”, you’re implicitly recognizing that the error of St. Peter was his conduct, not his teaching. Let’s read the following text, where Jesus makes a differentiation between the conduct and the doctrine:

“Saying: The scribes and the Pharisees have sitten on the chair of Moses. All things therefore whatsoever they shall say to you, observe and do: but according to their works do ye not. For they say, and do not.” (Matt 23,2-3).

In this text, Jesus doesn’t accuse the Pharisees of teaching bad things because they do bad things, but you actually do the opposite: you’re assuming that Peter was teaching bad things because at a certain point, he did bad things. In the Catholic Church, we don’t declare that the Popes don’t sin, or that they don’t have moments of weakness or make mistakes. In fact, the dogma of the papal infallibility doesn’t even mean that the Pope is infallible in everything he does or teaches, it means that  only when he teaches ex cathedra, or what is the same, in terms of faith and morals in his office of universal pastor of the whole Church, he defines a truth of faith.[3]. And all this indicates, if it proves anything, is that it wasn’t that Peter was teaching bad things, which is false, but how his behavior, based on the primacy that he occupied among the apostles, could drag almost everyone with him, including the very Barnabas, collaborator of the apostles. This is the reason why the intervention of St. Paul was so important, even to the point of having to resist him “face to face”.

What I recommend is to analyze all the evidence as a whole, and reflect objectively and without prejudice everything that the New Testament teaches us. If Peter hasn’t a primacy among the rest of the apostles, then why did Jesus change his name and choose him to hold the keys, using a figure so familiar to the Jewish people? Why he doesn’t speak in plural in Matthew 16:19 and says "I will give you the keys ..." but “I will give to thee the keys…”. Why is Peter who he precisely entrusted to feed the lambs and sheep the flock and confirm his brothers in faith? Why was he the one who received the revelation that the gentle could enter in the Church? Why is he always on the top of the lists of the apostles? Why do all the churches from the first centuries recognize that the bishop of Rome was the successor of the apostle Peter, and that the Church of Rome had the primacy over the rest of churches?


[1] Even when the essence of the Papacy has always been the same, its style has changed throughout history, as the Church faced various obstacles and challenges. You can consult my book, Compendium of Catholic Apologetics, where I go farther and deeper about this topic.

[2] The Code of Canon Law recognizes to each faithful the right and, sometimes is considered as a duty, to manifest to the pastors those things that belong to the good of the Church. In this regard, Canon 212 says:

Ҥ1. Conscious of their own responsibility, the Christian faithful are bound to follow with Christian obedience those things which the sacred pastors, inasmuch as they represent Christ, declare as teachers of the faith or establish as rulers of the Church.

§2. The Christian faithful are free to make known to the pastors of the Church their needs, especially spiritual ones, and their desires.

§3. According to the knowledge, competence, and prestige which they possess, they have the right and even at times the duty to manifest to the sacred pastors their opinion on matters which pertain to the good of the Church and to make their opinion known to the rest of the Christian faithful, without prejudice to the integrity of faith and morals, with reverence toward their pastors, and attentive to common advantage and the dignity of persons.

[3] The conditions for considering the teaching as ex cathedra and infallible are mentioned in the Vatican decree: “when the Roman pontiff speaks EX CATHEDRA, that is, when, in the exercise of his office as shepherd and teacher of all Christians, in virtue of his supreme apostolic authority, he defines a doctrine concerning faith or morals to be held by the whole Church