Tu es Petrus, et super hanc petram aedificabo ecclesiam meam . With these words, taken from the sixteenth chapter of St. Matthew’s Gospel, 1 Our Lord promised to build His Church upon the petram (rock) of Petrus (St. Peter). In the link between these two words we find all the scriptural defense of the papacy we need, and we rest our case “upon this rock.”
Of course, if it were that simple, and if all men were enlightened by the grace of the True Faith, we would have no need of the many volumes that have been written over the centuries to defend the doctrine of the papacy from those who would attack it. 2 My task here is to distill and condense the thousands of pages that have been written before, in order to present a scriptural defense of the papacy that can answer some of the most common objections raised against it.
A good apologetic for the papacy, however, requires a detailed discussion of Jewish history, and of the Davidic Kingdom in particular. Such a discussion could easily fill several chapters in itself, and thus we will have to content ourselves with a summary view of the events.
An Eternal Throne
Around the year 1000 B.C., David had finally conquered his enemies and began to reign as king over all Israel, making his throne in the “sacred heart” of Israel, the city of Jerusalem. Realizing that he was living in a beautiful palace, but that the Ark of God’s Covenant had no permanent home, he intended to build a temple for God. Through Nathan the prophet, he received the message that God would leave the actual building of the temple to David’s son, but as a reward for David’s affectionate intentions, He promised David an eternal dynasty. 3
Solomon, David’s son and chosen successor, reigned for forty years with great wisdom 4 and enjoyed a period of peace. However, when Solomon’s son, Roboam took over the throne, his government policies (which basically amounted to “tax the people, then tax them some more”) caused a national rift and the Kingdom of Israel was divided. 5 The ten northern tribes became the Kingdom of Israel, while the two southern tribes (the See of David, if you will) became the Kingdom of Judah.
After the schism, the citizens of the Northern Kingdom refused to go to Jerusalem in the south to worship at the temple built by Solomon. In effect, they rejected the true worship of God under His appointed ruler and set up their own temples in the north. 6 Having separated themselves from the “true church,” you might say, they very quickly fell into apostasy, turning to idol worship and engaging in wicked practices.
In 722 B.C., God used the Assyrian army as His rod of chastening, and the House of Israel was scattered into exile. 7
Meanwhile, the Southern Kingdom was slowly following in the path of the Northern Kingdom, embracing idolatry and being repeatedly threatened (through God’s prophets) with chastisement. 8 In 586 B.C., God sent the Babylonian armies to conquer Jerusalem, and these citizens (like their northern brothers) were also carried off into exile. 9
But what about God’s promises to David, that he would have an everlasting throne? The prophets consoled the people that God had not forgotten His covenant with David, and that one day He would raise up an anointed king (in the Hebrew, Mashiyach ; in the Greek, Christos ) who would be David’s son and who would take the throne, reuniting the Northern and Southern Kingdoms once again. A passage from Ezekiel provides us with a good summary statement of the prophetic message that is found in Isaias, Jeremias, Osee (Hosea), and practically all the other prophets:
And I will make them one nation in the land on the mountains of Israel, and one king shall be king over them all: and they shall no more be two nations, neither shall they be divided any more into two kingdoms . . . And my servant David shall be king over them, and they shall have one shepherd: they shall walk in my judgments, and shall keep my commandments, and shall do them. (Ezek. 37:22, 24)
As we know, Our Lord was that Son of David, the Mashiyach and Christos (Messiah and Christ) who would reign forever on David’s throne in the Heavenly Jerusalem, reuniting Israel, Judah, and the Gentile nations under one banner: the Holy Catholic Church. Deo Gratias ! But what does this have to do with the papacy?
Our Lord did not restore just any old kingdom; He restored the Davidic Kingdom. In this Davidic Kingdom, there was a king, a queen mother, 10 and amongst the many royal ministers, there was a sort of “prime minister.” In the language of the Old Testament, this head of the royal cabinet was called the “chief steward,” or the “master of the house.” 11 He was the king’s right-hand man, having the authority to act in the name of the king and to manage the king’s affairs.
Our Lord restored and elevated all of these elements of the Davidic Kingdom, or rather, He brought them to their fulfillment. The earthly king is now the Heavenly King; the earthly queen mother is now the Queen of Angels and Saints; the earthly royal ministers are now princes of the Church; and the earthly prime minister is now the Vicar of the Heavenly King. Enter St. Peter. . . .
Echoes and Rhymes
When St. Peter made his confession of Christ that day in Caesarea-Philippi, Our Lord responded with some curious and deeply significant words: “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. And I will give to thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven. And whatsoever thou shalt bind upon earth, it shall be bound also in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth, it shall be loosed also in heaven” (Matt. 16:18-19).
The symbolic meaning of this very loaded statement was surely not lost on the Jewish men who heard Our Lord utter these words: Petros , a “rock”; a Church, built upon this rock; keys of a kingdom; binding and loosing.
As Jews, they were already well-familiar with the house built upon a rock: the Temple of Solomon was constructed upon a great rock, which is precisely why the edifice that now stands there (a mosque) is known as the Dome of the Rock. They could hardly have missed Our Lord’s meaning: that His new Church would replace the Jewish Temple and, like the temple, would be built upon a rock. How could it be otherwise? Did not Solomon, the wisest man in all the earth, build God’s house upon the rock? Did not Our Lord Himself say that a wise man builds his house upon a rock? 12 And did not Our Lord say that He Himself was “greater than Solomon”? 13 To all of these questions we answer “yes,” and it becomes clear that Our Lord could do no less than Solomon did in building His house upon the rock whom He called Petros .
The verbal imagery of a kingdom’s keys being conferred upon a man was no new mystery to them either. They were all very familiar with the words of Isaias the Prophet, spoken to the then reigning “master of the house,” whose name was Sobna. Notice the undeniable parallels to the words Our Lord spoke to St. Peter:
Thus saith the Lord God of hosts: Go, get thee in to him that dwelleth in the tabernacle, to Sobna who is over the temple : and thou shalt say to him … I will drive thee out from thy station, and depose thee from thy ministry. And it shall come to pass in that day, that I will call my servant Eliacim the son of Helcias, and I will clothe him with thy robe, and will strengthen him with thy girdle, and will give thy power into his hand: and he shall be as a father to the inhabitants of Jerusalem, and to the house of Juda. And I will lay the key of the house of David upon his shoulder: and he shall open, and none shall shut: and he shall shut, and none shall open . (Is. 22:15-22)
Surely the disciples saw in Our Lord’s words to St. Peter a kind of divine rhyme with the words of Isaias. Just as Eliacim was given power, made to be “as a father to the inhabitants of Jerusalem,” and given the key of the kingdom of David along with the power to open and shut, so also St. Peter was given power, made to be the first “Holy Father” of the Church, and given the keys to the new Davidic Kingdom along with the power to bind and loose. If we were to ask why Eliacim was only given a key, but St. Peter was given keys , the answer should be plain: Eliacim was given the key to what was solely an earthly kingdom, but St. Peter was given to be the prime minister over a kingdom that is both on earth and in heaven.
The Protestant will object to all of this, of course, by telling us, “in the Greek language, ‘rock’ is petra , and ‘Peter’ is Petros ; they are two different words, petra meaning ‘rock,’ and Petros meaning ‘little stone’; Jesus isn’t even talking about Peter when He says ‘upon this rock’!”
But it is odd, isn’t it, this line of argumentation? After all, it was the Protestant revolutionaries who insisted that Scripture should be everywhere translated into the vernacular so that Mr. and Mrs. Everyman would be able to read it for themselves, and it was they who castigated the Holy Church for supposedly keeping Scripture “locked up” in the “dead language” of Latin so that none but the educated (read: “priests”) could read it. Yet here we are, practicing what they preach, and we are told our method is flawed! We read Matt. 16:18 in English, we associate “rock” with “Peter” (even the English gives the game away — where do you think we got words like ” petri- fied”?), and we are told that the vernacular isn’t good enough! No, we must go back to the Greek (another “dead language”), and if we do not know the Greek, then we must rely upon the educated elite (read: “Protestant biblical scholars”) to mediate the Scriptures to us. This is irony, writ large.
In any case, we can stop such arguments in their tracks by sidestepping the Greek altogether. In the first chapter of St. John’s Gospel we find these words spoken by Our Lord: “Thou art Simon the son of Jona. Thou shalt be called Cephas, which is interpreted Peter” (John 1:42). The word “Cephas” comes to the Greek language from the Aramaic. The word kepha just simply means “rock,” and there are no two ways about it. Interestingly enough, this word appears to be etymologically linked to the Greek word kephale , which means “head.” This only strengthens our understanding of St. Peter’s role in the Church as both “rock” and “head.” 14
Outranking the Rest
We really do not need to look far to find evidence of St. Peter’s primacy. In St. Matthew’s Gospel we are given a short “roster” of the disciples: “And the names of the twelve Apostles are these: The first, Simon who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, James the son of Zebedee, and John his brother, Philip and Bartholomew, Thomas and Matthew the publican, and James the son of Alpheus, and Thaddeus, Simon the Cananean, and Judas Iscariot, who also betrayed him” (Matt. 10:2-4).
If you pay attention to that list, you will notice something rather curious. St. Matthew says “the first , Simon who is called Peter,” and then after St. Peter he lists “Andrew his brother.” Has St. Matthew not erred here? St. John’s Gospel is quite clear that St. Andrew was called first, and he in turn went to find St. Peter; 15 should that list not read, “first, Andrew, and Peter his brother?”
No, for St. Matthew is not giving us a sequential list of the apostles — he is giving us a hierarchical list. Mark 3:14-19 and Luke 6:13-16 both record similar lists, and all three lists share these two things in common: St. Peter is named first, while Judas the Betrayer is named last. It should not come as a surprise to us, then, to find that St. Matthew’s word “first” is, in the Greek, protos — we get words like “prototype” from this root — and that it can have the meaning of both sequence and rank. St. Paul uses this same word when he says “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the chief .” 16
We find in other passages that St. Peter is always at the center of the action, so to speak. He speaks frequently on the behalf of the other apostles; 17 when Our Lord, after having scandalized so many by His discourse on the Eucharist, asks the disciples if they also will leave Him, it is St. Peter who says, “Lord, to whom shall we go? Thou hast the words of eternal life”; 18 when Our Lord wishes to preach to the multitudes from the boat, it is St. Peter’s boat He chooses to use; 19 it is St. Peter who, along with Sts. James and John, is invited to witness the raising of Jairus’ daughter, 20 the Transfiguration, 21 and the Agony in the Garden; 22 Our Lord chooses St. Peter to go out and catch the fish in whose mouth he would find coins to pay the temple tax; 23 St. Peter is the one, out of all the other eleven, who is invited to walk on the water with Our Lord; 24 when St. Peter and St. John run to see the empty tomb on Easter Sunday, St. John outruns St. Peter and reaches the tomb first, but defers to St. Peter and allows him the first entrance. 25
A Stable Shepherd
On the night of His Passion, after instituting and administering the Holy Eucharist for the first time, Our Lord turns to St. Peter and speaks some very ominous words: “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).
This verse would be significant enough at just a surface-level reading, for it stands as one more example of St. Peter being singled out by Our Lord for specific instruction. However, the verse takes on a whole new level of meaning when we discover that, in the original Greek, the words “you” and “thee” are plural and singular, respectively. That is to say, if we were to paraphrase the verse, it might read: “Simon, Simon, Satan desires to have all of you , that he may sift all of you as wheat. But I have prayed for you personally , that your own faith may not fail: and you, Peter , being once converted, confirm your brethren.”
The impact of this verse cannot be lost on us. Satan wished to attack the whole band of Apostles and “sift” them like so much wheat; Our Lord’s strategic defense against this is, in effect, to bestow a special grace upon St. Peter, for He well knows that when St. Peter is strengthened, the entire apostolic band has a foundation (or “rock,” to stick with our theme) upon which to stand. This verse holds equally true in our own day: when Petrus is strong, the Church is strong; when Petrus is weak, the Church is scattered and sifted like wheat.
We find something very similar to this in the touching epilogue of St. John’s Gospel when Our Lord meets St. Peter on the beach shortly after the Resurrection. If we know our Gospel chronology, we know that at this point in the story St. Peter has already denied Our Lord three times. Here, on the beach, Our Lord restores His Vicar by allowing him to affirm his love as many times as he denied:
“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).
St. Augustine says of this passage, “But first the Lord asks what He knew, and that not once, but a second and a third time, whether Peter loved Him; and just as often He has the same answer, that He is loved, while just as often He gives Peter the same charge to feed His sheep. To the threefold denial there is now appended a threefold confession , that his tongue may not yield a feebler service to love than to fear, and imminent death may not appear to have elicited more from the lips than present life. Let it be the office of love to feed the Lord’s flock, if it was the signal of fear to deny the Shepherd.” 26
This is the moment when Our Lord’s words of Luke 22:31-32, “and thou, being once converted , confirm thy brethren,” find their fulfillment. We should expect, then, that we would find in this meeting on the shore both a conversion of St. Peter as well as a commission — the commission to “feed my sheep,” which corresponds to “confirm thy brethren.”
This is precisely what St. John Chrysostom finds here: “And why, having passed by the others, doth He speak with Peter on these matters? He was the chosen one of the Apostles, the mouth of the disciples, the leader of the band ; on this account also Paul went up upon a time to enquire of him rather than the others. And at the same time to show him that he must now be of good cheer, since the denial was done away, Jesus putteth into his hands the chief authority among the brethren ; and He bringeth not forward the denial, nor reproacheth him with what had taken place.” 27
What the Golden-Mouthed Doctor mentions in passing here, that is, the account of St. Paul’s conversion, is another indication of St. Peter’s primacy. We all know the story of St. Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus, 28 but how many of us know what St. Paul did after that conversion? After spending three years in Damascus, St. Paul went to Jerusalem to see St. Peter, where he “tarried with him fifteen days.” 29 As we read above, St. John Chrysostom says that St. Paul did this because St. Peter was “the leader of the band”; likewise, Origen writes that St. Paul acted so “because of [Peter’s] office, no doubt.” 30
Some Common Objections
We conclude, then, with a few of the more common Protestant objections to this plain truth about the papacy. The objections are numerous, it is true, but most often they are lacking in substance and appear more like excuses to remain free from St. Peterrule.
The word “pope” never appears in the Bible.
True. Neither does the word “trinity.” But the concepts for both a papacy and the Trinity are there. If you want to get really technical, however, since the word “pope” comes from the Latin ( papa ) for “Father,” the word “pope” is in Sacred Scripture — for example, Abraham was the “Father,” the pope, of many nations.
The Bible lists apostles, elders, and deacons as offices of the Church — no office of “pope.”
You are right. In fact, “pope” really isn’t a separate office in the Church — it is, but it isn’t. The pope is, after all, the Bishop of Rome (“bishop” and “elder” are the same word in the Greek). 31 And St. Peter was, after all, an Apostle. But St. Peter was a chief and leader of the Apostles, and the Bishop of Rome is the chief and leader of the world’s bishops. So “pope” refers to a bishop, but it refers to the supreme bishop — the apostolic role that once belonged to St. Peter.
In the New Testament, Paul is more important than Peter — how can you say Peter was the first pope when it’s Paul who gets most of the attention?
That’s a horrible way to argue. St. Paul, it is true, wrote most of the New Testament books. But, according to the logic you’re using, St. Paul is also more important than Jesus. After all, St. Paul wrote fourteen Epistles — Jesus didn’t write any! Moses gets just as much (if not more) spotlight than Jesus (four Gospels to five books of the Torah), but would you say Moses is more important? Obviously, then, it doesn’t matter who gets more “face time” in Scripture, or who wrote more books.
The Bible says over and over and over again that GOD is our Rock, and JESUS is the chief cornerstone of the Church — not Peter.
God is indeed the “rock,” but tell me — did that stop Isaiah from calling Abraham a “rock” in Is. 51:1-2? There is no reason to believe that, just because God is the “rock,” He never shares His attributes and titles with others. David called God his “shepherd” too (Ps. 22 ), but that didn’t stop God from sharing that title with David (2 Kings [2 Samuel] 5:2). As for Jesus being the chief cornerstone, that is correct — but Eph. 2:20 says that He shares the foundation with the “apostles and prophets.”It’s not “Jesus or St. Peter,” as though the two were mutually exclusive.
Peter was married, and your popes are not — obviously Peter was not a pope.
Yes, that is correct — St. Peter was married. But let’s keep a balanced perspective here: he obviously left behind his married state in life to follow Jesus. Scripture indicates that the disciples left everything behind to follow Our Lord; they went where He went, they slept where He slept, they ate when He ate. In fact, what does St. Peter say about his wife and family? “Behold, we have left all things and have followed thee.” 32 And what does Our Lord say in return? “Amen, I say to you, there is no man that hath left home or parents or brethren or wife or children , for the kingdom of God’s sake, who shall not receive much more in this present time, and in the world to come life everlasting.” 33
The pope makes his subjects bow before him. Even Peter, who you claim was the first pope, would not let Cornelius bow down to him.
Bowing is a sign of respect, and there is nothing wrong with it. St. Peter would not let Cornelius bow to him because, as the text says, Cornelius was confusing St. Peter with some kind of deity: “Cornelius came to meet him and falling at his feet adored” (Acts 10:25). St. Peter’s response confirms that Cornelius was confused as to St. Peter’s identity: “Arise: I myself also am a man” (vs. 26). However, bowing to men out of reverence and respect is a Scriptural practice: see Gen. 23:7, 23:12, 33:3, 42:6, Exodus 18:7.
OK, but let’s be honest here — how can you believe that the pope is infallible? The Bible never says anything even close to that.
It also never says that the Scripture itself is infallible, but you believe it anyway. Who is being more irrational here? Scripture says it is “inspired of God” 34 and you deduce from that — since God cannot lie — that Scripture is infallible. Likewise, Scripture says that Our Lord promised St. Peter, “whatsoever thou shalt bind upon earth, it shall be bound also in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth, it shall be loosed also in heaven.” From this we deduce (just as you deduced from the word “inspired”) that the pope is infallible when he speaks definitively on matters of faith and morals, since God cannot allow a lie to be “bound in heaven.” Besides, my position is more consistent than yours: you believe that St. Peter was infallible when he wrote his two canonical Epistles; if he had that charism then, you have no basis for denying it to him when he decided matters of faith for the whole Church (cf. Acts 15:1-13).
In the book of Galatians, Paul tells us that he opposed Peter for being in error. He made a mistake, a mistake in a matter of faith! Peter showed an attitude of hypocrisy, hardly fitting for a “supreme pontiff.”
It is quite clear from even a cursory reading of Gal. 2:11-13 that St. Peter’s error was one of practice , not one of decree or pronouncement. To that, any informed Catholic would reply that no pope is free from sin, and that any pope is capable of failing in practice . History confirms this without question. However, the Church never claimed that the popes are impeccable, only infallible, and only when making a formal pronouncement from the Chair of St. Peter on a matter of faith or morals, which is intended to be universally binding upon the whole Church. Notice how many conditions to infallibility there are! Remember, Moses was God’s chosen mouthpiece and “pope” to the Israelites (not to mention being “god” to Pharao, cf. Ex. 7:1), and yet he so offended God by his actions as to relinquish his inheritance of the Promised Land. 35 The same is true of David, a man after God’s own heart and God’s chosen “pastor” of His flock ( pastor is Latin for “shepherd”), who committed the unspeakable crimes of adultery and murder! “Hardly fitting” for God’s chosen leaders? Yes, but then, their leadership was not invalidated because of it.
Even if I grant that Peter was the leader of the Apostles, there’s nothing in the Bible to suggest that he would have successors who would inherit his primacy. If Peter had a special primacy, that primacy died with him.
Remember Isaias 22:15-22, where we saw Eliacim receive the key of the house of David as a prototype of the papacy? This office is a royal office and, by definition, since it is a permanent office (because the kingdom is permanent), it must have successors. Eliacim himself was a successor to Sobna. Here’s another way to look at it: Judas had an apostolic office as well, but he abandoned that office when he betrayed Our Lord and hanged himself. How do the other Apostles respond? Do they say, as you said above, “his office died with him?” No, in fact, just prior to the Holy Ghost’s coming at Pentecost, St. Peter instructs that a successor should be elected to fill Judas’ vacant office. We read: “Men, brethren, the scripture must needs be fulfilled, which the Holy Ghost spoke before by the mouth of David concerning Judas, who was the leader of them that apprehended Jesus: who was numbered with us, and had obtained part of this ministry. … For it is written in the book of Psalms: Let their habitation become desolate, and let there be none to dwell therein. And his bishopric let another take . … And they gave them lots, and the lot fell upon Matthias, and he was numbered with the eleven apostles” (Acts 1:16-17, 20, 26). The question you must consider is this: if Judas’ office, an office tainted by betrayal, necessarily had to be filled by a successor, how much more would the office of St. Peter also need to have successors?
This concludes our all-too-brief excursion into the Scriptural foundations of the papacy. As you can see, even from these few passages that we have looked at, there is more than enough reason to accept the papacy as a Scriptural teaching. It is consistent with the early beginnings of the Davidic Kingdom, and it only makes sense if the Church is the fulfillment of the Jerusalem temple. The temple in Jerusalem was built upon a rock — are we really to believe that Our Lord’s Holy Church is not also built upon a rock?
Deo Gratias for St. Peter and his successors, the “rock” of the Holy Catholic Church.
“Kago de soil ego hoti su ei Petros, kai epi taute te petra oikodomeso mou ten ekklesian. ”
1 Matt. 16:18, to be precise.
2 Dom John Chapman’s Studies on the Early Papacy, Stanley Jaki’s The Keys of the Kingdom, Luke Rivington’s The Primitive Church and the See of Peter, and, more recently, Patrick Madrid’s Pope Fiction and Steve Ray’s Upon this Rock are but a handful of examples.
3 2 Kings [2 Samuel] 7:1-17.
4 3 Kings 3:11-12 & 10:1-7.
5 3 Kings 12:12-21.
6 3 Kings 12:26-33.
7 4 Kings 17:4-24.
8 4 Kings 17:13, 19.
9 4 Kings 24:1-7 & 25:1-7.
10 Every king in David’s line is identified with his mother, cf. 3 Kg. 14:21, 15:1-2, 22:42; 4 Kg. 8:26, 12:1, 14:1-2, 15:1-2, 15:32-33, 18:1-2, 21:1, 21:19, 22:1, 23:31, 23:36, 24:8, 24:18.
11 Depending on which translation of Scripture one uses; the Douay-Rheims uses the phrase “over the house,” cf. 4 Kings 18:18, 37.
12 Matt. 7:24.
13 Matt. 12:42.
14 cf. Acts 4:11 and 1 Pet. 2:7, where the words “head” and “stone” are linked and applied to Our Lord.
15 cf. John 1:37-42.
16 1 Tim. 1:15.
17 cf. Matt. 19:27 and Luke 12:41.
18 John 6:68-69.
19 Luke 5:3.
20 Luke 8:51.
21 Matt. 17:1ff.
22 Matt. 26:37ff. 23 Matt. 17:24ff.
24 Matt. 14:28ff.
25 John 20:1-6.
26 Tract. in Ioan., CXXIII, n. 5.
27 In Ioan., Hom. LXXXVIII.
28 Acts 9:1-22.
29 Gal. 1:18.
30 De Praescriptione Haereticorum, XXIII.
31 Episkope, from which we get words like “Episcopal,” “Episcopacy,” etc.
32 Luke 18:28.
33 Luke 18:29-30.
34 2 Tim. 3:16.
35 Num. 20:11-12.