The Gospel today sets forth the biblical basis for the Office of Peter—the Office of the Papacy—for Peter’s successors are the popes. The word “pope” is simply an English version (via Anglo-Saxon and Germanic tongues) of the word “papa.” The Pope is affectionately called “Papa” in Italian and Spanish as an affectionate indication that he is the father of the family, the Church.
That Peter receives an office and not simply a charismatic designation we will discuss later. As to certain objections regarding the Office of the Papacy, we will also deal with them later. But for now let’s look at the basic establishment of the Office of Peter in three steps.
I. The Inquiry that Illustrates – The text says, Jesus went into the region of Caesarea Philippi and he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” They replied, “Some say John the Baptist, others Elijah, still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?“
It should be noted that in asking these questions Jesus is not merely curious about what people think of Him. He seems, rather, to be using these questions as a vehicle by which to teach the apostles, and us, about how the truth is adequately revealed and guaranteed.
Jesus’ first two questions reveal the inadequacy of two common methods.
1. The Poll – Jesus asks who the crowds say that He is. In modern times we love to take polls and many moderns put a lot of stock in what polls say. Many people (Catholics among them) like to point out that x% of Catholics think this or that about moral teachings or about doctrines and disciplines. It is as if the fact that more than 50% of Catholics think something makes it true, and that the Church should change her teaching based on this.
But as this gospel makes clear, taking a poll doesn’t necessarily yield the truth. In fact ALL the assertions of the crowd were wrong no matter what percentage held them. Jesus is not John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah, or one of the prophets redivivus. So, running the Church by poll-taking or democracy seems not to be a model that works.
2. The Panel – Jesus, having taught this implicitly, now turns to a group of experts, a “blue-ribbon panel” if you will. He asks the twelve, “Who do you (apostles) say that I am?” Here we simply get silence. Perhaps they were looking around like nervous students in a classroom, not wanting to answer lest they look foolish. The politics on the panel led not to truth but to a kind of self-serving, politically correct silence.
That Peter finally speaks up is true. But, as Jesus will say, he does not do this because he is a member of the panel but for another reason altogether.
Hence the blue-ribbon panel, the committee of experts, is not adequate in setting forth the religious truth of who Jesus is.
And through this line of questioning, Jesus instructs through inquiry. Polls and panels are not adequate in yielding the firm truth as to His identity. All we have are opinions or politically correct silence. Having set forth this inadequacy, the Gospel now presses forward to describe God’s plan in setting forth the truths of faith.
II. The Individual that is Inspired – The text says, Simon Peter said in reply, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Jesus said to him in reply, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah. For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father.”
We are taught here not merely that Peter spoke, but also how he came to know the truth. Jesus is very clear to teach us that Peter spoke rightly not because he was the smartest (he probably wasn’t), or because some one else told him (Jesus is clear that flesh and blood did not reveal this to him), or because he happened to guess correctly. Jesus teaches that Peter came to know the truth and speak it because God the Father revealed it to him. God the Father inspires Peter. There is a kind of anointing at work here.
So here is God’s methodology when it comes to adequately revealing and guaranteeing the truths of the faith: He anoints Peter.
It’s not polls or panels that God uses—it’s Peter.
And while truths may emerge in the wider Church, reflecting what is revealed, it is only with Peter and his successors that such views can be definitively set forth and their truth adequately guaranteed. Thus the other apostles are not merely bypassed by God. He anoints Peter to unite them and give solemn declaration to what they have seen and heard.
The Catechism says the following of Peter and his successors, the popes:
When Christ instituted the Twelve, he constituted [them] in the form of a college or permanent assembly, at the head of which he placed Peter, chosen from among them … 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. The office of binding and loosing which was given to Peter was also assigned to the college of apostles united to its head. This pastoral office of Peter and the other apostles belongs to the Church’s very foundation and is continued by the bishops under the primacy of the Pope.
The Pope, Bishop of Rome and Peter’s successor, is the perpetual and visible source and foundation of the unity both of the bishops and of the whole company of the faithful. For the Roman Pontiff, by reason of his office as Vicar of Christ, and as pastor of the entire Church has full, supreme, and universal power over the whole Church, a power which he can always exercise unhindered.
The college or body of bishops has no authority unless united with the Roman Pontiff, Peter’s successor, as its head. As such, this college has supreme and full authority over the universal Church; but this power cannot be exercised without the agreement of the Roman Pontiff. The college of bishops exercises power over the universal Church in a solemn manner in an ecumenical council. But there never is an ecumenical council which is not confirmed or at least recognized as such by Peter’s successor (Catechism of the Catholic Church, pp. 880-884, selected).
All these truths point back to this moment when we see how God Himself chooses to operate.
And note, too, the dimension of faith we are called to have. We are to assent to the Pope’s teaching and leadership not merely because we think he is smarter, or because it might happen that he has power, riches, or other worldly means that might impress us or compel us to assent. Rather, we assent to the Pope because, by faith, we believe he is inspired by God. It is not in flesh and blood that we put our trust; it is in God Himself, who we believe has acted on our behalf by anointing someone to affirm the truth and adequately guarantee that truth to be revealed by God.
And this then leads to the final stage wherein Jesus sets forth a lasting office for Peter.
III. The Installation that is Initiated – The text says, “And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of the hell shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”
Jesus does not merely praise Simon for a moment of charismatic insight. He goes further and declares that He will build his very Church upon Simon, and thus He calls him Peter (rock). And here, too, He does not merely mean this as a personal gift or as a sort of recognition that will die with Peter. In giving Peter the keys, He is establishing an office, not merely a “promotion” for Peter. This will be God’s way of strengthening and uniting the Church. In Luke’s Gospel Jesus says more of this:
Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you, all that he might sift you all like wheat, but I have prayed for thee, Peter, that thy faith may not fail; and when thou hast turned again, strengthen thy brethren (Luke 22:31).
Hence it is clear once again that God’s plan for the Church is to strengthen one man, Peter (and his successors), that in turn the whole Church may be strengthened and united. Thus the Lord Jesus establishes not only Peter, but also his office. This is God’s vision and plan for His Church.
It is true that many have objected to this teaching. There is no time here to do a full apologetical reply to every objection. But frankly most of the objections amount to a kind of wishful thinking by some, who want this text to mean something other than what it plainly means. Nothing could be clearer than the fact that Jesus is establishing both Peter and an office that will serve as a foundation for the unity and strength of His Church.
Some object that within other verses Peter will be called “Satan” and will deny Christ. But Jesus knew all this and still said and did what He does here.
Others object that Jesus is the head and foundation, that He is the rock. True enough, but apparently Jesus never got the objectors’ memo, for it is He Himself who calls Peter the rock and establishes him with the authority to bind and loose. It is also true that both Jesus and Peter can be head and rock, in terms of primary and secondary causality (more on that HERE). And in addition that Peter and his successors are head and rock by making visible and being the means through which Christ exercises His headship and foundational aspect.
Finally, let’s return to the title of this post: “If no one is Pope, EVERYONE is pope!” Without a visible head, there is no principle on earth for unity in the Church. The Protestant experiment tried to replace the Pope with Scripture and gave it sole authority. But Protestants cannot agree on what Scripture says and have no earthly way to resolve their conflicts. While they say that authority resides in Scripture alone, the fact is, in claiming the anointing of the Holy Spirit and thus the ability to properly interpret Scripture, they really place the locus of authority within themselves and become the very pope they denounce. Having denied that there is a pope they become pope. If no one is Pope, everyone is pope.
I have read that some objectors think Catholics arrogant in asserting that we have a pope whom we trust to be anointed by God to teach us without error on faith and morals. But which is more arrogant: to claim there is a pope (not me), or to in fact act like one myself?
In the end, the Protestant experiment is a failed one. Many estimates place the number of Protestant denominations as high as 30,000. Personally, I think this is exaggerated—but not by much. Protestants all claim the Scriptures as their source of the truth but differ on many essential matters such as sexual morality, authority, the necessity of baptism, whether once saved is always saved, etc. When they cannot resolve things they simply subdivide. There is an old joke, told even among Protestants, that goes,
Once I saw this guy on a bridge about to jump. I said, “Don’t do it!” He said, “Nobody loves me.” I said, “God loves you. Do you believe in God?” He said, “Yes.” I said, “Are you a Christian or a Jew?” He said, “A Christian.” I said, “Me, too! Protestant or Catholic?” He said, “Protestant.” I said, “Me, too! What franchise?” He said, “Baptist.” I said, “Me, too! Northern Baptist or Southern Baptist?” He said, “Northern Baptist.” I said, “Me, too! Northern Conservative Baptist or Northern Liberal Baptist?” He said, “Northern Conservative Baptist.” I said, “Me, too! Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region, or Northern Conservative Baptist Eastern Region?” He said, “Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region.” I said, “Me, too!” Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1879, or Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912?” He said, “Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912.” I said, “Die, heretic!” And I pushed him over.
A strange little joke, and not entirely fair since most Protestants of different denominations that I know get along fine on a personal level. But the truth is, the denominations disagree over many very important things. The Protestant experiment is a failure that leads only to endless division. The Church needs a visible head. The Bible alone does not suffice, for there are endless disagreements on how to interpret it. Someone must exist to whom all turn and who all agree will resolve the differences after listening.
Jesus installed an individual in this role to manifest His office of rock and head of the Church. That individual was Peter and after, his successors.
Here’s a light-hearted video I put together commemorating Pope Benedict’s many visits to unite and strengthen us. I don’t have enough footage yet to do a Pope Francis video. But I suspect he’ll rack up the miles, too!