The Gift of the Papacy
This Sunday’s Gospel (Matthew 16:13-20) gives us the famous account of Our Lord conferring the Keys of the Kingdom on Peter and changing his name from Simon to Peter, the rock upon which He would build His Church. There is a stain glass window depicting this event on the right-hand side of the church above Fr David’s confessional. Peter had professed his faith in the divinity of JESUS who then said to him, “You are Peter and on this rock I will build My Church and the gates of Hell shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven; whatever you bind on earth shall be considered bound in Heaven; whatever you loose on earth shall be considered loosed in Heaven” (Matthew 16: 18-19). Christ will always be the Head of the Church, but after the Ascension Peter was to be the visible Head of the Church on earth. Peter, or Cephas in Aramaic, means ‘rock’ and so Our Lord is making Peter the foundation or the rock of the Church, and this is why Our Lord changed his name from Simon to Peter. He will keep the Church together and make it endure. This power of the keys (authority) is passed on to all his successors, the Popes.
The First Vatican Council in 1870 infallibly defined that:
- St Peter was appointed by Christ to be the visible Head of the Church;
- He received from Christ supreme authority to teach and govern the whole Church;
- Peter has a perpetual line of successors in the Primacy;
- His successors are the Roman Pontiffs or the Popes.
The Primacy of the Pope means he has real power and God-given authority to rule the Church, and we believe that under very strict conditions he is infallible (cannot make a mistake), when he defines a doctrine concerning faith or morals to be held by the whole Church. It does not mean the Pope can do no wrong or that he can never be mistaken, even in a religious matter. It is important we all understand that the Pope is a human being and is always subject to human frailty and the possibility of error as are the rest of us. Hence St Paul’s rebuke to St Peter, the first Pope at Antioch, when Peter insisted the Gentiles follow the Jewish dietary laws, thus threatening the entire mission of the Church to the Gentiles (Galatians 2:11-14). The last time a Pope infallibly defined a dogma was in 1950, when Pope Pius XII defined the dogma of the Assumption. And even when the Pope does infallibly define a dogma, he can do no more than confirm and make clearer what has always been believed and handed down. Hence the First Vatican Council said, “For the Holy Spirit was not promised to the successors of Peter that they might disclose a new doctrine by His revelation, but rather that, with His assistance, they might reverently guard and faithfully explain that revelation or depositNewsletter 27 August 2023 web LL of faith that was handed down through the Apostles.” So the Pope cannot, for example, say there are four Persons in the Godhead, or that marriage can be between two men or two women, because God has revealed Himself as a Trinity of Persons, and that marriage is between one man and one woman ordered to procreation. The novelties we often hear being proposed by some churchmen today concerning faith and morals can be found nowhere in the Deposit of Faith handed down through the Apostles, and therefore are not of the faith and must be rejected. As Pope Benedict XVI said in May 2005, “The power of teaching in the Church involves a commitment to the service of obedience to the faith.”
The Papacy is a great gift to the Church. As Catholics we know that when the Church has given a solemn and definitive answer to a question the teaching can never change, and the goal posts cannot be moved in the future, no matter how hard some may try to!| Development of doctrine is different to changing it. This is what Our Lord intended and why He founded His Church on Peter the rock. The pope is the test of the true Church. As St Ambrose said in the fourth century, “Where Peter is, there is the Church.”
Fr Paul Gillham, IC