Wednesday, February 22, 2006

This is my Favorite Chair

Today is the Feast of the Chair of St. Peter. It commemorates St. Peter taking pastoral responsibilty in Rome. The feast itself dates from the fourth century which of course is telling too. It is almost like the persecution ended and the first thing the Church thought to do is honor St. Peter. However, many of our Protestant brothers and sisters don't understand why the Catholic Church makes such a fuss about him. Below is an article that I wrote for the Sooner Catholic on the importance of St. Peter. Enjoy!

Dear Father Tharp:
I have been studying Church history. I can’t find anywhere that says there was any sort of “papacy” in the early Church or that Peter was supreme. What gives?

Sincerely Yours,
Jon Longman
Sand Springs, OK

When dealing with issues like this one, you first have to let go of the notion that you are going to find that particular term used. After all, the Bible doesn’t mention things like “Incarnation” or the “Trinity” and yet we would say that those things are being taught. Since your letter had so much in it, I couldn’t reproduce it. Instead, I will try to answer each of the objection you present.

What is Peter’s relationship to the other Apostles? That Peter was first among the Apostles rests upon Scriptural testimony. First, the New Testament mentions a list of the Apostles, Peter heads the list (Mt. 10:2-4; Mk. 3:16-19; Lk. 6:13-16; Acts 1:13-15). Second, before the other Apostles are given in the power of binding and loosing, Peter receives this power in the form of the Keys of the Kingdom (Mt 16:19). In Isaiah 22: 20-23, we see this imagery used to describe how Eliakim, as the Prime Minster in Hezekiah’s kingdom, was to bind and to loose. In this same way, we see how Peter is to be the guardian and protector this new Kingdom that Christ establishes. However, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to appoint a guardian only to have the office fade away as soon as the first office holder is dead. Also, in the Sacred Scriptures, when someone’s name is changed, it designates a unique role in Salvation History being given. A good example of this is Abraham. Another good example is St. Peter. Recall that his given name is Simon. In the same instance that Christ gives him the Keys of the Kingdom, we find his name being changed so that he and his successors would permit the Church to stand rock steady in every age. Third, as to your observation that if Peter were obviously the leader, the other disciples would not argue who is the greatest (e.g. Mark 9:34ff), I don’t find that particularly germane. Even in our enlightened times, people jockey for positions of power precisely because they know they are not the top of the food chain, so to speak. Fourth, if St. Peter’s role is not that important, then why would the Lord single him out as the one who will strengthen his brothers by feeding the sheep (John 21:15-17)?

What’s the difference between being “impeccable” and being “infallible”? The incident you mention from Galatians 2:11-14 where Paul has to correct Peter’s behavior in reference to the Gentile Christians is an ironic selection. St. Paul chastises St. Peter for showing favoritism to the Jewish converts and neglecting and even avoiding contact with the Gentile converts. Of interest though is the origin of this mandate. In the Acts of the Apostles, the person who receives the vision and makes the declaration that the Gentile Christians are equal to the Jewish Christians is St. Peter (Acts 11:4ff). So for St. Paul confront St. Peter over this matter rests upon St. Peter’s authority to teach definitively.

The confusion here has to do with what infallibility entails. Infallibility means that when the Pope teaches concerning faith and morals, whether extraordinarily via ex cathedra statements or the work of an ecumenical council, that the teaching will be free from error. The other bishops share in the office of teaching by remaining in communion with the Pope. This special charism that is attached to the Office of Peter comes from the Holy Spirit. What Paul points to, and the history of the Church sadly records, is that many Popes have not been free from sin, hence they are not impeccable. The Popes, just as any Christian must, listen to the Lord and His Church and seek to be transformed.

I’m sorry that I could not treat more of the things you asked about but I hope this is a good first start. I would ask you to consider one other point. The Pope serves as a visible sign and source of communion amongst the faithful; when things become disputed, he is to restore unity to the Body. If the papacy were really an invention that came about later, then unity should still be able to be achieved. At last count, though, there are more than 20,000 Protestant denominations in the United States alone. That doesn’t sound like unity to me.

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